Kadak Chai: Finding balance between global perspectives and local reality: Can globalization contribute to re-imagining the developmental sciences?

Plenary address at the Annual Conference of Jean Piaget Society, Portland, Oregon. June 7th, 2019

I’d like to acknowledge valuable inputs from Jaan Valsiner, Ashley Maynard, Robert Serpell, Shraddha Kapoor, Punya PIllai, and Deepa Chawla. I would also like to thank Ashley for the invitation to co-organise and speak at JPS. Sunil Bhatia has been a long-standing friend and I am proud of our association. His work has been an inspiration for psychologists in India, and that includes me.

Deepa Chawla and Reshu Tomar are credited for the pictures.

“The new era of global openness for contacts between human beings across borders of national, social or religious kind sets up a new opportunity for the social sciences to expand their understanding to include the varieties of cultural histories into their scientific cores”

(Valsiner, 2017).

Global changes

In recent times, social change has accelerated on account of technological advancement. The democratisation of information and accessibility has literally meant “the world” to many of us. The “flatness” that Friedman (2005) wrote about is becoming palpable. Notwithstanding the scams and identity thefts, the fact that people can meet virtually, prepare joint projects, attend classes, share videos, and conduct robotic surgeries, are all marvels of this new world order. For people living in the third world/global south (I am not comfortable with either, but you know what I mean) this access facilitates the softening of economic and political barriers that separate us from your world. This realisation is profoundly empowering.

Knowledge of the other

We now have a large part of the world on our fingertips and can know more about each other than ever before, facilitating trade, tourism, and technology transfer in unprecedented ways. As mentioned above, most of the information is democratic and undiscerning. Like the pesky mosquito who doesn’t distinguish between “loafer, lord and lout” (Serpell, 2019, The Old Drift), information on the internet is available to everyone with access to a device. This has revolutionised relationships between people and groups creating fresh opportunities as well as challenges for society and State as the reliance on gatekeepers is reduced.

These changes render old equations between individuals, countries and cultures untenable and outdated. We stand, in hindsight, both lifted and humbled by what we realise about the human-environment interface. Notwithstanding pockets of violence, our lives are more peaceful than ever before (to quote Pinker) and although we have plundered our physical environment, we stand potentially less unequal than we have ever been.

Persisting inequality on the move: The immigrant and the expatriate

However, inequalities still linger. This becomes even more evident when people move since mobility results in a disturbance of familiar social order and a disruption of social life, both for the host as well as for the visitor. Several social processes are set in motion and imagined ideas are modified based on real experiences. Also, how a person (or persons) is perceived by the host is another phenomenon that comes into play. For instance, in the 1800s, when the British shifted from being traders to becoming rulers, there was a profound shift in their relationship with local Indians. British historian Dan Snow argues (Snow, 2014), from being a business company focussed on making profit, traders became rulers: imperialistic, ruthless and contemptuous, no longer needing to “understand” people and practices any more. This shift, in fact, Snow argues, became the undoing of a profitable relationship for the British.

In modern times, power dynamics of international mobility is discernible in the selective use of the expressions: immigrant and expatriate. In common parlance, reporting and anecdotal evidence, the term immigrant refers to a person who shifts from a relatively “backward” location for a better life to a more “progressive” one (I use quotation marks here to indicate that these are common expressions and not my own) whereas expatriate is understood as a white Euro-Americans taking up residence in a relatively “backward” location for journalism, diplomatic assignments, international aid or business (Grover, 2018). In an instant, the relationship between visitor and host is defined.

In Grover’s research (2018) she finds that although expatriate women in her study are often contemptuous of the circumstances in which they live. “The hardship ideology is a construct that unequally posits the developed world with the developing one through discourses of pollution, traffic, dirt, sanitation, tropical infections, corruption and lawlessness (Grover, 2018, p. 287). Yet the comforts of domestic helpers, assistants and drivers are attractive and despite the assumed ideology of “doing everything oneself”, soon become habitual. Of course not everyone falls into this category, there are white expats who come searching to India “by choice” some trying to “save India” (Fetcher & Walsh, 2010 in Grover, 2018), while others come for international aid work, often travelling to the interiors, complaining about corruption and social inequality they witness but rarely understand. With access to a protected residence, international schooling and exclusive clubs, it is quite possible for many of the people to stay isolated from locals, and it is only those who make a deliberate effort to shift outside that bubble that really encounter India and make an effort to understand its people and culture. There is no need to learn the language as neither the school which their children attend, nor the contact with helpers necessitates that. The fleet of employees available are all “trained in” the ways of the international expat community, including the language. As far as local Indians are concerned, they perceive expats as a pampered lot, with a red carpet laid out for them wherever they go.

Contrast this with the life of an immigrant Indian family in the West. Lets take Denmark as an example. An immigrant must learn the language within a given time-frame or leave, and schools expect the families to learn the Danish way of life. The consequences of not integrating can be severe, especially when it comes to the care of children. People can lose their jobs, families can lose custody of their children. The immigrant is expected to learn the rules and conventions of the host community and is always on the defensive.

India’s peripatetic senior citizen

In the year 2018, a total of over 1 million Indians visited the US[1]. Many of them are older couples travelling to be with their children. These roving grandparents can be seen in transit at most international airports along the route, distinct in their appearance and demeanour.  In order to ease their discomfort, India’s senior citizen has cracked the secret of smoothening international travel.

