What Is Indigenous Psychology? A Simplified Guide

Last updated:

Throughout its history, much of psychology’s scientific and philosophical focus has been on Western points of view on mind and behavior. An emerging movement in psychology called indigenous psychology seeks to challenge this, aiming to confront traditional positions by taking into account psychology from the frame of reference of individual cultures.

But what exactly is indigenous psychology? What are some of its basic concepts? And what books and resources can you read to learn more about it?

Here is Best Psych Books‘ simplified guide to indigenous psychology.

Indigenous Psychology: Definition

The simplest definition of indigenous psychology is that it’s a scientific understanding of human mind and behavior that’s developed within the context of a specific culture. This takes into account the following perspectives:

  1. Not all existing theories in psychology are universally applicable.
  2. As such, psychological theories designed for a particular culture that factor in its unique history, ecology, and spirituality are necessary.

Here is one of the first definitions of indigenous psychology, from Uichol Kim, professor at Inha University, and John W. Berry, emeritus professor at Queen’s University at Kingston, in their groundbreaking 1993 work Indigenous psychologies: Research and experience in cultural context.

Indigenous psychology is the “scientific study of human behavior or mind that is native, that is not transported from other regions, and that is designed for its people.”

Differing definitions

Many psychologists have since put forward their own definition of what indigenous psychology is. Kuo-Shu Yang, a psychologist and former professor at National Taiwan University, says that despite the differences between these definitions, “the definitions all express the same basic goal of developing scientific knowledge system that effectively reflects, describes, explains, or understands the psychological and behavioral activities in their native contexts in terms of culturally relevant frame of reference and culturally derived categories and theories.”

Misconceptions about indigenous psychology

Perhaps the biggest misconception about indigenous psychology is that it is reserved for Native people, ethnic groups, or people who live in so-called Third World countries. Indigenous psychology covers all cultural groups around the world.

For example, one can argue that early psychological theories developed in the United States can be considered indigenous psychology, as these are models of mind and behavior designed within the context of United States cultures, which only happened to find its way across the world when psychology education became more globalized.

Another misconception about indigenous psychology is that only members of a cultural group can study their own indigenous psychology. In truth, the participation of “outsiders” in studying indigenous psychology is essential because they can provide points of comparison as well as detect distinct behaviors that may have become invisible to members of a cultural group.

Differences between indigenous psychology and traditional psychology

One of the starkest differences between indigenous psychology and traditional psychology is that in the former, there is a stronger consideration for culture as an influence in how one thinks and behaves. As such, psychology is investigated in the context of an individual or group’s cultural background.

Indigenous Psychology: Basic Concepts

Photo by Justin Porter on Unsplash

The 10 characteristics of indigenous psychology

In the book Indigenous Psychology: Understanding People in Context, Uichol Kim (Inha University), Kuo-Shu Yang (National Taiwan University), and Kwang-Kuo Hwang (National Taiwan University) discussed the 10 characteristics of indigenous psychology:

  1. Indigenous psychology emphasizes the investigation of psychological phenomena in the following contexts: familial, social, political, historical, religious, cultural, and ecological.
  2. Indigenous psychology is needed for all cultural, native, and ethnic groups, including economically developing countries, newly industrialized countries, and economically developed countries.
  3. Indigenous psychology promotes the use of different methods of research, such as qualitative, quantitative, experimental, comparative, mixed methods, and philosophical analysis.
  4. Indigenous psychology values the input of both insiders (people belonging to a culture) and outsiders (people who don’t belong to a culture).
  5. Indigenous psychology believes that people hold sophisticated understanding of themselves.
  6. Indigenous psychology advocates multiple perspectives, but not multiple psychologies or absolute relativism.
  7. Indigenous psychology is scientific; it aims for theories that can be empirically verified.
  8. Indigenous psychology is a part of the cultural sciences tradition; human agency, meaning, and context are necessary parts of the research design.
  9. Indigenous psychology promotes the advancement of knowledge by linking humanities, such as philosophy, history, religion, and literature, with social sciences.
  10. Indigenous psychology begins its inquiry with two starting points of research: identifying existing psychological concepts and shaping them to fit cultural context (called indigenization from without) and developing psychological concepts within the cultural setting, using indigenous information as a primary source of knowledge (called indigenization from within).

Indigenous Psychology: Books & Resources

Indigenous and Cultural Psychology: Understanding People in Context

Book cover from indigenouspsych.org

Author: Various contributors

What it’s about: Edited by Uichol Kim, Kuo-Shu Yang, and Kwang-Kuo Hwang, compiling works by different psychologists from around the world, Indigenous and Cultural Psychology is an authoritative text on indigenous psychology. It introduces the science of indigenous psychology, its fundamental concepts, as well as its methodological and theoretical issues. The book also provides commentary and analysis on topics in indigenous psychology in the context of family and socialization, cognitive processes, self and personality, and others.

Where to buy it: You can download a free copy of Indigenous and Cultural Psychology: Understanding People in Context at indigenouspsych.org, the official website of the APA’s Task Force on Indigenous Psychology.

Indigenous Psychologies in an Era of Decolonization

Book cover from Amazon

Author: Various contributors

What it’s about: Edited by Nuria Ciofalo, a professor at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Indigenous Psychologies in an Era of Decolonization explores indigenous psychology in the context of decolonizing approaches to studying the mind and behavior.

Where to buy it: You can get a copy of Indigenous Psychologies in an Era of Decolonization at Amazon.

C.G. Jung and the Sioux Tradition

Book cover from Amazon

Author: Vine Deloria, Jr.

What it’s about: His breakaway from Freud and his prominent standing within the psychoanalytic movement built Carl Jung‘s career, but not many people are aware of his academic ventures into the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. There, he spent several hours with Ochwiay Biano, also known as Chief Mountain Lake, an elder at the Pueblo. Their conversations would serve as an influence on Jung’s subsequent theories in psychology, which would make this an example of indigenous knowledge shaping the course of psychological theories. In the book C.G. Jung and the Sioux Tradition, author Vine Deloria, Jr., a Dakota Sioux leader, explores comparisons between Jungian psychology and traditional Native American wisdom.

Where to buy it: You can get a copy of C.G. Jung and the Sioux Tradition on Amazon.

Final words

Indigenous psychology, while still in its infancy, is proving to be a powerful intellectual movement shaping the future of psychology. Differing definitions and concepts have yet to fully agree with each other, but with a growing number of scholars from around the world dedicating their academic careers to indigenous psychology, its presence will be more felt in the years to come.