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László Garai Theoretical Psychology Vygotskian Writings Теоретическая психология Выготскианские тексты contents

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The Principle of Social Relations and the Principle of Activity2

Discussion of whether external factors or internal genetic factors determine progress in a person’s mental development runs like a red herring throughout the history of psychology.

In foreign, especially American, psychology of the ‘40s and ‘50s, when behaviorism reigned, it seemed that the environmentalists had finally carried the day. The mid-’60s, however, witnessed a revival of nativist ideas, which seeped through the logical “cracks” in the theory of learning. For example, Miller counted how many reinforcements would be necessary to shield all possible correct propositions 2-60 words long from grammatical errors. It was found that a person would need 103 reinforcements per second throughout his life to acquire, through training techniques, the competence to speak correctly in terms of grammar.

Continuing in the same vein, Chomsky concluded that a person must acquire competence “on the basis of the finite and random experience associated with language to reproduce and understand an infinite number of new propositions” [34. P. 7]. This competence is a language acquisition device that itself is not acquired, but innate.2

Chomsky’s ideas spread rapidly, as did the ideas propounded somewhat later by Jensen [43], who found that the IQs of children were correlated so closely with the IQs of their parents that 80% of intelligence could be considered hereditary. Since this correlation is the same for blacks and for whites, the proponents of these ideas postulated that the 15%-20% difference in favor of whites found between the IQs of the two populations must be explained by differences in hereditary factors, not by different living and learning conditions.

The resurgence of nativism has not been as prominent in the specialized literature of the socialist countries. Nevertheless, a similar shift in emphasis is evident in the latest revival of the two-factor theory (see, for example, [18]; see also the critique of this theory by Luria [19]). This theory counterposes an innate biological factor not to external influences in general, but only to the external influences of the “social environment.”

The inconsistency of the concept of “social environment”

In the scientific literature the “social environment” is interpreted either as a factor mediating the relationship between a person’s internal and external worlds or as a special part of the external world. When it is seen as a mediating link, the “social environment” serves as a concrete vehicle of general sociocultural (in particular, speech) experience. The social environment viewed in this way is often identified with a person’s “microclimate” (for the child this is the narrow circle of close adults), and serves as a model for the person, who becomes like it through imitation or other forms of social learning.

According to the postulates of general psychology, objects stand counterposed to the person. Their interaction, through which the person learns, can be mediated by another person, through his messages and instructions. If as a result of successful learning the messages and instructions of the teacher have been assimilated by the learner, the teacher can be excluded from the situation.

Child psychologists (W. Pryer, W. Stern) and linguists concerned with the learning of speech and language (A. I. Gvozdev [6]) have pointed out that sentences that cannot be acquired by a child without the intervention of an adult because their meaning changes in the very act of “assimilation” are also exceptions. These are turns of phrase containing what, in the Anglo-Saxon literature on linguistics, is called a shifter, or in French, a deictique (e.g., a personal pronoun). According to the observations of these authors, if a child learns these phrases or locutions in same way as he learns those that are based on the name objects, he will, for a time, apply the personal pronouns your, etc., to himself and, correspondingly, the first personal pronouns to other people. Some authors (A. I. Gvozdev and others) have observed that in addition to personal pronouns, are other key words that function in the same way: a child for example, use the expression Take! in a way that is contrary to its meaning, i.e., meaning give when he asks for an object.

In our opinion, such relations in a discursive situation are not the exception, but the rule.

Following French linguists and psycholinguists [28] (see their psychogenetic interpretation in Bruner [31]), we us term discourse to refer to a kind of communication in which the statements of each of the interlocutors are determined position they occupy in a social structure, not just by the o about which they are speaking. The primary function of the symbols used in discourse as such is not labeling objects, but categorizing people with respect to the particular social situation correspondingly, categorizing social situations with respect to the particular person.

The concept of discourse enables us to analyze speech sequences that would be absurd without it (for example, “This is mine?”-”No, it is mine.”). Compare this, for instance, with meaningless sequences of a nondiscursive nature: “This is a table?”-”No, this is a table.” In the first sequence, in contrast to the second, the positions occupied by the interlocutors social structure must be taken into account. Hence, the other (teaching) person is not eliminated in the process of learning speech even after it has been completed since he is the vehicle of that conjugate position that thereafter must be taken into account.

The concept of “social environment” is often used in the sense of a unique part of the external world, as in the terminology of behaviorism. This interpretation3 is fashionable in the literature and is gaining currency in our countries as although it suffers from an irreparable defect. To be sure, this defect is latent because by “society” the totality of individuals is meant. In such a conception, a “particular person” (or at least a subjective factor) and “other people” representing his “objective” social environment can be distinguished from one another; we can then study how the person adapts to the social environment or how he manipulates it through social skills through social learning.

Such questions are common to all theories of learning regardless of whether it is objects interacting with an individual subject e as the elements in the environment or whether the latter are human beings.

However, this latent defect in interpreting the social environment as part of the external world immediately becomes patent as IS we begin to regard ‘society” not as a totality of individuals but as a totality of relations among them (Marx). Then, even applied to the simplest relations (for example, of the type Is power over B”), the question of whether they are part of the internal or the external world of the particular person loses its g. If this is not taken into account and an attempt is made to situate social relations in either the internal world or the external world, we end up with a logical confusion of the type that, for example, from the following statement by Tajfel and co-authors: “Intergroup behavior is possible only if one first a the aspect of the social environment that is important particular relation, using any social criterion for demarcating from `them,’ the in-group from the out-group” [51. P. 151].

According to the authors of this statement, social categorization is done by the “I” of the given person; and since the “I” is .y part of the group “we,” which the above postulate situates in the environment, i.e., the external world, we find that the “I,” being part of a part of its external environment, is outside itself (see L. Garai [41]).

Adhering to the concept “social environment” has hindered the potential development of contemporary currents in psychology, particularly the theory of social categorization discussed above (see [29,30,47,49,50,51,52] and, especially, [48], in which the latest achievements are summarized), which stresses not individuals, but the relations among them. These contemporary currents are attempting, whether they realize it or not, to offer a new approach to the old problem we have outlined above. We have indicated how nativism emerges from the inability of environmentalism to explain mental development (in particular, in the child’s development of speech).4

Theories that define society as a totality of relations can help to rescue psychological interpretations from the closed circle of “nativism or environmentalism.” These theories go beyond the general logic of opposites according to which all that is not present a priori in the individual organism comes from without and all that is not assimilated from the external environment necessarily is latent within. If a social relation is part of neither a person’s internal nor external world, the mental product that results from such a relation cannot, in the strict sense, be attributed either to external factors (and learning) or to internal, genetic factors (and maturation).

Let us clarify this with an example. In socialization a child must adapt not to society in general, but to a specific social structure, let us say, to a two-child family. But the structure of a two-child family is created by the fact that the child became the second child in it. His existence and the concrete events of this existence define the concrete tasks of socialization. For example, the task of “defending oneself” against the jealousy of a brother two years older would not arise if the child himself did not provoke that jealousy (even if only by the fact of his very existence). But to be, for example, a second child, or to be a child of the same sex as the older sib, is neither an internal genetic property nor an external stimulus. Since an attainment in mental development can be determined by the very fact of being, for instance, a second child of the same sex as the first child in the family, it cannot be considered as being present from the outset or as being the result of acquisition.

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