Chapter 5: Reconsidering Context

Compositors: Michael Cole, Bud Mehan

All the while that the different research projects described in Chapters 3 and 4 were going on, the Lab met collectively twice a week. One of these meetings was devoted to reporting on and writing about the ongoing research, asking for advise, and trying out ideas on each other. The other was devoted to an issue of general concern across all the projects. Often attended by colleagues from other interested groups in New York and visitors from afar, it was at these seminars that we read widely across the social sciences in search an alternative way of thinking about the relation of culture and psychological processes. If was also this practice that gave rise to collaborative publications under the name of LCHC that addressed the larger theoretical and methodological controversies that had to be dealt if there was to be any chance of a productive combination of the two disciplines.

Two of these papers, published simultaneously in the Annual Review of Anthropology and the Annual Review of Psychology were directly focused on the mutual relevance, and lack thereof, of extant writing on the question of how human psychological processes are related to cultural organization of their activities. To the psychologists we posed the following question:

"In what sense(s) does culture enter into the formulation of problems, the identification of independent variables, the observational techniques and, hence, the dependent variables of cross-cultural, cognitive research? (p. 146)."

Our answers to these two questions posed tough problems of methodology for cross-cultural psychology of the 1970’s. Firstly, it brought into question the thorny issue of how to specify and quantify, the independent variables. Secondly it brought into question the validity of the data that served as dependent variables.

With respect to the independent variable we argued that:

"In so far as there is agreement (for example,among anthropologists to whom the psychologist typically turns as the source for a definitional war­-ant) those who are concerned with the study of culture emphasize the patterning of ideas,institutions,and artifacts produced by the group in question. Recognition of the difficulty that such patterning poses for the psycholo­gist is widespread in principle, but very difficult to apply in particular circumstances.(p. 146)"

With respect to the dependent variable, our argument was articulated clearly by Florence Goodenough (1936), an early pioneer in the conduct of cross-cultural research:

"Now the fact can hardly be too strongly emphasized that neither intelligence tests nor the so-called tests of personality and character are measuring devices, properly speaking. They are sampling devices. . . . we must also be sure that the test items from which the total trait is to be judged are representative and valid samples of the ability in question, as it is displayed within the particular culture with which we are concerned (34, p. 5)."

We hardily agreed. Our “ethnographic psychology/experimental anthropology” approach was intended to follow through on this precise point. The big challenge, we asserted, was to figure out how to collect samples as they are displayed within a culture and most cross-cultural psychology did not achieve this goal.

To the anthropologists we argued that despite long traditions of talking about modes of thought characteristic of different cultural groups, they were not likely to be accepted by cross-cultural psychology, which was fighting for its own legitimacy in the light of challenges posed to its methodology. The dominant traditions of experimental psychology require far better specification of the task the subject is engaged in and far better specification of the constraints on modes of response (the “experimental procedures” that enable one to score responses) than anthropologists can generally provide. Yet such specification was necessary to suit the canons of scientific psychologists for whom “the task” is fusion of a goal and the associated constraints on modes of achieving it. Anthropologists did offer a sobering set of questions of psychologists to worry about concerning the validity of their measurement techniques: how do you know the subject’s goal, especially when one is dealing with people from different life experiences? For example.

However, in so far as anthropologists sought to use research methods that emulated psychological practice (so called “white room” ethnography), the less they had to say about traditional anthropological concerns about cognition in everyday life. This was especially true when claims about cultural differences in thought processes, modes of thought, and the like were said to make claims about “what is going on in the head” an unfortunate phrase that was began to crop up in anthropology, just as the cognitive revolution was encouraging such talk in psychology.

The result as we judged it at the time was a standoff. The situation was stated particularly well by S.F. Nadel, a psychologically trained anthropologist.

"... unless the relations between social and psychological enquiry are precisely stated, certain dangers, all-too-evident in the anthropological and psychological literature, will never be banished. Psychologists will overstate their claims and produce, by valid psychological methods, spurious sociological explanations; or the student of society, while officially disregarding psychology, will smuggle it in by the backdoor; or he may assign to psychology merely the residue of his enquiry-all the facts with which his own methods seem incapable of dealing (1951, p. 289)."

The deeper our seminars delved into the complexity of a 100 year old struggle to resolve to the disciplinary divides, the more we appreciated just how difficult it would be to actually construct an amalgam of experimentally-oriented anthropology and a culturally oriented psychology. Each of the individual projects in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 raise can be seen as contributing in one way or another to this project. We were using experimental-psychological methods in the study of literacy and schooling in the international research and we used analogous methods in studies of dialect effects, vocabulary differences, social setting, across population variations of concern in New York. This work spoke to ongoing debates in experimental, developmental psychology about age-related changes in cognitive processing. It illuminated various procedural factors involving the content and modes of implementation of standard tasks across groups problematic. We were especially dubious that “higher/lower” comparisons based on standard test procedures.

At the same time, and sometimes in combination, we used observational techniques to investigate “home culture” patterns of language use in comparison with classrooms. We discovered, as others had before us, that psychological tests are constituted in a rather odd and highly constrained manner that made results obtained in them suspicious when one tried to draw generalizations from the test to the less constrained circumstances of, say, a cooking club. The borders of their ecological validity were poorly mapped, and when mapped, appeared to be suspect.

Understandably, these observations made it important to us to broaden the scope of our theoretical framework to be able to make systematic sense of what we were seeing. This process was by no means completed by the time we had left Rockefeller, but piecing together (and, many would argue) it has not and perhaps cannot be accomplished. Given the stage of the work at the time, we have decided to organize this chapter around two issues that we all began, in our different ways, to confront.

The first was the issue of context this polysemous topic concept was then being used by anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists. The second was to develop a theoretical framework that could encompass the phenomena we were encountering. Addressing both of these issues seemed essential if we were going to work out a common methodology that spanned the disciplinary chasm our research had led repeatedly brought us to. Finally, and crucially related to these two issues was a reconsideration of the “consequences of schooling” as it appeared to us in light of both our international and domestic research.

Context by Any Other Name

As should be evident from Chapter 1, our early invocations of context in the Liberian research of the 1960’s and 1970’s used the term in a common sense, fuzzily conceived way. Whether referring to “a task in its context” or “the cultural context of learning” our usage was a poorly differentiated means of claiming that there was something special and psychologically important about the setting or environment within which the psychological task is occurring as well as the culturally organized environment of that setting. Context could refer to familiarity with words or to ways of understanding the interview and testing circumstances themselves. It could refer to such issues as cultural norms for appropriate age and gender conventions that applied to the participants involved in interviews and experiments, and different social settings. Almost anything that influenced the performance of interest could be invoked as relevant to “the context.”

We were not alone in this respect. The literature in psychology and allied social sciences was littered with references to research in “encounter group context,” “emotional context,” “linguistic context," “physical and social context” the “context of a psychiatric center.” A regular Borges “Chinese menu” of definitions.

All during the 1970’s Lab members and colleagues among anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists who shared our concerns worked to better specify what they meant by context, drawing upon classical scholars in their fields and their own experience. There were hard questions to be dealt with: Why and when could such wildly different entities as an encounter group or an emotion count as “context?” Why and how would changing the frequency of particular words change a context? What do such uses of the term share in common with the idea of culture or schooling as a context?

Then, as now, the term context in ordinary discourse was treated more or less synonymously with terms such as situation, environment, and activity. Goodwin and Duranti (1992) summarize what these approaches had in common:

When the issue of context is raised it is typically argued that the focal event cannot be properly understood, interpreted appropriately, or described in a relevant fashion, unless one looks beyond the event itself to other phenomena (for example, cultural setting, speech situation, shared background assumptions) within which the event is embedded…The context is thus a frame (Goffman, 1974) that surrounds the event being examined and provides resources for its appropriate interpretation… The notion of context thus involves a fundamental juxtaposition of two entities: (1) a focal event; and (2) a field of action (Goodwin & Duranti, 1992, p.3).

Beyond the agreement that the “juxtaposition of two entities” is at the center of the issue of context, different scholars working within different disciplinary traditions differed a good deal in how to specify these entities and the consequences of their juxtaposition. This approach to interpreting context implies that the phenomenon of interest is not a “thing in itself,” or a “trait” but a person-environment interaction where both sides of the duality are difficult, if not impossible, to specify in objectifiable, “context free” terms, let alone measurements.

Psychologists’ Approaches to Context

Recognition that behavioral performance on psychological tests/tasks is contingent on “contextual factors” was evident in many branches of psychology, ranging from personality theory to experimental studies of adult learning and developmental psychology.

A psychology of situations?

Within personality psychology, David Magnussen and Norman Endler brought together some two decades of research by various leading scholars concerned with the idea of stable, ubiquitously deployed personality traits in in light of the apparent variability of such traits “according to context,” “across situations.” The spirit of this enterprise was captured in the title of the Magnussen and Endler book Toward a psychology of situations: An interactional perspective. Central to their line of thinking was a distinction between two research strategies. The first sought to describe and measure contextual environments “as they are,” as stable structures in the world. The second sought to understand such environments “as they are perceived”, that is, as partially, psychologically constituted (and thus much more difficult to specify in terms of objective, stable criteria). From this latter perspective, the task/context relationship results from the interaction of these two “juxtaposed entities.”

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One of the major influences on our thinking about these alternatives was Gregory Bateson. In his 1971 essay on the Ecology of Mind, Bateson distinguished these two different ways of using the term, context, as they had appeared in his own work in the following terms:

In the essays collected in Part III, I speak of an action or utterance as occurring “in” a context, and this conventional way of talking suggests that the particular action is a “dependent” variable, while the context is the “independent” or determining variable. But this view of how an action is related to its context is likely to distract the reader—as it has distracted me—from perceiving the ecology of the ideas which together constitute the small subsystem which I call “context.” This heuristic error—copied like so many others from the ways of thought of the physicist and chemist—requires correction. It is important to see the particular utterance or action as part of the ecological subsystem called context and not as the product or effect of what remains of the context after the piece which we want to explain has been cut out from it. (p. 338)

By invoking particular utterances or actions as being a part of the context, the person and the context come to be seen as part of a single bi-directional, temporally dynamic system of interaction. This way of thinking fit well with our experiences in the afterschool clubs. At the same time, many of the issues we sought to address were very much caught up in the national discussions about the “causes and consequences of poverty” (or ethnic difference, or school success, or...). Under these circumstances, we could not opt for one approach to context at the exclusion of the other any more than we could turn solely to psychology or anthropology to think about culture and development in isolation from each other. The various mixtures of methods we devised to come to grips with the meanings of “context” and their presumed consequences are illustrated by the different projects in Chapters 3 and 4.

Levels of Context

One widely adopted view of how to get an analytic grip on the concept of context to use in causal models of “the effects of context” in psychological research was put forward by Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979) in his early book on the ecology of human development. Bronfenbrenner’s formulation gave rise to the ubiquitous “concentric circles’ illustrations of the idea of “levels of context” in which the individual child is embedded represented the state of most psychological thinking at the time. This general line of thinking, implemented in a variety of ways, has played a large role in studies of social class, ethnic, and other “social addresses” that can be correlated with some aspect of human development.

Although ubiquitous in everyday language and useful for many purposes, the shortcoming of this metaphor of context as embedded layers of structure comes at the high cost. For one thing the concentric circle interpretation of context encourages, as many scholars have pointed out, the notion that causality runs from more inclusive levels “downward” (“macro to micro”) which has the unfortunate feature of denying agency to the individual who is located at the innermost of the context’s elements or the influence of cultural practices in shaping the more inclusive social environment. Nonetheless, such usage appeared in our own work and that of others, just as it had in Bateson’s.

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Context in American Developmental and Experimental Psychology

During this same period, cross-cultural work that emphasized cultural contexts (however defined) began to gain the attention of experimental psychologists, some of whom were interested in the process of cognitive development, some of whom worked with adults. Many developmentalists were focused on 3-5 year old children and their stages of cognitive development, as gauged by use of Piagetian tasks. This was the age when children were supposed to be egocentric, experience difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality, and were incapable of causal reasoning. However, in study after study, what seemed like minor modifications of Piagetian procedures produced the “missing” stage-specific competence and 3-5 year olds suddenly appeared to think like 8-11 year olds.
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Simultaneously, experimental studies were producing “developmental shifts” among adults through the kinds of manipulations that seemed to echo in the cross-cultural and developmental literature. For example two repeated findings in the cross cultural literature were that schooled people were more likely to respond correctly to syllogisms than their non-educated age-mates and, logically, that non-educated people associated words with each other functionally, not logically. Two apparently identical results were obtained with college students as subjects by varying the particular contents of the task. In each case, changes in the cultural content of the task markedly changed performance from “childlike/primitive” to “adult/logical.”

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This kind of evidence was greeted less favorably by the cross-cultural developmental research community than by experimentalists working in the United States. While acknowledging the validity of our critique of empirically gathered data (this critique had been voiced before – we were following in a long tradition as indicated in Section 1), our cross-cultural colleagues faulted us for lack of a positive theoretical program beyond the statement that “everything depends upon context.”

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Context in American Sociology and Anthropology

As our reference to Bateson and the citation of writings on context by Duranti and Goodwin (An anthropologist and linguist/discourse analyst, respectively) at the same time that Lab members were approaching the issue of context from a grounding in experimental psychology and concerns about the ecological validity of ordinary experimental tasks they were also actively engaged with researchers who came out of the traditions associated with interactional sociology, ethnomethodology and discourse analysis.

Context as an Interactive Accomplishment

Importantly, a shared core assumption that united those coming from a psychological perspective with those whose point of departure was the social order was that “Actual behavior is a function of a continuous process or multidimensional interaction (feedback) between the individual and the situation that he or she encounters" (1976, p. 968). This idea, quoted from the same book with which we began our discussion of psychological approaches to context, pinpointed a great many of our concerns about treating cognitive tests as non-interactive, stimulus-response terms. This difficulty was most forcefully evident in our work in the after-school clubs.

In working through these issues and seeking to getting to the details of this interactive process, we were greatly influenced by two scholars who have continued to play an essential role in the thinking of LCHC since its inception. The first is Ray McDermott who was a member of LCHC team that took on the ecological validity question; the second was Bud Mehan, who became a member of LCHC when it subsequently moved to California, but with whom we began to interact actively while still at Rockefeller.

The Analysis of Differential Teaching Contexts in Classroom Lessons

In his Ph.D thesis and later writings Ray had argued that in interaction, people are environments for each other. In a 1980 annual review article on interactional approaches to the social organization of behavior, he and David Roth focused on, “a description of the ways people organize concerted activities in each other's presence”. They continue: "We . . . assume that a person's behavior is best described in terms of the behavior of those immediately about that person, those with whom the person is doing interactional work in the construction of recognizable social scenes or events" (1978, p. 321).

McDermott’s study of the differential learning opportunities afforded to students in a top and bottom group reading group in an elementary school classroom exemplifies this point of view while simultaneously demonstrating a central concern of “microethnographers”— unequal educational opportunities are provided to children perceived less able in a variety of educational settings or “contexts” (classroom reading lessons, IQ tests, and counseling sessions).

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Constructing Students’ Intelligence in Testing Interaction

Bud Mehan’s early research (1973, 1974, 1978) spoke directly to the analysis of the dynamics of standardized IQ testing situations revealing yet an other educational context that contributes to unequal educational opportunities. It also provided critical support for our efforts to understand the relationship between people’s performance on cognitive tasks and the socio-cultural contexts of those tasks discussed in Chapter 2.

