Activity as A Key Concept for Cultural Psychology
This paper articulates a concept of culture as practical, socially organized human activity. Culture is not simply shared conceptual understandings, as many cultural psychologists believe. The manner in which cultural activity organizes psychological functions is explored in detail. The reciprocal influence of psychological functions on culture is also described.
Key words: cultural psychology, activity, dialectics, praxis, social structure
Activity as A Key Concept for Cultural Psychology
A good deal of scholarship in cultural psychology construes culture as shared concepts and understandings of things. These social concepts are seen as molding psychological processes. From this perspective, both culture and psychological processes are mental. The relationship between culture and psychology is an interaction of mental processes. This viewpoint dominates works in cultural psychology such as Harre (1986), Kleinman & Good (1985), Lutz (1988), Shweder (1990), Shweder & LeVine (1984), Shweder & Sullivan (1993).
For example, in his defining paper "Cultural Psychology á-á What Is it?," Shweder (1990) places the search for meaning - or "intentionality" - at the core of culture. He says that "A sociocultural environment is an intentional world" (p. 2, 25, 26). Culture is essentially a world of meanings which humans bestow on things. This symbolic view of culture parallels Moscovici's (1984, 1988) idea of social representations which derives from Durkheim's (1915/1995) idea of collective representations.
The cultural psychologists cited above argue that collectively formed cultural meanings/concepts underlie psychological functions. For example the way we conceptualize or understand an event is said to determine our emotional reaction to it. We become angry because we interpret someone's action as deliberately intending harm. The interpretive concept "deliberate intention to harm" is a social construct. It is popularly accepted in Western society as a way to understand behavior. However, some societies lack this social concept. They interpret a harmful action as reflecting fate or god's will. In these societies harmful action is not regarded as the perpetrator's fault and it does not generate anger (cf. Evans-Pritchard, 1937/1977 for an example of such a society).
Cultural psychologists typically explain perception in similar terms: Perception of distance, size, weight, color, and motion depend upon cues whose significance is socially constructed. Cultures which have a different understanding of cues have different perceptual experiences. For example, Luria (1976) found that Uzbekistani peasants perceived certain colors as dissimilar (not classifiable together) whereas administrators and teachers perceived those colors as similar. Luria's explanation was that the two groups had a different conception of color. The peasants regarded color as intrinsically tied to objects whereas the teachers regarded color as an abstract property. The peasants perceived the color "pig's dung" as different from "cow's dung" because the two objects in which the colors inhered were different. The teachers abstracted the brown color from the objects and categorized the two shades of brown together.
Shweder & Bourne (1984) maintain that cultural concepts determine the manner in which people perceive an individual's personality. The Oriyas in India describe personality in concrete terms such as "he shouts curses at his neighbors," while Americans use context-free traits such as "she is aggressive." "The difference," Shweder & Bourne conclude, "has little to do with education,
literacy, socio-economic status or language. It seems to be a cultural phenomenon, and it is perhaps as a cultural phenomenon that we should try to understand it" (p. 187). The cultural phenomenon which explains the difference in personality attribution between Oriyas and Americans is the metaphors people use to think about things (p. 189). The Oriyas subscribe to a holistic, organic metaphor which construes people as bound to a definite context. This is why they perceive personality attributes as context-bound - "cursing a neighbor." Americans, in contrast, subscribe to an individualistic metaphor which regards people as monads apart from a context. For Americans, personality is a general attribute of the individual. It transcends contexts. This is why an American would regard someone as generally aggressive without further specification.
Cultural psychologists additionally maintain that memory of a past event is structured by the social meaning which the event has. Social definitions of events form templates which structure our recollection. Psychological dysfunctions are similarly organized by social concepts. Disorders depend upon people's understanding of misfortune, their expectations about receiving support and about resolving the misfortune, their sense of self and body image, and their ideas about coping with stress. All of these components of dysfunction are structured by social concepts (Ratner, 1991, pp. 264_278; Sass, 1992, pp. 355_373). Dreams also, according to Lakoff (1993), incorporate cultural values.
This mentalistic approach to cultural psychology has been vitally important for explaining the formative impact of cultural concepts on psychological phenomena. However, the mentalistic view overlooks other important aspects of culture which bear on psychological phenomena. Cultural psychologists generally do not discuss concrete social structures in which meanings are formed. These authors may believe that social structures condition concepts but they rarely articulate this fact. In the field of cultural psychology it is exceedingly rare to find a concrete discussion of culture which describes the principles of ownership, production, and distribution of resources; the class structure; the division of labor among activities; or the principles which govern action in specific social institutions. It is even less usual to find cultural psychologists connecting these features of a social system in a meaningful way to psychological phenomena (cf. Ratner, 1993 for examples of this failure). Concepts and psychological phenomena therefore appear to be divorced from practical matters. They seem to be unconditioned by social relationships, social dynamics, material, technological, and intellectual resources.
This is certainly the impression Shweder gives in his 1990 paper. While he recognizes that meanings become objectified in objects and behaviors, and that these objectifications have some impact on our psychology, he never discusses these objectifications in detail. He never mentions that meanings and their objectifications are influenced by particular forms of ownership and control of resources, power relations, rights and obligations, forms of government, or class structure. Nor does Shweder appreciate the fact that concepts have a social function in the sense that they aim at instigating and reinforcing practical, institutionalized behavior. Shweder is so preoccupied with the mental, symbolic, conceptual, intentional nature of human culture that he has little to say about the practical purposes, consequences, and conditioning of concepts.
The mentalistic view of culture appears in many of the recent articles in Culture and Psychology. Although Wertsch states on page 81 of the first volume that the fundamental goal of sociocultural research is to elucidate the relationship between human mental functioning and cultural, institutional, and historical settings, he and other authors provide little insight into this relationship. Highly abstract discussions about the interface of psychology, tools, and cultural contexts supplant specifics about particular social systems and the impact of their class structure, division of labor, forms of ownership, institutional practices, and cultural technologies on psychological processes. A case in point are the papers on emotion in vol. 1, pp. 227_298. None of these articles links emotions to social structures.
Holy (1990, p. 265) criticized this intellectualist orientation as follows: "Instead of conceptualizing culture as the `pattern of life within a community - the regularly recurring activities and material and social arrangements'...culture has increasingly become seen as an ideational system...This narrowing down of the concept of culture has been paralleled by a noticeable shift of interest in anthropology from social structure - the system of social relations or the system of action - to culture."
Thompson similarly chastises the symbolic conception of culture in the work of Clifford Geertz. Geertz, says Thompson
gives insufficient attention to problems of power and social conflict. Cultural phenomena are viewed above all as meaningful constructs, as symbolic forms...But cultural phenomena are also embedded in relations of power and conflict. Everyday utterances and actions, as well as more elaborate phenomena such as rituals, festivals, or works of art, are always produced or enacted in particular social-historical circumstances, by specific individuals drawing on certain resources and endowed with varying degrees of power and authority...Viewed in this way, cultural phenomena may be seen as expressing relations of power, as serving in specific circumstances to sustain or disruptrelations of power...The symbolic conception of culture, especially as elaborated in the writings of Geertz, fails to give sufficient attention to problems of power and conflict and, more generally, to the structured social contexts within which cultural phenomena are produced, transmitted and received (Thompson, 1990, p. 134_135).
The critique of the mentalistic tendency in cultural psychology is not meant to devalue this approach. Cultural psychologists of this persuasion are to be praised for correcting the prevailing bias in psychology which regards psychological phenomena as originating in intra-individual processes. Cultural psychologists are correct to emphasize that cultural concepts about things, people, and life in general stimulate and organize psychological phenomena. However, this is only one half of the story. These concepts are grounded in practical ideas about how to organize concrete social life.
The Importance of Practical Social Activity for Psychological Phenomena
Culture is more than shared concepts about the meaning of things. Culture also consists in the way people raise children, educate the populace, produce goods and services, make and enforce social policies. Culture also includes the distribution of rights, privileges, opportunities, obligations, and wealth among various groups of people. In addition, culture includes the division of labor which integrates or segregates various activities from each other (e.g., which integrates art and education with work, or which separates them into distinct domains). These aspects of culture surely affect people's psychology. They belong within the purview of cultural psychology. I would like to offer a revised conception of cultural psychology which includes the relationship between psychology, these important neglected aspects of culture, and cultural concepts.
The central principle of a revised cultural psychology is that psychological functions are formed as individuals engage in practical social activities. These practical social activities include owning, producing, and distributing goods; establishing families; educating; playing; governing; investigating and understanding the world; producing art; treating disease; adjudicating disputes; and constructing religion.
These actions are social in a number of important ways. Their modus operandi are planned and enacted by individuals in concert with one another. Durkheim expressed this collective quality of social life as follows:
Society is not a mere sum of individuals, but a system formed by their association representing a specific reality which has its own proper characteristics. Without doubt, collective life cannot be produced if the individual consciousnesses are not given; but this necessary condition is not sufficient. It is necessary further that these consciousnesses be associated, combined, and combined in a definite manner; it is from this combination that social life results and, in consequence, it is this combination which explains it. By aggregating, interpenetrating, fusing, the individual minds give birth to a being psychic if you will, but which constitutes a psychic individuality of a new kind. It is therefore in the nature of this individuality, not in that of its omponent units, that one must set about to search for the decisive and determining causes of the facts to which it gives rise. The group thinks, feels, and acts quite differently from the manner in which its members would act, were they isolated. If then one start from the latter, he cannot understand of what transpires in the group. In a word, there is in the case of psychology and sociology, the same break in continuity as between biology and the physico-chemical sciences. Accordingly, whenever a social phenomenon is directly explained by a psychological phenomenon, one may be sure that the explanation is false. (Durkheim, 1895/1938, p. 103-104)
Social actions are also socially sanctioned and enforced to minimize deviation from the social pattern (Durkheim, 1895/1938, pp. 1_13). Moreover, social actions are socially arranged into a particular division of labor (certain social systems integrate work with family life while other systems differentiate and contrast them). Activities in one field affect other domains so that a dynamic exists among sectors of the social structure. Social activities also command differential rewards, rights, obligations, and opportunities. Social activities are allocated to particular categories of people according to social decisions, criteria, and needs. Finally, social activities generally utilize instruments or tools which are social products and embody social concepts in their design.
What makes psychological phenomena cultural is not the simple fact that they are common to several individuals or stimulated by interpersonal interaction. Most important is the fact that psychological phenomena are grounded in practical activity that is organized in a particular, concrete social system. Accordingly, psychological phenomena such as attitudes, emotions, personality characteristics, perceptual outlooks, forms of reasoning and memory, needs, and motives all bear the stamp of particular economic, educational, political, religious, scientific, medical, and familial activities. Of course, certain activities are more central to certain psychological phenomena than others. Sorting out the particular cultural influences on particular phenomena is the task of cultural psychologists.
The dependence of psychological phenomena on practical social activity is known as praxis, or Tatigkeit in German, or deyatelnost in Russian. This concept has a long intellectual tradition. Marx and Engels developed it as a major principle of their materialistic world view. The premises from which Marx and Engels began their system are "real individuals, their activity, and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity" (Marx & Engels, 1946/1964, p. 31). Marx and Engels argued that forms of consciousness are grounded in particular social activities. Emphasizing the centrality of productive activities for consciousness, the authors stated: "men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter along with this...their thinking and the products of their thinking" (ibid., p. 38). Of course, non-economic activities, such as education and family interactions, also stimulate psychological phenomena. Marx and Engels criticized intellectualist views of consciousness which misconstrued mental phenomena as autonomous creations independent of practical activity.
Dewey similarly emphasized the importance of practical activity for psychological functions.
