Carl Ratner

SUMMARY: This paper compares the contributions of phenomenology and Vygotsky's sociohistorical psychology to research methodology. An integration of the two approaches is attempted which combines the strengths of each. Phenomenology is valuable for illuminating individual intentionality, however this intentionality bears a cultural character which is only brought to light under the direction of sociohistorical psychology. Case studies are examined to exemplify these points.

Social approaches to psychology and phenomenology cry out for a rapprochement on the level of theory and research methodology. In this paper I am concerned with the contributions that both make to research. As a representative of a social approach I shall use sociohistorical psychology which was elaborated by Vygotsky and Luria, and has been extended by myself in a recent book, Vygotsky's Sociohistorical Psychology and Its Contemporary Applications.

Tenets Of Sociohistorical Psychology

Perhaps the most basic tenet of sociohistorical psychology is that psychological functions are quintessentially social in nature. The social nature of psychological phenomena consists in the following specific characteristics: psychological phenomena are constructed by individuals in the process of social interaction, they depend upon properties of social interaction, one of their primary purposes is facilitating social interaction, and they embody the specific character of historically bound social relations.

All psychological functions have a social core and are integrated around this core. Sociohistorical psychology is monistic in explaining the manifold of psychological phenomena with parsimonious, logically consistent principles. Sociohistorical psychology repudiates dualism which posits interacting antagonistic functions of essentially different natures. For instance, certain theories of emotion and personality construe them as determined by natural, physiological mechanisms independent of social experience and consciousness and externally interacting with conscious experience (Ratner, 1989). In contrast, sociohistorical psychology construes all psychological phenomena as dependent upon social experience.


The relationship between psychology and social experience is as follows. Particular socioeconomic systems engender social concepts which underlie psychological functions. These concepts, otherwise known as cognitive schemata or social representations, include values, expectations, knowledge, and assumptions. These concepts ultimately derive from the broad social system in ways which we must leave unspecified for the present discussion. The concepts, though, constitute psychological functions such as emotions, perception, recall, and imagination, as social constuctionists have described (cf. Ratner, 1991). The relationship between society, cognitive schemata, and psychological functions may be depicted as in Figure 1.

Figure 1: A Sociohistorical Model of Psychological Functions


Language, of course, is central to the social construction of mind because, as Lwia said, language is thought's most vital cultural tool. Language links culture and cognition because it is an element of both. It is engendered by social communication, and reflects and transmits the interests of particular social relations. Language is also an aspect of individual consciousness because it is the symbolic instrument used for thinking and verbal expression.

Of course, individuals vary in the extent to which they are exposed to and internalize particular practices. Society is a complex configuration of diverse parts, it is not a simple, monolithic structure. Consequently, individuals have idiosyncratic social experiences. Nevertheless, predominant practices and values pervade the psychological activity of most people. These cultural artifacts become the tools with which we fashion our psychological functions.

Implications Of Sociohistorical Psychology For Research

The major implication of sociohistorical psychology for research is to emphasize the manner in which psychological functions reflect concrete societal values and practices. Some interesting examples from social science illustrate this approach which should be extended to psychological research.

Romantic love is an emotion with a definite social character. It is not simply "caring" but a specific, special form of caring which is encouraged by particular social relations. The manner in which social relations foster love is described by Seidman in a way that exemplifies figure 1 above:

The meanings and purposes we invest in love are, in part, a product of diverse discourses, representations, traditions, and legal and moral customs. These cultural forces construct love as a domain about which we hold a range of beliefs and judgements. These meanings shape the way we imagine and experience love (Seidman, 1991, p. 3).

Seidman goes on to emphasize the specific character of romantic love which must be the target of psychological research. He states.

love has no essential or unitary identity. Not only does its meaning change over time, but within a given society at a fixed time there will be variations in its meaning. A sociology of love would, I think, show how social factors such as gender, class, education or social status shape cultural meanings and practices (p. 4).

Romantic love is a sensuous, passionate attraction which develops quickly, involves intimate sharing of personal qualities, and is a possessive-exclusive bond. This kind of personal relationship is fostered by an individualized social system which emphasizes individual rights and a highly individualistic notion of the self. The social system also dichotomizes a personal realm of honesty, commitment, support, concern, and expression from an impersonal, calculating, unpredictable, competitive, materialistic, unstable, alienated public arena. This socially structured contrast between two domains of life imbues romantic love with its intense, irrational, almost magical quality that is uncommon among other social systems.


