Our research is grounded in a recently articulated theoretical framework, Cultural-Existential Psychology (Sullivan, 2016, Cambridge University Press).
Cultural-existential psychology attempts to draw on and integrate the insights of experimental existential psychology (Greenberg, Koole, & Pyszczynski, 2004) and cultural psychology (Kitayama & Cohen, 2007). It operates on three fundamental principles...
1. Humans are unique animals by virtue of their capacity for symbolic consciousness. Among animals it is not clear that any species besides humans has the same level and capacity for symbolic consciousness. This has several implications for human experience: we are temporally self-aware; we are aware of our inevitable personal mortality; and we are embedded in culture. According to the framework, these specific aspects must be taken into account in determining any method for adequately studying human experience.
2. Culture is both a solution to and a source of the problems of nihilism and theodicy. In other words, cultures instill in their members threat orientations - habitual tendencies to perceive some information and events, but not others, as highly threatening. At the same time, cultures tend to also provide their members with characterstic defense mechanisms or "safety valves" for dealing with culturally interpreted threats. As a result, humans from different cultures may have radically contradictory ideas about what kinds of events and information qualify as sources of evil or suffering. In our research, for example, we find that individuals in some cultures are comparatively more predisposed to guilt feelings than anxiety feelings, while the opposite is true for individuals in other cultures. This also means that people from a given culture are likely to be resilient in the face of certain kinds of threats, but not others.
3. Mixed, interdisciplinary methods are essential for understanding the indivdiual's aversive experiences in a cultural context. Generally, the framework encourages a three-pronged methodological approach to understanding how members of a certain culture experience suffering and threat. The social structure or ecology in which a culture is immersed should be understood using large-scale or longitudinal demographic, census, or change/stability data. The cultural worldview of a group should be examined in comparative context with other groups, through experimental or culture-comparative methods. Finally, the individual's subjective experience of suffering should be understood with detailed qualitative interview data or content analysis.