Apperceptive masses and associational tracts of necessity conform to the dominant activities. The occupations determine the chief modes of satisfaction, the standards of success and failure. Hence they furnish the working classifications and definitions of value; they control the desire processes. Moreover, they decide the sets of objects and relations that are important, and thereby provide the content or material of attention, and the qualities that are interestingly significant. The directions given to mental life thereby extend to emotional and intellectual characteristics. So fundamental and pervasive is the group of occupational activities that it affords the scheme or pattern of the structural organization of mental traits. Occupations integrate special elements into a functioning whole (Dewey, 1902, pp. 219_220).*
* Jost (1995) makes the case that Wittgenstein had a similarly practical view of psychology. According to Jost, Wittgenstein argued that the meaning of a psychological concept depends upon its functional role in society. Thus, Jost cites Wittgenstein's statement that "the concept of pain is characterized by its particular function in our life." Wittgenstein maintained that psychological concepts are defined in language_games, however language_games are not purely semeiotic. They are grounded in life activity. As Wittgenstein wrote, "the term 'language-game' is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life." Moreover, Wittgenstein recognized that life activity is collective behavior. Thus, socially organized activity is the impetus for language and psychological concepts.
Van der Merwe & Voestermans (1995, pp. 33_34) lend credence to Jost's interpretation. They, maintain that "the distinctive 'depth grammars' or sets of usage rules of our language-games result, according to Wittgenstein, from the various ways and forms of our experience of the world..."
Bourdieu has developed a theory of practice which similarly regards practical socially organized activity as the basis of mental functions. For example, the modern conception of art for art's sake is a product of the social organization of artistic activity as a specialized field which is differentiated from other fields such as work. "The constitution of art as art is inseparable from the constitution of a relatively autonomous artistic field" (Bourdieu, 1990, p. 113). Advances in natural science are likewise due to the fact that science is a social field which society at a particular historical moment has granted a high degree of autonomy to pursue its own questions. In other words, the independence of scientific thinking depends upon the social division of labor (Bourdieu, 1975, p. 36).
The conception of mental activity as inspired by practical social activity has also been espoused by Vygotsky, Luria, Leontiev, and other Russian and German psychologists. While these activity theorists are by no means unified in a single outlook (Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991, pp. 185-186, 289-292), they agree that --the social organization of an activity, and the cultural instruments which are utilized to carry it out, stimulate and organize psychological phenomena. (This common emphasis is the only aspect of activity that we shall consider here. Other principles of the doctrine are beyond the scope of our discussion.) Thus, Leontiev stated that "the structure of man's consciousness is linked in a regular way with the structure of his activity" (1981, p. 231; Leontiev, 1979). Luria expressed the thrust of activity theory in similar terms.
Cognitive processes (such as perception and memory, abstraction and generalization, reasoning and problem-solving) are not independent and unchanging `abilities' or `functions' of human consciousness; they are processes occurring in concrete, practical activities and are formed within the limits of this activity (Luria, 1971, p. 266).
As Minick shows in an excellent article, Vygotsky maintained that various activities such as science, schooling, art, and reading stimulate unique kinds of thinking. Activities do not express pre-formed, natural cognitive, emotional, or personality characteristics of the individual. On the contrary, artistic, literary, scientific, and educational activities generate psychological functions. The concrete social relations and cultural technologies that are germane to the activities organize the individual's psychological processes (Minick, 1990, p. 167).
Vygotsky showed the importance of activity in the child's psychological development. For example, in play, the child uses one object to represent another. The child wants to engage in adult activities with adult objects. Being incapable of adult activity, she finds substitutes which she can manage. In play activity, the child imagines that her objects have the same meaning as adults' objects despite their different physical form. In other words, the activity of play stimulates the separation of meaning from objects and the transposition of meaning from one object to another (Minick, 1990, pp. 175_177).*
Peeter Tulviste, an Estonian activity theorist, observes that activities such as science and art fundamentally shape the manner in which a person thinks about the moon, for example. Different activities require different types of psychological processes and give rise to them. At the same time, to the degree that earlier forms of activity, which fulfill some role in the culture, are preserved, the `old' types of thinking that correspond to them are preserved and continue to function (Tulviste, 1991, pp. 56_60, 69).
Mistry & Rogoff (1994, p. 140) apply activity theory to memory. They explain that memory processes are remembering skills which "develop for the purpose of solving practical problems and they are tied to the familiar tasks and practices in which remembering takes place." Memory is not a mechanical process which retrieves information according to natural mechanisms. Rather, "Remembering is an activity that is defined in terms of the meaning of a task and its materials to the people remembering, and in terms of its function in the social and cultural system" (ibid., p. 141)
* Vygotsky criticized Piaget for neglecting the impact of socially organized activity on the child's cognitive processes. When Piaget mentions the importance of social relations for cognitive development he only considers general social interactions rather than specific social activities. That is, Piaget speaks of the social need to share the thought of other people and how communication forces the child to reason logically. However, Piaget fails to specify the social organization of the Swiss kindergarten in contrast to the Russian kindergarten or in contrast to work activities which occupy the lives of unschooled children.
What is missing is the child's practical activity. This is fundamental. Even the socialization of the child's thinking is analyzed by Piaget outside the context of practice. It is isolated from [societal] reality and treated as the pure interaction or communication of minds. It is this kind of socialization which in Piaget's view leads to the development of thought... (Vygotsky, 1987, pp. 87-88)
Vygotsky counterpoised Lenin's view of the origins of logic to Piaget's. Lenin said, "Man's practice, repeated a billion times, anchors the figures of logic in his consciousness" (ibid., p. 88).
Activity theory is important to cultural psychology because it expands culture from being a realm of concepts to being activity which is organized in a specific social-technological system. It is this kind of activity which cultivates psychological phenomena. Activity theorists do not always adhere to this conception of activity. For example, in the foregoing examples, the activities of play, art, and science are mentioned in general terms with no indication that these activities and psychological functions are organized differently in feudal, capitalist, or hunting and gathering societies. The manner in which tools mediate psychological processes is also often described in general terms which overlook the technical and social features of particular instruments. This abstract approach to activity overlooks important origins and characteristics of psychological phenomena which derive from social-technological systems.
For all their emphasis on the sociohistorical origins of psychological functions, Vygotsky and Luria routinely failed to discuss specific social-technological systems in relation to psychology. For example, in his "Experimental Study of Concept Formation" Vygotsky stated that social life is important for the development of conceptual thinking in adolescence. However, instead of analyzing the social demands and activities that occur during adolescence, he postulated that a new abstract use of words during adolescence generates concept formation (Vygotsky, 1987, pp. 131, 160). Vygotsky never indicated the social basis for this new use of words. His social analysis thus reduced to a semeiotic analysis which overlooked the real world of social praxis.
