An Invitation to Cultural Psychology


Jaan Valsiner

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    List of Figures and Table

    • 1.1 A designed hole as a part of the architectural building (commercial center at Zeil, Frankfurt-am-Main) 9
    • 1.2 A deeply symbolic form in a daily context (a street entrance to a small temple in a side street of Kyoto, Japan) 12
    • 1.3Svastik embedded in Ancient Greek ornament, 6th–5th century BC (Wilson, 1896, p. 839) 13
    • 1.4 The psyche in-between two infinities 14
    • 1.5 A young Chinese woman praying in front of a Kannon figure in Shanghai 15
    • 1.6 The structure of uncertainties in human lives: SELF<>OTHERS and PAST<>FUTURE (SC = Self as Center, turning towards various others around her/him) 17
    • 1.7 Coordination within double uncertainty SELF<>OTHERS and PAST<>FUTURE 17
    • 1.8 Adding predicates to the I → AM cycle 19
    • 1.9 Stem concepts of human cultural self-organization 21
    • 2.1 Typology of notions of culture34
    • 2.2 Contrast between the use of culture as a “container” (A) and as a process of relating (B) 40
    • 2.3 Dynamics of interior and exterior loops in meaning construction 41
    • 2.4 Boundaries on the beach 44
    • 2.5 A monument to a soldier in Hangzhou, China 46
    • 2.6 The dramatic nature of the semiosphere 47
    • 3.1 From symmetry to asymmetry in relationships 52
    • 3.2 The use of protective gloves in distancing the closeness of danger 52
    • 3.3 The Organon Model modified: Generalization in irreversible time 54
    • 3.4 Generalization and hypergeneralization 57
    • 4.1 Cultural meanings on the skin: A permanent tattoo (on the border of private and public access) 64
    • 4.2 Quadratic unity of INSIDE<>OUTSIDE and PAST<>FUTURE 66
    • 4.3 Mutual feed-forward relations of internalization and externalization 70
    • 4.4 Laminal model of internalization/externalization as double transformation 71
    • 5.1 Triangles that are illusions 87
    • 5.2Moving through and passing by: interpreting on the move 88
    • 5.3 C. S. Peirce's triangle 89
    • 5.4 The unity of icon, index, and symbol 91
    • 5.5 Combination of representational sign types 93
    • 5.6 Segregation of a minority in public 94
    • 5.7 Symbolic segregation of smokers on an outdoor railway platform 95
    • 5.8 How warning messages work for triggering resistance 96
    • 5.9 The oppositional characters in tobacco 97
    • 5.10 Cigars as belonging to dessert in a café menu 97
    • 6.1 An intransitive hierarchy with a rupture point 111
    • 6.2 The core of the dynamic semiotic perspective: Duality of the act 116
    • 6.3 The emerged sign with functional longevity (feed-forward to the future) 117
    • 6.4 Sign hierarchy as an inhibitory sign (IN) emerges and blocks the meaning (S) 118
    • 6.5 Extension of the sign hierarchy to include the Inhibitor of the Inhibitor and Demolishing signs (D-signs: “All this is nonsense!”) 119
    • 6.6 Emergence of a fixed dominant regulatory (FDR) sign 122
    • 6.7 Generalization of signs: How affect operates 126
    • 6.8 The making of silence through SWIB at the level of hyper-generalized meaning field (Level 4) 127
    • 6.9 Escalating through SWIB at Level 3: Flowing vague utterances 128
    • 6.10 The function of SWIBs at Level 2: Socially expanding “rational” talk 129
    • 6.11 The SWIB at Level 1 130
    • 7.1 From dead birds into food: In labels we trust 137
    • 7.2 Esteemed citizens of Haarlem following the “Tulip Promises”. Wagon of Fools by Hendrik Gerritsz Pot, 1637. 140
    • 7.3 The handle and its attachment 143
    • 7.4 Nineteenth-century cannibalistic ritual forks from Fiji (Berlin, Dahlem Museum) 145
    • 7.5 A recycling system: Preparing for the “second coming” of objects 147
    • 7.6 The structure of the object (Gegenstand)154
    • 7.7 The dynamics of the A<>non-A meaning system: Eternal movement between “the CLEAN” and “the DIRTY” 162
    • 7.8 Francisco Goya's Procesión de disciplinantes (1816–19) 170
    • 8.1 The Japanese rock garden (Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto) 183
    • 8.2 A family burial place in La Recolleta, Buenos Aires 188
    • 8.3 A tombstone of a Yugoslav family in Vienna Zentralfriedhof191
    • 8.4 Ending the line 193
    • 8.5 The promises of a church, and a coconut palm 194
    • 8.6 The top of a Dorian column (Paestum, Salerno) 195
    • 8.7 The Ionian column uses the principle of the extension of the line through spiral endings (from Lipps, 1891, p. 84) 195
    • 8.8 Caryatids supporting a house entrance in Vienna 196
    • 8.9 A ruin of a temple (Paestum). Note the Dorian columns 198
    • 8.10 Gedächtniskirche in Berlin—a purposeful ruin 199
    • 8.11 Mapping places on the coordination of two polar infinities 201
    • 9.1 Where innovation begins: On the border 206
    • 9.2 Where collective culture works 216
    • 9.3 Eva Gonzalez, La Chignon (1865–1870) 222
    • 9.4 When some hair is hidden, other hair acquires communicative relevance 223
    • 9.5 A usual event in the street: A woman pulling down her dress 225
    • 10.1 Fashion that breaks old norms: Underwear emerging from the undergrounds of intimacy 231
    • 10.2 Regular fashion—“ruined jeans” 234
    • 10.3 A “big” tension: Temptation of St Anthony (Felicien Rops, 1878) 235
    • 10.4 The façade of the Basilica di Santa Croce, Lecce 239
    • 10.5 Semiotic homogenization (schematization) and heterogenization (pleromatization) 240
    • 10.6 Ornamented entrance to the Cathedral of Metz, France 241
    • 10.7 Impact ranges of schematic and pleromatic signs 242
    • 10.8 Interdependence of schematization and pleromatization 244
    • 10.9 A model of dialectical synthesis 250
    • 7.1 Constructive extension of affordances 146


