Cross-Cultural Tests of Piaget’s Theory

Pierre Dansen and Alastair Heron


There has been a great deal of research investigating the universality of Piaget’s stages.  According to Piaget, cultural factors should only affect the age at which stages (which are qualitatively different from each other) are attained, but the sequence should be universal.  Generally, there is stronger support for the universality of the less advanced (sensorimotor) stages than the more advanced (formal operations) stages.



Only a small amount of research has been conducted, but the available data appear to validate Piaget’s sequence of substages of the sensorimotor stage.  Some cross-cultural variation has been observed in the rate of development, but not the sequence of substages.  Studies have shown that, even in this early stage, progress is not completely determined by biological factors.  The chronological age at which the substages of sensorimotor development has been found to differ across cultures.  Additional studies show that the qualitative characteristics of sensorimotor development are identical in all infants studied so far, despite vast differences in childrearing environments.  The substages all appear in the same hierarchical ordering and even the details of the behaviors are exactly comparable. 



Most of the cross-cultural literature regarding Piaget’s theory of concentrated on this stage.  The same sequence of substages has been found everywhere and for every concept in the concrete operational stage studied so far.  However, while the data support the sequence of substages, there are exceptions.  There is only weak evidence for qualitative differences in Piaget’s stages among different cultures, but systematic quantative differences occur which suggests that cultural factors are more important than Piaget believed.  Factors that affected acquisition of the substages of concrete operations were: urbanization, acculturation, education, ecocultural relevance, and cognitive ambience (the total pattern of implicit cognitively-relevant cultural values that results in “culturally shaped” behavior).


The cultural differences that have been found can be reduced or eliminated through appropriate techniques and training.  Studies have shown that the quantitative variations are amenable to change.  The time lag found within and across cultures do not reflect some basic incapacity and can be bridged through adequate educational experience if it is deemed worthwhile and desirable. 


Vertical décalage refers to the same structures being reconstructed at a higher level (i.e. conservation).  Horizontal décalage is the reconstruction of the same structure within a single stage at different chronological ages, depending on the “content” to which it is applied (e.g. giving a “conservation” answer in one situation and a “nonconservation” answer in another).  The horizontal décalages characterize sample means (averages across groups of children), but are not found in all individual children.  Piaget would contend that, by the end of the concrete operational stage, a child should be able to apply logical operations to any content.  Another deviation from the normal sequence of substages was “pseudo-conseravation,” in which Algerian children could give conservation answers but could not provide explanations for them.

            There were methodological problems in some of the studies examining the universality of concrete operations.  These were: (1) the problem of ensuring that the performance on the tasks that are used in experimental situations really reflect the underlying capacity or competence; (2) the lack of a consistent relationship between tasks in which this consistency or “structure d’ensemble” is predicted by the theory.  “Stucture d’ensemble” (domain consistency) refers to the fact that operations do not occur in isolation—they are always linked in some way to other operations.  The lack of domain consistency is seen by Cole and Scribner (1977) as a sever handicap to the cross-cultural application of Piaget’s theory.

            Experiments looking at individual results rather than group averages showed that patterns did not confirm the expected sequence of substages.  Future research should turn away from “packaged” variables (e.g. Piaget’s original conservation tasks) towards the study of individual differences.  The authors suggest longitudinal studies.


Formal Operations

            Piaget eventually revised his theory to acknowledge that adults have the possibility, or competence, to use formal operations even though they may not use that potential in every situation.  He also suggested that formal schooling and participation in a technological culture are prerequisites for the attainment of formal operations.

            There has been an on-going debate between univeralism and cultural relativism.  It is important to note that scientific reasoning is not the valued endpoint in most cultures.  One major criticism of Piaget’s theory is that his notion of development is really the development of a Western scientist (his own developmental pathway).  One must first understand that the end-state toward which the developmental process is veering before undertaking cross-cultural developmental research.  Further, a belief in “decentered reason” (purely objective science) can hinder cross-cultural communication and lead to inappropriate interpretation of cross-cultural findings.  The logical extreme of this view is that rationalism and scientific thinking and abstract, or theoretical reasoning are typically Western, whereas “magical thinking” or at best concrete modes of reasoning are typically non-Western.  The ethnocentrism inherent in this point of view is self-evident.

            The two opposing view points, universality and cultural relativism, receive empirical support depending on which aspects of cognitive development are being examined.  There is also diversification of development with age: there is little doubt about the universality of the first stage, whereas it is much less certain for the last.  The cross-cultural data neither support nor confirm every aspect of Piaget’s theory.  Rather, they call for an expansion of the theory that will attribute a greater importance to cultural factors.