The Logic of Interpretive Inquiry

Martin Packer
Department of Psychology
Duquesne University
(412) 396-4852

Presented at the Symposium
"Toward a Cultural Psychology of Development" Society for Research in Child Development, Indianapolis, March 1995

I want this morning to examine some of the methodological issues that are raised when one adopts a cultural approach to human development. Such an approach, I begin by bluntly asserting, leads us to see the endpoint of development not as an ahistorical universal but as a culturally and historically defined endpoint, and to see the process of development as neither the formal resolution of logical contradictions, nor the causal consequence of a-rational rewards and punishments, but as a cultural process, a social process, in which children become members of communities. These communities, in their shared and contested practices, define and debate what is meant by the logical and the contradictory, what counts as the rational and the irrational.

For example, from this viewpoint, the capacity for formal operations, to speak in Piagetian terms, isn't the logically inevitable outcome of a natural developmental process, a process centered on the cognitive structures of the individual, but a culturally defined and historically situated definition of maturity: a product of the western epoch that has called itself, with disarmingly direct arrogance, "enlightenment."

These are the modest proposals I begin with. I shall not either expand on them or try to justify them here: I'll assume that you wouldn't be here if you didn't share assumptions such as these. Instead I want to move onward to consider the methodological implications of trying to trace and study human learning and development in human activity in its cultural and historical setting.

In particular, I want to explore the consequences of three key characteristics of human activity, and of the artifacts that this activity produces and works with. These characteristics are, first, that activity and artifacts operate in context, not in abstraction; they are situated in a human world. Second, they have a symbolic or semiotic structure that opens them to a variety of possible readings, and lends them an inherent ambiguity. Third, they are historical and temporally unfolding processes.

What I believe is called for is a methodological approach that differs in interesting ways from both the formal cognitive modeling and the experimental design of research that are currently typical. Cognitivism tries to explain human activity as the product, the output, of formal mental processes of representation and computation; experimentalism seeks explanation in the form of observed regularities amongst measured variables. Both approaches fail to deal adequately with the three characteristics I've just mentioned - and which I'll consider now in turn.

1. Context

First, context. Many of the presenters in these two symposia have emphasized the importance of context. Jackie Goodnow talks of "contextualizing development," and of "describing cultural contexts." Geoff Saxe talks of the analysis of social "environments"; Cathy Cooper of "multiple worlds." The ultimate context, perhaps, is 'culture' in the sense of the diverse cultures that Robert LeVine and Rick Shweder have discussed. But culture can also be found on the micro level (as Mike Cole has shown us): the context of the local situation is cultural too.

I believe that context is best understood as an inter-related network of artifacts, of tools and signs and equipment, that is energized through human practical activity. The chairs and tables and other artifacts in this room provide the context to our activity here: and the utterances we speak are artifacts too, shaped by our activity, becoming elements of this context.

The need to study context introduces an ethnographic phase into research: it calls for first-hand experience of the settings in which human activity occurs, and in which the developments we're interested in appear. Perhaps this first-hand experience can be approximated through open-ended conversations and interviews, but it cannot be entirely replaced. I spent two years hanging out with the children in a pre-school kindergarten class, and that experience was invaluable; it helped me interpret and analyze the video-recordings I made. First, it gave me a sense of the tone and climate of the school, and the style and manner of the children. The affective level of human activity is quickly lost when action is reduced to a grammar or to the values of variables, but that level plays a central role in the organization of practical activity, and of the developments the presenters have been talking about today. Affect is the way a network of artifacts is engaged.

In addition to the affective level, practical engagement with the artifacts of a context is quite different from the detached, objective observation of these artifacts -another reason an ethnographic component is called for in cultural psychology. To understand the common-sense that the participants in a context employ -- and, as Clifford Geertz has insisted, this common-sense is a cultural system -- we need to encounter it first hand.

Another way to think about this: whatever they are, the phenomena of interest to psychologists have already been understood and interpreted by the people who deal with them everyday. No matter how a researcher codes and analyses classroom interactions, for instance, these interactions have already been understood and interpreted by the teacher and students who experience them first hand. The distinction between "emic" or "experience-near" and "etic" or "experience-distant" concepts is often invoked to make this point. If researchers are to gain an adequate understanding of classroom phenomena, they must uncover the way the participants understand things, and the best way to do this - perhaps the only way - is to spend time with them.

This raises additional methodological concerns. The researcher has to find an appropriate entry to the culture, and must recognize that one is always already in a culture, which one must struggle to become aware of, both to understand what it is, and to understand how the common-sense of the research participants is different. And in order to do this successfully, the psychologist must find a way to encounter a culture that is, initially at least, foreign, alien, and other.

What is involved here is attention to the influence of the preconceptions and pre-understanding of the researcher, and the ways these shape and direct research, from the selection of sites through the analysis of material to the writing of reports. We are so embarrassed by anything that may seem a lapse in objectivity that we fail to recognize that our preconceptions play a positive and necessary part in any research project. Without them we'd be fish out of water: apparently uncontaminated, but actually floundering.

2. Structure

But the phase in which the developmental psychologist goes native, so to speak, is only a first step. The problem with a first person immersion in the culture of a people, or in a local situation like the classroom, is that it doesn't deal well with the second characteristic of human action that I've noted. The openness of action to more than one reading is neglected in first-person experience, because we all tend, in our everyday cultured dealings with one another, to latch onto the first reading that works. Jokes exploit this fact, to good effect. To make the ambiguity of human actions visible requires their objectification, and a more careful examination of their structure than the ethnographic stance allows.

