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Ways of Theorizing the Social

The social is theorized in different ways. Here we consider two such ways, which radically differ from each other: the social as context, typified in the social constructivist approach, and the social as a phenomenon sui generis,[1] typified in the ethno- methodological and in Vygotsky’s take.

The Social Constructivist Way

After a prominence of Piagetian constructivism, and in the wake of a social constructivist advances in the sociology of science, researchers in psychology and education—becoming aware of the recently translated works of L. S. Vygotsky— also made a social turn. Social constructivism was hailed as an advance over Piagetian constructivism because it made salient that what counts as being-in-the- know does not depend on the individual, who (only) “constructs” “private” “meanings.” Instead, what counts as being-in-the-know is a function of a collective. That collective is thought to be the result of individuals getting together; and, if their “individual” “meanings” differ, these individuals “negotiate” until they come to some form of agreement. That agreed-upon version, which first is the result of social interaction, can then be “internalized” (interiorized) and thereby made individual. Students’ activities in domains such as mathematics and science were understood to be cognitive and social phenomena (e.g. Cobb et al. 1992), a view that brought together but kept separate what happens inside the individual

(cognitive) and what happens between individuals (social). That type of social happens when individuals get together; getting together therefore constitutes the context for individual cognition to occur. As a result, any common practices that emerge are understood to be the result of settled disagreements. Likewise, any rules that come to be established as a result of the interactions and negotiations are understood as having been socially constructed before they are internalized to then determine the behavior of the individual. In a very strong sense, therefore, the social is incidental to the practices and to cognition because the underlying premise is the same: “meanings do not travel through space and must under all circumstances be constructed in the heads of language users” (Glasersfeld 1989: 444). Social interactions only have the function of leading to the modification, honing, and adaptation of private meanings. Take the following case from the work of a leading research group within the social constructivist paradigm, which has had tremendous influence on research in the learning sciences and (mathematics) education.

The fragment we consider derives from a seventh-grade classroom where the teacher and researchers provided a curriculum designed to allow students to make better connections between worldly phenomena and associated mathematical descriptions (e.g. histograms). The researchers were also interested in developing a culture characterized by specific “socio-mathematical norms.” In the fragment, Kevin and Melissa take turns at talk; and the relation of the turns is subsequently evaluated. The teacher further invites Melissa to listen to what Kevin will be saying next and assess it in terms of its relation with what she has said before. The text does not tell readers what Melissa has said before, but she is to monitor the content of Kevin’s subsequent turn with respect to what she has said before. Whether Melissa acts in the way that the teacher projects cannot be known; she will have to find out after Kevin has had another turn.

Kevin: Ok, I’m just going to restate what Melissa said.

Melissa: Thank you, I’m having problems

Teacher: Ok, this will be helpful.

Kevin: I know ...

Teacher: Wait, wait. Can I clarify? Melissa, your job is to make sure that you

agree with what he’s saying that you’re saying. Ok, that’s your job. And everybody else is to listen and see if you understand. (Cobb and Tzou 2009: 152)

Using such episodes, the study suggests that the teacher was encouraging students to help each other by restating explanations and by checking their own interpretations. The teacher is said to have emphasized obligations—e.g. to listen actively or to strive to understand explanations. Using the same type of transcription, the study notes that the teacher was successful in getting the students to “renegotiate” the social norms in the classroom. The study also suggests that the emerging norms (a) did not orient students to the specific task-related aspects of the lessons and (b) that “they provided the students with little guidance as to how they might do so in ways that related to the teacher’s agenda” (2009: 152).

  • [1] Sui generis is another way of saying that the phenomenon exists its own right. This implies that itcannot be reduced to the individual. A social phenomenon, thereby, is not the sum, product, orsynthesis of individual phenomena.
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