Luria's report of cross-cultural research in Uzbekistan (Luria, 1976). similarly never mentions any societal reasons for the obtained psychological differences among the ethnic groups. Luria attributes these differences to divergent concepts of color, shape, and the self, but he does not ground the concepts or the psychological functions in a particular social system of practical activities.
On the other hand, research which does describe the concrete social organization of activity elucidates the cultural character of psychological phenomena. Such research demonstrates that personality traits of men and women derive their character from the activities which men and women carry out in society. Where gender roles are distinctive, masculine and feminine personality traits diverge accordingly. For example, the severe gender division of labor during Victorian times led many middle class urban men to become practical, ambitious, and assertive in many areas of life, while their female counterparts were generally diffident, indirect (suggestive), dependent, and solicitous. In societies where men and women engage in similar activities they share similar personality traits. Furthermore, when men engage in activities that a society typically allocates to women, they adopt the personality traits which are characteristic of women in that society (Ratner, 1991, p. 156_157, 214ª217; Whitehead, 1981).
Research has also identified societal bases of abstract and concrete thinking. Abstract thinking regards details apart from a specific context, whereas concrete thinking considers each detail as inseparably part of a particular context. Abstract thinking is fostered by commerce and formal education. Formal education is removed from everyday life and therefore encourages thinking that is removed from concrete action. Commerce proceeds by exchanging goods according to some criterion of their value. The value of goods is an abstraction from their concrete qualities. The value of flour, shoes, and wood which enables them to be equitably exchanged has nothing to do with their concrete properties or use. Commercial exchange thus motivates people to abstract features of things from their concrete substance. Societies where education is integrated with daily life, and where goods are directly consumed rather than being marketed and exchanged, foster thinking about things as concrete entities (Ratner, 1991, pp. 96-100).
Emotions are also constructed in, and sustain, cultural activities. We learn to cultivate and express different kinds of emotions in different activities such as interacting with family members or friends, studying in school, working, attending religious services. In our society it is appropriate to express anger with relatives or friends, however it is not appropriate at work. Stearns (1989, p. 249) reports that a deliberate effort was made by industrial managers to channel anger in conformity to bourgeois work norms: "Middle-class personnel specialists like Frederick Taylor or Elton Mayo were truly appalled by the amount of open anger they found among workers...They therefore amended their own original agendas...to build in explicit attempts to banish anger from the workplace." This deliberate social organization of anger established norms of emotional expression, rewards for complying with the norms and sanctions for disobeying. Emotional expression was also integrated into the power relations of work since managers remained free to express anger toward employees although the reverse was prohibited. Guilt was similarly organized by social activity. Guilt was discouraged by the social activity of consumerism. Stearns (1989, p. 252) explains that "The advent of new emphasis on consumerism, by the 1920's, played against continued stress on guilt, as the idea of pleasure gained approved recognition."
Jealousy is another emotion which reflects (and fortifies) cultural activities. Specifically, individual control of property, products, and people fosters possessiveness which is the basis of jealousy. Jealousy motivates us to maintain an exclusive relationship with things and people. It energizes us to combat threats to this exclusive relationship. In contrast, collective ownership and sharing minimize possessiveness and jealousy. Thus, jealousy is rare among the Nyinba people of Nepal who practice polyandry, where one woman marries all the brothers of another family. According to contemporary anthropological research (Levine, 1988; Ingoldsby, 1995), the brothers all have intimate relations with the common wife without any indication of jealousy. Jealousy would subvert this group marriage which is a functional adaptation to economic pressures. The land is unfertile and a great deal of labor is required to make it productive. Multiple husbands help in this regard. In addition, men are often away from home on trading expeditions, and the presence of other husbands provides the wife with continuing support. Group marriage also helps to reduce the birth rate in this resource-poor region, because one wife's pregnancy deprives several men of reproductive outlets. The emotional acceptance of multiple intimate relationships fortifies the family practice of polyandry which is functional to the Nyinba's economic system. By extension, activities in any sphere of life which require sharing of resources would preclude jealousy from forming in that field.
Even universal emotions such as sadness are organized differently in different cultural activities. According to Obeyesekere (1985), sadness in Sri Lanka is dealt with in Buddhist religious institutions. Rites, rituals, religious authority figures, and group sanctions on thinking, feeling, and acting all determine the way sadness is experienced. Buddhism accepts the fact of suffering and sorrow as everyone's common fate. Hopelessness is therefore usual, expected, understood, and shared. Actually, Buddhist religious customs construe sadness as ennobling because it testifies that one is an ordinary person who is afflicted by the common problems of life. Buddhism also provides social rituals of meditation for overcoming sorrow. All of these Buddhist religious practices attenuate sadness and prevent its degeneration into morbid depression. Sadness in Western societies has a very different quality because of its different social organization. Western sadness is normally a solitary experience outside organized cultural activity. Western sadness is a deviant condition which contradicts our optimistic, pleasure-oriented value system. Sadness also impedes dynamic, achieving behavior which is central to our society. As a solitary, deviant state, sadness is an unintelligible, free-floating, seemingly interminable experience. As such it readily culminates in clinical depression.
I maintain that unawareness, or unconsciousness, is also a function of social activity. In a recent publication (Ratner, 1994), I explained unconsciousness as caused by certain social values that emanate from cultural practices. Particular social values structure perception in a manner which prevents noticing certain aspects of self and other people. I analyzed a subject who was unaware of various flaws in his character. His unawareness stemmed, in part, from having adopted competitive values which led to perceiving himself as superior to others. Conceiving and perceiving himself is a superior person blinded him to his weaknesses. The competitive values which structured his cognition and perception are grounded in our society's prevalent competitive activities. Competitive practices were therefore the ultimate source of his unconsciousness.
Bourdieu similarly recognized the social basis of unconsciousness. He noted the insidious fact that the social activities of --most societies generate concepts which mystify social reality. Bourdieu (1980/1990, p. 122) stated this incisively when he said, "the acts of cognition that are implied in misrecognition...are part of social reality, and the socially constituted subjectivity that produces them [also] belongs to objective [social] reality." Bourdieu states that class societies are especially prone to producing mystifying concepts. When social activity is organized in such a way as to disproportionately allocate ownership and control of resources as well as wealth, status, political power, access to education, health care, and entertainment to a small group of individuals, the social concepts which emanate from this structure impede veridical understanding of social phenomena. In a trenchant statement Bourdieu said, "misrecognition of the reality of class relations is an integral part of the reality of those relations" (Bourdieu, 1980/1990, p. 136).
Bourdieu's position draws on Marx's social explanation of mystifying concepts. In The German Ideology, Marx & Engels (1846/1964, p. 37) stated that, "If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-processes as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-processes." Marx pursued this analysis in his analysis of reification. He said that the tendency to reify human activities - to misconstrue them as inhuman, natural, fixed processes and products - is rooted in the exchange of commodities. In commercial exchange, the value of products is primary. Humans are defined in terms of the value of products they exchange. Even the laborer himself is measured as value. Human qualities are therefore subordinated to abstract, quantitative value. When humans are regarded as bearers of value they are interchangeable with things and the human element is obscured. The exchange of values appears to take on a life of its own independent of humans. Reifying human phenomena as autonomous, natural things is therefore caused by the nature of bourgeois economic activity (Rubin, 1928/1972).
If mystifying concepts are rooted in social practice, they can only be eliminated if social practice is transformed. As Marx put it, "The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions" (Marx, 1844/1975, p. 176).
The foregoing examples illustrate the point that psychological phenomena have a basis in concrete, practical social activity. They are formed as people participate in social activities, they embody features of this activity, and they normally reinforce this activity. Social activity profoundly structures psychological phenomena.*
* Activity changes the quality of psychological phenomena so profoundly that they become localized in different regions of the cortex depending upon which activity they are associated with. Visuospatial perception, which is normally localized in the right hemisphere, is allocated to the left hemisphere of deaf people who use sign language. The reason appears to be that individuals with normal hearing differentiate the activity of visuospatial perception from language and they process the two in different hemispheres. However deaf people utilize visuospatial perception in their sign language activity and therefore represent both of them together in the left hemisphere language centers (Ratner, 1991, p. 232).
A similar difference in localization is found among Japanese and Americans. Tsunoda (1979) discovered that vowels are localized in the non-verbal right hemisphere of Western brains, while they are localized in the verbal left hemisphere of Japanese brains. The same difference in localization obtains for humming, laughter, cries, sighs, sounds made by animals and insects, and traditional Japanese instrumental music. These are all localized in the right hemisphere of Westerners and the left hemisphere of Japanese. That these effects are cultural rather than genetic is demonstrated by the fact that Americans brought up in Japan evidence the Japanese pattern.
Leontiev (1979, p. 67_68) was therefore correct in stating that brain mechanisms and functions are a product of objective activity.
The Concrete Social Character of Psychological Phenomena
Being formed in the crucible of cultural activities imbues psychological phenomena with a specific, concrete quality. Sadness, shame, anger, love, sexuality, perception, memory, reasoning, self-concept, and psychological dysfunctions are mediated and modulated by cultural activities in a manner that will be described below. They are not abstract universals. Sadness is not simply dysphoria; it has a concrete quality which varies with cultural activity. Sadness can be expected, accepted, and ennobling or it can be unexpected, dreaded, and incapacitating. Likewise, worry can be a cognitive preoccupation where thoughts involuntarily recur in the mind, or it can be a weak feeling in the heart with no cognitive representation. Memory is not simply the retrieval of stored information; it retrieves certain kinds of information in certain kinds of ways in certain kinds of situations. Homosexuality in ancient Greece, among 18th century is American Indians, and contemporary Western men is a substantially different social psychological phenomenon (Whitehead, 1981). Cultural psychologists identify the concrete cultural qualities which other psychological approaches overlook.*
Where psychologists use general terms such as avoiding conflict, cultural psychologists would identify the specific social concepts which lead people to maintain harmony. People may genuinely wish to please other people; they may construe conflict as dangerous or shameful; they may believe that conflict will not solve problems so it is pointless to struggle; or they may value muted, indirect expression of opinion which prevents clashes. These different reasons for avoiding conflict imbue that behavior with quite different psychological qualities and significance. A cultural psychologist would want to understand the particular motives, values, fears, and expectations which avoiding conflict represented. Similarly, the general term stubbornness conceals various psychological phenomena which reflect diverse cultural values. Individuals may be stubborn as a way of preserving their independence from other people's influence, or because they believe their position is morally justified and should not be compromised, or because the conditions which they hold for changing their view - such as equal change from another person - have not been met.
* Fabrega, et al. (1988, p. 155) describe the manner in which numerous asocial viewpoints overlook the cultural character of psychological dysfunction:
The phenomenological, psychoanalytic, behavioristic, and biologistic psychiatrist all proceed as "deculturating agents." They reduce the personalized and culturally contextualized behavioral data of personal illness to categories and rubrics that leave out the cultural colorations of the patient's account...Thus the phenomenologist searches for such things as changes in form and structure of experience; the psychoanalyst for expressions of unconscious conflicts, ego-defense profile, impulse control; the behaviorist for stimuli acting as reinforcers and for types of reinforcing schedule that promote maladaptive behavior; and the biologist for any of the preceding plus aspects of behavior that reflect...brain functions.
Cultural psychologists want to elucidate the concrete cultural psychology of stubbornness.
Abstract social psychological terms conceal culturally specific values and psychological processes (cf. Williams, 1977, pp. 136_137).*
Bourdieu, et al. (1990, pp. 16, 19) articulate the contrast between conventional abstract descriptions of experience and culturally concrete descriptions. In discussing photography, Bourdieu rejects the abstract view that photography expresses feelings, self-realization, and holding onto time by reliving past moments. Reducing photography to universal, natural, abstract motives obscures the fact that people's choices of photographic instruments, objects to photograph, occasions on which to take pictures, the meaning that taking and looking at photos has, and the satisfaction it produces are all conditioned by social values associated with a particular socioeconomic class.**
* The cultural specificity of psychological phenomena poses a serious difficulty for translation. Catherine Lutz describes the incommensurability between emotion terms in English and the Ifaluk people of New Guinea:
While the Ifaluk term song may be translated as "anger," because the scenarios that both song and "anger" evoke and the uses to which the terms are put in social interaction show some broad similarities, the scenes each call forth are at variance in important ways. In particular, the term song evokes in the Ifaluk listener a much more vivid and unambiguous scene of moral transgression on the part of one person and of moral condemnation of that violation by the person who is song (Lutz, 1988, p. 10; cf. Phillips, 1959)
** Mauro, Sato, & Tucker (1992) reduced emotions to abstract cognitive appraisals with same unfortunate result. The authors sought to determine the cognitive appraisals which underlie common emotions in diverse cultures. The cognitive appraisals included: how much attention one pays to a situation, how predictable a situation is, how certain one is about coping with it, how much effort one believes must be expended in the situation, how pleasant it is, the extent to which someone else controls the situation, as well as its importance, difficulty, and fairness. The researchers assessed the extent to which any of these cognitions are associated with 16 emotions in the United States, Hong Kong, Japan, and China.
These cognitions are abstract in the sense that they are contentless. They ignore what is pleasurable about a situation, the manner in which one copes with a situation, and the ways in which a situation is predictable, important, difficult, or fair. The pleasantness of winning an intense athletic contest is quite different from the pleasantness one feels admiring a beautiful art work. These different qualities of pleasantness are central to emotions yet they are not considered by the authors.
The authors reduce emotions to combinations of abstract, contentless appraisals. They found, for example, that anger is generated by assessing a situation as highly unpleasant, unpredictable and unintelligible, controlled by someone else, demanding effort but not attention, and being minimally fair (Mauro, et al., p. 309, table 7). However, these abstractions do not add up to concrete anger. What is central to anger is the appraisal that someone intentionally harms a victim and could have acted otherwise. Interpreting someone's action in terms of this culturally constructed belief in personal volition and responsibility is what moves us to become angry (Ratner, 1991, pp. 77_79). This concrete belief about the motives of an act cannot be replaced by abstract assessments of the unpredictability, unpleasantness, and unfairness of behavior.
Activity theorists argue that social activity not only determines the content of psychological phenomena. Activity also conditions the particular areas (or fields) of life in which a psychological phenomenon is employed (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, pp. 94-114; Bourdieu, 1993a, pp. 72-77; Anheier, et al., 1995). The emotions, motives, needs, personality traits, and cognitive processes associated with family life may be quite different from those associated with work. Psychological phenomena are not necessarily employed homogeneously throughout all domains of life. Vygotsky, Levy-Bruhl, and Michael Cole emphasized this "heterogeneity of thought." Syllogistic reasoning and rote memorization may be taught in school but may have little applicability outside that domain. Psychological phenomena will be generalized to the extent that one activity is continued in several social fields. Thus, if jobs demand syllogistic reasoning or rote memorization then academic skills which were developed at school will generalize to work.
A phenomenon that does occur in several social fields may be modulated by the specific activities in those domains. For example, while people in diverse social fields may all acquire some mathematical competence, the particular features of the diverse social activities will introduce variations into it. Oksapmin peasants have limited mathematical skills. They can add but not subtract. Oksapmin traders, on the other hand, are equally adept at both mathematical operations. Their commercial activity spurs them to learn reversibility of mathematical operations whereas the peasants' life activity does not. In the same vein, villagers in Liberia and New Guinea who are normally quite inexact about measurement and quantification evidence precise quantitative concepts and calculation in commercial transactions (Ratner, 1991, pp. 98_103, 109_111).
Cultural psychology emphasizes the particular psychological quality, or character, that is associated with particular cultural activities. General, abstract descriptions of phenomena obscure their dependence on specific activity.
The Dialectical Relationship between Activity and Psychology
To truly understand the dependence of psychological phenomena on social activity it is necessary to delineate the process by which activity forms psychology. This formative process reveals the specific aspects of activity which engender psychology. The formative process also illuminates the full, reciprocal relationship between activity and psychology.
Social activity forms psychological in various ways at different stages of social life. The first stage involves imagining and planning social activities.* Limited by intellectual, physical, and social resources, individuals collectively devise new strategies about how to work, learn, distribute goods, relax, raise children, treat disease, settle disputes, and form governments. These concepts tentatively specify how behavior in each domain is to occur, what qualifications shall be necessary for entering and becoming a leader in each field, the style(s) of leadership that shall predominate (e.g., democratic or authoritarian), the differentiation or integration of activities with one another, the rewards bestowed upon various behaviors, and the manner in which humans and nature shall be understood, valued, and treated. The struggle to formulate these concepts calls into play supporting perceptions, emotions, motives, imagination, personality traits, forms of reasoning and memory, self-concept, and language. The new social concepts and their corresponding novel perceptions, emotions, reasoning, memory, etc. all form a psychological system which is ultimately geared toward practical activity.
Within this psychological system, concepts are the key element. They are the common ground of activity and psychological phenomena. On one side, concepts articulate the manner in which objects, events, people, and behavior are socially organized. On the other side, concepts guide emotions, logical reasoning, perception of how things appear, motives and needs, how and what we remember, and the kind of personality attributes we have. Vygotsky (1931/1991, p. 88) noted the mediating function of concepts between activity and psychology. He said, life problems "lead to the development of the central and leading function of all mental development, to the formation of concepts, and on the basis of the formation of concepts a series of completely new mental functions arises; perception, memory, attention, [etc.] are reconstructed on this new basis [and] they are united in a new structure" (cf. Ratner, 1991, 1994).
Bourdieu's concept of the habitus echoes Vygotsky's formulation. Bourdieu states that a socially constituted set of understandings guide perception, thinking, emotions, motives, needs, imagination, and behavior. The socially constituted set of understandings which form the core of our cultural psychology is called a habitus, a term which Bourdieu borrowed from Marcel Mauss. In Bourdieu's words, the habitus is a socially structured, structuring, structure: It is a structure of understandings about the nature of things which structures psychological phenomena and which is itself structured by social practices. The habitus is a social product in that its dispositions are durably inculcated by the possibilities and impossibilities, freedoms and necessities, opportunities and prohibitions inscribed in the objective conditions (Bourdieu, 1977, chap. 2; 1990a, pp. 76_86; 1990b, chap. 3).
* In a famous phrase, Marx stated that human labor is pre-figured in the mind, in contrast to animal behavior which is directly produced by biological mechanisms: "what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality...He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own..." (Marx, 1887/1961, p. 178).
To reiterate, in the conceptual, planning stage of social life, practical ideas about how to socially organize behavior and how to understand people and nature, provide an impetus to psychological phenomena. People do not randomly construct or reconstruct their personalities, emotions, needs, perceptions, and ways of reasoning. They do so in order to devise and maintain practical social activities. Cultural psychologists are correct to emphasize that concepts about things, people, and life in general stimulate and organize psychological phenomena. However, this is only one half of the story. These concepts are grounded in practical ideas about how to organize concrete social life.
As an impetus for psychological phenomena, social activity is a cause in Aristotle's sense of a "final cause." Social activity causes psychological phenomena in the sense of eliciting them and being their objective or raison d'etre (cf. Ratner, 1991, p. 30). As a final cause, social activity is an end-point or objective, not an established factor. The forward moving development of activity draws psychological phenomena into existence. A final cause is a cause from the future in the sense that it's forward movement elicits psychological phenomena.
Once social activities are institutionalized as normative practices, another phase of social life is reached and the relation between activity and psychology alters somewhat. In contrast to the purely conceptual structuring which occurs in the planning stage of social life, institutionalized activity brings the weight of normative practices, power relations, laws, policies, rewards and punishments, opportunities, as well as styles of architecture, modes of transportation, the arrangement of physical space, and plentiful models of appropriate psychological reactions to structure psychological phenomena. We have seen above that business managers controlled the emotional reactions of employees, and that advertisements modelled guilt-free, impulsive, hedonistic, behavior.
The shaping of psychology by established institutions is much firmer and deeper than the shaping by incipient concepts that occurs in the planning stage of social life. In the preparatory stage, when cultural activities are envisioned but not yet implemented, the incipient motives, perceptions, needs, thinking and memory processes are rudimentary and entative. In the later stage, these phenomena are more articulated and substantial. (Motives, personality traits, emotions, needs, and perceptions which individuals envision but fail to institutionalize in practical, organized, social activity remain ineffable, unstable inclinations. For example, parents' wishes that children be more motivated, considerate, logical, self-controlled, or self-confident are vapid unless they are linked to reforms in educational, familial, and economic activity.) Psychological phenomena also become taken for granted because institutionalized social activity becomes taken for granted as an obdurate reality. Institutionalized activity does not replace the conceptual structuring of psychology. It supplements this structuring. Institutionalized activity continues to generate conceptual bases for psychological phenomena in the form of instructions, exhortations, and explanations. However, these are supplemented and substantiated by an entire way of life.
While activity forms psychology in the foregoing ways, psychological phenomena should not be construed as passive by-products of activity. Psychology is a dynamic member in its relationship with activity. In the conceptual, planning phase of social activity, activity is not yet developed and its development requires sustenance from the psychological phenomena it elicits. Consequently, the psychological phenomena which activity elicits reciprocally contribute to activity. Activity could not become institutionalized unless it was buttressed by new personality traits, emotions, needs, motives, perceptual, reasoning, and memory processes. Cultural activity does not become fully formed and then engender psychological phenomena. There is no full blown economic, political, educational, scientific, or religious activity devoid of thinking, feeling, perceiving, intention, and motivation. As Marx and Engels said, material production develops along with thinking and products of thinking.
After activity has been institutionalized, psychological phenomena continue to contribute to it. Phenomena are a protective force which stabilize activity against change. Established psychological phenomena provide subjective motives, needs, perceptions, emotions, reasoning, and personality traits which perpetuate existing cultural activities (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p. 140; Thompson, 1990, pp. 137_153).
Psychological phenomena contribute to cultural activity in yet another way: They may galvanize new social activity. Needs for success or recognition, emotions such as frustration, disappointment, anger, jealousy, and pride, as well as beliefs in patriotism and equality can spur people to conceptualize and institute new cultural activities.
The relationship between activity and psychology is similar (though not identical) to that between language and thought. The goal of communicating through language spurs the formation of rudimentary ideas. In this sense, language is a final cause of thinking. Furthermore, once a linguistic system becomes formalized, it solidifies rudimentary ideas. (Ideas which are not objectified in language are rudimentary, indefinite, and unstable. Cf. Ratner, 1991, pp. 36_37). At that point, formalized language acts as an efficient cause in shaping future ideas. Conversely, language is envisioned by thoughts (however inchoate they may be). Furthermore, it can only be developed if thoughts become more definite. Thus, while language causes thought, it is reciprocally formed by thought.
The interdependence and reciprocal influence of language thought, and activity and psychological phenomena is a dialectical relationship. From a dialectical perspective, activity and psychological phenomena are interdependent, interpenetrating moments of one relation. They are elements of a common unity. They are not separate, independent factors which "interact." Rather each bears the other inside itself and its quality is affected by the other. This dialectical relation is called an internal relation or a qualitative relation because the quality of each moment depends upon the quality of the others. As one moment changes, the other does also.
This dialectical conceptualization was advanced most powerfully by Hegel. Dewey also advocated it in his early writings. In psychology, Kurt Lewin (1935) espoused dialectics under the term "Galilean" thinking which he contrasted to the "Aristotelian" concept of independent phenomena possessing endemic, fixed properties. Ollman (1993, p. 12) provides a useful contemporary explanation of dialectics: "Unlike non-dialectical research, where one starts with some small part and through establishing its connections tries to reconstruct the larger whole, dialectical research begins with the whole, the system, or as much of it as one understands, and then proceeds to an examination of the part to see where it fits and how it functions, leading eventually to a fuller understanding of the whole from which one has begun."
Cultural activity and psychological phenomena depend upon and sustain one another. There is no sharp division between them because they are intertwined together. The relationship is like a spiral where each passes into and builds on the other. Psychological phenomena are the subjective processes of practical cultural activity, and cultural activity is the practical, objectified side of psychological phenomena which comprises organized social life. In this relationship, practical activity may be the more important moment because it inspires and organizes psychological phenomena. However, activity is never divorced from psychological phenomena.
Construing psychological phenomena and cultural activity as inherently related means that emphasizing one of these moments is incomplete. Foregrounding one moment only means that the other falls into the background; it does not cease to exist. We may choose to abstract out and scrutinize one or another moment. However, we should not deceive ourselves into believing that it exists as an independent factor.
Although activity and psychology are integrally related, divergence between them is also inevitable. The dialectical conception of unity is a differentiated unity of distinct moments. The contradiction between integrally related distinct moments produces a dynamic between them in which each can change the other.
One such contradiction occurs when cultural activities fail to fulfill culturally formed psychological needs, expectations, motives, reasoning, self-concept, and personality traits. To take a simplified example, economic deterioration contradicts peoples' desires (for success), their needs (e.g., for consumer products), their self-concept (which is dependent on owning these products in order to feel adequate), their memories (of better times), and their logical reasoning ("I work hard but get nowhere. This doesn't make sense"). This violation of psychological phenomena may stimulate people to formulate new concepts about more satisfying social activities. In this case, psychological phenomena would galvanize new social concepts which would institutionalize new activity. (Of course, people may respond quite differently. Their individualistic self-concept may lead them to simply try harder to succeed on their own rather than think about new social activities. Their logical reasoning may lead to the conclusion that the current economic crisis is part of an economic cycle which will shortly reverse direction. Or people may reason that other social formations have been tried and failed so there is no point considering alternative social activities.
Another case where activity and psychology contradict each other is when cultural concepts and corresponding psychological phenomena are uncoupled from one social activity and are transported into another activity. The displaced psychological phenomena have the power to alter the field of activity which they enter. For instance, in friendships and family activities, people may adopt the values, needs, motives, perceptions, reasoning, self-concept, and impulsiveness which are characteristic of economic consumerism. Christians may similarly corrupt their religious principles by adopting economic values of materialism, competition, and immediate gratification. Artistic concepts of space and color may draw on economic and scientific concepts. Conversely, individuals may extend compassion, patience, altruism, and honesty from family into business; or they may incorporate artistic sensitivity into designing work settings. Romantic needs and fantasies may alter the tenor of work or education.
While some transportation of psychological phenomena from one social field to another may be spontaneous, much of it is instigated by pressure groups who induce the populace to comply. These groups realize that psychological phenomena influence social activity and they promulgate psychological phenomena as a means of transforming social activities in various fields. For example, business managers use advertising and the media which they control to promote commercial motives, needs, values, reasoning, perceptions, emotions, and personality traits throughout society. Once people's psychology has been transformed, their activity in numerous social fields will become more commercial. Leach (1993) has demonstrated how corporate capitalists systematically propagandized the spirit of consumerism (which included narcissism, materialism, and hedonism) into diverse social fields. "From the 1890's on, American corporate business, in league with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition..." (p. xiii). This culture was not spontaneously produced by the populace. "Indeed, the culture of consumer capitalism may have been among the most nonconsensual public cultures ever created...It was not produced by `the people' but by commercial groups in cooperation with other elites comfortable with and committed to ... accumulating capital on an ever-ascending scale" (p. xv).
Our integration of activity into cultural psychology has several advantages.
1) It clarifies what culture is. Culture is neither a vague, abstract "social context", nor is it merely shared semeiotic or symbolic processes. Culture includes social concepts but also concrete social institutions which are arranged in a division of labor and governed by definite principles of behavior, forms of control and power, allocation of opportunities, rewards and punishments. 2) Our formulation articulates the process by which social activity generates psychological phenomena. Activity acts as a final cause and as an efficient cause of psychology. It produces concepts which stimulate and organize psychological phenomena; it also becomes institutionalized as structured, normative behaviors which force psychological phenomena to take on certain characteristics as a matter of course.
3) The dialectical formulation of cultural psychology recognizes the reciprocal effect that psychological phenomena have on social activity.
4) The dialectical notion of activity emphasizes the human construction of social systems and institutions. Our formulation acknowledges the institutionalizing of social life as well as the fact that it is institutionalized. We avoid reifying social structures and institutions as lifeless entities which mechanically determine individuals' psychology. We explain the origin of social institutions instead of positing them as given.*
5) Our dialectical formulation recognizes the ability of people to alter their culture and psychology. Acknowledging that people construct their psychology by constructing their social activity grants them the power to alter their psychology by transforming their social activity. The intellectualist view of cultural psychology leads to championing psychological change apart from socio-economic-political change. In this view, psychological change can be accomplished by simply changing one's concepts or outlook. There is no need to alter social institutions or conditions since these are unrelated to cultural psychological phenomena.
6) Our formulation of cultural psychology integrates human agency, mind, behavior, and culture. All of these factors are construed as qualitatively related in the sense that their qualities interpenetrate and form common ties. Social activity is in psychological phenomena and psychological phenomena are in practical social activity. Culture is institutionalized practical behavior but it is also concepts and values, psychological phenomena, and human purpose. Similarly, psychological phenomena comprise a distinctive realm of diverse modalities (feelings, perceptions, thoughts, recollections, needs), yet they are also conceptual "and they are shaped by and promote practical social activity. Activity and psychological phenomena are different forms of a common medium; they are not separate entities. Their unity is what accounts for their ability to affect each other. They influence each other through their common medium.
7) Our formulation recognizes the differences between practical social activity, concepts, and psychological phenomena. This irreducibility of one to another means that they have different functions, differential importance at different times, and require distinctive analyses. Yet the differences are not absolute and must be construed dialectically as differences-in-unity.
* Marx's writings are valuable for trenchantly analyzing institutionalized social institutions without reifiying them. Marx recognized that economic production is initiated, planned, and regulated by human consciousness. He said that, "labor is, in the first place, a process in which both man and nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and nature" ((Marx, 1887/1961, p. 177).
I would like to thank Jaan Valsiner and Bonnie Nardi for their valuable comments on an earlier draft of this paper. The opinions of reviewers solicited by Culture And Psychology were also helpful. Several ideas in this paper were refined while the author was in the Netherlands courtesy of a grant B56-416 from the Dutch NWO. Finally, I am grateful to the participants of the Symbolic Systems seminar at Stanford University who read and discussed this paper.
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