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COMPARATIVE RESEARCH—THE SIX CULTURE STUDY

Broad, general coding schemes are particularly useful for comparative research. Whether you’re comparing sessions of psychotherapy groups, interaction sessions in laboratory experiments, or the natural behavior of people in field studies, using a common coding scheme really pays off because you can make direct comparisons across cases and look for generalizations.

The most important comparative study of children ever was run by Beatrice and John Whiting between 1954 and 1956. In the Six Culture Project, field researchers spent from 6 to 14 months in Okinawa, Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines, New England, and India. They made a total of some 3,000 5-minute (continuous monitoring) observations on 67 girls and 67 boys between the ages of 3 and 11.

Observations were limited to just 5 minutes because they were so intense, produced so much data, and required so much concentration and effort that researchers would have become fatigued and lost a lot of data in longer sessions. The investigators wrote out, in clear sentences, everything they saw children doing during the observation periods. They also recorded data about the physical environment and others with whom children were interacting.

The data were sent from the field to Harvard University for coding according to a scheme of 12 behavior categories that had been worked out in research going back some 15 years before the Six Culture Study began. The behavioral categories included: seeks help, seeks attention, seeks dominance, suggests, offers support, offers help, acts socially, touches, reprimands, assaults sociably, assaults not sociably, symbolic aggression (frightens, insults, threatens with gesture, challenges to compete). (Full details on the use of the Whiting scheme are published in Whiting et al. [1966]. See Whiting and Whiting [1973] for a discussion of their methods for observing and recording behavior.)

On average, every 10th observation was coded by two people, and these pairs of‘‘coding partners’’ were rotated so that coders could not slip into a comfortable pattern with one another. Coders achieved 87% agreement on children’s actions; that is, given a list of 12 kinds of things a child might be doing, coders agreed 87% of the time. They also agreed 75% of the time on the act that precipitated a child’s actions and 80% of the time on the effects of a child’s actions (Whiting and Whiting 1975:55).

The database from the Six Culture Study consists of approximately 20,000 recorded acts, for 134 children, or about 150 acts per child, on average.

Very strong conclusions can be drawn from this kind of robust database. For example, Whiting and Whiting (1975:179) note that nurturance, responsibility, success, authority, and casual intimacy ‘‘are types of behavior that are differentially preferred by different cultures.’’ They conclude that ‘‘these values are apparently transmitted to the child before the age of six.’’ They found no difference in amount of nurturant behavior among boys and girls 3-5 years of age. After that, however, nurturant behavior by girls increases rapidly with age, while boys’ scores on this trait remain stable.

By contrast, reprimanding behavior starts out low for both boys and girls and increases with age equally for both sexes, across six cultures. The older the children get, the more likely they are to reprimand anyone who deviates from newly learned cultural rules. “Throughout the world,’’ the Whitings conclude, ‘‘two of the dominant personality traits of children between seven and eleven are self-righteousness and bossiness’’ (1975:184). Anyone who grew up with an older sibling already knows that, but the Whitings’ demonstration of this cross-cultural fact is a major scientific achievement.

 
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