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Ways of Understanding the Cultural Nature of Human Development

Ways of Understanding the Cultural Nature of Human Development

Human development is a cultural process. As a biological species, humans are defined in terms of our cultural participation. We are prepared by both our cultural and biological heritage to use language and other cultural tools and to learn from each other. Using such means as language and literacy, we can collectively remember events that we have not personally experienced —becoming involved vicariously in other people’s experience over many generations.

Being human involves constraints and possibilities stemming from long histories of human practices. At the same time, each generation continues to revise and adapt its human cultural and biological heritage in the face of current circumstances.

My aim in this book is to contribute to the understanding of cultural patterns of human development by examining the regularities that make sense of differences and similarities in communities’ practices and tradi- tions. In referring to cultural processes, I want to draw attention to the con- figurations of routine ways of doing things in any community’s approach to living. I focus on people’s participation in their communities’ cultural prac- tices and traditions, rather than equating culture with the nationality or ethnicity of individuals.

For understanding cultural aspects of human development, a primary goal of this book is to develop the stance that 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.

To date, the study of human development has been based largely on re- search and theory coming from middle-class communities in Europe and North America. Such research and theory often have been assumed to gen- eralize to all people. Indeed, many researchers make conclusions from work done in a single group in overly general terms, claiming that “the child does such-and-so” rather than “these children did such-and-so.”

For example, a great deal of research has attempted to determine at what age one should expect “the child” to be capable of certain skills. For the most part, the claims have been generic regarding the age at which chil- dren enter a stage or should be capable of a certain skill.

A cultural approach notes that different cultural communities may ex- pect children to engage in activities at vastly different times in childhood, and may regard “timetables” of development in other communities as surprising or even dangerous. Consider these questions of when children can begin to do certain things, and reports of cultural variations in when they do:

When does children’s intellectual development permit them to be responsible for others? When can they be trusted to take care of an infant?

In middle-class U.S. families, children are often not regarded as capable of caring for themselves or tending another child until perhaps age 10 (or later in some regions). In the U.K., it is an offense to leave a child under age 14 years without adult supervision (Subbotsky, 1995). However, in many other communities around the world, children begin to take on responsibility for tending other children at ages 5–7 (Rogoff et al., 1975; see figure 1.1), and in some places even younger children begin to assume this responsibility. For example, among the Kwara’ae of Oceania,

Three year olds are skilled workers in the gardens and household, excellent caregivers of their younger siblings, and accomplished at social interaction. Although young children also have time to play, many of the functions of play seem to be met by work. For both adults and children, work is accompanied by singing, joking, verbal play and entertaining conversation. Instead of playing with dolls, children care for real babies. In addition to working in the family gar- dens, young children have their own garden plots. The latter may seem like play, but by three or four years of age many children are taking produce they have grown themselves to the market to sell, thereby making a significant and valued contribution to the family income. (Watson-Gegeo, 1990, p. 87)

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Orienting Concepts 5

When do children’s judgment and coordination allow them to handle sharp knives safely?

Although U.S. middle-class adults often do not trust children below about age 5 with knives, among the Efe of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in- fants routinely use machetes safely (Wilkie, personal communication, 1989; see figure 1.2). Likewise, Fore (New Guinea) infants handle knives and fire safely by the time they are able to walk (Sorenson, 1979). Aka parents of Central Africa teach 8- to 10-month-old infants how to throw small spears and use small pointed digging sticks and miniature axes with sharp metal blades:

Training for autonomy begins in infancy. Infants are allowed to crawl or walk to whatever they want in camp and allowed to use knives, machetes, digging sticks, and clay pots around camp. Only if an infant begins to crawl into a fire or hits another child do parents or others interfere with the infant’s activity. It was not unusual, for in- stance, to see an eight month old with a six-inch knife chopping the branch frame of its family’s house. By three or four years of age chil- dren can cook themselves a meal on the fire, and by ten years of age Aka children know enough subsistence skills to live in the forest alone if need be. (Hewlett, 1991, p. 34)

f i g u r e 1 . 1

This 6-year-old Mayan (Guatemalan) girl is a skilled caregiver for her baby cousin.

So, at what age do children develop responsibility for others or suffi- cient skill and judgment to handle dangerous implements? “Ah! Of course, it depends,” readers may say, after making some guesses based on their own cultural experience.

Indeed. It depends. Variations in expectations for children make sense once we take into

account different circumstances and traditions. They make sense in the context of differences in what is involved in preparing “a meal” or “tending” a baby, what sources of support and danger are common, who else is nearby, what the roles of local adults are and how they live, what institutions peo- ple use to organize their lives, and what goals the community has for devel- opment to mature functioning in those institutions and cultural practices.

Whether the activity is an everyday chore or participation in a test or a laboratory experiment, people’s performance depends in large part on the circumstances that are routine in their community and on the cultural prac- tices they are used to. What they do depends in important ways on the cul- tural meaning given to the events and the social and institutional supports provided in their communities for learning and carrying out specific roles in the activities.


f i g u r e 1 . 2

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).

Cultural research has aided scholars in examining theories based on ob- servations in European and European American communities for their ap- plicability in other circumstances. Some of this work has provided crucial counterexamples demonstrating limitations or challenging basic assump- tions of a theory that was assumed to apply to all people everywhere. Ex- amples are Bronislaw Malinowski’s (1927) research questioning the Oedipal complex in Sigmund Freud’s theory and cross-cultural tests of cognitive de- velopment that led Jean Piaget to drop his claim that adolescents universally reach a “formal operational” stage of being able to systematically test hy- potheses (1972; see Dasen & Heron, 1981).

The importance of understanding cultural processes has become clear in recent years. This has been spurred by demographic changes throughout North America and Europe, which bring everyone more in contact with cultural traditions differing from their own. Scholars now recognize that understanding cultural aspects of human development is important for re- solving pressing practical problems as well as for progress in understanding the nature of human development in worldwide terms. Cultural research is necessary to move beyond overgeneralizations that assume that human development everywhere functions in the same ways as in researchers’ own communities, and to be able to account for both similarities and differences across communities.

Understanding regularities in the cultural nature of human develop- ment is a primary aim of this book. Observations made in Bora Bora or Cincinnati can form interesting cultural portraits and reveal intriguing dif- ferences in custom, but more important, they can help us to discern regu- larities in the diverse patterns of human development in different commu- nities.

Looking for Cultural Regularities

Beyond demonstrating that “culture matters,” my aim in this book is to in- tegrate the available ideas and research to contribute to a greater under- standing of how culture matters in human development. What regularities can help us make sense of the cultural aspects of human development? To understand the processes that characterize the dynamic development of in- dividual people as well as their changing cultural communities, we need to identify regularities that make sense of the variations across communities as well as the impressive commonalities across our human species. Although research on cultural aspects of human development is still relatively sparse, it is time to go beyond saying “It depends” to articulate patterns in the vari- ations and similarities of cultural practices.

Orienting Concepts 7

The process of looking across cultural traditions can help us become aware of cultural regularities in our own as well as other people’s lives, no matter which communities are most familiar to us. Cultural research can help us understand cultural aspects of our own lives that we take for granted as natural, as well as those that surprise us elsewhere.

For example, the importance given to paying attention to chronologi- cal age and age of developmental achievements is unquestioned by many who study human development. However, questions about age of transi- tions are themselves based on a cultural perspective. They fit with cultural institutions that use elapsed time since birth as a measure of development.

One Set of Patterns: Children’s Age-Grading and Segregation from Community Endeavors or Participation in Mature Activities

It was not until the last half of the 1800s in the United States and some other nations that age became a criterion for ordering lives, and this inten- sified in the early 1900s (Chudacoff, 1989). With the rise of industrializa- tion and efforts to systematize human services such as education and med- ical care, age became a measure of development and a criterion for sorting people. Specialized institutions were designed around age groups. Develop- mental psychology and pediatrics began at this time, along with old-age in- stitutions and age-graded schools.

Before then in the United States (and still, in many places), people rarely knew their age, and students advanced in their education as they learned. Both expert and popular writing in the United States rarely referred to spe- cific ages, although of course infancy, childhood, and adulthood were dis- tinguished. Over the past century and a half, the cultural concept of age and associated practices relying on age-grading have come to play a central, though often unnoticed role in ordering lives in some cultural communities —those of almost all contemporary readers of this book.

Age-grading accompanied the increasing segregation of children from the full range of activities in their community as school became compulsory and industrialization separated workplace from home. Instead of joining with the adult world, young children became more engaged in specialized child-focused institutions and practices, preparing children for later entry into the community.

I argue that child-focused settings and ways in which middle-class par- ents now interact with their children are closely connected with age-grading and segregation of children. Child-focused settings and middle-class child- rearing practices are also prominent in developmental psychology, connect- ing with ideas about stages of life, thinking and learning processes, motiva- tion, relations with peers and parents, disciplinary practices at home and

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school, competition and cooperation. I examine these cultural regularities throughout this book, as they are crucial to understanding development in many communities.

An alternative pattern involves integration of children in the everyday activities of their communities. This pattern involves very different con- cepts and cultural practices in human development (Rogoff, Paradise, Mejía Arauz, Correa-Chávez, & Angelillo, 2003). The opportunities to observe and pitch in allow children to learn through keen attention to ongoing ac- tivities, rather than relying on lessons out of the context of using the knowledge and skills taught. In this pattern, children’s relationships often involve multiparty collaboration in groups rather than interactions with one person at a time. I examine these and related regularities throughout this book.

Other Patterns

Because cultural research is still quite new, the work of figuring out what regularities can make sense of the similarities and variations across com- munities is not yet very far along. However, there are several other areas that appear to involve important regularities in cultural practices.

