Thursday, August 19, 2010

Reading :: The Cultural Nature of Human Development

The Cultural Nature of Human Development
By Barbara Rogoff

Okay, to get the message of this book, just turn to page 6, figure 1.2. Actually, you can click through to the book on Amazon, search inside the book, and see what I mean. The figure's caption: "An Efe baby of 11 months skillfully cuts a fruit with a machete, under the watchful eye of a relative (in the Ituri forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo)."

And yes, the photo shows a baby holding a machete.

No, Rogoff has not written an installment of Ripley's Believe It or Not. Her message is that human development is heavily cultural and that we fail to understand our potentials when we postulate fixed, universal developmental stages. As she states in italics on pp.1-2: "people develop as participants in cultural communities. Their development can be understood only in light of the cultural practices and circumstances of their communities - which also change."

Once you get this - and although the photo surprised me, I did - nothing else in the book will really shock you. Rogoff argues that to understand our own culture, we must look at others', "separating understanding of the patterns [of different cultural communities] from judgments of their value" (p.14). If we impose our own values, we may be caught up in judgments of how other cultures raise their kids (sure, babies with machetes can and do cut themselves) and not see the larger patterns that lead people to their cultural childraising practices (you have to be able to handle yourself well and survive independently at an early age if you're going to be living in the Ituri forest). That is, Rogoff warns us:
Ethnocentrism involves making judgments that another cultural community's ways are immoral, unwise, or inappropriate based on one's cultural background without taking into account the meaning and circumstances of events in that community. (p.15)
Once you get this, the book can begin to feel a bit like a lecture with many, many examples. For instance, Rogoff gets a lot of mileage out of emphasizing that for the majority of people on the planet, the American tendency to make infants sleep in a separate room seems unimaginably cruel. She also points out that the Western tendency to group schoolchildren into cohorts based on birth year is neither universal nor entirely positive, and is based more on the demands of bureaucracy than on rational decisions about children's learning (p.125). So I won't go through the book in detail, but let me point out some highlights.

One is her discussion of US children in farm families, father-as-breadwinner families, and dual-earner families from 1790-1989 (based on Hernandez 1993). The graph on p.187 is fascinating, showing the sharp decline of family farming (in which husband and wife worked side by side), the rise and decline of father-as-breadwinner families (in which the father worked, and the rest of the family both depended on him and had only a foggy idea of what he did), and the recent sharp increase in dual-earner nonfarm and one-parent families (in which mothers turned to wage work, mother-only families increased, and children were sent to school, having very little exposure to the work of any parent). This shift corresponds to a decrease in family size and a sharp loss of potential for children to contribute meaningfully to family economics. In 1790, nearly 75% of families worked together on the farm and the costs of raising large families were managed primarily through the farm. By 1989, that arrangement was down to the low single digits, while nearly 70% of households were dual-earner nonfarm and one-parent families. This intrigues me because it maps the shift from agricultural to manufacturing to service and knowledge work and relates it to a definite cultural shift in how children were regarded and raised. Essentially, the shift to different forms of work led to different cultural understandings of what is a parent, a child, a family, and an education.

A bit later, Rogoff presents this paragraph, which is a nice encapsulation of what North American genre theorists say about genre:
Artifacts such as books, orthographies, computers, languages, and hammers are essentially social, historical objects, transforming with the ideas of both their designers and their later users. They form and are formed by the practices of their use and by related practices, in historical and anticipated communities .... Artifacts serve to amplify as well as constrain the possibilities of human activity as the artifacts participate in the practices in which they are employed.... They are representatives of earlier solutions to similar problems by other people, which later generations modify and apply to new problems, extending and transforming their use. (p.276)
In her conclusion, Rogoff leaves us with these principles, repeated from her first chapter:
  • "Culture isn't just what other people do."
  • "Understanding one's own cultural heritage, as well as other cultural communities, requires taking the perspective of people of contrasting backgrounds."
  • "Cultural practices fit together and are connected."
  • "Cultural communities continue to change, as do individuals."
  • "There is not likely to be One Best Way." (p.368)
Overall, this is a readable, interesting book. I'd especially recommend it for someone who is interested in the issue, but who hasn't read deeply in the sociocultural literature.

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