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Research Projects

My central research interest concerns the ways children become adults and mature members of society, and how people learn in and through social interaction. 

The following is a brief account of the series of studies I have conducted that have been organized by this interest.

A "New Look" to English Developmental Psychology

My current research remains a logical extension of a line of work that had its origins in my undergraduate training in developmental psychology. I studied as an undergraduate at Cambridge University at a time when the status of psychology as a natural science was being challenged on several fronts.  Martin Richards edited "The integration of the child into a social world," a book in which British developmentalists proposed that development is a social, not a cognitive, process.  This debate has defined the scope and purpose of my own work since. 

The focus in Cambridge in 1975 when I graduated was on social interaction as the locus of the developmental process.  Martin Richards had just published the edited collection titled "The integration of the child into a social world," collating British work which it is clear in retrospect began to define a social constructivism that can be contrasted with the Piagetian constructivism that sees the individual child's actions in a material environment as the basis for construction of universal cognitive structures of space, time, object, and causation. This social constructivism viewed the processes that cause learning and development as social practices which even the newborn infant is caught up in. 

Studying these social practices required research techniques that were new at the time, and were made possible in part by the availability of new technologies like the portable videotape recorder (I was soon to be lugging a Sony Porta-Pak around central London on public transportation), by the new English translations of a continental tradition of interpretive social science, and by ground-breaking Anglo-American work influenced by this tradition (Berger & Luckmann's "Social construction of reality"; Garfinkel's "Ethnomethodology" among others).


It's not irrelevant that while not at university I worked in the Department of Computing and Statistics, in the Medical Research Council's Clinical Research Center, at Northwick Park Hospital in London. There I got a thorough grounding in computers and computation, enough to spark both an enduring fascination with these amazing machines, and an appreciation of just how different they are from humans, so that computational models and metaphors, whether algorithmic or heuristic, provide little insight into human phenomena.

Bedford College / St. Mary's Hospital

Working after graduation as a research assistant to Prof. Brian Foss at Bedford College in the University of London on an interdisciplinary study at St. Mary's Hospital  in Paddington (where Fleming discovered penicillin) I began the first of a series of studies of the social interactions in which learning and development take place, using video-recording and microanalysis.  At the same time I began to consider methodological issues, since I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with experimental design and quantitative analyses as techniques for the study of human behavior.  I began to explore the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, Schutz, and Berger and Luckmann. 

My first, small, independent research project concentrated on mother-infant interaction during the first weeks of life, employing time-sampling techniques to try to understand how the dyad coordinated their activity

I began the first of a series of micro-analytic interpretive studies of children's interactions with peers and adults (Packer & Rosenblatt, 1979). 

University of California, Berkeley -- Developmental Psychology

The second project was a case-study of communication in a single mother and infant over the first year of life, and I finally broke away from coding-scheme analyses and started to treat the interaction as a text to be interpreted (Packer, 1983).  By this time I was enrolled as a graduate student in the U. C. Berkeley Department of Psychology (developmental psychology program), having received a Fulbright award for study in the U. S.  I studied with John Watson, Mary Main, Norma Haan, Gerry Mendelson, and others.  I also began studying Heidegger's hermeneutic phenomenology with Prof. Hubert Dreyfus of Berkeley's Department of Philosophy. 

In the third project -- my dissertation research, funded by the Newcombe Foundation -- I examined conflicts among young adults using an interpretive scheme designed to be sensitive to interpersonal moves of intimacy and status and to emotions as movements along these dimensions and as moral valuations (Packer, 1985a, 1985b). 

Far West Laboratory -- Ecological Studies of Teaching

At the same time I was working at the Far West Laboratory, on the Ecological Theory of Teaching project and others, conducting naturalistic research in school classrooms in California, Nevada and Utah (e.g., Packer & Mergendoller, 1989). 

Social Relations in the Kindergarten

The fourth project was a three-year study (funded by NIMH) of peer relations among children in a preschool kindergarten class.  I developed analytical schemes for articulating the projects that individual children pursued over the school year, and the collective realities constructed by groups of children in their play (Packer & Richardson, 1991; Packer & Scott, 1992). 

University of California, Berkeley -- Social and Cultural Studies in Education

During this time Bernard Gifford, then Dean of the School, offered me a teaching position in U. C. Berkeley's newly formed division of Social and Cultural Studies.  There I worked with Jean Lave, Carol Stack, and others. By this time I was committed to work that is interpretive, naturalistic, and longitudinal, and I was keen to pay more attention to the wider contexts in which interaction and learning take place, and to make my work participatory. 

