Alfred Lang

University of Bern, Switzerland

Journal Article 1993

What Place for Culture in Psychology? --

An Introduction



23 / 25 KB  Last revised 98.11.02

Alfred Lang & Urs Fuhrer -- Guest Editors
Institut für Psychologie, Universität Bern

Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Psychologie 52(2) 65-69
Reprint: Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition15(1) 3-6

© 1998 by Alfred Lang

Scientific and educational use permitted

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The human species is the cultural animal. For, humans are both creatures and creators of their world. Rather late in the 20th century, finally, a rapidly increasing number of psychologists have begun to systematically reconsider the riddle.

This precious insight, in fact, has originated in the 18th century. Although it has been envisioned by many philosophers and discussed by some of the founders of modern psychology in the late 19th and early 20th century, this science has chosen other premises for understanding humans. That may eventually turn out to be responsible for the puzzling position psychology takes today among the sciences as well as in practice. Undeniably, it is informed or misinformed action of humans that drives social systems and transforms nature. Dealing thus with a field of phenomena that should make it one of the four or five essential fields of empirical science, psychology holds, in fact and in spite of its quantitative successes, a rather marginal reputation and role in the concert of knowledge and wisdom.

How come? And how to repair that state of affairs? What place for culture in psychology? Such questions point to an enterprise of considerable dimensions. Any reasonable contribution towards its accomplishment must be welcome and any platform in particular whereupon to present and critically discuss proposals to its considered advancement is an asset.

All along the modern existence of scientific psychology there have been astute thinkers and researchers who have raised the issue. Among them is Ernst E. Boesch, Emeritus at the University of the Saarland in Germany. Born 1916 in Switzerland, after studying with Jean Piaget in Geneva and some years in educational counseling practice and extendend experience in a foreign culture, he stubbornly built his singular scientific career along side the mainstream of psychology, creating in a long series of articles and books from the early 1960s on what he later termed a symbolic action theory for cultural psychology (1991).

Ingredients borrowed from Pierre Janet and Jean Piaget, from Sigmund Freud and Kurt Lewin, from cultural anthropology and theories of art, from personal psychoanalytic practice and psycho-anthropological studies in Thailand and Africa, have been engendered to a unique, subtle and sensible manner of theorizing on humans in culture. To the amazement of many of his readers he did this without manifest influence from the Russian cultural-historical school. Looking back, this is fortunate enough, because the correspondences are confirming of a common general direction and divergences point to issues in need of clarification.

In culture, says Boesch (to paraphrase from his farewell lecture in 1982), a group of people living together structure their space of acting. Culture outlines boundaries, segregating the familiar and the foreign. Culture creates spatio-temporal ranges of action patterns: complexes of ways of comporting in various fields from family to art, from religion to business, etc. Culture suggests and enforces values: feelings and beliefs as to what kind of actions are desirable or threatening under what circumstances. In and by means of culture, people offer Ñ or contrast Ñ for each other a rich set of ways of acting, often in implicit forms, ranging from myths to scientific models or from ideologies to law, etc. All these, existing in some way apart from people as well as dwelling within them, would be naught if not taken up and constantly elaborated and renewed by individuals in their inward fantasms and outward actions.

Boesch concluded his farewell lecture with an appeal to muster courage for independence and to conquer and cultivate this scientific territory anew. This is indeed what a group of scientists from psychology and related fields had in mind when they gathered in the fall of 1991 to honor this pioneer who, in the decades past, had it even much harder to find congeniality and support in directing their attention to the issues in question. The Merligen Symposium on the Cultural Environment in Psychology produced a collection of papers and an as amicable as fruitful exchange, part of which is presented in the pages below.1

Naturally, as all those interested in a culture-conscious psychology know well enough, it is difficult and perhaps too early to attempt an orderly lineup of approaches to culture in psychology. This should yet be a time to brainstorm and to try out potential entrances to promising territory. So the principal objective of the Symposiums was to fan out and compare a sample of perspectives for understanding person-culture relations. Some contributors did it by prototypical case studies, others by reflective abstraction or theorizing, others by their own personal mixture of the two.

The contributions gathered in the present issue and those in a companion publication2 are no more than a sample of ideas tossed around and perhaps worthy of further debate. An additional couple of papers could not be included for reasons of space or time. All twelve contributions are in revised form and integrate much of what was discussed in the long and fruitful hours of thinking on culture, in view of nature in that remarkable form of Lake Thun and mythical Mount Niesen.

As we said above, some contributors study exemplary cases of that intertwinement of people and their cultural environment, notably Ernst Boesch himself. What makes the sound of music?, is his catch question, the player or the violin? Obviously we cannot separate the two without loosing the chance of understanding either. Boesch also makes it clear that cultural psychology is necessarily developmental. It has to reveal the actual genesis of action as well as the life-long becoming a cultured person, nor can it exclude cultural history. The way violins Ñ any cultural institution for that matter Ñ are made and used at a particular time, is the result of a long and intricate process implying many individuals in various roles and including many branching roads travelled, including many having that led astray or to being forgotten or to being preserved in some version in a museum. At the same time the present state of this stream is nothing but a foundation for potential further branching and eventual dissolution. Cultural history, ontogenesis and actual process are three levels of any human-culture-process. Their relatedness and mutual dependence is obvious; to reveal their specific distinctions is the task, we are asked to take on.

Historical in nature are all human-culture-systems. This must hold as well for scientific attempts to understand them, because these are, recursively, human-culture-systems themselves. Indeed, we hinted at the origins of the modern conceptions of "culture" in the 18th century. While the term culture is in use from antiquity, it formerly had to be used in conjunction with particular objects: agricultura, i.e. of acres, cultura animi, i.e. of the soul, etc. It was out of the dilemma of the early enlightenment, demonstrates Wolfgang Pross, that modern conceptions of culture have arisen. If, in the view of those pioneers, some divine power cannot longer be assumed, once and forever, to mind what humans are and what makes them distinct from (other) animals, and if, on the other hand, it is also objectionable for humans to think of themselves as mechanical in nature and preprogrammed like any machine, one is in need of a third way of understanding. So culture, or dialogical exchange with some instance or entity that is partly independent of humans, yet co-developing with them, opened a route to a viable alternative. That those eggs, astonishingly well framed by J.G. Herder and his contemporaries, took two centuries to breed and hatch, is our problem indeed, not theirs.

Their proposal, unfortunately, very early became a side-stream, deluged not only by the ideal of eternal, dependable laws of reason and nature, but also repressed by the fascination with the powerful ego-conscious subject "Man" who, subjugating nature for his own ends, strove to replace outfashioned divinity. From around the middle of the 19th well into the 20th century, so Christa Schneider and Martin Müller review Voelkerpsychologie and Ethnopsychology, the embeddedness of individuals in, and their incessant contribution to their particular communality, has been propagated not only by the outsider Moritz Lazarus -- by the way, apparently the first person in the world to officially hold a chair for psychology from 1862-1866 at the University of Bern --, but also by that presumed prototype of the main-streamers, Wilhelm Wundt himself (see also Galliker 1993). Alas, European and American psychologists alike have preferred to perceive and elaborate only half of their founding fathers' beliefs. Contradictions notwithstanding, these secular believers in science-based progress devoted themselves to formulating the eternal laws reigning human behavior and, at the same time, declared their civilization to be the model of man which humans of other cultures had fallen behind and should be brought to by all means including replacement of their indigenous cultures by that "advanced" version that itself did not even bother to understand human-culture-systems.

Obviously, there are methodological circles of alarming implicitness working in the course of our thinking as well as in scientific research. To what extent do our preconceptions enter our methods? How can we make certain that our methods do bring to the fore more than what we have put into them? Jürg Wassmann provides a convincing case, where interdisciplinary co-operation, here between psychologist and cultural anthropologist, can open surprising horizons. When trying to disclose the cognitive order for foodstuffs used in a particular culture, they got at least three quite different classification systems depending both on situational context and on the methods used to make the implicit manifest. Contrasting ways of grouping food and attributing meaning are manifest contingent upon whether people speak to the researchers, converse among themselves, or act preparing meals.

Several of our studies investigate particular topics as examples of human-culture-systems. Michael Cole and Eugene Subbotsky argue from the vantage point of the Vygotskian cultural-historical school. But they also object to one of that theory's basic tenets, namely the idea that higher mental processes are in principle to replace older layers. If it is the former rather than the latter that dominate social practice, then higher symbolic processes in turn determine the buildup of the mentality of those growing up in a given social system. The authors review three pertinent lines of their research that cast some doubt on clean distinctions between lower and higher levels of mental processes and suggest multilayered culture systems to exist both within individuals and in interactive practice. Mental processes are highly dependent upon contextual circumstances of their use.

A field where mutual fructification of different levels of psychological functioning appears essential indeed is the aesthetic. Christian G. Allesch explores Boesch's cultural psychology as a psychological aesthetic on the background of Baumgarten and Kant's wide conception of this field. Allesch argues convincingly that aesthetics has been reduce to the "beautiful" or to some psychology of art to its great disadvantage. Analyzing the traces people leave in the environment and then re-trace, artistic or other and their own or those of others, is proposed as a task for cultural psychology.

Traces or "footprints" is also the metaphor, Urs Fuhrer suggests to explicate the concept of "Cultivation" originally proposed by Georg Simmel in attempting to relate what he called subjective and objective culture. Culture must be seen as "located" both inside and outside of subjects, and cultivation takes place as well as on intra-personal and on inter-personal levels. Fuhrer illustrates his dynamic conception of human-culture-systems by reviewing portions of his studies on place attachment and leisure mobility demonstrating cultivation processes directed at the home or the vehicle.

The home or residential settings is also the field Roderick J. Lawrence exploits in order to explicate his cultural and historical reinterpretation of the concept of structure. His analysis of various versions of structuralist theory from different disciplines points to the lack of differentiation between implicit cognitive and explicit institutional structures. If clearly distinguished, they can be shown to form an integrated corpus of shared knowledge, conventions and rules, that simultaneously enable and constrain individuals and groups to produce and reproduce material culture. Glimpses into studies on the development of urban housing and domesticity demonstrate the benefits of this integrated approach.

While most of the above studies implicitly or explicitly struggle for a conceptualization of the relationship between cultural matter and cultural meaning, Jürgen Straub places his discourse on humans and culture unequivocally within the medium of natural language as a mirror of a subject's conscious experience. The common past or history is a power to which any member of a group inevitably concedes. If we conceive, Straub argues, collective memory as an aspect of culture that determines an individual's actions, then we have to understand how the collective past is constructed. He offers a constructivist perspective of past and culture and relates it critically to modern memory research.

Constructivist approaches essentially of cognitivistic orientation run the risk of encapsulating the individual within her construction of the world and herself. Ultimately this turns out simply the converse of the present mainstream contention to see humans as products of adaptive processes to some given world which they simply mirror in their lawfulness. Bernd Krewer unfolds this contradiction in our conceptions of humans by opposing approaches to cross-cultural and cultural psychologies which are hunting to separate the universal from the contingent or, conversely, seeking to understand the autoregulation of systems that include persons and their environment. Krewer reviews four variants of culture psychological theories (Boesch, Cole, Shweder, and Valsiner), using features of action as a medium of comparison. One can hardly avoid the conclusion that something should be done to evade that venerate segregration of the cultural from the natural.

Rejection of the nature-culture dichotomy is also, combined with evolutionary semiotics, Eugene Halton's footing. He describes the cultivation process as a living, social metaboly of signs reaching from the inmost recesses of persons to a qualitative, physical, and significant environment. Fully open to contingent, spontaneous, and purposive growth and decay, this view calls for a fuller image of humans: homo faber and sapiens complemented with homo ludens and symbolicus. Halton argues with Peirce towards suspecting rationality as an immature form of reason.

Is a constructionism conceivable that sees construction as formation of any kind of structures which are neither random nor determined by necessity but which in turn are capable of constituting evolution of ecological systems? Alfred Lang aspires to answer this question in the positive. By "structure", he designates anything that we can consistently point out, directly or indirectly. Trying to understand, for instance, why humans construct houses and arrange and harbor or handle the artifactual contents of their dwellings, he sees external, cultural structures built up in specific manner over the centuries as serving, on a larger scale, in a role equivalent and corresponding to the internal, individual memory structures in our brain-minds. Like so many recent authors in various sciences, Lang suggests to give up Cartesian separations between mind and matter and between subject and object, and then to see, how human-culture-systems can be described as constituting themselves in open-ended autoregulative development. A new conceptual methodology is required; it can be constructed by elaborating on Peircean triadic semiotics.

As no attentive reader will deny, these contributions to cultural psychology present no simple nor single place for culture in psychology. Is this a goal to attain or perhaps to avoid? In view of human and cultural diversity, should we strive for one universal conception or should we rather single out a multiplicity of facets of humankind's culturality? Too early to decide, but time to remind ourselves the benefits of thinking on different levels of generality. If dialogue among distinctive approaches to the cultural environment in psychology is to take place and if culture is to become more than the speciality of another one of the many branches of psychology, discourse on at least one very general level is mandatory, whatever variety of approaches are appropriately cultivated in particular perspectives.

Indeed, our authors do not insist on any particular culture concept; they mostly do not even bother to define the term technically and thus they leave room for various kinds of discourse. On the other hand, their recourse to concepts of action and interpretation in some form or other reveals that they all obviously are guided by a common general organizing idea. We cannot better summarize this Leitmotiv than in the words of Georg Simmel's psychological analysis of the process. The mind, we translate from Simmel (1911:116), "generates innumerable formations which go on to exist in peculiar autonomy, independent of the mind that produced them and also of any other who adopts or spurns them. [...] In the midst of this dualism [of the endless process between the subject and the object] dwells the idea of culture [...]: as the way of the mind to itself."

Culture, like life, cannot be predicted by natural law. At the same time, no such law is invalidated by life's or culture's unlikely careers. Like justice, nature itself appears to leave space of free movement amidst its lawfulness. And this must hold for its derivatives. Indeed, whatever is actualized in human-culture systems, it is from the vast expanse between the necessary and the impossible. So we believe that psychology has to reconsider its place in the concert of natural and cultural or mental sciences. Natural and logical necessities cannot be absolutely universal, because further possibilities arise with every new formation added, if we accept open cosmic, biotic, personal, and cultural evolution. If anything, humans live in a real world of which they are as much a part as they contribute specifically to its reality, because, by their very essence, they co-create themselves in culture.



Boesch, Ernst E. (1982) Von der Handlungstheorie zur Kulturpsychologie. Abschiedsvorlesung, Philosophische Fakultät der Universität des Saarlandes. Saarbrücken, 28. Juni 1982. 29 Pp. (see also: Handlungstheorie und Kulturpsychologie. Psychologische Beiträge 30, 1988, 233-247.

Boesch, Ernst E. (1991) Symbolic action theory and cultural psychology. Berlin, Springer. 387 Pp.

Galliker, Mark (1993) Zur Verkörperung des Gedankens im Gegenstande: zur kontroversen Begründung der Völkerpsychologie. Psychologische Rundschau 44 (1) 11-24.

Simmel, Georg (1911) Der Begriff und die Tragödie der Kultur. Pp. 116-147 in : Das individuelle Gesetz. M. Landmann (Ed.). Frankfurt, Suhrkamp. (English in: The conflict in modern culture. K.P. Etzkorn (Ed.). New York, Teacher's College Press, 1968.)



1 The editors, in their role as organizers of the Merligen Symposium, wish to express their gratitude for financial support to the Swiss National Science Foundation (Grant 11-31847.91), the Swiss Academy of Human Sciences and the Swiss Society of Psychology, the Max and Elsa Beer-Brawand Foundation and the Migros Genossenschaftsbund. They also thank Michael Cole for stylistic advice in finishing this introduction.

2 The following is a complete alfabetical list of contributions to be published in 1993 in either the Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Psychologie (Vol 52, No. 2) or the Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratrory for Comparative Human Cognition (Vol. 15, No.1 and a later issue). Issues are availabe at the Center for Human Information Processing at the University of California at San Diego ($ 6.25 + costs, Fax: +619 534 77 46) or at Verlag Hans Huber, Bern (sFr. 26.- + costs, Fax +31 24 33 80; + 31 302 24 80 from September 25, 1993)

Allesch, Christian G. (Salzburg): The Aesthetic as a Psychological Aspect of Man-Environment Relations, or: Ernst E. Boesch as an Aesthetician. (SZP)

Boesch, Ernst E. (Saarbrücken): The Sound of the Violin. (LCHC, SZP)

Cole, Michael; Subbotsky, Eugene (San Diego Ca.; Lancaster GB): The Fate of Stages Past: Reflections on the Heterogeneity of Thinking from the Perspective of CulturalÐhistorical Psychology. (SZP)

Fuhrer, Urs (Bern): Living in our own Footprints Ñ and in those of Others: Cultivation as Transaction. (LCHC, SZP)

Halton, Eugene (Notre Dame Ind.): Between Play and Purpose. (LCHC fall)

Krewer, Bernd (Saarbrücken): Action Theory and Cultural Psychology [in French]. (SZP)

Lang, Alfred (Bern): Non-Cartesian Artifacts in Dwelling Activities: Steps towards a Semiotic Ecology. (LCHC fall, SZP)

Lawrence, Roderick J. (Geneva): Reinterpretation of Cognitive, Institutional and Material Structures in an Integrative Historical Perspective. (LCHC)

Pross, Wolfgang (Bern): Historical Aspects of Cultural Psychology. (LCHC fall)

Schneider, Christa; Müller Martin (Zürich; Berlin): The Psychology of Peoples Ñ Origin and Development in Cultural Psychology Perspective [in German]. (SZP)

Straub, Jürgen (Erlangen): Collective Memory and Collective Past as Constituents of Culture: an Action-Theoretical and Culture-Psychological Perspective. (SZP)

Wassmann, Jürg (Basel and Nijmegen): When Actions Speak Louder than Words: the Classification of Food among the Yupno of Papua New Guinea. (LCHC)

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