Contexts for Learning: Sociocultural Dynamics in Children's Development

By Ellice A. Forman; Norris Minick et al. | Go to book overview

COMMENTARY
Interface between Sociocultural and Psychological Aspects of Cognition

ROBERT SERPELL

The mental act of knowing is a personal condition, a relationship between an individual and some aspect of the world. As Wittgenstein ( 1958) succeeded in demonstrating to the satisfaction of many, however, it cannot be considered a private condition, isolated from the rest of society. What we mean when we say that someone knows something has to do with regularities in his or her speech and other observable behavior. Cognition is a dimension of experience we infer from consistency in the ways in which people behave toward one another. The knowledge of one person is therefore, by definition, accessible to others, and many of society's institutions are based on the premise that knowledge is shared. No laws, or schools, or libraries would make any sense in the absence of this premise. No communication could take place.

The enduring coherence of individual persons is central to the "primary theory" shared by all human cultures ( Horton, 1982). The borders between individuals "emerge" from everyday experience as sharply defined ( Lakoff & Johnson , 1980). Yet the minds that apprehend this segmented world of persons are by their very nature bound into a communicative interdependence that leads us to perceive ourselves through the eyes of others.

This socially constructed nature of human self-understanding has proved difficult to reconcile with the objectivist philosophical premises on which the physical and biological sciences are built ( Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Taylor, 1971). A loosely formulated notion of social context as the meeting point between psychology and the other social sciences tends to be unsatisfactory for two reasons. First, its lack of operational concreteness leads many psychological researchers simply to ignore it when designing their experiments. Second, the parameters of interest to sociologists and economists are often treated as based on a radically different kind of logic from that of psychological theorizing, and taking account of context is treated as somewhat analogous to washing one's hands before sitting down to eat: a necessary prerequisite that has no direct bearing on the next and more intrinsically interesting task.

One of the major attractions of Vygotsky's theoretical perspective for an analysis of the interaction between sociocultural factors and psychological

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