By this time my work had its roots firmly in Heideggerian hermeneutic phenomenology and in a critical social ontology.  In the former, using a hammer in a workshop becomes a metaphor for the way people understand themselves in terms of the project they are involved in and the setting in which they find themselves.  In the latter, labor is viewed as the source of the production of artifacts, the generation of value, the formation of collaborative human groups, and the development of human skills and capacities.  Viewed as a whole, my work is an attempt to pursue some of the implications of a shift that these new roots allow, the shift from a dualist, Cartesian view of the human subject as a mental entity somehow existing in a material but meaningless world, to a non-dualistic ontology, one that locates the human subject in communities of practice, in culture, in ongoing everyday practical activity, and in a world that is always already meaningfully structured.

The implications of this shift include both methodological and substantive strands.  The methodological strand traces the suggestion that the pursuit of knowledge requires not detachment and the observation of facts, but involvement and the interpretation of texts.  Detachment is an illusion, itself socially constructed, and facts are never interpretation-free but are theory-laden, paradigm-defined, and plurivocal. 

The substantive strand amounts to an attempt to rethink the character of human development.  I know this may sound grandiose, but the phrasing simply reflects my efforts to work in an integrated manner on both the abstract and concrete levels, and on the abstract level every developmental psychologist is concerned with the question of how people develop.  The answer to this question looks different if one abandons the Cartesian framework.  To begin with, it becomes apparent that the end-point of development cannot be a universal stage of independence, autonomy, scientific reasoning, and principled morality.  This is at most one possible end-point, defined and valorized by a particular culture at a particular point in its history.  Development, then, cannot be the logical unfolding for an epistemic subject of structures of competence whose organization and sequence are necessary ones, as Piagetian cognitive-developmentalism would have it.  The end-point of development is socially defined (and contested) and the processes of development are social processes.  This is a social constructivism that places emphasis on the negotiated and accomplished character of the practical activities in which artifacts (objects and events) are produced and identities are defined.  My research and writing are directed to the end of elucidating the character of human learning and development viewed from this perspective.

University of Michigan -- Willow Run

My appointment at the University of Michigan made possible the fifth project in this series, which was conducted in the Willow Run school district in south-eastern Michigan, where I studied classroom life as the district struggled to redefine the outcomes of learning and development in response to the economic and political changes that followed the closing of a nearby G.M. assembly plant.  The community grew up around this massive plant, originally a B-29 bomber construction plant, designed and built by Henry Ford during the second world war under contract to the government, and operated very successfully on fordist principles.  As the auto-industry rationalized and consolidated its production facilities, communities in Michigan strove to educate a new workforce that would attract the flexible, entrepreneurial service industries they were told would define America 2000.  But contradictory mandates from the state Department of Education, coupled with competing demands from parents and local businesses and reluctance and even resistance from teachers who consider traditional instruction still effective, made the changes perceived necessary difficult to achieve.  I worked with the Willow Run "Systemic Initiative Committee" as their "official observer," providing formative evaluation as they tried to foster grassroots change that would teach students to be "lifelong learners."  I observed and recorded everyday interaction in classrooms in the elementary, middle and high schools, interviewing students, teachers and administrators, and recording spontaneous conversations among and within these groups. 

In this work I was still concentrating on the ways in which learning and development are social processes moving towards a socially defined endpoint, but I broadened my analysis to include the ways in which children's development is a moment of the reproduction (and transformation) of a community as a political and economic whole.  This required interpretation of classroom management and instruction against the background contexts provided by the institution of the school, the school district, the community, the state and even the nation, seen as undergoing structural economic and political reorganization.  On the abstract level my research question was the broad developmental question: how do children become adults?  But this question necessarily became cast in the form, how does a community arrange for its continuity and reproduction over time by organizing sites where young people are prepared to become responsible citizens and productive workers?  My prime focus was on the social interactions, both instruction and management, that took place in classrooms (and elsewhere in school), but I saw more clearly the importance of interpreting these interactions in the context of the normative expectations of the school as an institution, the outcomes valued by the community in which the school is located, and the state and national economic and political context. 

Because the auto-industry was so central to the culture of this community -- the district was even considering the application of Total Quality Management principles to facilitate the reform process -- it seemed appropriate to call what the schools were doing the "production of persons."  My focus centered on the ways systems of value -- cultural systems -- provided the setting for learning and development, for the construction of artifacts and of people, in large part through the formation of identities in which the contradictions of a social institution are lived as a natural necessity and so define an orientation to the future and a style for living in the present. 

I have become convinced that this kind of research is both more informed and more ethical when it is organized in a participatory manner.  I volunteered my services to the Willow Run Systemic Initiative committee, offering to play a formative evaluation role.  I attended committee meetings and went with the committee to each of the schools in the district to help introduce the notion of systemic change to the teaching staff.  Having this kind of role in the community provided me with a place from which to interpret what is going on, as I asked myself whether changes in the schools were movements in the direction of the goals the committee and the community had defined for themselves.  There remained many ambiguities, of course, but articulating and clarifying them became part of my research task. 


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