India’s peripatetic elderly

A disproportionate number of older Indians use wheelchairs at airports. But they don’t look particularly unhealthy, just out of place. It was after almost missing a flight at an unhelpful and inefficient airport that I realised what may be happening. I had been unable to get information about my transfer and made it to my flight only because of a delayed departure. As I slumped into my seat, exhausted from the anxiety and sprint, I noticed this bunch of familiar faces around me; cool, comfortable and well-settled in their respective seats. I realised they had been co-passengers on the earlier flight and made it without a hitch well before I did even though they were in wheelchairs. This kickstarted an informal research investigation. You see, I believe that research doesn’t always need funding!

In India, we are used to repeated calls, announcements and even physical assistance if you’re late for a flight or lost at an airport. Ground staff will hunt you down and physically escort you to a plane after yelling your name till they track you down. If you reach an airport on time, it’s quite hard to miss a flight. It’s just the way things are, and the contrast is dramatic. Furthermore, unfamiliarity with transfers, baggage claim and immigration can be quite daunting. As I pieced together my story, I realised there was a pattern here. Indians have figured out that connecting flights, baggage claim or immigration can be negotiated much more smoothly when you seek assistance, even though you are perfectly capable of walking, running even. The critical detail is that the responsibility to get you to your flight rests with the airlines. Assistance was being sought for cultural unfamiliarity rather than physical incapability, as I discovered even more intimately on my way here.

Queuing up at Immigration

Between Kathmandu and Denver: Somewhere over the North Pole

I was seated next to a gentle-looking couple travelling from Kathmandu to Denver. The woman started chatting instantly, breaking into brisk Nepali (which I didn’t understand of course) with a few words of Hindi thrown in for good measure. I gathered that this was their first flight out of Kathmandu where they had raised their three children, two daughters and a son. After exchanging some pictures of kids, I realised that my knowledge of Nepali wasn’t going to prove an impediment to her enthusiasm a conversation. When required, I would look to her husband (a man of few words but a genial smile and better knowledge of Hindi) to translate for me. I missed most of what she was saying, but managed to grasp that she was a child care worker at the SOS villages programme in Kathmandu.

What struck me most was her ease of approaching others, even asking for assistance. It was disarming to watch someone reach out with such spontaneity and charm, without worrying about being judged. For instance, she managed to get a smile (and a glass of water) out of a co-passenger when she waved at her asking for “pani”, with an accompanying gesture. The woman (a rather tall, graceful but restless middle-aged Indian), understood and complied, remarking that she “wasn’t an air-hostess” but got her the water anyway! Let’s give her a name.

Soon after the first meal, Krishna (name changed) said “Toilet!”, and I swear she would have leapt over me if I had delayed a moment longer. When she passed, she grabbed onto my arm pulling me along. I complied more out of shock than anything else. Once there, she mumbled several questions and I responded with instructions. When I gestured to the latch on the inside, she again grabbed my arm, indicating I should stay. A co-passenger looked at us quizzically and I felt the need to explain. “Her first flight” I said sheepishly, fully aware of what they were imagining. The lady smiled and added “Sure, it can be quite a challenge”. Yet again, I felt that it was Krishna who evoked this reaction: affectionate concern rather than cynicism or worse, contempt. Anyway, Krishna waited to ensure that I was guarding the door for fear of being locked in, I assumed, smiling widely at me when she emerged, rubbing her dry hands. “The soap”, I pointed to the foam oozing out of a bottle and she giggled, reaching out for it to complete the job.

Through the 14 hour flight, her husband maintained his quiet, indulgent demeanour towards her. She on the other hand was bubbly and forthcoming. Another encounter that had me (and others around us) in giggles was her reaction to the drinks. When asked what they wanted, she looked to me to interpret the conversation. “Orange juice for the lady, and……” looking at Krishna’s husband for a response I added “and red wine for the gentleman”. “Hah!” She intervened, trying to push the steward’s arm away, muttering disapprovingly at her husband. The grumbling persisted till the meal was over. Her husband reacted with a mild persistence, but didn’t order any more drinks after that!

Somewhere over the North Pole, she raised concerns about immigration at Seattle. Reaching into her purse she took out a folded note and asked questions about baggage and transfer. By now I had started to catch on better to her conversation. The note was simple, they both had “bad knees”, the son had inscribed on their behalf. Recalling how she had been ready to leap over me I smiled, I had a participant for my research drop right into my lap! Literally!  

The Note: Names have been obscured

They requested me to fill out the immigration form and sought an assurance that I would be available at immigration and baggage claim. I also agreed to call their daughter in Denver to update her about their safe arrival. It was when I saw them zip past me in the immigration line, he in the wheelchair and she cheerfully following, that I realised they would be fine without me. The “knee surgery” trick had worked. At 49 and 50 years of age (I had filled their forms), they wouldn’t have been able to seek assistance without an excuse. I wished that they didn’t need to resort to the false claim, but I guess they’re working with a system that isn’t friendly towards the uninitiated. Somewhat later, safely in the company of my loved ones, I sent a message to Denver and received an instant response communicating gratitude and relief.

