Sociocultural Psychologist Career Guide

The Basics

Why do people behave differently depending on who they are with? How does culture impact the manner in which people think and learn? How are our perceptions of events colored by the culture with which we identify or the society in which we live? These are just a few of the important questions psychologists have regarding the sociocultural influences that impact human behavior and thought.

What is a Sociocultural Psychologist?

Sociocultural psychologists examine the role that society, culture, and environmental cues play on influencing human behavior. For them, human behavior is less about the choices and behavior of an individual, and more about the influences of others on the choices we make and behaviors in which we engage. Sociocultural psychologists study group behavior, crowd mentality, and other sociology-based ideas, as well as culturally-based phenomena, such as language and thought, and apply them to the exploration of human behavior through a psychological lens.

Sociocultural psychologists are usually not the “typical” psychologists that work with clients. Instead, most sociocultural psychologists conduct research and investigate the social bases of human behavior. They often suggest questions related to human behavior, such as what causes riots to occur, and seek to answer that question through a sociocultural lens. Sociocultural psychologists that do see clients use this same unique perspective of society, culture, and psychology to help their clients make positive changes in their lives.

What Does a Sociocultural Psychologist Do?

Most sociocultural psychologists are involved in research into the interaction between society, culture, and human behavior. They look at social issues from conformity and obedience to stereotyping and prejudice and explore the connection between those phenomena and the influences of one’s sociocultural background.

For example, in examining the prevalence of racial prejudice, a sociocultural psychologist might devise a questionnaire in which participants are asked to match specific personality traits with a specific race. Positive traits, such as being creative or industrious, and negative traits, such as being lazy or ignorant, would be included in the questionnaire, along with a list of various racial and ethnic groups. If the results of the questionnaire showed that there was agreement regarding which races were associated with positive traits and which races were associated with negative traits, the conclusion could be made that racial stereotypes and prejudices are indeed widespread.

Another example of sociocultural research conducted by psychologists is the concept of conformity. To study this, a sociocultural psychologist might devise an experiment in which a test subject is pressured by others to behave a certain way or adopt attitudes or beliefs that are congruent with the group, even if what the group is saying or thinking is obviously wrong. For example, a study participant might be placed in a group of people, all of whom are informants of the experiment and have been instructed to apply pressure on the participant. When presented with an array of colors and asked which one is red, the informants would select any color other than red. In this situation, the participant in the study would feel pressure to conform, and a sociocultural psychologist would study that pressure, how often participants conformed to the group, and why conformity took place.

Other sociocultural psychologists are involved in developing programs to reach specific social or cultural groups. For example, a sociocultural psychologist might work for a government agency to develop a targeted campaign to reduce teen drinking or encourage people of a low socioeconomic status to participate in job training or educational programs. This type of work might be conducted in the private sector as well, with sociocultural psychologists serving as consultants to businesses to devise programs that increase cultural sensitivity among its employees.

Yet other sociocultural psychologists work as educators at colleges and universities. In addition to typical teaching duties, such as conducting classes, administering exams, and grading assignments, college and university professors typically engage in research in a specific area of interest to them. As noted above, common research questions for sociocultural psychologists revolve around group behavior, attitudes, and beliefs. The purpose of this kind of academic research is twofold: First, research is often a requirement of professors, especially at the university level, in order to raise the profile of the institution. Second, research gives professors the opportunity to expand their knowledge and contribute to the overall body of knowledge on a particular psychological subject.

Some sociocultural psychologists use their unique perspective on behavior to work with clients in a clinical setting. Like other clinicians, the end goal is to facilitate positive change in the client’s life. However, the manner in which sociocultural psychologists bring about that change relies on the use of interventions that are socially or culturally based. For example, a sociocultural psychologist working a depressed client may not rely on talk therapy, as some traditional psychologists might use, to help the client work through his or her depression. Instead, the sociocultural psychologist might ask to involve the client’s family, friends, and other loved ones to build a strong, social support network to help facilitate positive change.

Where are the Career Opportunities for a Sociocultural Psychologist?

The greatest number of job opportunities for sociocultural psychologists is in research. Research is conducted in a variety of settings, including private research firms, colleges and universities, and government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. Market research for advertising agencies, television stations, radio stations, and other broadcasters is a common career opportunity as well. Independent research may also be conducted, although this is a relatively rare occurrence.

As mentioned above, some sociocultural psychologists serve in and advisory or consultative role with businesses and organizations. In this context, sociocultural psychologists offer their insight into issues related to group behavior and norms, cultural identity, and the like, in order to bring about positive change in a work environment. Oftentimes the purpose of their work is to address some sort of problem, such as sexism in the workplace, although their services might also be utilized to prevent issues from arising by providing educational or training programs as a preventative measure.

There are job opportunities in academics as well. Sociocultural psychologists can be highly effective educators because of their expertise in both psychology and sociology. Often this means they can be part of the psychology department as well as the sociology department. Sometimes psychologists are also involved in business, law, and other related areas of instruction as well.

Sociocultural psychologists that work in a clinical setting might be employed by a community mental health center, outpatient treatment facility, or even an inpatient treatment facility. Many clinicians also choose to work for themselves and establish a private practice.

What Does it Take to Become a Sociocultural Psychologist?

Like other areas of psychology, workers in this field need to have a variety of traits and qualities if they are to be as successful as possible. Consider the following questions when thinking about becoming a sociocultural psychologist:

  • Are you highly analytical? With the primary duties of this career revolving around research, having the ability to analyze data, recognize patterns, solve problems, evaluate situations, and draw conclusions from vast amounts of information is of the utmost importance.
  • Do you have good observational skills? Psychological research often relies on the observational abilities of those conducting the research. Being able to interpret people’s body language, facial expressions, verbal communications, and overt and covert behaviors is a necessary to add additional insight to the data collected during research.
  • Are you a good communicator? Sociocultural psychologists must be able to communicate effectively on many fronts. As researchers, they must be able to direct the activities of participants in their research studies. They must also be able to accurately communicate their findings in verbal and written forms. Sociocultural psychologists that work in academic settings obviously need to be able to communicate effectively to their students and colleagues as well.
  • Are you patient? Sociocultural psychologists spend years conducting studies on highly specific topics. The need to have perseverance and patience, even when the progress is extremely slow, will aid sociocultural psychologists in being as successful as they possibly can.

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Sociocultural Psychology?

Sociocultural psychology has had a great influence on our understanding of the role that society and culture play in impacting the manner in which humans behave. Using sociocultural theories posited by famed psychologists like Lev Vygotsky, we now have a much clearer picture of how culture is formed, understood, and used to make sense of the world. Likewise, sociocultural psychology offers insight into how language formation relies upon social interactions with other speakers and listeners. A particular advantage of having this knowledge comes in making improvements to educational programs, which can be designed to take advantage of these critical social components to improve the manner in which people learn and acquire information.

One disadvantage of sociocultural psychology, and all other disciplines of psychology, is that the focus of understanding may be too narrow. By utilizing an understanding society and culture and the role they play in human development, other equally important factors like cognition, genetics, and choice might be shoved aside. In this regard, although sociocultural psychology is a broad-based field, it cannot explain all human behavior as being a result of what happens in the social sphere, much like evolutionary psychology cannot explain all human behavior as a result of adaption.

What is the Difference Between Cognitive and Sociocultural Psychology?

The primary difference between cognitive and sociocultural psychology is in the way in which they study subjects of interest. Sociocultural psychologists examine such topics as personality, learning, education, behavior, and attitudes, and how each of those specific topics is influenced by, and to what degree they are influenced by, social forces. In that regard, sociocultural psychology emphasizes the power of the group on how humans think, act, and behave, and thus has a macro approach to explaining behavior.

Conversely, cognitive psychologists are interested in the manner in which human behavior is driven by inner thought. While they are interested in many of the same topics as sociocultural psychologists, such as learning, behavior, and attitude development, they have a much more micro focus in terms of seeking to explain those phenomena. Cognitive psychologists examine those inner processes of human thought as the primary determinant of human behavior. Rather than exploring group influences on how we behave, cognitive psychologists explore how the manner in which we process information influences the ways in which we behave.

These different approaches to explaining behavior lead to differences in the manner in which these two kinds of psychologists approach their work. For example, in a research setting, a sociocultural psychologist might explore ways to improve family functioning through culturally relevant means. In contrast, a cognitive psychologist would study the most effective means by which to change maladaptive thought patterns that would, in turn, improve family functioning.

What Careers are Similar to Sociocultural Psychology?

The following careers are closely related to sociocultural psychology:

Sociologist

Sociologists study behavior at the societal level, including many similar topics to sociocultural psychology, including social institutions, cultural attitudes, religious beliefs, and poverty. Sociologists most often work in research settings, collecting and analyzing data that tests theories about important social issues, however, they also offer consultant services and will often work in academics as well.

Depending on the employment setting, a sociologist may need either a master’s degree or a doctorate.

Anthropologist

Rather than studying recent and current human behavior like sociocultural psychologists, anthropologists focus instead on how human behavior has evolved over the course of history. Anthropologists explore various sociocultural phenomena, including language, religion, cultural practices, and social hierarchies. The vast majority of their work is focused on research, although some anthropologists work in academic settings as well.

Entry-level work in anthropology as a field assistant or research assistant is possible with just a bachelor’s degree, however, a master’s degree is often necessary, and in many cases, a doctorate is required, especially if the position is one that requires advanced knowledge and leadership skills.

Social Worker

Social workers apply their knowledge of sociocultural factors to provide direct assistance to clients that are facing difficulties in their lives. They work with highly diverse groups of people that are facing a wide variety of problems, and, as a result, have significant training in working in multicultural settings.

Some work in this field can be done with a bachelor’s degree in social work. However, greater job opportunities are available for individuals that possess a master’s degree in social work.

Research Psychologist

Research psychologists, like sociocultural psychologists, spend the majority of their time conducting studies that seek to answer questions about human behavior. Research in this area of psychology is much broader than it is in sociocultural psychology, and includes questions related to relationships, biology, evolution, animal behavior, and abnormal behavior, to name a few.

Research positions almost always require a doctorate, although research assistant positions may be found with a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

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