    This book is not meant to persuade anybody to become converted to the new direction within psychology—cultural psychology. One role I have always resisted—and viewed with a grain of irony—is the effort of many social scientists of our time to write popular books that are intended to persuade that their viewpoint is to be accepted by interested audiences. Instead, this book is a tool for developing new ways of viewing the phenomenon—all subsumed under the generic label culture. As readers will almost immediately discover, culture cannot be defined in less than in around 200 ways. Why, then, create a new discipline at the borderlines of psychology and that ephemeral notion of culture?

    A number of reasons for such an undertaking can be mentioned. Globalization brings together human beings who at first glance seem to understand one another—and, at a second, blatantly fail to do so. New closeness leads to new misunderstandings—and, at times, to new conflicts. Culture becomes an easy label for explaining such new developments. After my neighbor has passed by me, failing to greet me, I feel better if I can say to myself “it is in her culture that greeting your neighbor is not accepted,” rather than assume that she is afraid of the “evil eye” I might cast upon her.

    Cultural psychology has become increasingly popular in the past two decades. There are a number of trends in contemporary cultural psychology. I do not try to overview these here—they are represented elsewhere (Valsiner, 2012b, and in the journal Culture & Psychology). In this book I merely make an effort to outline the realm of interests of one version of that new direction, cultural psychology of semiotic dynamics. It is a sequel to my 2007 book Culture in Minds and Societies (New Delhi: Sage). There is a new feature in the present book—an enhanced use of visual and literary, often metaphoric, messages to elaborate my primarily abstract theoretical ideas. Behind the myriad of examples is a structure of theoretical notions that is slowly taking its form, as the discussion wanders along.

    A number of friends and colleagues have been generously helpful in the rather long process of my writing this book. Kenneth R. Cabell took great care of giving me substantive feedback on each and every chapter, which was most helpful. Pina Marsico and Raffaele DeLuca Picione found an Italian publisher and undertook the translation of some parts of the manuscript while I was frantically trying to write other parts. The enthusiastic interest by student groups in Salvador, Bahia, and Brasilia, where some of the drafts of the chapters were discussed in seminars, kept up my motivation to plough on with my writing. I am deeply indebted to all.

    The book is also a marker of a transition in the author's academic life course. After 32 years of living in North America, I am in the process of moving back to Europe, with all the positive learning that the New World has given me. This includes years of creative discussions with my colleagues, first in North Carolina (Robert Cairns and Gilbert Gottlieb) and for the last 17 years at Clark University in Massachusetts. Among my colleagues at Clark, Nick Thompson, Michael Bamberg, and the intellectually ever-young Roger Bibace deserve my special gratitude. They made it possible for me to grow during the “Clark years,” while, unfortunately, witnessing the gradual erosion of a historically major scholarly institution. Clark University was in the past—and still is—a remarkable context of higher education where all levels of scholarship, from a freshman undergraduate to an emeritus professor, can productively intermingle. My students over the years—undergraduate and graduate—have taught me much, and have found their own ways in academia. The work of many of them is relevant to this book. The constant coming and going of international visitors to work with me and my students at Clark created the unique intellectual atmosphere of the “Kitchen seminars,” where good-quality coffee and the mutual respect of participants led to a variety of new ideas, including those presented in this book. My role in these seminars was to pour out the coffee and to listen. Listening has the advantage of giving us time to contemplate. It is only later, in this (and other) books, where my silence in interaction is broken—hopefully, with a bit of substance in the results.

