Saturday, December 22, 2007

Nicolopoulou & Weintraub, "Individual and Collective Representations in Social Context" (Human Development, 1998)

As many of you reading this already know, my wife Ageliki Nicolopoulou is a a developmental psychologist—though her perspective is more interpretive and socio-cultural than those of most psychologists, developmental or otherwise. We share a lot of intellectual interests, and we have even managed to write and publish a few pieces together (without destroying our marriage in the process).

One of our co-authored pieces is a 1998 article we published in Human Development, an international theoretical journal in development psychology, with a title that some might consider self-indulgently sprawling: "Individual and collective representations in social context: A modest contribution to resuming the interrupted project of a sociocultural developmental psychology" (Human Development 41:4, July-August 1998, pp. 215-235).

(There were also two commentaries, by David R. Olson and Margarita Azmitia.)

I think this piece should be of interest to a broadly interdisciplinary audience, since it addresses issues that are (or should be) of concern across the human sciences. As I have noted in the past, the thinker who gets the most direct discussion in this article is Piaget, but Durkheim is the theoretical hero of the piece--with some walk-on parts by Charles Taylor, Louis Dumont, L.S. Vygotsky, Clifford Geertz, Jerome Bruner, and others. (In that respect, the real heart of the argument is laid out in pp. 215-220, then fleshed out a bit in pp. 222-224 & 226-227.)

At all events, enough people have asked me about this piece that I figured I might as well make it conveniently accessible. In addition, below is a letter I once sent to a sociologist friend of mine that discussed this piece and elaborated (or speculated) a bit further on some of the issues it raises. Anyone interested in an introductory overview can have a look at that letter ... or, if you feel so inclined, you can go directly to the article itself.

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S. This piece criticizes Piaget's sociological imagination for what we see as its tendency toward one-sided relational or interactional reductionism. As it happens. over the past few decades there has been a resurgence of "relational" approaches in social analysis under various rubrics--with no direct link to Piaget in most cases, as far as I can tell--and while they are an obvious improvement over the full-scale individualist reductionism and atomistic utilitarianism of so-called "rational choice" analysis, I would say that many of them display the same one-sidedness and other limitations as Piaget's approach. Most, but not all. For one version that helps to bring out the strengths of a relational approach without succumbing so fully to its dangers, see Mustafa Emirbayer's "Manifesto for a Relational Sociology" (American Journal of Sociology 102:2, September 1997, pp. 281-317). (It is probably not coincidental that Mustafa is also a Durkheim enthusiast.) We hadn't read that article before we wrote "Individual and Collective Representations" ... but it's worth mentioning now in this context.

[November 7, 2003]

Dear X,

It occurs to me that you might also be interested in this piece that Ageliki & I co-authored for an international theoretical journal in developmental psychology. Among other things, it addresses some of the underlying theoretical issues in the other stuff I sent you--and some larger issues that ought to be of concern to any thinking sociologist. The thinker who actually gets the most direct discussion in this article is Piaget; but Durkheim is the theoretical hero of the piece. (Piaget was of course, as Lévi-Strauss described himself, "an inconstant disciple" of Durkheim's.) I don't know whether you're as big a fan of Durkheim as I am, but anyone with cross-cultural concerns like yours is bound to be engaged by Durkheimian issues (even if you don't always like Durkheim's answers).

In a way, the prehistory of this article goes back to a graduate seminar on Durkheim that I did at UC/San Diego in 1989 or so, in which Ageliki also participated. (At the time, she was a Lecturer in Communication at UCSD and also a Research Associate at the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition.) More proximately, the first version of this piece was a conference paper that Ageliki gave at the Jean Piaget Society meetings in Philadelphia in June of 1996. The symposium to which she'd been invited was titled "Personal and Cultural Processes in the Development of Representation and Meaning" ... but as the discussant, Katherine Nelson, tactfully pointed out, Ageliki's paper was the only one that actually dealt with culture in any serious sense.

Then and later, various people told Ageliki that they found the paper helpful in thinking about the relevant issues. In addition, although "representation" is a very hot topic in psychology these days, this piece says some things about it that no one else has quite said, I think. So Ageliki decided it was worth developing the paper into an article, and asked me to come along as a co-author.

=> Part of the agenda here is Ageliki's long-term effort (no doubt quixotic, and probably Sisyphean) to bring a bit of cultural awareness, interpretive sensibility, and sociological imagination to the developmental psychologists; and this intended audience helps to explain the ways that some of the arguments are angled in this piece. But I think it also has some significant things to say to a wider audience.

Of course, one of the key difficulties in this enterprise is that the essential insight involved here (what Louis Dumont calls the "sociological apperception") looks pretty obvious once you see it, so that it seems almost a waste of time to belabor it ... but, until you do see it, it seems either preposterous or incomprehensible--the switch in perspective is really like a Copernican shift. And it's not just psychologists who have a little trouble with it. As Dumont points out in the Introduction to Homo Hierarchicus, one would expect at least that "this apperception should be the a b c of sociology," but alas, in the real world, this is not something one can take at all for granted....

Let me add that from my point of view, the heart of the argument in this article is really laid out in pp. 215-220, then fleshed out a bit in pp. 223-224 & 226-227. Everything else is there primarily to elaborate, illustrate, and drive home this central message (though the other discussions are not without their own intrinsic interest, too ... including the quick overview of some of Ageliki's work in pp. 228-233).

=> One of the fringe benefits of doing this piece was that it gave both Ageliki and me a chance to engage some unresolved issues in Piaget ... who can still find ways to surprise me. In particular, reading the recent translation of Piaget's collected Sociological Studies (comprising essays that run from 1928-1960) brought some things that had always perplexed me about Piaget's theoretical project into really sharp relief. Among other things (a) they confirm the extent to which, through¬out his career, Piaget continued to wrestle intellectually with the kinds of issues that had first been impressed on him in his youth by Durkheim and Freud (for example, the surprising prominence of Freudian themes, including those that have to do with emotional life and emotional relationships, in Piaget's 1960 essay on "Problems of the Social Psychology of Childhood" is at times startling). In the process, (b) they bring out the fact that, at the level of meta-theoretical discussions, Piaget always retained a powerful social dimension in his perspective (albeit a seriously incomplete one, with a tendency toward interactional reductionism)--to a degree that almost all "Piagetian" psychologists would probably find incomprehensible. And (c) they underline the remarkable continuity of Piaget's thought in this respect (and other respects). Once he has worked out a key idea to his satisfaction (and I would say his crucial sociological ideas had all come together in the '20s and '30s, leading up to The Moral Judgment of the Child in 1932), he reiterates the same central formulations remorselessly over time, simply applying them to new problems and elaborating their implications as the Piagetian enterprise rolls ahead, in an unstoppable tank-like fashion, decade after decade.

All this has led me to revise my previous impression that Piaget had largely abandoned the Durkheimian and Freudian themes and concerns in his project after, roughly, finishing The Moral Judgment in 1932 (with a partial, but isolated, resurgence of some Freudian elements in Play, Dreams, and Imitation 13 years later). Clearly, the situation is more complicated than that.[1] Instead, what is really most striking (and perplexing) is (d) the remarkable disjunction (or, to use Piaget's own term, décalage) between Piaget's meta-theoretical pronouncements (which, as I noted, remained remarkably consistent over time) and the theoretical logic that informed the main body of his substantive work in the decades after 1932 (in which even the most rudimentary socio-cultural elements have largely disappeared, or at best require a microscope to discern).

[1] Some of the later works of Piaget that I already knew, like his fine little book on Structuralism (1968), had already suggested some of this to me. But, by themselves, the things he said along those lines couldn't help seeming like isolated remarks against the overwhelming­ly non-social (and narrowly cognitive/rationalist) background of his work after 1932.

I still don't know precisely how to explain this disjunction (though we have some ideas, as you can see in the article), but I think the reality of it is indisputable. Piaget always protested (in his meta-theoretical essays) against the interpretation of his developmental epistemology as asocial and individualistic. (As he says more than once in the essays collected in Sociological Studies, Durkheim had already demolished atomistic individualism, so this position was hardly worth discussing further; the only question was whether the sociological alternative was an unacceptably "global" approach or, as he preferred, a "relational" and "analytic" one.) The fact that precisely this kind of asocial, individualistic constructivism came to represent the heart of Piagetian developmental research can be blamed only partially on the narrowness and superficiality of Piaget's English-speaking followers. The fact is, I'm afraid, that this position is quite compatible with the main body of Piaget's own substantive work over most of his career (a massive research enterprise, after all). Piaget's continuing belief in the need for a sociologically informed approach (of a certain sort) to develop¬ment, and for the significance of emotional life and what Freud would have called "primary process" mental activity in development (all of which are documented in the meta-theoretical essays), really left practically no trace on the main body of the work in which he elaborated his analysis of genetic epistemology. When it came to doing a sociologically informed analysis, Piaget could really talk the talk ... but he could not, on the whole, walk the walk.

Unfortunately, there's a lot we couldn't really go into in this piece, mostly because we couldn't discuss everything at once ... and also because we couldn't afford to get too far out ahead of our audience (without laborious explanations, which would have unbalanced the discussion and been distracting). For example, with regard to Piaget, we addressed the (partially repressed) Durkheimian elements in his theory, but we had to largely pass over the Freudian themes.

As for Piaget's sociological ideas themselves, taken on their own terms, I am powerfully struck by their fascinating combination of insights and limitations (or so it seems to me). If you haven't read his Sociological Studies yourself, you may find some food for thought there ... and maybe in this article, too.


Having intended to close off the discussion of Piaget there, I find I can't resist mentioning a few other things that thinking through Piaget brought to my mind, and that are relevant to broader themes in 19th- and 20th-century social theory. I toss them out in case they might be of interest to you. (If not, you can just pass them by.)

In particular, there was something else about Piaget that I would have loved to bring up in this article, but which I knew we couldn't so much as mention without totally baffling much of our audience. This is something which I first became dimly aware of as far back as 1972, but which is brought home to me ever more strongly every time I try to think through the logic of Piaget's thought: Among other things, this article addresses (from one direction) the fundamental question of just what Durkheim means when he says (correctly) that society is a reality sui generis. Now, part of what's going on with Piaget is that, deep down, he shares with Marx the basic feeling that, in a totally rational society, society would not be a reality sui generis ... since our relationships would be transparent, un-reified, and subject to our conscious and cooperative control. Of course, in Piaget's case this is complicated by the fact that (unlike Marx) it's not clear whether he thinks we will ever actually attain such a society (especially since, as Piaget is more keenly aware than Marx, no society will ever be made up exclusively of adults). But it's clear that this image is, at least, a kind of regulative ideal and ideal-typical theoretical model for him. Much in Piaget's thought becomes clear when one realizes this (including some especially loopy, but in their own way bizarrely fascinating, passages in his 1950 piece on "Explanation in Sociology"). But more on this another time....

I also realized that I (and, I think, a number of other people) had underestimated the presence of Piaget in Habermas's ever-unfolding theoretical project. This may seem odd to say, since everybody knows that Habermas drew heavily and explicitly on Piaget (both directly, and via such epigones and elaborators as Kohlberg) in working out his socio-historical picture of moral evolution--all this is laid out clearly enough in Communication and the Evolution of Society and thereafter, duly reported by Tom McCarthy, etc. But I realize that Piaget and Habermas are also united by a shared emphasis on the idea that the development of both rationality and moral autonomy is inextricably tied up with egalitarian relationships of discussion and cooperation--which are more or less equated. (In several of his essays Piaget goes so far as to say that it's probably fruitless to ask which comes first, logical thought or rational cooperation, since--and here he makes one of his ponderous puns--relationships of cooperation are inherently co-operations.[2]) Behind this, of course, what they also share is a (tempered but intransigent) kind of rationalist utopianism (rooted in a certain type of neo-Kantianism).

[2] And the model of discussion that Piaget sees as ideal-typically optimal really does have some striking resemblances to the famous "ideal speech situation" (though, in Piaget's case, it is much more sketchily described). I don't mean this is simply a matter of influence (I'm sure that, for Habermas, Peirce and others played a more proximate role here, not to mention Kant's "What is Enlightenment?"), but rather a sign of intellectual affinities.

=> Of course, any comments and/or reactions you care to pass on would be appreciated. Best wishes to you and yours.

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub