Race And Ethnicity Are Stronger Predictors Of Behavior Than Social Class

With so many multicultural articles and books focusing on ethnicity and culture, and literally only a handful of articles focusing exclusively on social class, it is easy to conclude that race and culture are more meaningful and predictive as variables explaining human behavior than is the variable of social class. In fact, many empirical studies examining correlates of race and culture fail to even measure socioeconomic status (SES) and to include it in the analyses (Negy & Woods, 1992). Studies that have often have found SES to correlate more strongly with the variables of interest than ethnicity or culture (e.g., Buriel & Saenz, 1980; Cashmore & Goodnow, 1986; Cuellar, & Roberts, 1997; Griffith & Villa-vicencio, 1985; Gutierrez, Sameroff, & Karrer, 1988; Lambert, 1987; Negy & Snyder, 1997; Soto, 1983). Moreover, studies on ethnic minorities frequently are studies on low-SES ethnic minorities in actuality, thereby not adequately disentangling ethnicity from social class. When this occurs, the results potentially can lead to distorted portrayals of ethnic minority groups (for more discussion of this, see Arbona, 1994; Casavantes, 1976; Massaquoio, 1993).

The question of which variable—ethnicity or social class—is a more powerful variable shaping people's lives rarely is fully examined in the literature beyond a few statements. Yet, overfocusing on diverse clients' ethnic culture while overlooking important aspects of clients' socioeconomic background conceivably could lead to erroneous diagnostic conceptualizations. Specifically, clinicians might make cultural misattributions for problematic behaviors that in reality have socioeconomic origins. As a result, therapists might elect to ignore the problematic behaviors in question, having explained them away as "cultural" or because of their commitment to being culturally nonjudgmental. In the previously discussed example of low-SES Mexican Americans in southern Texas who punish children using an inappropriate form of time-out, clinicians should not assume that that practice is common among Mexican Americans in the United States or even among Mexicans in Mexico. In all likelihood, the use of such punishment reflects those parents' relative lack of formal education, and clinicians should not avoid addressing such an issue solely because of their desire to be culturally sensitive.

Given the enormous iniraracial variation that exists within each racial and ethnic group that is unexplained by race or culture, multicultural psychology may overestimate the impact culture or race has on behavior while underestimating the impact SES has on behavior. This imbalanced view may reflect our society's contemporary preoccupation with race and ethnicity and our de-emphasis on social class (Wilson, 1980). Ho (1995) is one of the few multicultural authors who discusses this issue at length. Ho states that knowing clients' cultural group membership often is of little help in understanding diverse clients' problems. However, focusing on diverse clients' "internalized culture" (the degree to which they adhere to prevailing cultural norms) may "enable us to deal with findings that there may be more similarity among members of comparable socioeconomic statuses across groups than among members of different socioeconomic statuses within the same group" (Ho, 1995, p. 6).

In summary, multicultural authors and clinicians providing therapy to diverse clients should not neglect to consider socioeconomic issues, especially in light of the fact that a disproportionate number of minorities in the United States occupy the lower echelons of society. Viewing behaviors from multiple angles (e.g., from a universal perspective, from majority- and minority-cultural perspectives, and from social class perspectives, etc.), the clinician should be in a better position to discern pathology from nonpathology and obtain a more comprehensive understanding of the nature of diverse clients' problems.

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