Alfred Lang

University of Bern, Switzerland

Research Proposal 1992  

Acting in Culture

Creating a Practically useful Cultural Psychology


 @CuPsy @Act @SciHist

30 / 37KB  Last revised 98.11.14

Michael Cole, Alfred Lang, Arne Raeithel, et al.

Research Proposal to the XXYYZ Foundation. Bern, San Diego, etc., August 1992

© 1998 by Alfred Lang

Scientific and educational use permitted

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Project Summary 

An international group of about ten psychologists are decided and seek support to interact intensively over a three year period to explicate the basic tenets of a psychological science which takes the human capacity to create, use, and transmit culture as its starting point. The goals of this project are theoretical, methodological, and practical. Analyses and evaluations will proceed in three mutually dependent and temporally overlapping phases. 

The theoretical phase will begin with a re-examination of the historical division of psychology into a "natural sciences" and a "cultural sciences" branch by its 19th century founders and the subsequent exclusion of the "cultural " branch during the development of psychology during the 20th century. This analysis will proceed by a series of case studies of "Historical Figures" from several national traditions. Scholars who resisted or rejected the exclusion of culture from psychology are to be re-evaluated in order to recover the common principles underlying their diverse contributions. A formulation of the common core of their culture-related psychological thinking will constitute the goal of the first phase of the project.

The methodological phase will examine concrete studies carried out by each of the Historical Figures which embodies fruitful solutions to the methodological problems of allowing cultural and historical contingency to imbue into empirical research and applied practice. It is a fact that those scholars caring in their theories for the cultural condition of humans also had a strong inclination to get engaged in applied fields in mental health, work or education. In addition to telecommunicative cooperation characteristic of the whole project, the methodological project phase, in particular, will function through small, geographically distributed seminars in which the theories and concrete research of three or more historical figures are juxtaposed and compared in an effort to identify the essentials of those methodological procedures which are adequate to the common theoretical principles. Again, a set of workable and theoretically grounded methodological rules and procedures, useful in research and practice, are to result which would allow to adequately deal with humans in culture rather than with the isolated psychological subject so common in prevailing psychological research.

Finally, the practical phase of the research will start from a collation and comparison of case studies of exemplary present-day empirical research carried out by (or well known to) the project participants. These studies are selected and analyzed from the viewpoints of their being motivated and guided by ideas and methodologies of the Historical Figures dealt in the other phases. Each of these case studies will address a particular area of social practice (in schools, workplaces, homes, communities), i.e. particular cultural fields which are consensually viewed as important social problems psychologists should be able to address in a fruitful way. By way of examples we might mention new forms of cooperative activities or the organization of cognitive and social development settings in school, home, workplace, and community, including the role of new technologies, guided participation, or personal and social identity.

It can be said form the outset that the principal common approach of these selected studies is their investigators' emphasis on humans-in-context as a unit of study, their attention to meaningful actions in concrete situations, and their unquestionable determination to explore all processes in their developmental manifestations and historical relatedness. Now principles can be said to be the intuitive tenets of many distinguished psychological practitioners in their respective application fields. Yet they do not generally form part of the scientific and practice tools of the trade governing research and education of psychologists. One of the key features of the project, thus, is seen in its linking theory and practice, in that it is expected to bring a certain change to both, introducing into science an adequate way of dealing with culture and affording to practice reasoned concepts and methods useful for its complex tasks. 

The final product of this work will be an accessibly written book which summarizes the basic theoretical principles, explains how they came to be excluded historically from academic psychology, and then moves on to illustrate how, using modern versions of a scientific paradigm grounded on the basic principles, it is possible to do theoretically motivated, empirically interesting, and practically significant research.

The project may be described as an essential attempt at remedy the basic dilemma of modern psychology, namely to deal as a natural science with an object that is both a creature and creator of culture.

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Scientific psychology, it would appear in the eyes of many observers, has had less impact on the 20th century society than one might expect from its central position at the intersection of the nature and culture sciences. The fact that humans are both creators and creatures of culture has barely been systematically considered in mainstream psychology of the 20th century. Yet it has been of great importance both in philosophical psychology of the 18th century and in traditions such as the Völkerpsychologie of Moritz Lazarus and Wilhelm Wundt in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.

