Friday, February 06, 2015

Reading :: Cognitive Development

Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations
By A.R. Luria

As I recently mentioned, I'm reading (and in most cases rereading) early works in the lineage of activity theory. Since AT grew out of the milieu of the Soviet Union, that means reading Soviet psychology and philosophy.

This book, Luria's Cognitive Development, is an interesting example. As Luria explains in the preface,
All of its observational material was collected in 1931-32, during the Soviet Union's most radical restructuring: the elimination of illiteracy, the transition to a collectivist economy, and the readjustment of life to new socialist principles. This period offered a unique opportunity to observe how decisively all these reforms effected not only a broadening of outlook but also radical changes in the structure of cognitive processes. (p.v)
The specific research was conducted in Uzbekistan and "Kirghizia" (p.v), which Luria characterized in this way:
the masses had lived for centuries in economic stagnation and illiteracy, their development hindered among other things by the religion of Islam. Only the radical restructuring of the economy, the rapid elimination of illiteracy, and the removal of the Moslem influence could achieve, over and above the expansion in world view, a genuine revolution in cognitive activity.
Our data indicate the decisive change that can occur in going from graphic and functional—concrete and practical—methods of thinking to much more theoretical and abstract modes brought about by fundamental changes in social conditions, in this instance by the socialist transformation of an entire culture. Thus the experimental observations shed light on one aspect of human cognitive activity that has received little scientific study but that corroborates the dialectics of social development. (
In his foreword, Michael Cole contextualizes the book further. Luria met Lev Vygotsky at a conference in 1923, and began collaborating with him in 1924, where they worked toward developing a psychology along Marxist lines. Vygotsky's focus was on mediation in individuals' psychology (xii), but the two psychologists later published a monograph suggesting that the principles could be applied to sociocultural development too (p.xiii). They saw the opportunity to study this question in places where enormous social changes were taking place—specifically, places that were being collectivized (p.xiv). They could not only develop sociocultural theory but also (ideally) find "evidence of the intellectual benefits of the new socialist order" (p.xiv). Unfortunately for Luria, "critics pointed out that his data could be read as an insult to the people with whom he had been working" (p.xiv), and that this sensitive time in the USSR's formation, that could not be allowed. The book was left unpublished for 40 years, until 1974.

I think we can understand why. When I first read this book, in graduate school, I was fascinated by the data but disturbed by the Soviet program—Luria spoke so casually of denying people their way of life and religion. I'm still disturbed by it, especially reading it alongside The Gulag Archipelago and its accounts of forced exile of entire populations. (For context, Luria's expedition started the year after Stalin gained power.) Let's keep this in mind as we go through the rest of the book.

Luria explains:
Before the revolution, the people of Uzbekistan lived in a backward economy based mainly on the raising of cotton. The kishiak (village) dwellers displayed remnants of a once-high culture together with virtually complete illiteracy, and also showed the pronounced influence of the Islamic religion. 
When the socialist revolution eliminated dominance and submission as class relations, people oppressed one day enjoyed a free existence the next. And for the first time, they experienced responsibility for their own future. Uzbekistan became a republic with collective agricultural production; industry also began to develop. The appearance of a new economic system brought with it new forms of social activity: the collective evaluation of work plans, the recognition and correction of shortcomings, and the allocation of economic functions. Naturally the socioeconomic life of these regions underwent a complete transformation. The radical changes in social class structure were accompanied by new cultural shifts. 
The extensive network of schools opened up in outlying areas that had been virtually 100 percent illiterate for centuries. Despite their short-term nature, the literacy programs familiarized large numbers of adults with the elements of modern technology. Adults in school took time-out from their everyday activities and began to master elements of simple but “theoretical” pursuits. In acquiring the rudiments of reading and writing, people had to break down spoken language into its constituents and encode it in a system of symbols. They mastered the concept of number, which had been used only in practical activities, but now became an abstract entity to be learned for its own sake. As a result, people became acquainted not only with new fields of knowledge but also with new motives for action. (p.13) 
Luria and his people "selected remote villages of Uzbekistan and also a few in the mountainous regions of Kirghizia" (p.14). The society was feudal, generally illiterate, and dependent on agriculture, mostly cotton. Islam was prevalent. Yet the region was transitioning, with "the beginnings of collectivization and other radical socioeconomic changes as well as the emancipation of women" as well as rudimentary education (p.14). Luria's team compared illiterate people with people of very modest literacy (p.15).

In Ch. 2, Luria details experiments on perception in which he showed cards with various geometric figures and asked participants to group them. Interestingly, illiterate participants did not seem to perceive based on Gestalt principles: for instance, they would not group a triangle made of lines with a triangle made of dots—but literates did (p.33). Similarly, Luria found that perceptual illusions can depend on cultural development, with literates seeing illusions that illiterates did not (p.41). "Optical illusions are not universal. ... the data clearly show that optical illusions are linked to complex psychological processes that vary in accordance with sociohistorical development" (p.43).

Ch.3 moves to the question of generalization and abstraction. Luria presented pictures of objects and asked which ones went together. Examples:

  • glass - saucepan - spectacles - bottle
  • hammer - saw - log - hatchet
  • dagger - bird - rifle - bullet (p.75)
Illiterate participants did not group these into categories, but related them in practical activity:
The main group of subjects classified objects not according to verbal or logical principles, but according to practical schemes. Nonetheless, such concrete thinking is neither innate nor genetically determined. It results from illiteracy and rudimentary types of activity that have prevailed in these subjects' daily experience. When the pattern of their lives changes and the range of their experience broadens, when they learn to read and write, to become part of a more advanced culture, the greater complexity of their activity stimulates new ideas. These changes, in turn, bring about a radical reorganization of their habits of thinking, so that they learn to use and appreciate the value of theoretical procedures that formerly seemed irrelevant. (p.79)

 In Ch.4, "Deduction and Inference," Luria discusses conceptual thinking as advanced and providing the ability to "abstract the essential features of objects and thus assign these objects to general categories [and thus] leads to the formation of a more complex logical apparatus" (p.100). He tested deduction and inference by asking participants to repeat syllogisms such as this one:
White bears exist only where it is very cold and there is snow. Silk cocoons exist only where it is very hot. Are there places that have both white bears and cocoons? (p.105)
Participants did not literally repeat these syllogisms, instead producing utterances such as these:
"There is a country where there are white bears and white snow. Can there be such a thing? Can white silk grow there?"
"Where it is cold, there are white bears. Where it is hot are there cocoons? Are there such places on earth?" (p.105)
Later, Luria asks other participants to draw inferences based on syllogisms. For instance, he asks:
In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the Far North and there is always snow there. What color are the bears there? (p.108)
Participants either can't infer or simply refuse to infer. For instance, after being pressed, one replies:
Well, it's like this: our tsar isn't like yours, and yours isn't like ours. Your words can be answered only by someone who was there, and if a person wasn't there he can't say anything on the basis of your words. (p.109)
(Do you think Luria is correct in believing that this person is unable to draw inference because he is unable to escape the frame of concrete experiential thinking? Or do you think it's possible that this person is staying within the bounds of cultural politeness or even resistant to Luria's game?)

We see similar things in the next chapter, "Reasoning and Problem Solving," in which Luria gives people word problems, deliberately making them different from reality. Here's an example:
It is twenty versts from here to Uch-Kurgan, while Shakhimardan is four times closer. [In actuality, the reverse is true.] How many versts is it to Shakhimardan? (p.127)
Participants don't want to play this game:
"What! Shakhimardan four times closer?! But it's farther away!"
"Yes, we know. But I gave out this problem as an exercise." (p.127)
"How should I know how long it would take? If I had gone, I could say, but I wouldn't want to lie to no purpose, you know." (p.128)
(Does this last line sound like a veiled accusation to you?)

Let's skip to Ch.7, "Self-Analysis and Self-Awareness." "This chapter attempts to determine the extent to which our subjects were able to treat their own inner life in a generalized fashion, to single out particular psychological traits in themselves, to analyze their interior world, and to evaluate their intrinsic qualities" (p.144). In the introduction to this chapter, Luria says,
There is every reason to think that self-awareness is a product of sociohistorical development and that reflection of external natural and social reality arises first; only later, through its mediating influence, do we find self-awareness in its more complex forms. Accordingly, we should approach self-awareness as a product of consciousness of the external world and of other people, and should seek its social roots and traits in the stages through which it is shaped in society.
The notion that self-awareness is a secondary and socially shaped phenomenon was formulated by Marx: "At first, man looked at himself as if in a mirror, except that it is another person. Only relating to Paul as one like himself can Peter begin to relate to himself as a person." Despite the fact that the notion of the social origin of self-awareness arose more than a century ago in materialistic philosophy, there have not yet been adequate attempts in psychological research to show that this view is correct or to follow the specific stages through which this phenomenon is shaped socially. (p.145, my emphasis)
The italicized portion again makes me cautious about Luria. Is Luria relying on Marx—a brilliant philosopher, but not a psychologist—to provide a psychological explanation that Soviet psychologists now only need to validate? Or is this the sort of cliche that Luria had to employ in order to be published in the Soviet Union?

As you should be able to tell, I'm ambivalent about the book. On one hand, it opens up intriguing speculation and some interesting data about cross-cultural psychology and psychological development. On the other hand, I don't like some of the premises and the methodology often seems questionable. But as a classic in the lineage of activity theory, it's an important read.

No comments: