Culture in Development: The Importance of Climbing Up the Slide

A quiet, global community of researchers want to change how psychologists think about the mind and culture — or to put it a bit more precisely, they want to call attention to some almost forgotten ones. They publish their research in Culture & Psychology, whose founding editor is Jaan Valsiner. Professor Valsiner was kind enough to furnish us an interview via email. The text has been edited for style.

Jonathan Pfeiffer, 3quarksdaily: How does cultural developmental psychology help us to understand changes in human life, either from moment to moment or over the course of one's lifetime?

Jaan Valsiner: The idea of cultural developmental psychology is best captured in this photo. What do you see in it? Of course it is very ordinary; this is a toy gadget for children (but note the inscriptions we call “graffiti” on the sideboards — an arena for public art?). Slide In it you can see the world of adults, who invent such objects, build them, and take their children to the neighborhood park “to play” and deeply believe they are doing their best for their children, as the latter now can learn the “right ways” of behaving. But, of course, what they create in actuality are opportunities to act in new ways that are more challenging than the “right ways.” You can observe that when children play with this kind of slide and do many other things with many other toys, thus experimenting with the “contrarian movement.” They climb up the part of the structure where they are “supposed” to slide down. Any object of furniture is a culturally designed object that suggests to its users — children or adults alike — some socially preferred courses of action. Yet by that suggestion, these objects call forth counter-action to the opposite, resistance to suggestions, and in one word, creativity. If there were no people — children or adults — who would constructively “disobey” the socially suggested ways of being, then no new technologies or social changes could be possible.

Cultural developmental psychology is a basic science of human development from birth to death, covering the whole life course, that investigates the construction, use, and abandonment of the whole range of cultural tools in the dynamic life course of human beings: language, physical objects of everyday life, symbolic objects in public and private settings, and social roles people assume (mother, father, policeman, tax accountant, beggar, president, criminal, etc.).

3QD: What assumptions do you make about human life in your own research?

Valsiner: First, all development takes place in irreversible time — we cannot “go back” to “re-live” precisely the same experience a second time. We can only re-construct similar experiences. Second, all development is possible thanks to the constant interchange of the developing organism and the immediate environment. Not only human beings, but all animal species, all biological organisms, and all “social organisms” (communities, countries, etc.) are of such kind.

3QD: Why do you feel justified in making those assumptions?

Valsiner: In science, we do not justify our underlying assumptions. We take them as starting points, use them, and if they prove useless, abandon them and construct new ones. The two assumptions I listed above come from the collective understanding of nature that has developed in biological sciences and their linked philosophical investigations over the past two hundred years.

3QD: Do you find that mainstream psychological research in the United States is generally compatible with those assumptions?

Valsiner: No, the current “mainstream” neither understands nor accepts these assumptions. Psychology in the United States these days develops very actively towards addressing issues that are of local social concern and have limited fit with psychological issues in other societies. In short, it is becoming a part of the U.S. society rather than a participant in the globalizing basic science — which cultural psychology is. The historical reasons for that have been quite well described by Aaro Toomela (in Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science, March, 2007).

3QD: Why do you think cultural developmental psychology and Ganzheitspsychologie are not more familiar to North American researchers?

Valsiner: They both require a holistic understanding of complex psychological phenomena. Since the beginning of psychology in the U.S. in the 1870s, the tendency was to reduce such phenomena to their elementary components, and study these components by “quantitative measurement.” Belief in quantification as guarantee of objectivity has existed in U.S. society from times before psychology ever reached across the Atlantic. Hence, psychology adapted itself to American cultural demands, not the other way round.

3QD: What is meant by “qualitative mathematics,” and what do you believe it may have to offer for psychology?

Valsiner: The usual example of qualitative mathematics is topology, but there are many other branches we little know of in psychology. Contemporary mathematics is in its core qualitative; quantification was the theme of its development in the 19th century. Psychology can learn from mathematics how to think in abstract terms. Psychologists are very poor in this in our times, and have been ever since they distanced themselves from philosophy.

3QD: If you were asked to suggest changes to the way the U.S. Congress and other agencies appropriate public research funds for psychology, what would you recommend, assuming you were unconstrained by a conflict of interest?

Valsiner: It is time to get rid of the widening governmental and local bureaucratic control and taxation of the funds going to research, and create a flexible system in which different groups of researchers get funding for innovative research, not for accumulation of work already done. The Federal “overhead rates” on grants sometimes surpass 100% now: For each dollar, the researcher gets another Federal dollar for the institution the researcher works in, supposedly for supporting the research through the institution. However, it often becomes a tax on research success by the local institution, because the institutions appropriate all, most, or a substantial per cent of the “overhead” to fill other “holes” in their budgets.

3QD: One more broad question: Some figures like the former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright and the American humanities scholar Giles Gunn have suggested that the challenge of understanding people not ourselves is the most urgent problem presented by globalization. What are some steps one can take to strengthen one's intra- and cross-cultural understanding?

Valsiner: Obligatory spending of the whole freshman year of all college students in the U.S. in a Study Abroad program overseas. The next generation of educated U.S. citizens needs to overcome the syndrome of “American exceptionalism” that has been prominent in the course of U.S. history. One needs radical change to overcome it: Learn foreign languages, live in foreign countries, understand that the best way to be “American” is to be equal with others, understand their circumstances of living, and share one's own with them. Of course, such “enforced exposure” to lives foreign would produce stress (together with understanding), but the world at large is filled with all kinds of strains, and development of stress handling routines are helpful in every aspect of living. (Of course, such a plan is self-destructive for psychologists. If the psychological resiliency were to grow, our profession would lose its income!) But once the people with substantive overseas experience as young students reach the key positions in politics some decades later, they can change the country. Maybe the first Africa-connected new U.S. President proves an example, but we have to wait and see what realpolitik brings.