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“On the study of culture and mind”: Interview with Prof. Michael Cole

By Vlad Glăveanu
EJOP Editor

Culture and mind represent, in themselves, perhaps the two most complicated phenomena to ever be studied. Their massive complexity has posed, for centuries, great challenges to researchers from a variety of fields. It is therefore all the more difficult to understand the interconnection between the two. And yet, as Professor Michael Cole and, more broadly, cultural psychologists would argue: there is no way of making sense of one if we disregard the other. Culture and mind constitute each other through action and communication and it is their intricate relationship that holds the key to understanding human nature and human society. Professor Cole, one of the pioneers of cultural psychology, discusses in this interview the theoretical and methodological difficulties that have shaped his work for several decades, a work accompanied at times by great frustrations but also remarkable rewards. For it is in studying culture and mind, rather than culture or mind, that we can come not only to appreciate development but find ways to actively and efficiently support it.

Michael Cole is Professor of Communication and Psychology at University of California San Diego; member of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC). His work focuses on the elaboration of a mediational theory of mind. He has conducted cross-cultural research on cognitive development, especially as it relates to the role of literacy and schooling. His recent research has been devoted to a longitudinal study of individual and organizational change within educational activities specially designed for afterschool hours. According to Cole’s methodology, mind is created and must be studied in communication. His published work is extensive; among the titles: ‘Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline’; ‘The cultural context of learning and thinking’ (edited with J. Gay, J.A. Glick and D.W. Sharp); ‘L.S. Vygotsky, Mind in society: The development of higher processes’ (edited with V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner and E. Souberman). In 2010 Professor Cole was awarded the American Psychological Association Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Application of Psychological Research to Education.

EJOP: Professor Cole, your work in psychology spans over almost half a century and constitutes a landmark for specialists in various branches of the discipline, from educational and developmental to social and cultural psychology. You have made essential contributions to our understanding of the human mind, its development and intrinsic relation to culture. What would you say are the main themes that have been central to your work, covering topics as varied as intelligence and cognitive development, literacy and schooling, culture, activity theory, methodological issues and many more? What would be the ‘guiding principles’ that shaped your theoretical and empirical investigations?

Michael Cole: Thank you for your flattering evaluation of the significance of my work (there is no accounting for taste, but it’s nice to think that yours is excellent!).

My central professional interest has been focused on the role of culture in constituting human nature. Trained as an experimental learning theorist, in the American behaviorist tradition, my introduction to the study of cultural variations took place within the context of 1960’s of an applied project – to figure out why rural Liberian children from social groups living in subsistence agricultural circumstances with no tradition of literacy experienced severe difficulties in mastering elementary school curricula modeled on the practices of the industrialized world. Consequently, it is perfectly natural that my work would focus on the role of educational processes in psychological development. Once one enters that domain, question of psychological testing, IQ, literacy, etc. cannot be avoided. I chose to meet them straight on, as best I could.

This work, initially begun more or less at “the psychological level” initially focused on questions of methodology, in particular the logical problems of inferring lack of competence from lack of performance when psychological tests and educational practices developed in the Euro-American tradition were used as standards of evaluation in alien cultural surroundings. The methods used were an insult to the logic of experimental science I had learned in graduate school.

But the effort to supersede these problems did not appear resolvable remaining at the level of methods. There was no sufficiently comprehensive theory available to account for all that I was witnessing. Consequently, I was pushed into a protracted period of exploring anthropological, sociological, and linguistic methods and their attendant theories. I emerged from this experience convinced that inter-disciplinary collaboration and the building of a synthetic methodology was essential to allow progress on understanding the role of culture in development. Literacy, testing, education, all became specific examples of historically constituted cultural practices that needed to be understood.

Serendipitous events took me to Moscow early in my career, leading eventually to my appropriation of the ideas of L.S. Vygotsky and his students, in combination with Anglo-American social science approaches to culturally organized activities, as a foundation for pursuing the general problematic of culture’s role in the constitution of mind.

Over time, interdisciplinarity, formulation of cultural-historical approach to mental life (which required adoption of a “genetic” approach that includes phylogeny, cultural-history, ontogeny, and microgenesis), and a serious commitment to the need to develop theory in close relationship to cultural practices, became guiding principles of my work.

“On the study of culture and mind”: Interview with Prof. Michael Cole

Europe’s Journal of Psychology 1/2011, pp. 8-16

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