Between hybridisation and homogenisation: The predicament and paradox of globalisation

Globalisation is a complex interaction of power relations, economic alliances, and technological networks, rather than a monolithic force. The intersecting dynamics of globalisation paradoxically produce discourses and practices of exclusion and exploitation on the one hand, and enhancement of hybridisation and heterogeneity on the other. This ambivalence is the consequence of innumerable confrontations between divergent forces, values, and ideologies. But it is also the result of change and awareness of that change. With the onset of globalisation, cultures resist, respond or succumb to transformations that facilitate both freedom from, and recursion to oppression and fundamentalism. “Since localities are, themselves, too far-flung and numerous to be spoken of as a totality, any all-embracing celebrations of the hybridization and revitalization of culture in the global marketplace are premature and suspect” (Pirabhai, 2001, p. xx).

As distinct from but related to economic globalisation, cultural globalisation relates to the formation of “shared norms and knowledge with which people associate their individual and collective cultural identities. It brings increasing interconnectedness among different populations and cultures”. But when sameness is claimed, it is important to question who is declaring the sameness (Menon & Cassaniti, 2017). Although the author (Sarthak, 2006) argues that this will inevitably result in increasing homogenisation, there is sufficient evidence of the persistence, even enhancement of diversity in the age of global trends, providing a fertile climate for cultural exchange and understanding.

In the marketplace, the local has a role to play in the global as much as the global impacts local production and consumption. Therefore, even though the paradigm of imperialism and domination may survive, these are no longer capable of handling the spread of social initiatives and the plurality (Canclini, 1995). The interconnected flow of electronic media networks, human patterns of migration and travel, technology, financial transfers, and ideologies are constantly at play. “Most often, the homogenization argument subspeciates into either an argument about Americanisation, or an argument about ‘commoditization’. … What these two arguments fail to consider is that at least as rapidly as forces …… are brought into new societies, they tend to become indigenized.” (Appadurai, 1995, p. 295), resulting in “glocalisation”, the interplay between the spread and reception of information and technologies.

I repeat, local spheres are not standardised by outside forces so much as outside forces are tailored to meet local demands. In other examples, glocalisation is the process of hybridisation, where different power dynamics are negotiated and reinterpreted to produce a dialectic that is both limiting and liberating (Kraidy, 1999). Appadurai (1995) argues that cultures do not only receive tailored goods, they also “repatriate” locally, those very same goods in different ways.


Rushdie’s ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’ (1999) is woven around the interface between identity, culture and globalisation. The heterogeneous, hybrid construction of identity is emphasised so as to undermine the extent to which hegemonies can exert claims to cultural eminence in what he calls the “back yards of the world” (p. 419). National and individual identities are negotiated between the longing for coherence and reality of fragmentation. 

Regarding international relations and America’s expansionism policies, Vidal has written about what he labels the American Empire[2]. Looking towards the country from India, the phenomenon of Americanisation and the popularity of American ways is based on the myth of the American dream (I will return to this later). In response, the American still perceives Indian culture in Orientalist terms, as exotic, caricatured as a spiritual place, a view that has remained largely unchanged since the 60s. The accumulated strength of India remains unimaginable as most people like to perceive it as a scattered, weak multitude fractured by stark contrasts, overt religiosity and serious inequality. These and other imagined ideas are challenged by the processes and products of globalisation, signalling a real and symbolic “opening up to the heterogeneous cultures and identities that comprise it” also accompanied by hegemonic economic and cultural practices against which national and cultural entities must form their own sites of resistance”.[3] (Pirabhai, 2001). The opportunities and the risks are abundant and very real.

Life in the backyard: India and the world

Life in the backyards

The inscrutable Indians: Why we fail to fit in psychology’s neo-colonial model

Indians have never fit into psychology’s model. Several features of the Indian psyche and sociality remain obdurately persistent. Several scholars have written about this extensively, so I won’t spend time on this except to say that we really don’t fit: Whether it is beliefs or practices about the ideal form of family, good child rearing, belief in reincarnation, multiple caregiving, sibling care, familism or the extended family, the psychological distance is real. For instance, during the recent elections, the case of a family with 82 members, 66 of who were of voting age, were reported to be still living together and eating their meals together. Fifteen Kg of rice and 10 kg od wheat flour are processed every day and everyone eats together. These characteristics render Indians somewhat vulnerable to be assessed variously as emotional, impractical, oppressive, punitive or even abusive. I am not claiming that Indian child-care practices are above scrutiny, but there is no denying their value. That’s why so many grandparents endure hardship and discomfort to make themselves available for assistance to new parents living in alien cultures. As one young mother said in an interview (Kapoor, 2004) about child care “What better care can I expect for my child if she experiences what I received as a child” discussing her preference for having the maternal grandmother as the chosen substitute caregiver when she went back to work. Between ‘anything goes’ and a uniform code, I believe there is sufficient space between these two extremes to accommodate humanity and culture.

India’s dreamers

Snigdha Poonam’s 2018 book ‘The Dreamers’ explores a largely ignored cohort (Bhatia, 2018); that of India’s 600 million youth. India does not live in its cities, and the majority is no longer silent, they want to express themselves, they want to make it big and they want to dream. Based on three years of listening to their voices, Poonam (2018) finds that ‘jugaad[4]’ (Loosely translated as manipulative problem solving with low cost, unusual solutions) are their mantras, they are “unsatisfied, unscrupulous, unstoppable” and they have felt abandoned by the leadership of the country in the past (p. 247). They are keen to see the country as strong and globally significant with opportunity for everyone, not just the elite. These youth have felt estranged in their own land and they want it back. They no longer want to till the farm lands, not because they are lazy, but because the size of land-holdings is dwindling and agriculture is no longer a viable option for what they have in mind. They want to make it big and have picked up tricks of the trade, turning their backs on “long shifts and late salaries”. They are earning money from trends in social networking, providing content based on algorithms of use. Some have figured out that teaching English by quickly learning it, throwing in some packaged motivational advice (p. 55) is what works for them. In a couple of months, students in the large industry of ‘spoken English’ lessons at an institute called ‘The American’ are declared fit for global conversation. The fee is low, but the numbers are huge, so the institutes stand to make a significant profit with little investment. As strong nationalists, these young people learn the language simply to gain a place on the international table, and don’t see it as a contradiction to their dedication to the country. Many of them participate in creating content for the pesky pop-ups that appear on the side of your computer screen and make a fortune. This place has been provided to them by technological advancement. Their confidence has also expressed itself in the recent elections. In Modi, they see a dream fulfilled. The dream of a common man, dedicated to achieving national pride and progress. For those with an ear to the ground, the victory came as no surprise.

But there are doubts. Globalisation has been turned on its head, but there must be a price to pay for this, Poonam worries: “they can’t go any further and they have nothing to go back to, so they will remain suspended between reality and their dreams” (p. 254). These youth are a product of globalisation in a completely different sense of the word, they have taken the ingredients of progress and woven their own lives with it. Now, only the future will show how these dreams translate as they get older, have families of their own and build their lives. This image is as frightening as it is endearing.

Explaining India’s glocalisation

As described by Appadurai and others, technology is being appropriated in so many ways that hadn’t even been imagined. In the dramatically pluralist subcontinent by any standards, people themselves live in conditions ranging between the most advanced to hunting-gathering and subsistence agriculture. As a nation, there is simultaneously play between the inertia of motion and the inertia of rest. Most of its urban centres and villages are in fact experiencing extraordinary changes, but many people live as we did thousands of years ago. The Korba tribals of Chhattisgarh, the nomadic Backarwaals of Kashmir and the Jorawas of Andaman and Nicobar Islands are some examples. With some important exceptions, rural, tribal and urban India have embraced technology, specifically mobile technology. Connectivity and access has had a profound impact.

For the longest time, India has been, and still is, in awe of the West. Despite the widespread appeal of Gandhian principles of Swaraj or self-governance during and after India’s independence, India’s politics and administration remained anchored to subaltern dynamics, where the large majority was denied a political voice. Under the hangover of the British Raj, democracy was interpreted by an elite class of leaders and people were largely accepting of this dynamic. This equation stands ‘trumped’ in recent times as the April elections have shown. India has voted back a people’s representative for the second time with a clear mandate. As Jagannathan (2019) argues: “The old elite have not realised that India is entering the middle income category of countries (around $2,000 per capita income), where newly emerging consuming classes are driven by aspiration rather than feudal-style handouts. These new consuming classes want to be recognised on their own terms, and not patronised by the old elite with promises of more freebies….They are keen to lift themselves up by the bootstraps, and are happy if a government empowers them rather than reduce them to supplicants dependent on the state for doles.” (p. 12).

I will argue that technology is largely responsible for this consolidation of votes (although it could have as easily been a disruptive force). But the impetus that messages received through digital media played an important role. Yet, paradoxically, India’s chaotic and diverse fabric is also quite impenetrable. “It has been said more than once, that whatever one can truly say about India, you can also say the exact opposite with equal truthfulness” (Ramanujan, 1991, p. xv).

And then, change is not new to India. It is important to remember that India has been familiar with dramatic political changes, both from outside and within. Arriving from different parts of the world throughout its history, foreigners have toured, traded and trampled over the subcontinent, transporting immeasurable wealth away from its shores. The scars of history are scattered all over the country’s geography (Sanyal, 2012). So, although the present wave of globalisation is unprecedented, the old ways persist; and the past, to quote a renowned historian, is always present (Thapar, 2014).

Corporate localisation

As politics takes a turn, India has also added its own twist to global corporate models, humbling giants like Amazon and Uber to review their policy and adapt to a different work-culture. Anyone who didn’t adjust could not survive.  

While attending to globalisation, we have often missed looking at how profoundly companies have had to change in order to survive in a specific location as these are “repatriated locally” (Appadurai, 1995). India is a powerful example of how an occasional burger causes only a small dent in the largely domestic-eating community, while allowing the company itself to do good business. Let us take for example, the global giant, McDonalds. The franchisee of the company in the Southern region of India is himself a vegetarian, and over the years, he has carefully manipulated the products and delivery on account of which McDonalds has survived and profited. His story is truly fascinating. In an interview with the Guardian, Amit Jatalia says, “What convinced us was that McDonald’s was willing to localise. They promised that there would be no beef or pork on the menu. Nearly half of Indians are vegetarian so choosing a vegetarian to run their outlets here makes sense.”[5]

As India changes, we need to reflect on its resources that have been redefined by culture. The economic and political earthquakes can prove to be rich opportunities to re-examine the science and ethics of international relations, and of our endeavour to understand human developmental processes from a cultural perspective towards social justice and global understanding. In the middle of the struggle between the old ways and the new, the local and the global, a new sort of childhood and family life is emerging (Sharma, 2003)

The old ways: Developmental psychology and psychology’s development

I want to take a turn here to return my attention to the developmental sciences in general and psychology in particular. Mainstream psychology has relied on assumptions that derive from a skewed representation of the world’s people. The model of a human being is highly “impoverished” to use an expression from the eminent psychologist Gustav Jahoda (1995). From this position of Euro-American ideology, principles, policy and practices are generated for the rest of the world to consume. These fail to represent even the people living in the West.

Methods and measures: Weak interpretive power

There has been a failure to question whether techniques capture psychological processes in other parts of the world,  whether tasks are understood in the way they were meant. Furthermore, findings have been seamlessly applied to other contexts and there has been a reluctance, in fact an absence of self-reflection about the scientists’ own subjectivities in conducting research and guiding interpretations (Brady, Fryberg, & Shoda, 2019). There is, the authors argue, “a lack of interpretive power in psychological science, referring to the ability to understand individuals’ experiences and behaviours in relation to their cultural contexts. It requires understanding that cognition, motivation, emotion, and behaviour are shaped by individuals’ cultural values and norms. The same behaviour takes on different meanings in diverse cultural contexts as they promote divergent normative responses to the same event” (Brady, Fryberg, & Shoda, 2019). In other words, psychology’s base is too weak to make the jump from the laboratory to everyday life (Cole, 1996).

Sampling bias

Despite the widespread attention the issue received through the work of Henrich and colleagues, there remains a persistent sampling bias in developmental research that calls for action (Nielsen, Haun, Kärtner, & Legere, 2017).

The myth of the independent individual and the embryonic fallacy

 Mainstream psychology is presumed to constitute phenomena that happen inside an individual’s mind. However, more recently, this dichotomy and the myth of the independent individual have received significant criticism and I will not go into details, the story is not new. A corollary of this assumption is the belief in the ‘Embryonic fallacy’ (Moghaddam, 2010), that everything that happens to us is an outcome of individual life-experience.

Going deeper inside, the myth of the neurosciences and sanctified science

As if seeing the person as separate from his or her surroundings was not enough of an isolation, the trend of using neuroscience research as a prop has escalated. Findings about brain development and neuronal networks are used to argue for early child care practices. The claim to “scientific research” is impressive precisely because the details are incomprehensible outside of the field (neuroscience, not psychology). Authors and readers are inspired but uninformed. Take for instance the simple declaration in the Care for Child Development package of UNICEF that reads: “During this critical window of opportunity [early infancy], brain cells can make up to 1,000 new connections every second – a once-in-a-lifetime speed. These connections contribute to children’s brain function and learning, and lay the foundation for their future health and happiness. A lack of nurturing care – which includes adequate nutrition, stimulation, love and protection from stress and violence – can impede the development of these critical connections.” Further in the same document, without the need to explain the sources, the pamphlet declares: “Investment in early childhood is one of the most cost effective ways of increasing the ability of all children to reach their full potential – increasing their ability to learn in school and, later, their earning capacity as adults. This is especially significant for children growing up in poverty. One 20-year study showed that disadvantaged children who participated in quality early childhood development programmes as toddlers went on to earn up to 25 per cent more as adults than their peers who did not receive the same support[6].

Breur (2001) argues that “the purported new breakthroughs were in fact ‘old’ neuroscience. These results have been carefully selected, oversimplified, and over-generalized and then woven into an argument to support U.S. legislation to fund programmes. Neuroscience and the brain have a strong hold on the popular imagination. Once claims that the first three years of life were critical for brain development appeared on the covers of Newsweek and Time magazines, upper middle-class parents world-wide became students of the new brain science and consumers of brain-based products like Baby Einstein, My Baby Can Read, and Mozart CDs.”[7] Most importantly, the myth has its origin in policy and advocacy circles, not in the scientific community. Neuroscience was chosen as the scientific vehicle for public relations campaign to promote early childhood programs more for rhetorical, than scientific reasons. When a journalist asked him in an interview “Based on neuroscience what can you tell parents about choosing a preschool for their children?” he answered, “Based on neuroscience, absolutely nothing”. Regardless, the trend has persisted.  

In fact, the use of the neurosciences argument can be explained as a sort of hypergeneralisation in the theatre of research (Valsiner, 2019), a sort of exaggerated posturing to impress consumers, influence policy and silence dissent. The strategy has been widely successful.

