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Cultural considerations are increasingly vital in multidisciplinary research

CONTACT: Carol Ryff (608) 262-9772, cryff@wisc.edu


MADISON-Cultural considerations are increasingly vital in multidisciplinary research as more scientists stray from narrowly focused studies to expansive, boundary-blurring questions, a University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologist will announce to attendees (May 27) at the 17th Annual Convention of the American Psychology Society in Los Angeles.

Academic fields are rapidly converging to form emerging hybrids with tongue-twisting names such as psychoneuroimmunology. But, Ryff says, integrative work cannot tell the whole story - or hope to create tailored, individualized interventions - unless researchers pay heed to the broader cultural context of their work.

A renowned expert on the psychology of aging, Ryff recently demonstrated that human well-being in the U.S. is directly linked with biological markers such as stress cortisol levels and cardiovascular risk. Now, expanding the work through a proposed study called MidLife in Japan (MIDJA), Ryff wants to learn how varied cultures harbor different notions of well-being, and how those notions might interplay with biology.

Well-being, Ryff says, is essentially a measure of how purposefully a person engages with life.

"Psychosocial factors are important everywhere but components of those factors vary in cultures," says Ryff, who has collected preliminary cross-cultural data in collaboration with Japanese researchers. "Even though cultures differ in what they consider the mark of a healthy individual, [we want to show] that different components of well-being will still be linked with biology."

Where independence and individualism are signature features of American culture, Japan has traditionally been a culture of interdependence and filial obligation. Ryff and colleagues from Japan, Stanford University and the University of Michigan plan to survey a large sample of adults in Tokyo to gather extensive socio-demographic and psychosocial information, coupled with mental and physical health assessments.

The researchers will map how Japanese well-being predicts for health, and will also compare the data with findings stemming from "Midlife in the U.S. (MIDUS),"an ongoing longitudinal study spearheaded during the nineties by Ryff and several other scholars. Through MIDUS, researchers are examining behavioral, psychological and social trends in more than 7,000 U.S. adults between the ages of 25 and 74.

Notably, working with a different culture does mandate a modified research approach, says Ryff. "We don't just want to import a western study to Japan, so we are also incorporating eastern influences [into our surveys]."

Orient-inspired questions, for instance, ask respondents to describe the place of obligation in their lives as well as their sense of self in the context of other relationships.

If the Japanese research bears fruit, Ryff hopes to extend her investigation to other cultures. Africa, she says, will most likely be next.

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