Culture challenge in defining abnormality


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Psychologists are usually faced with the challenge of universally defining what abnormality is. The aspect of cultural relativism is of the argument that, beliefs on abnormality differ across cultures and sub-cultures. A perfectly acceptable behavior as perceived in one cultural set up may be regarded abnormal in another. Any attempt to define abnormality faces a certain degree of limitation from cultural variations. As such, psychologists may never be certain that their definition technique can be accurate and effective when diagnosing abnormality cases.

In fact, psychologists are forced to first study the cultural context within which an abnormality is suspected before including this in DSM-IV manual (Cave, 2002). The definition of abnormality as a deviation from society's statistical norm is based on common sense approach that much abnormal behavior like delusions and hallucinations are relatively infrequent such that, instances of abnormality appear on both extremes under normal distribution consideration. However, an individual may be normal but fail to conform to others' standards that may indeed be abnormal though evenly spread.

Deviation from the ideal perceived mental health can not sufficiently define abnormality as it would be too subjective in addition to failing to distinguish between abnormal behavior and non-conformist behavior as well as unconventional from plain . Individuals across cultures experience mental disorders differently with some expressing emotions as others emphasize contentment. According to Nicholas (2009), the fluidity of views of the self and reality varies with cultures so that an American Indian would perceive it normal hearing afterworld voices from deceased relatives whereas it would be a hallucination to a European.

Situational factors surrounding abnormality classification

Classification of abnormality varies widely depending on situational factors. The three classifications are the categorical, prototypal and dimensional approaches. None of these approaches universally classify abnormality but depends on the situational context. Categorically, human behavior may be categorized as either healthy or unhealthy. The unhealthy is further subdivided into non-overlapping or discrete. The health of a behavior depends on the context of occurrence of the situation. Some situations may ratify an otherwise unhealthy behavior into a healthy one. For example, if an individual yells for help when in danger, the yelling would be considered healthy yet yelling when in peace is unhealthy. Dimensional approach focuses on the product of various dimensions like extroversion and anxiousness (Nicholas, 2009). Individuals are different in both profile and configuration of the said dimensional traits. Normality and abnormality of behavior is determined by assessing a particular dimension and establishing a determination often on a normative percentage.

However, the dimensions aforementioned depend on the situation at hand in determination of the normative percentage. For instance, it might lead to a high normative percentage being anxious when awaiting an unpredictable outcome of an event, while anxiousness would lower the normative percentage under a directly opposite situation Cave, 2002). The Prototypal approach holds an assumption that there exist conceptual entities referred to as prototypes. This implies existence of combinations of characteristics that are regarded ideal. These combinations more often occur regularly together. The occurrence of the combinations to constitute normality is however judged by the situation surrounding such an occurrence.


  • Cave, S. (2002). Classification and diagnosis of psychological abnormality. London, UK: Routledge Publishers.
  • Nicholas, L. (2009). Introduction to Psychology. Pretoria, SA: Juta and Company Ltd Publishers.

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