The Great Culture Debate:
Clearly not a black and white issue

By Yvette Otterman

What does culture have to do with locus of control, anyway?

        Beginning in the middle 1970s and continuing through the early 1980s, a plethora of studies were conducted in an attempt to determine the extent of the influence that one's culture has on his or her locus of control.  The literature is both extensive and detailed in its scope of experimentation, but generally follows the use of similar methodologies, (which often includes use of the Rotter locus of control scale).  Originally, many researchers seemed to draw the conclusion that one's culture is largely a function of the internality or externality that the individual possesses.  However, it was not long before these findings were disputed, leading to another wave of literature, which contradicted this newly discovered parallel between culture and locus of control.  The opposition instead proposed a host of what was thought to be more relevant contributors to one’s locus of control, ranging from gender to socialization practices.  Previous research was also criticized by way of accusations that the participants used in the studies did not accurately represent their culture, therefore defeating the entire purpose of the study.

How do African-Americans compare to Caucasion-Americans in LOC?

        One popular notion, which began to arise following this wave of culture related locus of control studies, was that Black Americans tend to be more external in their perceived control than Caucasian Americans.  Many studies have reached this specific conclusion through various approaches, including those of Coleman, Campbell, Hobson, McPartland, Mood, Weinfeld, and York (1966); Gurin, Gurin, Lao, and Beattie (1969); and Vecchio (1981).  The most recent of these particular studies indicates specifically that young Black workers tend to be more external in terms of locus of control in comparison to White workers of similar age and education.  A worker with an external locus of control, for example, might blame a mistake made at work on his or her demanding boss and selfish co-workers.  He or she might think to themselves, "Well, I never would have made the mistake in the first place if my boss hadn't been putting so much pressure on me to get the job done on time."  Someone with an internal locus of control, on the other hand, might blame the mistake on his or her own carelessness or failure to pay enough attention to the details.  Vecchio also suggested that this racial difference appears not only in adult workers, but also in children and adolescents.  He went on to suggest that “the observed racial difference for adult male workers may be, in large part, a function of subcultural differences in colloquial speech, as well as the result of disheartening personal job experiences” (Vecchio, 1981).  Vecchio’s suggestion of negative job experiences, as a source of increased externality certainly is a valid one.  For example, if an African American was forced to leave a job due to discrimination from his white employer, it is easy to see how he or she is more likely to attribute future job success or failure to similarly external determinants.

LOC as a combination of culture and other factors...

        Other research, including that of Gaa and Shores (1979) and Krampen and Weiberg (1981) suggests that culture may be linked to locus of control, but not in the general sense that has been discussed above.  Gaa and Shores (1979) found considerable differences in the internal or external sense of control between Black, Anglo, and Chicano undergraduates.  However, it was certainly not the case that blacks were more external than whites in all circumstances.  In fact, Gaa and Shores found that locus of control was not only dependent on culture, but also on specific components or domains of locus of control being evaluated.  For example, it was found that both the Blacks and the Chicanos were more internal that the Anglos in regard to relative success in intellectual activities.  And example of success in intellectual activities might be scoring high on the ACT or SAT.  On the other hand, the Blacks were found to be substantially more external than both Anglos and Chicanos with respect to failure in the physical domain. A real-life example of failure in the physical domain might include anything from general health problems to losing in a marathon.   “The findings substantiate the assumption that domain specific locus of control measures reflect distinct, but not consistent, differences in culturally divergent populations” (Gaa and Shores, 1979).  This notion that culture is just one aspect in regard to particular domains of locus of control is evident in the research conducted by Krampen and Weiberg (1981), who found differences in the internality and externality of American, Japanese, and German students.

Not everyone agrees that there is a link between LOC and culture...

        As previously mentioned, a host of opposition to this connection between culture and locus of control arose, beginning in the late 1970s (Buriel, 1981; Singh and Verma, 1990; Cole and Cole, 1974; Furnham and Henry, 1980).  One study (Furnham and Henry, 1980) was particularly harsh in its critique of most all research which support the conclusion that culture bears influence on the nature of an individual’s sense of control.  They found a number of problems and inaccuracies with these studies, including the methodologies utilized.  They specified that taking college students from two different cultures is not a sufficient way to obtain matched equivalent samples, due to the fact that third world students, for example, are certainly not representative of their entire culture (Furnham and Henry, 1980).  Other researchers (Singh and Verma, 1990) have suggested that alternative factors have far greater impact on locus of control than does culture.  Singh and Verma (1990) noted that “knowledge of and positive attitude toward environment, active involvement in recreation, and emphasis on freedom in socialization are conducive to the development of internality.”

So, what knowledge can we gain from all of this research?

        It is clear that the relationship between one’s culture and locus of control has certainly been well researched.  Seemingly valid evidence is present on both sides of this debate which still, in fact, continues today.  It is important to remember to be both cautious and critical in our evaluation of research which links locus of control and culture.  Clearly, there is evidence suggesting that such links do exist, but it should by no means be inferred that one's culture determines the degree of internality or externality.  (In other words, watch out for causist language!)  The answer to the question of whether or not cultural factors influence one’s sense of control in one’s life may not be definite, but the implications of one’s degree of internality and externality are quite clear.

Photographs courtesty of Worldteach.

Back to Top
Back to Opening Page
Back to PsyberSite







This tutorial was produced for Psy 324, Advanced Social Psychology, Spring 1999 at Miami University.  All graphics are from the public domain, used with permission, or were created by the authors.  Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA).  Last revised: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 17:06:38. This document has been accessed 1 times since 1 May 1999. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman