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Embodied Foundations of the Self: Food, Grooming, and Cultural Pathways of Human Development in Burma-Myanmar and the United States

  • Author(s): Thein, Seinenu Myint
  • Advisor(s): Greenfield, Patricia M
  • et al.
Abstract

The present dissertation seeks to understand the origins of cultural differences in the self by examining two forms of embodied caregiving practices: eating and grooming. Although both eating and grooming lie at the intersection of culture, mind, biology, and social relationships, neither has been examined by psychologists as being possible mechanisms for cultural learning. Chapter 1 describes a mixed-methods (quantitative and qualitative) cross-cultural comparison of children's eating practices in Burma-Myanmar and the United States. The study uses naturalistic video data of 55 children during routine family mealtimes to analyze non-verbal eating behaviors. Results indicate that there are significant cultural differences between families in Burma-Myanmar and the United States in embodied eating practices with regard to three variables: 1. Independence, 2. Agency, and 3. Social Intimacy. Children in the United States are more independent in their eating than children in Burma-Myanmar. Children in the United States are also more agentic, more frequently taking the initiative to eat; in Burma-Myanmar, the caregiver more often initiates eating. Children's eating in Burma-Myanmar involves more physical intimacy than in the United States. Intimacy takes the form of sharing food, plates, or using the same utensil to feed not just the child, but another person as well. Results also indicate that cultural differences in eating practices emerge early and are sustained across a significant span of development. Chapter 2 describes a mixed-methods cross-cultural comparison of allogrooming practices in Burma-Myanmar and the United States. Using the same naturalistic video database from Study 1, Study 2 analyzes allogrooming behaviors directed at 57 children in Burma-Myanmar and the United States. Chapter 2 reports similar findings to those reported in Chapter 1 in terms of cross-cultural differences. Results indicate that there are significant cultural differences between Burma-Myanmar and the United States with regard to two variables: 1. Interdependence in Grooming, and 2. Intimacy in Grooming. Concerning interdependence, children in Burma are groomed by their caregivers more often than are children in the United States. Grooming is also more intimate in Burma-Myanmar, more often involving the inside of the child's mouth and intimate body parts or direct contact of the caregiver's hand with bodily substances of the child, such as mucous. Similar to the results reported in the first study, Chapter 2 reports that, for interdependence in grooming, cultural differences emerge early and are sustained across a significant span of development. Chapter 2 also reports that there are cultural differences in developmental trajectories for intimacy in grooming. Whereas in Burma-Myanmar, level of intimacy in grooming starts high and remains high as children get older, in the United States intimacy in grooming decreases with the child's age. A key finding reported in Chapter 1 and 2 was the variability in the Burmese sample across all variables. Chapters 1 and 2 also contain ethnographic case studies illustrating the quantitative findings with qualitative analysis. Chapter 3 contextualizes the findings from Chapters 1 and 2 and attempts to account for the variability in the Burmese sample by reporting case studies of four families in Burma- Myanmar. Using ethnographic research methods, Chapter 3 describes how recent sociodemographic changes in Yangon impact the relationship between embodied caregiving practices and abstract values. While adaptations on the part of Burmese parents to sociodemographic changes often resulted in a disjuncture and tension between embodied practice and abstract values, this observed trend was mediated by socioeconomic factors, including enrollment of children in private schools and access to higher education on the part of parents and grandparents. The present findings raise important theoretical questions about how children may learn culturally specific values about the self. Taken together, the results reported in Chapters 1 and 2 suggest that daily eating and grooming practices may be a mechanism for cultural learning, contributing to culturally divergent pathways of development of the self. The results reported in Chapters 1 and 2 also address important theoretical questions about when cultural differences in the self emerge, with both studies reporting that cultural differences in independence, agency, and intimacy are present even in the period of infancy. The observations reported in the ethnographic study raise important theoretical issues about how sociodemographic changes may alter the relationship between embodied caregiving practices and abstract parental values.

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