Taking the local to the global

Serpell (2018) discusses that during the 19th and 20th centuries, two social institutions were exported from Western Europe and the USA to the rest of the world: The factory and the school. The history of that export is heavy with political domination, economic exploitation, as well as religious proselytization. Under the guise of promoting “development” in those nations, the physical and social sciences are routinely deployed as key intellectual resources for the optimal design of public policies, professional practices and education to modernize the cultures of the recipients of aid” (p. 384). As Rogoff (1993) reminds us, participation rather than transmission is a much more favourable way of understanding learning, whether it is between individuals or groups. The notion of ‘subtractive education’, refers to curriculum policies, processes, or practices that remove students’ culture or language from classroom contexts as a resource for learning or as a source of personal affirmation. Subtractive education assumes that students’ academic successes depend on the degree to which they give up their own cultures or linguistic practices or traditions to assimilate into mainstream culture, a process often referred to as ‘Americanization’ in the United States (Valenzuela, 1999). These are just a few examples of how local ideas became global and are then imposed onto the local in psychology.

Whether it is intelligence testing, Attachment research or Word-gap measures, instruments have had significant influence over research. In the year 1996, Gergen et al. cautioned about the unmindful export of ideas, methods and measures, but contributions such as these have failed to impact the industry of standardized testing. Indian Universities spend large amounts of their precious resources on purchasing intelligence and other test in the desire to stay updated with the latest in the field. Faculty receive repeated requests to use, adapt and publicise psychometric testing. Let me zoom in on the word-gap research in which highly verbal exchanges between adult and child emerge as most favourable, spearheading the advice to parents the world over, to talk more to their kids as best practice.

In a recent presentation at the SRCD conference in Baltimore Elinor Ochs, Peggy Miller and other colleagues presented a strong critique of the Word-Gap[8] research., Ochs (2019) reported that the Lena Foundation, a non-profit organization, uses the patented Lena device manufactured by the company that develops technology for word-gap research. Information on the web declares that “The LENA System is also used by researchers at universities such as Harvard, MIT, Brown University and Stanford University, hospitals, and other research institutions, where it has been used to study subjects such as how language builds children’s brains, autism,child language acquisition, and communication in deaf and hard of hearing families.”[9] Ochs also mentioned that the instrument actually analyses only utterances and not meaning! See more a LENA foundation[10]. The word-gap research in fact becomes a metaphor for a world-gap, since the pattern of high verbal and face-to-face conversations are not popular across all cultures (Keller, 2007).

Other related issues:

  • Psychology is universal and culture is treated largely as a problem
  • Unwillingness to change: Entrenchment, fear of the unknown, academic laziness, persistence of socioeconomic hierarchy, quantitative precision fallacy, financial benefits among others (Sternberg, 2019)
  • Respect for Western Psychology: Post-colonial, subaltern positions, West is best, local beliefs are pseudo-science: associations with religious thinking
  • Separation of the different disciplines and physics envy. The desire to emulate the precision and accuracy of the pure sciences (Cole, 1996) and the fragmentation of different disciplines…For instance, the separation of Literature and Psychology (Spivak, 2003) are other important reasons for the trends in research and theorizing. This is despite the fact that fields like medicine are recognizing that purely scientific approaches in care are just not enough to build well-being and health (Verghese, 2019[11]).

Building new models and breaking old ones: Baldwin and Baldwin

In an earlier section, I mentioned the American Dream. I will return to the issue by invoking two eminent individuals who share the same name. James Baldwin, the writer and several decades before him, James Mark Baldwin, American philosopher and Psychologist. The convergence I could perceive from these two divergent fields of their influence is the reason for their inclusion. From reading about their work, I was able to gather conceptual and ethical clarity and justification for reimagining globalisation and its relevance in the developmental sciences. James Mark Baldwin because of his ideas were foundational for Piaget and James Baldwin because his influence on the civil rights movement.

The American Dream

The American Dream is a well-publicised position on individual rights for which this country is admired and sought after as a beacon of liberty and human rights. Notwithstanding critics like Vidal, the idea of America and Americanisation are very real in the imagination of people from around the world. Emerging from the declaration of Independence, the American Dream was founded on principles of democracy, civil rights, liberty, opportunity and equality in which freedom, opportunity for prosperity and upward social mobility through hard work are achievable. Simultaneously, Kipling’s rather tactless acknowledgement of the “white man’s burden” shifted from Britain to the US after the war. “From the beginning of our republic we have had imperial tendencies. We took care—as we continue to take care—of the indigenous population. We maintained slavery a bit too long even by a cynical world’s tolerant standards” (Vidal, 1986). The dream, critics like Baldwin and Vidal argue, is selective. Differences between people were attributed to physiological differences, climatic variations and ……..barbarism. In a well-publicised debate about the American Dream in 1965, James Baldwin argued with passion:

“I have to speak as one of the people who’ve been most attacked by what we now must here call the Western or European system of reality. Beneath, has to be the question of whether or not civilizations can be considered, as such, equal, or whether one’s civilization has the right to overtake and subjugate, and, in fact, to destroy another. Leaving aside the bloody catalogue of oppression …… what this does to the subjugated, the most private, the most serious thing….is to destroy his sense of reality….. .” (Baldwin, 1965[12]).

From gender relations, social superiority to linguistic domination, people have used similar arguments to command over others. This speech has relevance for inequality and imperialism everywhere, even within the developmental sciences. For instance, just as the American Dream was reaching world-wide recognition, the US stood against the end of colonial presence in India. After India’s independence from the British in 1947, the new Government awaited the French and Portuguese to come to the table to plan a departure from the regions of Pondicherry and Goa respectively. Pondicherry finally became part of India only in 1954 and Goa in 1961. India’s expectation and final exit of the Portuguese from Goa received severe criticism from the US and UK in the international press (Sanyal, 2012). Sovereignty and liberty were, it seems, the privilege of a few.

