costs and benefits of treating culture as a noun, in which case it may lend itself to stereotyping, versus treating culture as a modifier—as in “people live culturally.” A closely related issue is how culture and cultural processes should be studied (Medin and Atran, 2004).
If the study of culture is conceptualized as identifying shared norms and values, it is natural to assume that individuals become part of a culture through a process of socialization—that is, they acquire culture. If culture is instead seen as dynamic, contested, and variably distributed within and across groups, it is natural to see cultural learning as involving a reciprocal relationship between individuals’ goals, perspectives, abilities, and values and their environment (Hirschfeld, 2002). In this view, for example, in the earliest years of life, one’s socialization partially depends on agents or others who are caregivers as well as an individual’s interpretation of and reaction to their environment. Furthermore, as one grows older, associates, friends, organizations, and institutions become part of varying socialization processes, but the influence of each is dependent on an individual’s characteristics, and vice versa. Thus, socialization depends on access and opportunities, as well as the perspectives and attitudes that an individual brings to these opportunities. From this perspective, in fact, one can see that while culture is often used in reference to ethnic or racial background, any group with some shared affiliation (e.g., people with disabilities, women), might be seen as having some shared cultural values and resources.
Research on cultural variations in learning has tended to describe ethnic or racial cultural groups in a manner that is static. Although there are historically rooted continuities that connect individuals across generations (Lee, 2003), describing culture in categorical terms to distinguish groups of people often leads to statements that attempt to describe the “essence” of groups. This can lead to stereotypes, such as the idea that Asian children are good at math or that girls struggle in science. Such statements treat culture as a fixed configuration of traits and assume that all group members share the same set of experiences, skills, and interests (Gutiérrez and Rogoff, 2003). Thus, they tend to obscure the heterogeneity of nondominant (and dominant) cultures. In addition, even when stereotypes are framed in an effort to illustrate the strength of a nondominant group or to compare groups, this reductive tendency can have negative impacts on members of a group (Steele, 1997). For example, there may be greater pressure placed on Asian children by their teachers and parents to excel in mathematics. Such statements can impact the self-esteem of children who do not excel in the manner that the statement claims.
A cultural-historical perspective on how individuals and groups learn offers a way to move beyond the assumption that characteristics of cultural groups are homogeneous and solely located within individuals. This perspective stresses that culture is not a static set of traits but is something more dynamic and develops through an individual’s history of engagement