Mehan analyzed videotape of the social interactions between educational testers and children during the administration of IQ tests. He reported that the intelligence that we attribute to children as their personal possession emerged from the social interaction between the tester and the student in testing situations. The instruction manual directs testers to administer tests in a rigidly specified, routinized way. They are to ask a question, pause, let students respond, record the answers, and go on to the next question. When he examined actual tester-student interactions, however, he got a different, much more social-interactional view of the tested performance.
For example, a question on the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC-R) in use at the time of Mehan’s study was: “What is the thing to do if you lose a ball that belonged to one of your friends?” After the tester asked this question in one of the testing sessions Mehan studied, the following exchange took place:
Student: “Might get another one for her”Tester: “Yeah. Is there anything else you might do?”That is, instead of asking the next question, the tester questioned the student’s answer. The tester’s intervention led the student to modify his answer:Student: “Tell her the truth.”Mehan found that depending upon whether a tester recorded the first or subsequent answers after these interventions, a student’s test score varied by as much as 25%.
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Overall, Bud’s close analysis of tester-student interaction along with test scores, produced a different view of intelligence, student identity, and educational opportunity than an examination of test scores taken alone. Intelligence test scores, when presented as a numeral, are a product that is divorced from the social means that produced them. Those social means are not standardized, but they are replete with evidence that marginalized students received less “wiggle room” in their answers, less followup of the kind that leads to higher scores.
Subsequent decades make clear that the issues we were raising about task and context (focal event and field of action) at LCHC in the 1970’s were part of a much larger stream of work among social scientists to deal with dualistic notions of context, one the presumably objective characteristics of the environment of the individual which influences (and perhaps influenced by the individual) the other of which eschewed the distinction between individual and social, focusing instead on the processes by which this distinction is made in parsing the ebb and flow of influence in the ecological system that is human life.

All of these issues would come to occupy a central role in the research that was subsequently undertaken when LCHC moved to UCSD.

Reconsidering the Cognitive Consequences of Schooling

No sooner had we begun to publish the results of our research on the role of schooling in tested cognitive ability, then people began to ask us what processes taking place in the classroom could lead to the differences in cognitive performance we observed in our experiments. After all, while it proved possible in many cases to track down the causes of performance differences, even when great care was taken in preparing materials and procedures, people who had no experience of schooling seemed to perform quite differently than their schooled brethren.

One way of evaluating what we had learned through the work carried out during the Rockefeller years is to contrast an early attempt to explain the apparent school/non-school differences just as LCHC was getting started with the answers we were giving as LCHC’s presence at Rockefeller University was coming to an end. As a starting point, we can use an article by Scribner and Cole that appeared in Science magazine based on research begun as LCHC was just getting itself organized. As an ending point we can consider the results of both the domestic and international projects that began as that article was being written.

“The cognitive consequences of formal and informal education” (link to article).
Taking the accumulated evidence of the prior research using various widely used psychological techniques, Scribner and Cole (1973) began from the premise, based on the Liberian research that “All cultural groups thus far studied have demonstrated the capacity to remember, generalize, and form concepts, operate with abstractions, and reason logically (p. 541). Nevertheless, they ventured a guess, also based upon the Liberian research a potential difference in cognition associated with the experience of those who have attended school:

…unschooled populations tended to solve individual problems singly, each as a new problem, whereas school populations tended to treat them as instances of a class of problems that could be solved by a general rule (p. 554).
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What made this finding puzzling was that independent ethnographic and linguistic evidence obtained from the same people indicated that they were familiar with, and commonly made use of, the very same classes built into the materials and the procedures of the experiment. They were failing to use information that they had manifested in other, similar circumstances. Why?

One potential answer focused on the distinctive nature of schooling as form of experience. Along with many others writing at the time (e.g., Bruner, Greenfield et al, 1966), Scribner and Cole argued that:

…school represents a specialized set of educational experiences which are discontinuous from those encountered in everyday life and that it requires and promotes ways of learning and thinking which often run counter to those nurtured in practical, everyday life.

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But they also drew a further implication:

What is special about learning out of context in school is that the children is asked to learn material that has no natural, that is, non-symbolic context… this independent learning of techniques or instrumental skills, apart from the ends to which they will lager be functional related does not seem to have many parallels in everyday life…. This is another sense in which school learning can be considered “out of context.”

However, unlike Bruner and other developmentally oriented colleagues, Scribner and Cole did not interpret test results as evidence that schooling is required to develop the more advanced cognitive stages that were popularly invoked at the time. Rather, what differentiates groups of schooled and non-schooled people in their tested performance, they argued, was that the two populations have different amounts of practice in exercising the skills learned in the context of schooling:

Given extensive participation in concept formation on a purely linguistic level, it is not surprising that school populations tested in a variety psychological tasks give fuller and more accurate verbal of their classifying operations and rules of solutions than do their unschooled counterparts (p. 557).

By the same token, it should be no surprise that school populations treated successive problems posed to them by an experimenter as “instances of the same class of problem.” Sequences of such problem, “of the same class” were precisely the content of the schooling experience to which the non-schooled had no exposure.

This is where matter stood as LCHC was getting organized.

Cultural Practices and Cognitive Consequences

Subsequent research carried out among the Vai in Liberia and Maya in the Yucatan, combined with our research in New York, deepened our skepticism about nature of the cultural differences associated with differences in performance of people who varied in their years of schooling experience.

The Vai research, as we recounted in Chapter 3, enabled us to put cultural practices at the focus of our attention, and to treat experiments as models of those practices, not as measures of decontextualized cognitive abilities. The Yucatecan research, while confirming and extending evidence that levels of performance on our cognitive tests varied as a function of years of schooling (e.g., years of practice solving school-like tasks of a particular logical structure) only served to reinforce our earlier conclusion: our experiments were good models of schooling practices but the research we were conducting was mute regarding any general cognitive consequences of schooling.

Toward the end of the Yucatecan monograph (citation or link), Don Sharp and his colleagues made the following speculation about the possible usefulness of schooling even if it did not produce generalized changes in intellectual abilities. They wrote:

... the information-processing skills which school attendance seems to foster could be useful in a variety of tasks demanded by modern states, including clerical and management skills in bureaucratic enterprises, or the lower-level skills of record keeping in an agricultural cooperative or a well-baby clinic. (p. 84)

It would be decades before this idea was put to the test, and shown to be correct and expanded upon in a manner that addresses contemporary social policies that promoted universal education through out a good deal of the world (Le Vine et al).

Unnoticed in the search for objective, and ideally quantifiable, measures of contextual variables and cognitive consequences was that while, as many observed, rural Third World children who had been to school performed on tests more like their American counterparts than their age mates who had not attended school, these same children’s failure in school was the very reason that had brought psychologists with our diagnostic tests to Liberia and the Yucatan in the first place. To judge by the test scores, school performance should not have been a cause for concern. There was a disconnect between the consequences of schooling as measured by standard psychological tests and by measures of academic achievement. It is the test which is taken as criterion, even when accompanied by school failure.

This line of reasoning about the distinctive role of language in school was reinforced by the analysis of young children’s talk when we took them to a supermarket and then back to the classroom. The major finding of that work can be seen as a demonstration of a strong disconnect between schooled, and non-schooled-based knowledge acquisition processes. In school the kind of speech acts one is allowed to use, and the circumstances for their use, are quite different than riding in a shopping cart on an adventure. There is something discontinuously prevalent in schooled discourse, of being placed in a position where one has to learn how to learn what now might be referred to as “school discourse.” Talk in school was special. Considered as a context, not a place, “a classroom” took on special interest, along with clubs and other, organized settings, as places in which to study learning and cognitive development as culturally mediated process.