The current relevance of James Mark Baldwin

Developmental and social sciences derive from a similar sense of reality that James Baldwin referred to in his speech. James Mark Baldwin was one of the exceptions of this trend. Valsiner (2010) writes: “Being torn by the internal disputes within psychology between various –isms (behaviorism, positivism, cognitivism—to name a few) psychology in our days has largely overlooked complex affective phenomena” that Baldwin recognised. Of particular interest are the constructs of ‘persistent imitation’ (actually remodeling imitation) and ‘circular reactions’, Baldwin’s main contributions to the understanding of development. He stressed that children learn actions based on what they see and what works for that environment, what he labelled ‘persistent imitation’ and then begin to construct non-random experiences based on circular reactions. Development is a social-psychological process, Baldwin argued, transcending the limits of a static ontology of ‘being’ and proposing a stance of ‘becoming’ through social encounters. Baldwin’s developmental perspective facilitated the reconciliation of a person’s uniqueness and social knowledge that he ‘imitates’ constructively. Somewhat like a boomerang, each act leaves an impression on the self as well as the other. The psychological uniqueness of each person is the proof of the social origins of the self that develop through relating with others:… man is a social outcome rather than a social unit. (Baldwin, 1897, p. 87, cited in Valsiner, 2010). Children were understood to develop under the guidance of their parents, but in ways that transcend their supervision. Baldwin’s observations of children, his own and others, provided him with insights that he transferred to his theory. He understood what most psychologists fail to do even today, that it is futile to impose non-developmental notions of causality into the developmental sciences. Development, whether of viruses, humans, or societies—is an act of exploration that results in new, previously unencountered, forms of being.  “A simple idea—yet it has taken biological and social sciences around two centuries to accept it” (Valsiner, 2009).

Why are Baldwin’s words relevant in the discussion of globalisaion and reimagining the development sciences? Firstly, the idea of a culturally situated notion of development and secondly, the recognition of heterogeneity of the social environment which the person then treats selectively and appropriates uniquely.

I am invoking Baldwin and Baldwin to argue against a uniform code in the construction and application of the developmental sciences. Since by this argument, any attempts to make alterations in a person’s developmental calendar through drastic interventions and unfamiliar means will have consequences, either of displacement from a familiar setting, or failure to find relevance in the newly constructed one. Developmental sciences and their practical applications, in research, measurement, therapy, education, and welfare must be approached with this fundamental understanding and acknowledgement. If all forms of development emerge from the context, these interventions must both scientifically (James Mark Baldwin) and ethically (James Baldwin) be transacted with equity, cultural relevance and social justice! Disruptive change, however well-meaning and well-planned, will cause fractures in the developmental process.

‘Why is mainstream psychology hegemonic?’ Bhatia (2018) asks. Because it attempts to speak for everyone, subordinates others and is used for the purpose of marginalising other explanation systems through power structures that obscure and silence other voices. An alternative psychology is needed that “goes beyond the mechanistic, universalizing, essentialising and ethnocentric dimensions that make the hegemony of Euro-American psychological science” (Bhatia, 2018, p. xx).

Reimagining globalisation

 Could globalisation, rather than being an instrument of uniformity, be utilized as a tool to leverage respect for and living with diversity? Could its processes be utilized for reimagining the developmental sciences? Given the unprecedented knowledge we have of others, the increased ‘virtual flatness’, the vision of a better world, and potential to spread awareness of balance, towards the environment, towards each other, can we not achieve what nature is capable of? Can we imagine ‘universalism without uniformity’ (Cassaniti & Menon, 2017)? For this, we need to recognise that:

  • The human-environment interaction is a delicate balance and ways of living are ecologically adaptive
  • The Western model of consumption is unsustainable for the human-environment interface world-wide
  • Social sciences, and especially Psychology, need greater humility, complemented with a respect for others, in theory, method and application because of its global appeal.
  • The model of the autonomous individual is culture-specific, and that a person’s identity, dignity and meaning is inextricably linked to the context.
  • One size cannot fit all, we need a variety of solutions
  • People have a right to self-determination even when they live with poverty
  • Poverty in the Global South persists on account of structural imbalance, historical exploitation, regional conditions and not personal disposition.
  • Initiating change in one dimension can lead to potential imbalance, especially in the context of poverty. We need to be circumspect about interventions
  • Countries should not be conflated with culture, culture is the relationship between humans and their environment
  • There are tools available for greater interpretive power, better sample and more acceptable methodologies for studying people in different parts of the world.
  • We need to talk about phenomena like “school readiness” as the capacity for schools to accept children, to be ready for all children rather than the reverse.

New possibilities: Some examples

“It’s fashionable to say the education system is broken. It’s not broken, but it’s producing people who are not needed”

Sugata Mitra TED talk.

We cannot underestimate the power that Uberisation[13] has had on us. This would all be unimaginable without harnessing the potentials of globalisation. Thus, instead of a “global epidemic of sameness” globalisation in fact has the potential to become a force for easing mobility, improving understanding and enhancing mutual respect between people from different parts of the world, as well as the developmental sciences.