One set of regularities has to do with a pattern in which human rela- tions are assumed to require hierarchical organization, with someone in charge who controls the others. An alternative pattern is more horizontal in structure, with individuals being responsible together to the group. In this pattern, individuals are not controlled by others—individual autonomy of decision making is respected—but individuals are also expected to coordi- nate with the group direction. As I discuss in later chapters, issues of cul- tural differences in sleeping arrangements, discipline, cooperation, gender roles, moral development, and forms of assistance in learning all connect with this set of patterns.

Other patterns have to do with strategies for managing survival. Infant and adult mortality issues, shortage or abundance of food and other re- sources, and settled living or nomadic life seem to connect with cultural similarities and variations in infant care and attachment, family roles, stages and goals of development, children’s responsibilities, gender roles, cooper- ation and competition, and intellectual priorities.

I develop these suggestions of patterns of regularity and some others throughout the book. Although the search for regularities in cultural sys- tems has barely begun, it has great promise for helping us understand the surprising as well as the taken-for-granted ways of cultural communities worldwide, including one’s own.

To look for cultural patterns, it is important to examine how we can

Orienting Concepts 9

think about the roles of cultural processes and individual development. In the first three chapters, I focus on how we can conceptualize the interrelated roles of individual and cultural processes. In the next section of this chap- ter, I introduce some important orienting concepts for how we can think about the roles of cultural processes in human development.

Orienting Concepts for Understanding Cultural Processes

The orienting concepts for understanding cultural processes that I develop in this book stem from the sociocultural (or cultural-historical) perspective. This approach has become prominent in recent decades in the study of how cultural practices relate to the development of ways of thinking , remem- bering , reasoning , and solving problems (Rogoff & Chavajay, 1995). Lev Vygotsky, a leader of this approach from early in the twentieth century, pointed out that children in all communities are cultural participants, liv- ing in a particular community at a specific time in history. Vygotsky (1987) argued that rather than trying to “reveal the eternal child,” the goal is to dis- cover “the historical child.”

Understanding development from a sociocultural-historical perspective requires examination of the cultural nature of everyday life. This includes studying people’s use and transformation of cultural tools and technologies and their involvement in cultural traditions in the structures and institu- tions of family life and community practices.

A coherent understanding of the cultural, historical nature of human development is emerging from an interdisciplinary approach involving psy- chology, anthropology, history, sociolinguistics, education, sociology, and other fields. It builds on a variety of traditions of research, including par- ticipant observation of everyday life from an anthropological perspective, psychological research in naturalistic or constrained “laboratory” situations, historical accounts, and fine-grained analyses of videotaped events. To- gether, the research and scholarly traditions across fields are sparking a new conception of human development as a cultural process.

To understand regularities in the variations and similarities of cultural processes of human development across widespread communities it is im- portant to examine how we think about cultural processes and their relation to individual development. What do we mean by cultural processes? How do people come to understand their own as well as others’ cultural practices and traditions? How can we think about the ways that individuals both par- ticipate in and contribute to cultural processes? How do we approach un- derstanding the relation among cultural communities and how cultural communities themselves transform?

10 T H E C U L T U R A L N A T U R E O F H U M A N D E V E L O P M E N T

This section outlines what I call orienting concepts for understanding cultural processes. These are concepts to guide thinking about how cultural processes contribute to human development.

The overarching orienting concept for understanding cultural processes is my version of the sociocultural-historical perspective:

Humans develop through their changing participation in the socio- cultural activities of their communities, which also change.

This overarching orienting concept provides the basis for the other orient- ing concepts for understanding cultural processes:

Culture isn’t just what other people do. It is common for people to think of themselves as having no culture (“Who, me? I don’t have an accent”) or to take for granted the circumstances of their his- torical period, unless they have contact with several cultural com- munities. Broad cultural experience gives us the opportunity to see the extent of cultural processes in everyday human activities and development, which relate to the technologies we use and our institutional and community values and traditions. The practices of researchers, students, journalists, and professors are cultural, as are the practices of oral historians, midwives, and shamans.

Understanding one’s own cultural heritage, as well as other cultural com- munities, requires taking the perspective of people of contrasting backgrounds. The most difficult cultural processes to examine are the ones that are based on confident and unquestioned assump- tions stemming from one’s own community’s practices. Cultural processes surround all of us and often involve subtle, tacit, taken-for-granted events and ways of doing things that require open eyes, ears, and minds to notice and understand. (Children are very alert to learning from these taken-for-granted ways of doing things.)

Cultural practices fit together and are connected. Each needs to be un- derstood in relation to other aspects of the cultural approach. Cultural processes involve multifaceted relations among many as- pects of community functioning; they are not just a collection of variables that operate independently. Rather, they vary together in patterned ways. Cultural processes have a coherence beyond “elements” such as economic resources, family size, moderniza- tion, and urbanization. It is impossible to reduce differences be- tween communities to a single variable or two (or even a dozen or two); to do so would destroy the coherence among the con- stellations of features that make it useful to refer to cultural

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