Alfred Lang

University of Bern, Switzerland

Edited Book Chapter 1998

Transactionalism --

What could it be? (Comment)


@CuPsy @DevPsy @Method

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Pp. 267-275 in Görlitz, Dietmar; Harloff, Hans Joachim; Mey, Günter & Valsiner, Jaan (Eds., 1998) Children, Cities, and Psychological Theories -- Developing Relationships. Berlin, DeGruyter.

© 1998 by Alfred Lang

Scientific and educational use permitted

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Oerter's Transactionalism Condensed

Some Implications

Is Oerters Transactionalism Going Beyond?  


"Transactionalism" -- like most goods thrown onto the intellectual market by modern psychology -- comes in various versions. In order to comment upon Rolf Oerter's rendition, I shall first attempt to condense it to its essentials. To be fair to Oerter's transactionalism, it should be compared with notions given to that term by other transactionalists, contemporary and earlier ones[1], and I think it would compare favorably with many. Unfortunately, lack of space prevents this approach. Instead, I limit myself to an evaluation of some of Oerter's essential points in relation to general conceptual elements and thereby perhaps further elucidate the potential of a transactional perspective. I have to resist the temptation to sketch a simpler and more comprehensive version of the ecological situation (see Lang 1988, 1992, 1993). To some degree I must rely on inferences about implications hidden in Oerter's view. I might well err in that attempt, but it is my hope that this approach will help everyone to approach an adequate understanding of humans in culture, both in general and in view of children in the city. I write deliberately in the spirit of constructive criticism of a set of ideas, not of the person having presented them. For I am convinced that psychology as a science suffers from too many publications not as carefully read as they are written and from a scatter of ever new constructions advanced without a solid enough foundation.


Oerter's Transactionalism Condensed

In the chapter I was asked to comment upon, I can discern 14 manifest assumptions. Obviously, they have to be thought of by the reader as forming a system, whereas I have to present them one after the other. I make liberal use of quotations and paraphrases without explicit markings. I also use catch-terms and bracketed numbers for easy identification of each assumption.


[1] Ecosystems. Individual subjects and their environment(s) as collections of objects (in a wide sense) together constitute ecological systems, in particular the human ecosystem integrating people and culture.

[2] Action. Action as the specifically human form of behavior is the crucial explanatory concept; it integrates the individual and the environment into a functioning whole. Action is what subjects do to the environment; action also has effects back onto the subject.

[3] Reification. By their actions individuals produce, change, and use "objects". Objects comprise all that can become a focus of human conscious awareness. By acting, subjects transport their personal ideas, designs, and goals into their environment.

[4] Internalization. By his or her acting, the individual also transforms the ideas inherent in environmental objects into his or her own knowledge and action possibilities.

[5] Transaction. Cause-and-effect transfer between individual and environment is called transaction in the ecosystem. Transactionalism has the task of explaining this bidirectional or mutual transfer, that is, of specifying its conditions and consequences.

[6] Subjectivation. Consciousness and identity are formed by rearranging parts of the environment in a personal way and thus integrating and harmonizing aspects of reality into any individual's cognitive structure and providing for his or her emotional security.

[7] Objectivation. In view of the fact that most of the world exists independently of oneself, any person's actions must be adapted to the laws of reality, both physical and logical.

[8] Fourfold transaction. Internalization and reification can both operate in the service of objectivation and subjectivation. Transactions can thus be grouped into four types: objectivating reification, subjectivating reification, objectivating internalization, and subjectivating internalization.

[9] Inclusively psychological. The four types of transactional processes include self- or identity-related perspectives and emotional ramifications as well as cognitive-factual structures and events.

[10] Bidirectional Balance. Mutual, or bidirectional, transactions can be more or less balanced. Good balance is required for the integration of individuals and the environment in a functioning whole.

[11] Isomorphism. Objective (cultural) and subjective (personal) structures demand a minimal degree of isomorphism.

[12] Action Theory. Transaction and isomorphism are best explained in terms of action theory. Its key notions are object-relatedness (i.e., intentionality) and goal-directedness (i.e., the actor, while incited by the objects, will eventually dominate them within the constraints of their reality).

[13] Social (Inter-)Action. Objects to which individuals relate themselves through their actions are largely shared among people interacting socially. By relating themselves to shared objects (things, knowledge, values), people are relating themselves also to each other.