The issue of structure is a little tricky - for it may seem as though structure is just what cognitivist and statistical methods are great at. Certainly, formal analysis and statistical description both have a great deal to offer in this second phase. But what's also involved here is what can be called the structure of possibilities. Let me try to explain what I mean.

Cognitivism in developmental psychology has typically employed a distinction between competence and performance, and asserted that human activity is filled with 'performance errors,' with false starts, processing glitches, the effects of limited capacity and contextual influences, so that it cannot be a proper object of study. Instead, we study 'underlying competence' - the cognitive structures that supposedly generate performance - but these structures are decontextualized, unambiguous, and atemporal (think of de Saussure's la langue).

Similarly, the narrow empiricism that reduces phenomena to measured values on various 'instruments' also fails to grasp the kind of structure I'm referring to here: the inherent ambiguity of human actions: the way they can be read in more than one way. This is lost in the rating, ranking, coding, and categorizing that are central to measurement, because they eliminate ambiguity and impose a single reading.

Describing the structure of possibility in human activity and human artifacts is not a matter of removing them completely from their context, or eliminating their temporal organization. Rather, it's a matter of working to understand how an artifact relates to the contextual whole of which it is a part, how it is involved in the dynamic and ongoing structuring of that context, and so how it plays a part in the re-structuring of human capacities that is human development. The structural description of a sentence-grammar, say, is not a description of the structured possibilities for reading and understanding that sentence. The measured properties of an artifact - its size, mass, color... - do not begin to describe the different possible roles it can play in a specific context.

After all, it's the structured ambiguities of activity and artifacts that provide the opportunities for learning and development. To develop is to create newly structured ways of grasping artifacts, so as to comprehend more clearly and deeply their possibilities... This is one way artifacts -- the tools and texts of everyday life -- mediate human action and influence human development.

A variety of methods are in fact available for this kind of objectifying analysis. Conversation analysis, narrative and argument analysis, and related techniques, objectify human interaction and its products without stripping them from place and time, and tease apart their human organization. These approaches target the verbal forms produced in and as interaction, but there are also related efforts to investigate the many other kinds of cultural products : works of art, cups of coffee, automobile parts, dance performances, music...

3. History

The third characteristic of human activity and its artifacts is the way they unfold over time: their historical character. This is clearest with the artifacts of speech: utterances are produced, in a temporally organized manner; they linger fleetingly in the air; then after a moment they are gone. But the same kind of thing can be said, with a longer time span, of, say, an automobile. (I've been working in the industrial midwest for a while now.) You might think that none of this is history, which surely works on a longer time-scale, but - although I don't want to intrude into the space of John Modell's presentation in this symposium ("Can their be a social history of development), I've greatly enjoyed reading the paper he distributed, and John makes a point I'd like to resonate with here: we need to understand how interaction, and the psychological development it can lead to, are not only shaped by historical conditions, but actively feed forward, as it were, to become part of, to make, historical change.

And we examine history in this sense when we consider human activity as a creative appropriation of resources that a cultural tradition has made available to us - appropriation in order to create novel artifacts.

Now, when we watch a video-tape, or listen to an audio-tape, or read a transcript -- as many of us do in our research -- it is easy to read the endpoint of the activity back into its beginning. Cognitive explanations of human behavior have seduced us into assuming that when someone starts to speak, for example, the whole grammatical structure of their utterance is laid out in advance. But human activity isn't like this: getting from the start of a sentence to its end is a creative activity, a process of improvisation that can involve self-discovery and even self-transformation. We need, in our methodology, to become aware of the ways our professional techniques of objectification -- video, audio, transcribing -- transform and distort the temporal character, the historical character, of our raw material, our data.

So a third phase of research within cultural psychology involves the reconstruction of activity as a creative improvisation: the innovative production of artifacts; the extension of human capacities; in contexts that are, as John Modell points out, characterizing Vygotsky's account of development, "open to being affected by the way individuals develop" (p. 5).


So, to conclude - The basic research strategy of a cultural developmental psychology is to study the practical activities children are engaged in, and the social and historical settings in which these activities occur, in order to understand how children's capacities are extended and transformed.

I've suggested that what's needed is an approach to the study and analysis of human activity that appreciates its unfolding in time, its openness to more than one reading, and its embeddedness in context. There are in fact a range of analytic approaches that take such characteristics into account, and I encourage you all to explore them.

I've also proposed that three phases of research are involved . The first is one of ethnographic participation; the second involves an objectification, in order to describe the semiotic structure of the possibilities of activity and its artifacts; the third phase is the reconstruction of activity as a creative and transforming response to the demands of a context and the others participating in it. These three can be arranged in a hegelian dialectic: as a phase of immediacy, a phase of mediation, and a final phase in which the researcher is aware of the ways the object of analysis has been defined by his or her purposes and analytic strategies, and by the research enterprise as a whole. This reconstruction doesn't claim to be an objective, final, complete explanation of the ways development takes place: it will always be a 'partial' reconstruction; shaped, directed and organized by the preconceptions of the researcher and by the paradigm of inquiry we work within -- and so it is shaped too by the times in which we live. That's not a weakness of research in cultural psychology, but one of its strengths.