In effect, at least two traditions of scientific psychology have arisen about a century ago, embodying different world views and images of man. This deep split has been largely in line with the separate institutionalization of the sciences of nature (Naturwissenschaften, "sciences") and the sciences of human or mental products (Geisteswissenschaften, "humanities"). While psychologists adhering to the science model are striving at formulating universal and eternal (nomothetic) laws, those of the humanities tradition proceed basically in continuance of the older philosophical conduits founding their generalizations on introspective and idiographic reports and making almost exclusively use of the verbal medium.

Psychology, thus, subjected itself largely to the great split, instead of, as we can see easier in hindsight, decidedly focussing on the intersection and extending balanced insistence on human nature and culture. In addition, both of the "two psychologies", in their crave for respectability, fell victim to the Zeitgeist of specialization and insulation of their fields of interest. The prize both psychologies unwittingly pay for their relative success is a strange neglect of the historical and the cultural embeddedness of all human affairs.

Recently, however, a growing number of publications and conferences indicate a revival of psychological interest in cultural aspects of the human condition. Among the few "schools" of psychology emphasizing human's essential embeddedness all along, the so-called "cultural-historical theory" inaugurated by Lew S. Vygotsky (1896-1934) elaborated in "activity theory" by Alexei N. Leontiev (1903-1979) and their followers find vivid interest. In addition, streams of thought in related sciences such as anthropology or sociology and linguistics or semiotics where culture played an incomparably greater role are appraised at a growing rate to the advantage of a more complete psychological science.

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At this time, various proposals towards a Cultural Psychology arising at various points of the entire discipline can be made out. Thus, a need arises as to a broad and scholarly endeavor to gather and evaluate respective ideas and conceptual tools for the study of Acting in Culture (AiC).

The authors of the present project are aiming towards formulating scientific foundations of a cultural and activity-based psychology through an analysis of the history of a family of related traditions and by comparing experiences from a number of Case Studies in important fields where such principles have been put to use in the immediate past. Our multinational and transdisciplinary project is expected to bring forth theoretical concepts, methodological procedures as well as concrete knowhow that can be used as a tool for the development of social science theory, and for the deployment of modes of research that link theory to practice.

Historical Figures: This effort will begin with a reconsideration of the way in which academic psychology was instituted using a natural scientific world view. We will start by having each of the members of a selected group of scholars characterize the work of one or more of their "totem" forbearers and the way that those Figures formulated and responded to the problem of the exclusion of history and culture from psychology. It might be as interesting to analyse both their proposed solutions and their failures as well as to understand reasons for their lack of approbation by a broader scientific community. This first step will address such scholars or "schools of thought" as 18th century "cultural-historical psychologists" (Vico, Baumgarten, Condillac, Herder), Völkerpsychologie (Lazarus, Steinthal, Wundt), and important ancestors of modern psychology largely excised from disciplinary history (Peirce, Mach, Simmel, etc.). The list will include a number of scholars whose acceptance met resistance precisely because they emphasized contextual or the historical dimension: James, Dewey, Mead, Vygotsky, Leontiev, Bakhtin, Lewin, Bartlett, Gibson, Boesch, etc. In addition, a view on far eastern traditions with its contrasting understanding of the human-environment compound shall be included.

Actual Fields: Concepts and methods having roots in this or that of such traditions are currently cultivated in various research groups in institutes and laboratories all over the world. An exemplary selection of the conceptual, empirical and intervention tools produced in this distributed scientific community shall be presented in the form of Case Studies. This material is to come from psychological and related research and practice fields and shall be described from the special viewpoints of Acting in Culture. The studies will illustrate promising approaches using historical, developmental, social, ecological, mediational, and/or semiotic strategies of explanation. Common to our shared metatheory, whatever the specific differences may be, is a recognition that it is necessary to study the processes of human acting and thinking in the process of change as it is constructed and manifested in the various activities that children and adults participate in as a routine part of their everyday lives. In the Actual Field Studies, the members of the project will review their own and their respective groups' research from the viewpoint of Acting in Culture. The content of the studies will be taken from fields such as education and enculturation; mediated learning and communication; socialization in family and community; work settings, job design and organization development; scientific and technological practice; roles of artifacts in the everyday world of dwellings and urban places; personal, group, ethnic and national identity; health and sanity as self-organized qualities of multi-cultural neighbourhoods.

Comparison: The material gathered from the Figures and the Fields approaches shall then be subjected to a secondary analysis. The crucial feature of the proposed undertaking is a deliberate attempt at comparative evaluation and positive selection and elaboration of those theoretical and methodological tools that prove fruitful as to their capability to generate essential research questions, methodical and practical knowledge as well as enlightening insights into human-culture-systems. The goal of this endeavor will be to go beyond historical and current theoretical objections to the reigning psychological paradigm to formulate and make available a widely usable alternative.

Integration: Although it would be far from the reasonable to expect a clean and failsafe formulation of a general Cultural Psychology, a synthetic outline of its essentials and a useful evaluation of the available and promising conceptual and methodological tools is realistic. Emphasis will be placed on composing an ensemble of such tools with well-founded reasons as to the why a particular(set of) concept(s) or method(s) has failed or is expected to bring fruits. The process of Integration will also include confrontation and critical discussion of the present integrative Cultural Psychology with proponents from other approaches and from other disciplines.

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One of the key features of the project is seen in its linking theory and practice. A conspicuous feature of cultural-historical approaches to psychology is the close links they forge between what is usually considered a dichotomy. It makes no sense to study human-culture-relations in artificial settings created exclusively for the purpose of investigation, because this would constitute some other kind of (special) culture requiring a special set of actions or practice, with all uncertainties of transfer and generalization left. You cannot study culture psychologically except by studying acting in culture. On the other hand, nothing is so practical as good theory, theory that elucidates essentials of the cases in question.

There are at least two reasons for viewing theoretical and practical activity as merely two different moments in a single scientific enterprise. On the practical side, all such approaches take everyday activities, or cultural practices, as both a starting point and the end point of scientific analysis and application. On the theoretical side, the basic principle of artifact-mediation makes the invention or re-invention and use of artifacts of all kinds a really fundamental object of study. Making and using things, tools, signs and texts in all sorts of media is what constitutes individual existence in the social and cultural web. To understand, why these memories and messages are made and used just the way they are, is the key to their efficient use in the service of humanity. In a time, when these artifacts in the form of industrial products and multi-media information, by their sheer mass and power to take people's time and attention, portend to become new instruments of "slavery", it is essential to understand acting in culture. Such knowledge and knowhow can be put in the service of emancipation of as well as for countermeasures to imminent cultural change of doubtful character. Since it is always humans who produce cultural change by their actions, it is imperative to understand these processes as fully as possible. Obviously, industrial civilizations of to-day find themselves in a state, when desire and belief in unlimited artifact production and multiplication are shattered by difficult to escape negative side-effects and increasing awareness of a great menace on humanity through exactly that highly valued social practice.

Several areas of social practice provide the practical contexts within which members of the current project work. Evidently the Case Studies will elaborate on those fields. The two major areas are education (broadly conceived) and work (including physical settings, social organization as well as the symbolic level). In addition, scientific cooperation with use of new technologies, environmental design, residential and urban activities, family socialization practices, the social-cultural origins of national identity, and cultural aspects of health and medicine are some of the particular subjects of research of the prospective members of the project. By making explicit common foundations in theory and practice of such diverse practice fields, we claim to contribute on improving the human condition.

Secondly, of crucial importance for the impact of a future Cultural Psychology are methodological issues. The history of 20th century psychology could well be written as a broad and multifaceted controversy as to the suitability of methods to apply in research as well as in practice. One certainly oversimplifying dichotomy pertains to quantitative versus qualitative approaches. In connection with this is the often held belief that counting and measuring are essential parts of the supreme scientific method, i.e. the experiment, while, on the other hand, an equally simplifying attitude professing to naturalistic observation and catching "real life" prevails in opposite camps. Again the attitudes of distrust and mutual avoidance appear to predominate rather than attempts at differentiation and synthesis.

It is natural that proponents of cultural-historical approaches have, as a rule, a certain preference for qualitative studies carefully taking into consideration whatever of contextual and developmental conditions pertain to a topic under study. On the other hand, the members of the project would aspire to avoid prejudice and dogmatism in their methodology, but rather, true to their general attitude, apply contextuality principles also to their methodology. One of the key characteristics of the Comparison Studies - and the Actual Field Studies shall have to prepare for this - will therefore be to see, whether or not a coherent set, however multifaceted, of methodological principles can be made out which deserve becoming part and parcel of an integrative Cultural Psychology.

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The project will use a well-balanced set of individual and cooperative contributions and make use both of the traditional written and conference techniques as well as of advanced electronic means for communication and joint scholarly work (e-mailing lists and distributed authoring of shared documents). The larger portion of the prospective participants already have an extensive experience and skill in the use of tool such as interactive communication technologies. Small groups of contributors (typically groups of three to five) are also to come together in person for intensive periods of planning and evaluation phases of the project. At strategic points of the developing project, larger groups of scientists will congregate in a familiar symposium type of meeting in order to assure mutual informedness and constructive criticism across the whole project.

The tangible product of the project will be a set of two documents.

The first is thought to be a source book or Document Volume, representing to some extent the process of reaching the integrative view and giving background and details of each of the Historical Figures and Actual Field Studies as well as of the various Comparison Studies made between the different approaches.

The second, smaller Statement Volume is to be the concise formulation of the essentials of a practicable psychology of acting in culture. Great care will be taken to have this document summarize roots and development as well as actual state of a viable Cultural Psychology, but its main objective will be to chart its possible and promising avenues to the future.

We distinguish four levels of membership in the project as follows:

The Coordinating Group: 3 to 5 members, presently the three scientists responsible for of the project, open to complementing.

The Core Group: about 10 members, incl. the Coordinating Group. They will contribute the bulk of the work, being responsible for the majority of the Historical Figures and the Actual Field Studies, as well as carry the responsibility for the Comparison Studies. At the present state affirmative reactions have been received from a number of reputable scholars. The definitive composition of the Core Group will be decided based on careful analysis of the ensemble of competencies needed.

The Enlarged Group: An additional 4 to 6 scholars will be asked to contribute Case Studies from their field(s) of specialization to fill particular tasks in the ensemble of the Studies.

The Larger Cultural Psychologists' Community and Interdisciplinary Group: (of the order of 25 participants incl. groups a to c above)

The project is planned to proceed in 3 principal phases punctuated by two larger conferences. These can be described in broad terms as follows. We assume a project duration of 3 years and would like to start in April 1993.

Project Statement and writing the Case Studies for Figures and Fields (first year, 1993/94)

Formal project start is foreseen for April 1993, when the Coordinating Group will begin to distribute the Initial Project Statement by e-mail to the members of the Core Group and to prospective additional members of the Enlarged Group. The coordinators, in addition, decide in consultation with the Core Group on the definitive composition of the project including the assignment of Case Study tasks, i.e. the exact program of who is responsible for what Historic Figures and/or Actual Field Study. From September 1993, the Coordinating Group gathers in New York for a 6 month period to work jointly at the Definitive Project Statement and accompany and coordinate the process of writing the Case Studies by electronic communication with the project members. One or two of the Coordination Group members will stay for another 6 months in New York, joined for limited time by selected Core Group members.

First conference gathering the members of the Core Group on a platform for coordination (around March 1994)

A one week intensive conference of the Core Group should take place towards the end of the first project year. Besides presentation and discussion of the Case Studies the meeting would allow the Core Group members to better understand each one's role in the project ensemble and to exchange subtleties of issues that might pass the possibilities of the media. Critical and constructive comments upon each others ideas would be part of the schedule as well as consolidation and eventual complementation of the overall plan. The main objective would be to lay out the principles of work for the second or Comparison phase. Subsequently the Case Studies are finished for print by their authors.

Comparison and workout of relations between Studies, Subgroup Symposia (second year, 1994/95)

The second year would essentially be devoted to Comparisons of selected Case Studies, both across pairs or "chains" of Historical Figures (such as Vygotsky and Lewin or Simmel and Peirce etc.) and between Figures and Actual Fields (such as Lewin and work, Simmel/Peirce and artifacts or identity etc.). The general objective is to test the applicability and limits of the historical ideas in present-day problem situations of humans in culture. For this purpose, smaller Subgroups of contributors (in size of the order of two to fife) would be in intensive electronic contact and eventually also meet face to face in one-week Subgroup Symposia at various suitable places (such as San Diego, Worcester, Tokyo, Helsinki, Hamburg/Frankfurt, Bern). Basic decisions as to group formations would be prepared during the first year and confirmed at the first conference. Members of the Coordinating Group would accompany this work by telecommunication in order to maintain directedness of the endeavour and cross-coordination between the groups.

Second conference putting results to critical discussion (spring or summer 1995)

The second conference scheduled early in the third year would draw together the material from the individual and the comparative studies, discussing and evaluating the results and drawing tentative conclusions as to essentials of an integrative Cultural Psychology. Also a group of cultural psychologists and representatives of related disciplines not being members of the project group so far would be invited to act as critical discussants. The materials of the first and second conference would then be brought into suitable form to be published as the Document Volume.

Formulation of the integrative essentials (third year, 1995/96)

It would be the task of the Coordinating Group, complemented as needed by intensive electronic contact with the other members of the Core Group and also supplemented in selective face to face meetings if deemed necessary, to write the Statement Volume. It could be expected to be ready at the end of the third year.

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A provisional budget is added as an appendix to the project. The project, in order to get desirable coherence and work efficiency, must be coordinated with continuity and firmness. In addition, the tasks of writing and rewriting the Project Statement, of guiding contributors and subgroups along the commonly decided path and finally of drafting and editing the integrative statements are all very time consuming. The authors of the project therefore have decided to seek partial release from their ordinary duties in their respective universities. In addition, all partners are willing to devote time and means of their ordinary research assignment including sabbatical time to the project.

As seems fitting for a project of the given scope and depth, the authors are seeking support from different agencies. Information exchanges have been taken place so far with, and similar project proposals are submitted this August to October to the following foundations:

XXX, New York

YYY, Chicago

ZZZ, Bern

WWW, Frankfurt a.M.

At this time we would like to leave negotiable what the specific contribution of each one of the financing agencies will eventually be, most agencies having statutory obligations as well as preferable modes of supporting projects of that kind. The talks so far indicate an inclination of XXX Foundation to endorse the project covering part of the general costs and by offering working and housing facilities for the coordinating scientist in their New York headquarters. WWW Foundation, due to their mode of operation, will be asked to finance the second conference and some of the subgroup symposia. The YYY and the ZZZ Foundations might preferably contribute by covering some of the general costs in addition to the release time of the members of the Coordinating Group. In this situation, therefore, instead of asking each foundation for a particular amount and/or kind of support, we include the total budget of the project and expect to find the most suitable distribution of responsibilities in mutual talks to be arranged in the near future.

A remark is in order as to the costs of the 3rd year. We have left open the release time costs for the members of the Coordinating Group. Both M. Cole and A. Lang can expect in that year to enjoy of a sabbatical leave from their respective university; A. Raeithel is uncertain as to his career situation at that time. Furthermore, other members of the project might be capable and willing to serve in the editing and writing tasks and could profitably be invited by consent of the members of the Core Group to engage in such a role. As seen from the present perspective, it may either be possible to finish the project with the combined means we ask for and have available from regular sources, or we might deem it necessary to ask for additional support towards finishing the project publications.

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The present project has been cooperatively worked out by electronic communication in a group of scholars listed below who will form the backbone of the Core Group in the project. The responsibility for the proposal is with the first three named. The undersigned is submitting the present version of the proposal and is delegated for all transactions with the representatives of XYZ Foundation.


Michael Cole, Professor of Communication in Psychology and Director of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, University of California at San Diego

Alfred Lang, Professor of Psychology, University of Bern

Arne Raeithel, Priv.-Doz. in Psychology, University of Hamburg

James Wertsch, Professor and Chair in the Frances L. Hiatt School of Psychology, Clark University, Worcester Mass.

Yrjö Engeström, Professor of Psychology, University of Helsinki

Yutaka Sayeki, Professor of Education, School of Education, University of Tokyo

Naoki Ueno, Professor of Psychology, University of Tokyo and National Institute for Educational Research


This proposal formulation and budget is to be considered a working formulation for the purpose of informing the various foundation representatives and for being used as a basis for the multiple dialogues foreseen.


Bern, August 24, 1992

Institut für Psychologie der Universität Bern Prof. Dr. Alfred Lang


Appendix: Acting in Culture Budget (24.8.92)

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