[14] Culture. Transaction cannot be fully understood exclusivlye in terms of individual and social interaction alone. Culture, or the "man-made part of the environment", is the typically human ecosystem positioned between human beings and the natural environment. Culture comprises material objects (things and settings), mental objects (ideas and norms), and psychological objects (individual cognitive and emotional conscious states and traits).


Some Implications

My above condensations are explicit in Oerter's article. His view evidently also includes a set of implications that might be quite important for understanding his transactionalism. Let me venture three of them.

[I] Development. Oerter construes his transactionalism only implicitly in the context of development. That context might seem to him to be self-evident. Unfortunately, it leaves the reader uncertain as to what notion of development Oerter adopts. Whether he follows, say, a Vygotskian or a Piagetian approach, makes a big difference. If he follows Vygotsky, primal causes of everything, to abridge radically, are assumed to reside within this world; if he follows Piaget, they are assumed to reside beyond it. It is also necessary to know what exactly, in Oerter's view, develops and in what respect. Is it individual subjects or the people together with their cultural environment? When individual subjects are seen as primarily given, is their being of a biotic or a cultural character? Can it be gained and lost? When humans act goal-directedly, is their development a realization of their plans? Is culture as the product of their action the realization of their plans? Of whose plans? When goals are attained, why does development not stop? What is the relation between the evolutions on the biotic, the individual and the cultural level?

[II] Dualism. Oerter's notion of transaction evidently is of a dualist character. For example, Oerter includes traditional Cartesian thought, according to which subjects and objects are of essentially different nature [1, 2, 9, 12, 14], but he also postulates them to be isomorphic [11]. In addition, this dualism has counterparts in every one of the four bidirectional transaction types [3, 4; 6, 7]. Action, or cause and effect [2, 5], generally is a conception of the dyadic form "B follows from A". The ideal of modern sciences is to explain everything on such a basis while it has accepted chance as one kind of it. Yet evolution cannot be accounted for in this way. Dyadic systems based on oppositions generally are candidates for either overstatic fixation (as in dichotomic concepts and in contradictory oppositions) or vulnerable instability (insofar as the dividing line or middle field in contrary oppositions is usually uncertain or relative). As a consequence, Oerter has to take care of balancing the system [10, 11]. Indeed, one might say that this whole transactional system between subject and object is but an attempt to unite or integrate [2, 5, 10, 13, 14] what had been separated in the first place [1, 12]. It is my contention that a reasonable understanding of the human condition is never gained as long as the essentials of human nature are presupposed rather than investigated. Although the claim that human nature essentially differs from the rest of nature is common in the history of ideas in the Western cultures, it is hard to reconcile with the known course and openness of bioevolution.

[III] Primacy of System Elements. Speaking of ecosystems constituted by subjects and their environments [1] seems to imply that subjects and environments precede their ecosystems at least in a logical sense, although organism--environment ecosystems of various kinds undeniably have a phylogenetic history and are a (indeed, the only) precondition for the emergence of the human--culture systems under discussion. In addition, on the ontogenetic level, sociocultural ecosystems must be present for persons and cultural objects to transact. The question arises whether the idea of an ecosystem should be considered a synthetic or an analytic concept, that is, whether ecosystems are composed of separate and preexisting entities (of an essentially different nature) or whether they are parts and qualities of one emerging whole. Whereas Oerter appears to favor the former, I argue for the latter and thus appeal for the primacy of the organization constituting its parts [III']. In this alternative view culture is neither a thing created by a priori given persons nor in any way an a priori itself, but rather an aspect of a system wherein both persons and their cultural environment reciprocally create each other when communities of symbolizing animals live together on the basis of collective environmental memory in addition to their instinctual and experience based individual internal memory functions.


Is Oerter's Transactionalism Going Beyond?

It appears essential, then, to have concepts for this process of mutual generation of entities in the course of history on several levels. Presupposed entitities can interact in mutually influencing each other; yet in order to constitute each other, entities must be capable of having effects beyond the immediately given. We have to give an account of that reaching beyond the actual. It appears to be crucial that they must change something or each other in such a way that the developing conditions of everything involved become different. That is, they must bring about something that in turn has effects going beyond. It is the basic function of memory in the broadest possible sense of being capable to have effects related to its origin at a later time and different place. Whether memory within organisms takes the form of phylogenetic stream or ontogenetic organization or, among people, the form of culture is of secondary importance. The prefix "trans" is perhaps a suitable term to indicate genetic connectedness of everything involved as part and parcel of one evolutive stream.

