Michael Cole Kenneth Traupmann University of California San Diego
The work that we describe in this chapter is part of a general effort by members of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition at the University of California, San Diego to characterize the ways in which culturally organized activities influence intellectual behavior. Almost all of our work has been comparative in some respect: comparisons of children of different ages, children from different home backgrounds, schooled and unschooled children, literate and nonliterate adults, and normal and psychotic adults. In this chapter we will describe the beginnings of a different line of comparative research that is directly motivated by problems arising in the course of our earlier studies.
As long ago as 1971, Cole and his colleagues asserted that cultural differences in learning and problem solving reside more in the situations to which people of different cultures apply their cognitive skills than in the existence of such cognitive processes in one cultural group and their absence in another ( Cole, Gay, Glick & Sharp, 1971). That conclusion made sense in the context of their research. However, it was an unsatisfying conclusion in several respects. First, there was little more than a casual description of the various everyday tasks in which people seemed to exhibit skills that they appeared to lack in more tightly controlled laboratory tasks. This led us to question whether it was reasonable to assume that laboratory and naturally occurring tasks were measuring the same skills. For example, when somebody learns and remembers riddles, the names of leaves, or one's ancestors, and does so in a fashion that appears remarkable to us, are the essential skills the same as those required in free recall, paired associates, or any other well-analyzed cognitive task?