Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Of Ethnic Norms and Ethnic Stereotypes

In my post of June 18, The Historical Backdrop of Family Dysfunction, I stated:

" ...a knowledge of history, when combined with a knowledge about typical ethnic group norms (subject of a later post), can be extremely useful in making an educated guess about how and why certain family behavior patterns may have developed. These patterns were then transferred to succeeding generations through a process known as the intergenerational transfer of dysfunctional behavior."

This post is of course is the aforementioned later post. So how does one obtain knowledge of ethnic group norms for all of the various ethnic groups in the United States and elsewhere? And if we are thinking about cultural norms, how do we avoid stereotyping people in pernicious ways? 

In 1982, a book called Ethnicity and Family Therapy, edited by Monica McGoldrick, John K. Pierce, and Joseph Giordano was released. It is currently in its third edition, the last one having been released in 2005. This book was a landmark in family therapy because it described the typical culture and family relationship patterns of Americans who descended from a wide variety of different ethnic and national groups.  Gaining familiarity with these group characteristics gives therapists a leg up in understanding the behavioral interactions of the family members in front of them, and sometimes helps a therapist to understand otherwise seemingly inexplicable family behavior.

Monica McGoldrick

This can be particularly important in cases of intermarriage between ethnic groups. For example, when a Jewish boy marries an Irish girl, he may often want her to complain if she’s sick, but to her an illness may not be bad enough to complain about, because when she’s suffering she believes that it is punishment for her sins. So the differences in viewpoint are perplexing to the members of the couple, and each feels the other person is either crazy or bad.

The editors point out in the introduction to the first edition: 

"Problems (whether physical or mental) can be neither diagnosed nor treated without some understanding of the frame of reference of the person seeking help.” They asked the authors who were writing in the book about various American groups to answer the following questions, relating them specifically to a family therapy context:

1. What do they define as a problem?
2. What do they see as a solution to their problems?
3. To whom do they usually turn for help?
4.   How have they responded to immigration?
5.   What are the typical family patterns of the group?
6.   How do they handle life cycle transitions?
7.  What may be the difficulties for a therapist of the same background or for a therapist of a different background?”

Of course, whenever anyone deals with subjects such as this, they are in serious danger of feeding into or even creating cultural stereotypes, which often then become caricatures of the culture that are then used to denigrate an entire group. We have all seen malignant and vile stereotypes such as the alcoholic, bar-brawling Irishman, the cheap Jew, and the thuggish mafioso Italian. And those are just some of the Caucasian ones! Alleged negative attributes are used to justify discriminating against members of the groups for various and sundry unethical and/or sinister purposes.

The editors of the book under discussion are well aware of this peril. They are also aware that many members of any ethnic group do not conform to even relatively valid cultural norms that arise from the historical experiences of their group.

Many factors will determine the extent to which particular families will fit into a traditional paradigms, such as migration experiences, whether they lived in an ethnic neighborhood in the United States, their upward mobility, socioeconomic status, educational achievement, rate of intermarriage, and the strength of their political and religious ties to their group.

In other words, the members of the different ethnic groups, while having certain commonalities, are still a very diverse group of people. Even further complicating matters is the tendency of some families, or some family members within a particular family, to react against cultural norms, and go to opposite extremes to disprove the stereotype. This tendency often divides members of a particular group into two subgroups that seem like polar opposites of one another on a particular dimension. The contradictory images are nonetheless caricatured by other groups and included in a stereotype, without any attention to the inherent contradictions in these prejudices.

With Jews, for example, the dangers of being too conspicuous in Russia, where that could get you killed during a pogrom, led some immigrant families to value not drawing attention to themselves. On the other hand, we have the gold-chain laced, Rolex-wearing Jewish man in the entertainment business and the “Jewish-American Princess” (an appellation coined by Jews themselves), who seem to go out of their way to be as ostentatious as humanly possible.

With this amount of diversity, and the risks of creating discrimination and hate, and the fact that no therapist can become an expert on all ethnic groups, what good are the chapters in the book that describe the various ethnicities? 

The authors make the following arguments, as exemplified by Dr. McGoldrick in the introduction to her chapter about her own Irish heritage, with which I agree:

What follows is a greatly simplified outline or paradigm within which to consider Irish-American families. The characterizations may or may not be accurate in any individual instance, and we hope it will be read in the spirit of providing a new provisional hypothesis to help therapists understand their Irish families. Describing ethnic patterns necessitates using cultural stereotypes or simplified pictures of the culture. There are obvious disadvantages to this, and these generalizations are meant to serve only as a framework within which to expand clinical sensitivity and effectiveness

The paradigms in these chapters are used not as "fact", but rather as maps which, although covering only limited aspects of the terrain, may nevertheless provide a guideline to an explorer seeking a path. This focus can mean emphasizing certain characteristics which may become problematic while ignoring certain others, such as the Irish people's great hospitality and charm, which are not problematic. By no means is it meant to add to any tendency toward negative labelling or stereotyping of the Irish.”

In other words, like with any patient in front of them, knowledge of the culture of that person serves the same function as the diagnosis of a personality disorder (or at least that is what a personality disorder diagnosis should function as): a starting point in order for the therapist to more quickly begin generating hypotheses, or educated guesses, about what might be going on with that patient or family, based on a sort of statistical likelihood. Such hypotheses must be then tested with an open mind before the therapist jumps to any firm conclusions.

Facts and patterns begin to reveal themselves as therapy progresses, and the therapist must see whether these facts and patterns are consistent with an initial hypothesis, inconsistent with it, or require some alterations to it. Knowledge of both ethnic norms and common combinations of dysfunctional personality traits often saves the therapist and the patient a great deal of time.  

Some critics of the field complain that personality disorder diagnoses label and pigeon-hole patients, just like ethnic stereotypes. Well, they can do that, but they do not have to! Almost anything can be misused, but this is hardly an argument against the usefulness of anything.

Stereotypes are bad, but you have to begin somewhere.

To point up the belief that Irish children are not praised enough because their parents don’t want to spoil them, Dr. Pearce was quoted (Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 2/9/80) as saying that when he said that to an Irish mother, she replied, “I praise them.  Kevin here, he’s not so bad.”  


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    1. What Gandhi quotation (not quote) are you talking about? I don't see one, and as a tricultural biracial second-generation American I find this post to be extremely truthful and I love the book "Ethnicity and Family Therapy" (have two of the three editions).

  2. Excellent post I read this book when it came out in the 90s (confession I am currently in therapy with Dr. McGoldrick). Another good resource but without an explicit focus on therapy is "Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups" by Stephen Thernstrom (cheap library copies are available from Amazon; it used to be $200).

    P.S. I personally think Irish(-American) stoicism is more related to the harsh climate and colonial brutalization of Ireland by the British rather than Catholicism (which comes from Rome after all--but has anyone ever called the Italians "stoic"?).