Let me begin my specific comments by commending Oerter for this carefully elaborated design of a system of ideas. Nevertheless, I find Oerter's transactionalism wanting because it does not do justice to both the bonds and freedoms of the evolving human condition. His article also suffers from not explicating something that might seem self-evident to the author but the reader absolutely needs in order to make transactionalism fruitful: the pertinence of transaction for constituting development. On the other hand, Oerter relies without reflection, in my opinion, on something that appears natural to nearly everybody and yet that needs to be critically thought through: do humans really have an absolutely special place in the whole of the world and are they -- to use the words of Kant -- ends in themselves rather than means as well?

In its overall disposition, Orter's transactionalism reminds of Ernst E. Boesch's cultural psychology which is also rooted in action theory (e.g. Boesch 1980, 1991). Boesch does not ordinarily use the term "transaction"; yet what he deals with in terms of "subjectivation of the objective" and "objectivation of the subjective" in the double sense of changes in both the subject and the environment could have been a model to Oerter's internalizing and reifying processes in the double perspective of objectivation and subjectivation. On the other hand, Boesch's Symbolic Action Theory is a comprehensive approach to humans in the condition of culturality whereas in Oerter's transactionalism transaction and culture appear as added features or levels [14] rather than an intrinsic constituent of the human condition. Boesch (1980) also has originally extended a Piagetian perspective by introducing a more bi-directional person-environment relation. Culture, however, is understood by Boesch essentially as the Subject--Object relation itself. Oerter rightly sees in culture a human achievement but he disregards its constituting character as creating humans out of members of the biotic species homo sapiens. Once in culture, humans cannot but live culturally.

The fact that autonomous subjects act is seen to be basic by both theorists. Boesch conceives of an intimate connection between persons, things, and symbols, whereas Oerter proceeds by adding social interaction with other humans as a first enhancement [13], and transaction with objects, as a second [5, 8, 14]. Transaction thus, in the end, appears as instrumental in serving the self-realization of humans [12; Boesch 1991]. Whereas Boesch's understanding seems at times both to gain and to suffer from rather fluid boundaries between subject and object, there remains no doubt about their fundamental difference, Oerter evidently has them separate in principle and thus in need of coordination [10, 11]. As a consequence, both Boesch and Oerter fail to explicitly give a central place and role to open evolution of the human-environment system as a whole on either the individual or the cultural level. Oerter, although aware of shortcomings of modern psychology, hesitates to adopt a perspective that takes human culturality and historicity as serious as the traditional physical, biological, and logical foundations of this science. One needs to understand what Oerter means by "cause-and-effect transfer between individual and environment" [5].

In "my" fourteen essentials of Oerter's transactionalism I can discern structural [1, 11, 13, 14], process-oriented [2 to 9], and regulative [10 to 12] statements. So a potential for explaining evolutive history is present, even though the regulative aspects are weak and one-sided. From the beginning, the ecosystems are introduced by Oerter as too asymmetric in nature, and their parts have characters defined by fixed polarity rather than by their mutual becoming. He sets the stage in a Cartesian backdrop by supposing subjects to be the only active agents, and objects to be passive with respect to subjects. Yet he also supposes objects to behave according to laws of their own. So the question remains how objects can at the same time follow their own laws and be subject to the influence of actions of independent subjects. As a consequence of Oerter's view, objects should have to follow double lawfulness which takes them out of the material realm; and subjects should have to be endowed with "magic" or similar capabilities for manipulating objects including their own body. If human individuals are supposed to be specifically endowed -- they alone are said to act, they alone are declared object-related and goal-oriented, they are even asserted to eventually dominate their environment while also adapting to its constraints -- it must be explained how such dispositions can fit into a lawful material world. Oerter seems to imply that human subjects can at the same time behave according to and go beyond the physical world and their laws. Nothing is said as to how they have got to be so different from the rest of the world.

I do not have enough space here to analyse Oerter's several allusions and claims to going beyond the given. It remained unclear to me in what respect and how much his understanding of transaction approaches an evolutive character. He remains strangely bound to the Cartesian presuppositions so dear to most modern psychologists and in large parts of social science. However, intensive discussions among hesitating and radical transactionalists, perhaps, will further the common cause best.

I think it to some extent helpful to investigate Oerter's presumable rationale for a fixed asymmetry and his hesitation of questioning it. Do any of those essentials also pertain to animals, especially large brained animals? I do not ask this question for the sake of preserving or denying any distinction between animal and humans but simply in order to find out about the generality of the stated principles; for Oerter's action concept is claimed to be specifically human [2]. Animals in general are certainly environment-related, and they pursue goals such as finding and selecting food and mates and searching or avoiding various circumstances of living, even anticipating certain regularities of their future. Claiming a specifically human action type thus requires specification. Oerter, like many action theorists, points to some qualitative evolutionary leap without really giving proof (see p. XXX in this volume). I do not deny a difference between instinct-based and planned action; yet both kinds of action are object- or situation-related and purposive in the sense that they can serve functional ends. Indeed, the probability of an instinct attaining its goal is normally much higher than that of planned action; failing instincts are a problem only under changed circumstances.

By introducing an objective cultural realm [3, 11, 13, 14] in addition the subjective mental [4, 6, 9, 11, 14] and material ones [1, 3, 4, 7, 14], Oerter appears to mirror Popper's worlds 3, 2, and 1 respectively. He also seems to presume that individuals are basically single, atomized entities that happen to live multiple but separate existences in one material world (Popper's world 1) and, hence, have to find ways to overcome the separateness of their individual inner worlds. For living together would necessitate explicitly learning to understand the consciousnesses or inner worlds of the others (Popper's world 2). One could imagine that task of learning as dealing with that common world in the common terms of a social system. So people subsequently might have invented and constructed the world of culture (Popper's world 3), the human-made environment, both the materially incorporated and the ideational mental world of "knowledge without a knowing subject" (Popper). This notion is in line with Oerter's view of the human ecosystem's being an achievement of transactions among subjects, that is, of their object-related and goal-directed actions in a common social system. Another question is the status and the relation of this world vis-à-vis the rest of the universe and the role that world transactionally plays on the subject or object side or beyond.

As plausible as this view may appear, it implies that the sociality of human cultural beings is in essence different from the sociality of animals and thus makes humans doubly separate: as a species from other species and as individuals from other individuals. As much as this separation of human individuals from the rest of the world is one crucial and consequential assumption of the enlightenment tradition and the modern world view, it has proven essentially wrong, not only against the background of the facts of bioevolution but also in view of the essentially social nature of higher animal life. Are humans not part of that nature and emergent of it? What does the phylogenetic step to humans add and how does cultural evolution arise out of all previous emergents? Is the individual subjective world genetically prior, simultaneous, or posterior to the objective mental or cultural world? Without saying it, Oerter seems to claim priority for subjective mental. Culture comes about, he says, because human individuals are capable of acting, because of their object-relatedness and goal-directedness.

I would counter this with the claim that animals without language, but with a large forebrain and skillful hands to rely upon in their interactions with their environment are apt to go beyond and change that environment, as with stone axes and other tools as well as with huts and clothes made from animal skins. Sooner or later their gestures and utterances go beyond their inborn coordination with their internal states and important locations and peculiarities of their environment and then really start to explode in scope and usefulness when coordinated with the cultural objects created in a community. In addition to the symbolic character of the things among the people living together, oral language serves an amplifying function in their use and their creative development. Language thus largely increases both coherence and diversity of the intercourse that those people engage in. Culture, or the changed and enriched environment in the function of a common memory, is neither a precondition of human acting nor its simple offshoot but the very process of transaction changing transactants, and it cannot escape being object-related.

A reinterpretation of one of Oerter's examples might illustrate my contention that the majority of cultural and personal innovations are mostly by-products rather than, and at best, attainments of goal-directed actions of individuals. Take children in the urban environment endangered by traffic. Would they and their parents object to crossing streets and do more than verbally protest the inhumane living conditions in the cities? Not usually beyond the point at which such protest wold inflict problems upon themselves. As a rule children and their parents in hazardous urban environments adjust in favor of whatever advantage they expect from their living conditons. Would the parents go for the goal of protecting their children, the kind of reasonable regulative reaction one might expect? That response is precisely what would render their children incapable of moving independently. Some parents do indeed act in this way but the majority accept being incapacitated by the human-generated environment. When children are repeatedly hurt or killed at a certain crossing, local authorities will eventually act to change that peculiar part of the environment if they do not prefer to institute traffic education programs to train the children. Probably little of observable human history is the direct result of planned action by human agents as goal achieving subjects, yet the change of the world brought about by human activity is enormous and so is the ensuing change in the people of the industrialized regions of the planet.



