Bracketing and Rethinking Context

A question that tends to be left out of the discussions about the context-bound nature of learning is a precise definition of context. This is problematic because educational researchers risk building an educational science based on pre-scientific concepts that are borrowed from the very social world that it aims to account for—investigators then use concepts to explain (i.e. the explanans) concepts that have to be explained (i.e. the explanandum). To escape this vicious circle, the concepts of our scientific inquiries need to be interrogated critically (Bourdieu 1992). Such a critical questioning requires radical doubt and critique of ideology that bracket all presuppositions in commonsense and scientific use of a theoretical category. As part of our critical inquiry, the social history of the use of a category is clarified. The question thus shifts from “Does a particular view of learning include (or not) social context?” to “Can the same notion of context be used indistinctly in different views of learning?”

It is beyond the scope of this chapter to do an exhaustive analysis of the historical conditions that allow researchers to unproblematically and indistinctly use “social context” in discussing dualist and non-dualist approaches to learning, as if the word was unproblematically transferrable. It would involve examining discursive and peer-review practices endemic to educational research scholarship. But a review of the literature already reveals that the social context is most frequently treated in precisely this way, that is, as something that can be described alternatively as either external (objective) to the individual or as something so internal that context and individual become indistinguishable—a problem that plagues current theorizing of learning from a situative and sociocultural perspective (Stetsenko 2013). Thus, in the cognitive approach, the social context tends to be thought of as something external and objective that opposes the internal and subjective; in research claiming allegiance with the learning as participation, the social context tends to be treated as the background against which the individual needs to be irreducibly considered. However, in both approaches context is treated as the ground against which learning- related phenomena stand as figure. These are not different definitions of context. Instead, there is a common epistemology within which context functions as either something opposed to the individual or as something indistinguishable from it. It is on the basis of such an epistemology that the two metaphors can be treated as opposite or alternate ways of theorizing.

From the dialectical materialist tradition that informs Vygotsky’s theory, such treatment of social context is the result of an abstraction. To be useful as a functional category in the Spinozist approach, social context needs to be defined as a concrete category. Here, the concrete “is concrete, because it is a combination of many objects with different destinations, i.e. a unity of diverse elements” (Marx 1973: 101). Context, as a concrete category, then has to be thought as a combination of many objects with different destinations. That is, it is not a thing or substance but a living process that develops and leads to development and, therefore, includes the unfolding of time as one of its aspects. Rather than constituting ground against which the figure (text, individual) can appear, context may be better thought of as a piece of rope. This is precisely the way in which the American anthropologist R. Birdwhistell described context: as a rope in which “the fibers that make up the rope are discontinuous; when you twist them together, you don’t make them continuous, you make the thread continuous” (Birdwhistell, in McDermott 1980: 4). Context here comes to be seen as a whole. Its dynamics are determined by the combining of multiple threads, which are threads because they have extension rather than being abstract or a-temporal. A review of the literature on Vygotsky’s legacy proposes precisely such a view, which suggests that “students are like the fibers in a strand (the environmentalist community), itself a constitutive part of the thread (society) (Roth and Lee 2007: 196). Each student thereby is viewed also as part of the historically constituted context of their own becoming.

Important in this view of context as concrete category is that the multiple threads forming the rope (context) are not elements, but constitute historical conditions. Thus, in his description, Birdwhistell makes clear that he is “not talking about inside and outside. [He is] talking about the conditions of the system” (McDermott 1980: 15). A (social) context, therefore, is not a thing (e.g. culture) against which another thing (individual) or set of things can be understood. Rather, a context constitutes the conditions of a system, which are historical and have generative force. The metaphor of context as rope is not unique to Birdwhistell, but can be found in the works of a number of authors,[1] and where we also find the idea of threads as moving historical phenomena. Thus, “it is easy to see the world’s history pluralistically, as a rope of which each fiber tells a separate tale” (James 1981: 67). The same idea of social context as a moving and generative category is found in contemporary anthropology, where the commonplace view of the social whole as a joining up of individuals (parts) is contrasted with the view of context as rope, which “always [is] weaving, always in process and—like social life itself—never finished” (Ingold

2015: 11). In each case, the metaphor evokes mutually constituting trajectories of development rather than an opposition of self-contained things. This returns the unfolding of time—i.e. history and life—to the notion of context.

The problem of the relation between person and societal context as it manifests in the discourse of educational research, at a meta-level, belongs to a particular way of conceiving the relation of humans and history, the conditions of which Marxist psychologists recognize in the organization of bourgeois society. Thus, “from the standpoint of the traditional bourgeois psychological approach to consciousness only what ‘is found’ in consciousness, or ‘belongs’ to it, is subject to study, i.e. separate psychological phenomena and processes and their mutual relations and connections” (Leontyev 1981: 223). Excluded from that study is the history of formation of human consciousness itself, a history that we tackle in Chap. 2 at the level of phylogeny and in other chapters at a micro-genetic level. When bourgeois epistemology is seen as part of that history, and then rejected, the question of learning context no longer is about whether and how context and person (i.e. whole and part) interact with each other. The question becomes: What system of organization is such that makes it possible for this particular part to stand out as part of this particular whole, as this particular part-whole relation? It then becomes visible that the opposition of the acquisition and the participation metaphor, when they no longer share the notion of context, is not just one between two opposite paradigms that can be combined or integrated. When the two approaches correspond to the two views on context discussed here, they are not just alternate but are asymmetrically alternate views (Roth 2008). This is so because, having presupposed the Cartesian division between tndividual subject and societal context, the learning as acquisition approach cannot account for the emergence of that very division as a historical organizing system. A cultural-historical approach to context, on the other hand, affords the investigation of the emergence and development of the subject-object dualism, that is, of the historical conditions and real implications of the idea of a self-contained individual acting within a self-contained social context as if it were a box.

Considering social context as a concrete category implies including time as an internal aspect of our units of analysis. In doing so we no longer need to choose between rejecting the possibility of “transfer” or re-capitulating transfer in terms of person-environment mutual attunements that are transferred (Jornet et al. 2016). Instead, we get to a transactional account, where the question concerns the historical conditions that make it possible for individuals to treat different situations as being of the same type. As transactional systems, social contexts are not things but constitutive orders (precisely as thought with the rope or thread metaphor), where both new persons and new practices continuously emerge. The notion of context no longer is the commonsense term but instead becomes a scientific concept. The social context as such no longer is the problem, because not everything in the environment is important to social life. Accordingly, a (learning) context cannot be adequately described by merely listing the (vulgarly concrete) materials or the abstract relations within. Describing a learning context always requires a genetic account, a telling of stories of formation and development, where description fuses with explanation. A monist approach therefore allows seeing the question of context as a generative question. Such a view then affords a different approach to questions of (institutional) educational practice and assessment. These no longer are about relations between schooling practices and learning outcomes, but address schooling (context) as constitutive order: How does schooling produce and reproduce existing societal forms of relation, including societal inequity? How does it produce and reproduce individual learners (persons) and learnable differentiations?

  • [1] We thank M. Cole for making us aware of some of these connections.
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