The specificity of romantic love is indicated by its absence from many other sociohistorical eras. Mary Ryan (1983, p. 42) tells us that American women in colonial times devoted little of their psychic energies to falling in love. Certainly they had neither the time, the incentive, nor the socialization to cultivate the extravagant sentiments of romance. The economic priorities which dominated family life meant that "A woman's love for her husband, and his in return, became a 'duty,' a 'performance,' not a rarefied emotion" (Ryan, 1983, p. 47). Rothman (1984, p. 31, 102ff.) similarly concludes that 18th century middle class Americans eschewed romantic love which the gentry had endorsed. However as both a cultural ideal and an individual expectation, romantic love was taking hold among the middle class by the turn of the 19th century. Lawrence Stone's monumental study of pre-modern family life in England documents the same conclusion (Stone, 1977, pp. 272-284).

The concrete sociohistorical character of love (and other psychological phenomena) must be the target of psychological research. Otherwise, this research overlooks the full character of its subject matter.

Parental insensitivity to children similarly has a particular form depending upon the social values which parents embody. Jules Henry illuminates these values in his extraordinary book, Culture Against Man (1963). One episode involves a mother vacuuming the rug for 20 minutes while her daughter cried miserably. Finally, the mother finished, went to baby and said, "o.k., you're the winner." According to Henry, the mother's neglect of her infant stems from her social values of competition (with her baby for control over the mother's activity; i.e., the mother views giving in to the baby's demand for attention as losing the struggle for control), materialism (where concern for the cleanliness of the rug takes precedence over the baby's needs), individualism (where the mother places her desires above her baby's), segregating housework from personal relations with the child (so that one contradicts the other), and teaching independence and toughness to the baby (by not "spoiling" it and leaving it to fend for itself).

If psychological research is to be adequate to its subject matter, it must comprehend the specific sociohistorical character of psychological phenomena.

Phenomenological Research

Phenomenological research does not share sociohistorical psychology's emphasis on elucidating the concrete social character of psychological activity. Phenomenology developed as a reaction to mechanism. It sought to restore the active, creative individuality of the human subject which mechanism had repudiated. Phenomenologists therefore illuminate the intentional meaning of the subject in detailed, descriptive, qualitative accounts.


Phenomenology is an important corrective to mechanism, but it is insufficient It stops at the individual level and ignores the social character of individual psychology. Some phenomenologists such as Schutz, Berger & Luckmanns Merleau-Ponty, and Husserl in his writings on the Lebenswelt do acknowledge that individuals are bounded by social, historical relations. However, these relations are never concretized, and the authors never bring a systematic analysis of society to bear on individual phenomenology.

I shall illustrate this weakness with an example from Amadeo Giorgi's phenomenological research. Afterwards I will suggest a way in which phenomenological research can nevertheless contribute to sociohistorical research. In his book Phenomenology & Psychological Research, Giorgi (1985) constructs a qualitative description of the phenomenological experience of learning. His subject is a woman who has described learning to make yogurt. She is alone in her apartment trying to follow written instructions. Giorgi summarizes the learning process described by the subject as follows:

a. S attempts to follow a procedure she has never done before
b. finds her execution of the steps does not meet her expectations
c. becomes impatient
d. decides she made an error
e. reflects on her procedure and finds an ambiguity in one of steps
f. clarifies the ambiguity and is successful
g. describes her experience to a friend
h. dialogue with friend clarifies correct procedure
i. understands why she was successful
j. believes she can execute the procedure on her own
k. believes she can execute the procedure on demand

These steps, which I have condensed in the interest of time, are regarded by Giorgi as constituting a general description of learning. This general description is regarded as essential and universal, timeless and ahistorical. However, it actually is shot through with sociohistorical facets which escape Giorgi's attention. He never indicates that the S's description of learning, as well as Giorgi's own summary of this description, has sociohistorical characteristics. These are:

a. The learning protocol describes an individual learning by herself--how to follow a procedure--in the privacy of her home. This learning situation is, of course, socially specific. Learning in collective societies would be embedded in social interaction, it would not be essentially private. The individual would not have to make sense of instructions all by herself. She would be surrounded by others at the moment of learning. Thus, the entire learning situation is socially specific.

b. Becoming impatient is culture-bound. Cultures with less emphasis on success and efficiency would not become impatient. Bateson's (1941) research on Bali concluded that the Balinese do not become irritated by interruptions or failures. Therefore impatience is not a universal stimulus for learning.


c. S analyzes the reasons for her failure and realizes she made an error. This is an extremely intellectual aspect of learning which is socially specific. Primitive people are not so analytical and self-reflective. They do not analyze their own erroneous thinking; they simply recognize a failure in execution has occurred and then look for better procedures. For example, the Wolof people of Senegal, who were investigated by Bruner, Olver, and Greenfield in their classic volume, Studies in Cognitive Growth (1966), do not engage in self-reflective thought. They don't comprehend the reflexive question "Why do you think X happens?" although they easily comprehend the question "Why does X happen?" which does not require reflection on the subject's own thinking. The Wolof would thus not examine their thinking process in the course of learning.

d. S understands why she was successful and what she had done wrong previously. This reflection is also part of an intellectual approach to learning which is culture-bound, not universal.

e. learning involves the confidence about one's ability to act on one's own. The notion of acting on one's own, as well as the opportunity for doing so, are characteristic of an individualistic society and have no existence in many societies.

f. learning involves the confidence that one can perform on demand. This is also a socially specific value that action can occur out of context, at any time, in any situation. Many societies do not value learning for this kind of purpose.

A good example of how the learning process in another culture contrasts with Giorgi's description is apprenticeship learning among Liberian tailors. This learning is vividly described by the anthropologist Jean Lave (1988). Liberian apprentices learn how to make clothes under the direct supervision of master tailors. The learning situation is thoroughly social and does not involve solitary discovery like the kind Giorgi's subject was engaged in. Constant guidance and correction by masters results in minimal instances of failure on the part of apprentices. Consequently, frustration has little opportunity to arise and is not a motive for learning. When apprentices do make mistakes they do not analyze the cognitive errors behind them. Instead the apprentices are quickly corrected by the masters who rarely blame or praise them. Almost all of the apprentices learn the routine and become master tailors. They tailor in collective settings with no sense of being able to act on their own or on demand.

It is evident that most of the steps in learning which Giorgi described as general and essential are actually sociohistorical steps. The only truly general feature of learning in Giorgi's protocol is that learning is the acquisition of new knowledge in the face of insufficient knowledge. However this truism is a tautological definition of learning itself. It is so general as to be uninformative and trivial. Clifford Geertz (1973) is right in arguing that what is most interesting and important about humans is what is culturally specific, not universals which he calls bloodless.


Phenomenology's focus on general features of individual experience results in two weaknesses: It is insensitive to the social character of experience (which is misconstrued as a universal character). And the truly general aspects of experience which phenomenology discloses are uninteresting. These limits make phenomenology inadequate as a theoretical and methodological approach to psychology. It is only viable when subsumed within a sociohistorical framework. Sartre (1976, p. 95) pinpointed the limits of phenomenology in his critique of lived experience. Sartre said, "Immediate experience reveals being at its most concrete [individual specificity], but it takes it at its most superficial level and remains in the realm of abstractions." "Lived experience" (in most societies) does not comprehend its social character. Therefore, relying on phenomenological accounts, per se, overlooks the social character of psychological phenomena.

Integrating Sociohistorical Psychology And Phenomenology

On the other hand, phenomenology is useful for supplementing and refining sociohistorical psychology. For phenomenology explicates individual intentionality which is necessary data for sociohistorical psychology. In other words, sociohistorical psychology can use the intentionality revealed by phenomenological methods to discover the social character of experience which phenomenology overlooks. The social character of psychology exists in subjective experience and can only be explicated through a systematic disclosure of intentionality. Integrating phenomenological methodology into sociohistorical psychology will make the latter more systematic because it will be able to comprehensively observe the social character embedded in intentionality. For example, Giorgi's methodology allowed us to observe the social character of learning quite thoroughly once a sociohistorical perspective was applied to his data.

Cultural analyses of psychology are often unsystematic because the fullness of individuals' experience is neglected. For instance, Jules Henry's analysis of parental insensitivity, discussed previously, suggests that a mother's insensitivity to her infant stemmed from social values such as competitiveness, individualism, and materialism. Henry derives this conclusion from particular statements the mother made. Competition is indicated by the remark to the baby, "o.k., you're the winner." This analysis is very suggestive, but cursory. It requires a more systematic investigation of the mother's competitiveness. This investigation can profit from phenomenological techniques which would question the mother further about her feelings.

In conclusion, phenomenological methodology must be imbued with a social perspective that will emphasize the social values which pervade intentionality. And sociohistorical psychology must be imbued with a phenomenological perspective that emphasizes the full scope of intentionality so that its social character can be observed rather than presumed.



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Henderikus J. Stam, Leendert P Mos, Warren Thorngate, Bernie Kaplan


Recent Trends in Theoretical Psychology

Volume III

Selected Proceedings of the
Fourth Biennial Conference of the
International Society for Theoretical Psychology
June 24-28, 1991