1 In addition to the references cited by Oerter the interested reader might consult the following among further sources giving the term "transaction" a salient role: Dewey and Bentley (1949); Adalbert Ames (see Kilpatrick, F.P., 1961, and Heider, Fritz, 1983); Berne, Eric (1961); Proshansky, Harold (1976); Wapner (1990); see also Wapner's chapter in this volume; Stokols, Daniel & Shumaker, S. A. (1981); Altman, Irwin & Rogoff, Barbara (1987); Altman, Irwin (1990); Altman, Irwin; Brown, Barbara B.; Staples, Brenda & Werner, Carol M. (1992). While these authors present quite various notions of transaction, the most intriguing and fertile among them, in my opinion, is still that of John Dewey (see also Deledalle 1966). Psychologists would do well to study one of their best informed early critics who had started his career as a professor of psychology and then gone beyond.



Altman, Irwin & Rogoff, Barbara (1987) World views in psychology -- trait, interactional, organismic, and transactional perspectives. Pp. 7-40 in: Daniel Stokols & Irwin Altman (Eds.) Handbook of environmental psychology. New York, Wiley.

Altman, Irwin (1990) Toward a transactional perspective: A personal journey. Pp. 225-255 in: Irwin Altman & Kathleen Christensen (Eds.) Environment and behavior studies -- emergence of intellectual traditions. Human Behavior and Environment: Advances in Theory and Research 11. New York, Plenum.Research, Vol. 11.

Altman, Irwin; Brown, Barbara B.; Staples, Brenda & Werner, Carol M. (1992) A transactional approach to close relationships: Courtship, weddings, and placemaking. Pp. 193-241 in: W. Bruce Walsh; Kenneth H. Craik & Richard H. Price (Eds.) Person environment psychology: Models and perspectives. Hillsdale, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Berne, Eric (1961) Transactional analysis in psychotherapy -- asystematic individual and social psychiatry. New York, Grove.

Boesch, Ernst E. (1980) Kultur und Handlung: Einführung in die Kulturpsychologie. Bern, Huber. 270 Pp.

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

Dewey, John & Bentley, Arthur F. (1949) Knowing and the known. Boston, Beacon Press. 334 Pp. (Reprint (1975) Westport Ct., Greenwood).

Deledalle, Gérard (1966) L'idee d'experience dans la philosophie de John Dewey. (Thèse.) Paris, PUF. 570 Pp.

Heider, Fritz (1983) The life of a psychologist. University of Kansas Press. (Dt. (1984) Das Leben eines Psychologien -- eine Autobiographie. Bern, Huber).

Kilpatrick, F.P. (1961) Explorations in transactional psychology. New York, Holt.

Lang, Alfred (1988) Die kopernikanische Wende steht in der Psychologie noch aus! - Hinweise auf eine ökologische Entwicklungspsychologie. Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Psychologie 47 (2/3) 93-108.

Lang, Alfred (1992 a) Kultur als 'externe Seele' -- eine semiotisch-ökologische Perspektive. Pp. 9-30 in: Christian Allesch; Elfriede Billmann-Mahecha & Alfred Lang (Eds.) Psychologische Aspekte des kulturellen Wandels. Wien, Verlag des Verbandes der wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaften Österreichs.

Lang, Alfred (1993a ) Non-Cartesian artefacts in dwelling activities -- steps towards a semiotic ecology. Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Psychologie 52 (2) 138-147.

Oerter, Rolf (in this volume) What is transactionalism? An action-theory approach and its implications. Görlitz; Harloff; Valsiner & Mey (Eds.) Children, cities, and psychological theories -- developing relationships. Berlin, DeGruyter.

Proshansky, Harold (1976) Environmental psychology and the real world. American Psychologist 3 (4) 303-310.

Stokols, Daniel & Shumaker, S. A. (1981) People in places: A transactional view of settings. Pp. 441-488 in: J.H. Harvey (Ed.) Cognition, social behavior, and the environment. Hillsdale, Erlbaum.

Wapner, Seymour (1990) One-person-in-his-environment. Pp. 257-290 in: Irwin Altman & Kathleen Christensen (Eds.) Environment and behavior studies -- emergence of intellectual traditions. Human Behavior and Environment Advances in Theory and Research 11.

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