Coming to Terms with Vygotsky

In light of the extent to which L.S. Vygotsky’s writings came to play a significant role in the work of LCHC over the decades, it may appear odd that thus far he has played little role in our narrative. In this section we provide a summary of how our involvement in Vygotsky’s ideas about culture and development increased and diversified during LCHC residence at Rockefeller, a trend that continues in later chapters.

The Reception of Vygotsky’s ideas during the “Prehistory” period.

In part the relative absence of Vygotsky from our writing in the 1970’s was a matter of simple ignorance; despite the time that Cole had spent working with Alexander Luria, he had received no formal training as either a developmental psychologist nor as an historian of ideas; for a long time he did not understand Luria’s enthusiasm for Vygotsky’s work (Cole 1979).

However, even as we began to learn more, we were put off by what we knew about Vygotsky’s ideas concerning primitive thought, as illustrated for us by the manner in which Luria interpreted his research results in Central Asia. In that work, Luria (1971, 1976) had famously concluded that the cultural-historical change from pastoralism to modern industrialized modes of life brought with it a generalized change in modes of thought from “concrete-functional” to “theoretical.” He assumed, invoking the theory that he had helped Vygotsky to create, that the cultural-historical changes wrought by modern life extended from perception through classification and reasoning to the personality as a whole. As cultures (presumably) progress so do the complexity and power of human psychological processes. This was just the sort of conclusion, based upon what appeared to be the same methodological assumptions, that we had been criticizing in our cross-cultural research. (Link to Cole’s cautious intro to Luria)

Moreover, at this time Vygotsky was recruited as an ally by others engaged in cross-cultural work in a deficit-oriented manner that particularly concerned us. For example, Greenfield and Bruner (1966) interpreted their results on the failure of unschooled Senegalese youth and adults to solve Piagetian and other cognitive tasks in terms that explicitly evoked Vygotsky and Luria.

They concluded their article with a strong statement about the cognitive consequences of schooling that seemed to fly in the face of our own research results: In short, in this view, some environments “push” cognitive growth better, earlier, and longer than others.

As noted in Chapter 2, this cultural/cognitive deficit view carried over from cross-cultural research to the analogous issues in the United States all too uncritically. For example, Bereiter and Engelmann (1965), linked Vygotsky into their narrative of cultural deprivation arising from language deprivation as follows, "As Luria and Vygotsky have explained, controlling one’s actions through one’s own words is a necessary step toward the mastery of dialectical reasoning, which in essence is controlling verbal behavior through “internal dialogue” by means of which one may solve a problem, working a step at a time…. and the deficiencies of culturally deprived children in this use are most striking" (p. 38).

It is no wonder that we approached Vygotsky reluctantly. He had found himself in what we considered “bad company!” But approach him we did.

Converging Sources of Vygotsky’s Influence on LCHC

Despite cross-cutting inhibitory influences, a confluence of events began to remedy inattention to Vygotsky in the early 1970’s, although it took several years for his ideas to become, so to speak, a “central line of development” for LCHC.

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When Sylvia Scribner joined the nascent LCHC in 1970 she brought with her a strong background in Marxist theory and an unpublished paper on the cognitive consequences of literacy that drew heavily and approvingly on Vygotsky’s ideas (finally published in 1992, seen here . Her enthusiasm for conducting cross-cultural research to test Vygotsky’s ideas about the relation of writing to thought was a major reason for undertaking the Vai project.

At almost the same time, Luria began to prepare an intellectual autobiography with the understanding that Cole would be an editor. Since Luria constructed his autobiography largely as a playing out of ideas he attributed to Vygotsky, Cole was virtually forced to go back and reconstruct what made Vygotsky’s ideas so central to Luria’s career. To compound matters, Luria arranged for Cole to prepare two Vygotsky manuscripts for publication at Harvard University Press, where Luria’s American publisher, Arthur Rosenthal, had become the director. Knowing himself inadequate to the task, Cole asked Scribner for her advise. She in turn, brought Vera John Steiner, an admirer of Vygotsky’s work into the process. The task proved to be far more than a matter of translating two monographs, and it occupied several years and four editors in constant dialogue to arrive at a manuscript acceptable to Rosenthal and Luria. All of this work meant coming to grips in a serious way with Vygotsky and Luria’s ideas about development.

Further impetus for engagement with Vygotsky’s ideas was pushed by the unexpected public response to Steven Toulmin’s wrote a glowing review of the resulting book, Mind in Society, astounding us by dubbing Vygotsky the “Mozart of Psychology.” We found ourselves in the odd position of being treated as “Vygotsky experts” because we had produced this edited volume; we knew full well that we still poorly understood Vygotsky, but the attention focused on him by our colleagues meant that over time we had to work even harder at figuring out whether and how to reconcile his ideas about culture and development with our own.

Beginning to Appropriate Cultural-historical Theory: The Rockefeller Years

LCHC’s first serious introduction of Vygotsky’s theorizing into its publication repertoire appeared in a small textbook on culture and cognition published by Cole and Scribner in 1974. Referring to Vygotsky’s and Luria’s views on culture and cognitive development, the text suggests that human productive activity is the basis for human developmental transformation in “mental products”—a very different approach than could be found in writings on cross-cultural research at the time

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The gradual increase in the influence of cultural-historical psychology appears most concretely in two of the major projects that were being completed at the time that LCHC left Rockefeller U. The first was Scribner and Cole’s own engagement with notion of the psychological consequences of Vai literacy discussed in Chapter 3. The second was in our work on ecological validity described in Chapter 4.

With respect to the Vai project, we began with the notion that it might be possible to verify Vygotsky’s claims about the special properties of print-mediated action. Our major focus was on examining the interconnections between written language and the activities it mediates. There the practices of schooling, “literacy as embodied in practice” rather than “literacy as a set of isolatable cognitive skills”, turned out to be the most useful way to make sense of the results obtained. Characteristic of our prior cross-cultural research, the conclusions drawn about the influence of writing on cognitive development among the Vai were critical as well as laudatory about Vygotsky’s ideas, in this case, his ideas about the consequences of literacy.

When we took on the task of writing about the MCS ecological validity project, we began to see a quite different significance and usefulness in Vygotsky’s ideas. Broadly speaking, he was helpful in highlighting unresolved problems with the experimental psychology of learning and the need to develop an alternative psychology of learning at the person-environment interface (understood as the local sociocultural context). While the monograph Ecological Niche-picking devoted only a few paragraphs to Vygotsky, they proved prescient:

What we find especially attractive about Vygotsky’s theory is the way in which he incorporates features of social/environmental forces directly into his specifications of cognitive processes, both as their sources and part of their content. But what Vygotsky did not prepare us for is that children and adults would spend so much of their time arranging their environments so that they did not need to engage in cognitive activity without environmental support. While internalization of activities originating in the environment may be a proper characterization of what people become more able to do as they grow from infancy to adulthood, and what they do when constrained sufficiently, non-internalized thinking, in which cognition resides in the environment as much as in the individual, is a pervasive phenomenon.

We agreed with the primacy of the interpersonal in this formulation but in our observations of children in various settings—schools, tests, and clubs—we had been constantly confronted with how little we need to postulate internalization in order to describe the children’s behavior. We expressed our concerns in this way:

To Vygotsky’s statement that "All higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals” (1978, p. 57), we would add that under many different circumstances of everyday life, that is where they remain. People learn about themselves and about each other by the work they do constructing environments for acting on the world. And this is how we must come to know them as well.

Vygotsky pointed us in the direction of creating an account of human thought processes which focused on how the “inner” and the “outer” are primally interwoven through culturally mediated, socially organized, interaction. In this respect we were part of a broader intellectual movement seeking to overcome the intellectual-philosophical dualistic divide between inner and outer in human psychological functioning. Former LCHC participants have continued to be inspired by his writings, to expand upon his methodological insights and empirical findings relevant to development, learning, thinking and speaking, not as abstract psychological concepts but as applicable to current socio-cultural-political life conditions.

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