A computer scientist in India is re-imagining school education through the second phase of his Hole-in-the-Wall innovation in learning to virtual collaborations, where in one experiment, Scottish grandmothers are leading reading sessions for young children that is labelled ‘Granny cloud’[14]. Mitra, has argued that the old ways of teaching children are set to be overthrown by the possibilities of learning that location-free collaborations can offer. In another instance, Salman Khan (not the Bollywood actor) built his online courses as an idea emerging from his lessons in math that he created for his cousins. Today Khan Academy offers free online courses in 26 different languages[15].

Facilitating internships and volunteer opportunities, Workaway[16] is an online portal with members from 185 countries where people can volunteer their time for tourism, internship or cultural exchange. Notwithstanding the risks and challenges, a web portal such as this one expands the possibilities of customer to customer exchange. These innovations would not have been possible without global access to information.

Final words: On balance

All things considered, it would not be wrong to say that globalisation emerged from  modernisation and scientific and technological revolution. Although there were and still are legitimate concerns collapse of cultural difference, the encounter between global and local forces have also generated hybridisation and glocalisation.

When globalisation was first initiated and neoliberalism spread far and wide, impacting international relations and trade agreements, many countries suffered severe consequences and were forced to adopt paths that benefited the wealthy countries. Structural inequality will persist because of those policies, but like the youth of India who are living between a dream and hard place, or the elderly Indians who have hijacked travel assistance, people will always invent their own negotiations, resisting sameness and finding innovative solutions. Through the tools of advancement, silent voices can also be heard.

There was a time when sameness was a virtue and the world believed it needed to follow an imagined path towards progress, well-being and the pursuit of happiness. Look where that road took us in the early 20th century. Those assumptions now stand further challenged in the new world order characterised by virtual access and unprecedented inventiveness.

The ‘globalisation app’ in our minds needs to be upgraded. The new world order by its very nature, questions long-standing assumption and lays bare the need for transparency, accountability and a serious audit of the developmental sciences. This next version of globalisation (let’s call it G2.0), needs to be installed. A global phenomenon of universalisation without uniformity where:

  • Arrogance, supremacy and superiority about a way of life or a way of thinking is behind us
  • Human dignity and privacy are not the preserve of the privileged few
  • People are given the respect and opportunity to work for a better life
  • Providing basic services is a matter of right, not a donation
  • Charity is no longer a viable premise
  • Proselytization is outdated and unethical
  • Families and individuals have a right to their culture where they live and when they move, this is not just a privilege of people who move from wealth to relative poverty for work
  • Children have a right to their family, and taking children away from families should be the last resort and not a first option.
  • Multiple solutions rather than singular models will flourish
  • Interdisciplinary and inter-cultural collaborations can flourish. For instance, the value of using literary sources in psychology is undeniable
  • There is a balance of power between countries and cultures
  • Alliances are built between ‘others’ to find common themes like Filial Piety, Sibling care, Multiple carers, Learning with others and Distributed intelligence, marginal in our textbooks but they flourish elsewhere
  • Context is considered constitutive
  • Intersectionality, social justice and equity characterise discussions of cultural diversity
  • Given the number of similarities across “other” cultures, it is important to find common ground and conversations without being guided by the East-West divide
  • Influence of gatekeepers of science like IRBs and other committees should be reduced to free researchers. In order to strengthen ethical commitments and procedural integrity, courses on research methods need to be enhanced
  • Requirement for researchers to declare subjective experiences of the researcher in the laboratory, home, field to make the experience of collecting data transparent to their academic audience
  • Requirement of every researcher to write up a piece for the public for public access through blogs, online magazines
  • Anything can be questioned, if it cannot be questioned, it is not science!

Thank you!


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[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/214815/number-of-visitors-to-the-us-from-india/

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5OLftRlpSo

[3] https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/IFR/article/view/7691/8748

[4] Loosely translated as manipulative problem solving with low cost, unusual solutions

[5] https://www.bbc.com/news/business-30115555

[6] https://www.unicef.org/earlychildhood/index_68195.html

[7] https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/parentingculturestudies/files/2011/09/Special-briefing-on-The-Myth.pdf

[8] Sperry, Sperry & Miller, 2018, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/cdev.13072

[9] Wikepedia

[10] https://www.lena.org/, https://www.lena.org/longitudinal-study/

[11] https://podcasts.apple.com/in/podcast/on-being-with-krista-tippett/id150892556?i=1000439230319&fbclid=IwAR3UYdLUYxGxDTnvnnMJNcgxeYDCjqi6T326_qIJs-xqUG4D9XOgmJTpnE4

[12] https://www.rimaregas.com/2015/06/07/transcript-james-baldwin-debates-william-f-buckley-1965-blog42/

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uberisation Uberisation is a neo-euphemism for a property of a highly tele-networked business to hit peak efficiencies in operations, providing highly economical and efficient services. The idea is then projected into the area of economic systems to speak of vehicles and drivers (in the Uber example) as under-utilised capacity of existing assets or human resources, and then highly networked communications as a simple fact of economic reality, where then study of economic systems includes telecom in everything.

[14] https://www.theschoolinthecloud.org/, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/aug/02/sugata-mitra-school-in-the-cloud

[15] https://www.khanacademy.org/

[16] https://www.workaway.info/

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