    I hope to bring back to Europe some of my acquired restless eagerness, which is known to characterize the ways of being in the Americas, and to unite that with the European tradition of intellectual depth. Special gratitude here goes to the Danish Ministry of Science and Technology, and to Aalborg University, where the new Niels Bohr Professorship Centre that we are establishing promises to open new horizons for cultural psychology's international visibility. Behind that success is the quiet and persistent effort by my colleagues in Aalborg—Brady Wagoner and Christian Jantzen—whose actions at the decisive moment made this all possible. I hope that the new Centre will play a catalyzing role for the many cultural-historical researchers I have met and befriended in Denmark in general. Denmark—at the border zone of Scandinavia and Central Europe—has since Søren Kierkegaard retained its fierce feeling of autonomy and high educational standards. My semiotic perspective should fit well with the cultural phenomenological perspectives that are well developed in Denmark. It will, hopefully, become a fruitful basis for the future growth of ideas—beyond this book. The book—as it leaves its author and enters the realm of readability anywhere in the world—remains an effort to make sense of some very general aspects of our being human.

    Chapel Hill, NC; Worcester, MA;

    Aalborg, Denmark

    August 2013

    Jaan Valsiner

  • Epilogue: Cultural Psychology as a Science of Universality of Culture

    Real human beings experience the pains and pleasures of birth, the hardships of living, and the sorrows of death. And they survive. And have survived, psychologically, for centuries before psychology as science came into existence. At these times they had not yet invented the notions of “trauma” and “therapy”—and the obligation to cure the former by the latter. Starting from the talk about trauma in the mid-19th-century train rides in America, the discourse about its dangers for the passengers and the need to prevent it, have been around. In the first airplanes, nurses were brought on board to treat the needs of the horrified passengers—the services of today's flight attendants started from the traumatic feelings of fear. But in all the centuries before that, the psyche has had the misery and luxury of self-healing in the process of surviving.

    What kinds of difference can the new area—cultural psychology—provide? What, in the most general terms, would make the “invitation” in this book different from hundreds of advertising campaigns that all promise to make human beings happy, prosperous, and eternally healthy? Cultural psychology makes no promises of this kind. It would be impossible for any serious science to compete with all these beautiful promises. These promises may be a currency in public discourses, escalated by journalists’ business interests, or at most in the communication between science and society. Science cannot be reduced to these discourses.

    The invitation in this book to a new science—cultural psychology—corrects two of the limitations of the discipline of psychology as it has emerged in the European social contexts over the past two centuries. First, it points to the meaningful nature of human life that is to be studied as such, if psychology were to be relevant for human beings. My focus in this book is personological, starting largely from the work of William Stern. It is Stern who charted out cultural psychology as the study of the psyche in its values-based acting in objective cultural domains (Stern, 1935, p. 39). The relation between structural forms (Strukturformungen) of the psyche and the objective cultural settings was to be the focus of that sub-field of general psychology.

    As a discipline that focuses on value-based phenomena, cultural psychology entails a radical break with psychology's empirical traditions. Instead of looking at the lowest levels of the functioning of the psyche, cultural psychology purposefully begins at the highest levels. Hence notions of religion, ritualizations, life philosophies, literature, theatre, music, cinematography, and their uses by people in their everyday lives, constitute the phenomena from which psychology as science begins. Behavior is relevant in psychology only if it is seen as meaningful—it becomes conduct—and as it leads to internalization of further meaningfulness to appear in the future. We started to elaborate human psychology of the meaningfulness of life courses in our collective book Melodies of living (Zittoun et al., 2013), where we synthesized basic ideas of dynamic systems with the centrality of imagination in the human lives over the whole life course. The present book is a continuous effort in the same direction—now from the perspective of an academic field (cultural psychology) rather than that of focus on personal life courses.

    Secondly, cultural psychology is qualitative in its general methodological stance. Quantification is possible—under specific limits—but it does not guarantee knowledge that pertains to the relevant research issues. Quantity is one part—indeed a very small part—of quality. Its subordinate status becomes evident when we find out the borders of applicability of quantification. The use of numbers is not a guarantee of science. The qualitative nature of the new discipline fits with developments in mathematics (Rudolph, 2013) where formal models of qualitative mathematics can become a new horizon for the social sciences.

    Thirdly, cultural psychology accepts the inevitable uniqueness of psychological phenomena. This is yet another reason why cultural psychology re-vitalizes the qualitative focus in psychology—it is the inevitable location of each and every human experience within the irreversible flow of time. The psyche is a tool for pre-adaptation of the living human being for the always partially indeterminate futures. Thus, part of the phenomena that psychology deals with are located in the present, part are becoming events of the past, yet all the time there is the impending future that is luring ahead. Phenomena of such kind are unique—they are emerging—which means that their frequency is constantly moving from 0 (not yet occurred) to 1 (now occurred). And the frequency “1” never becomes bigger—never “2” or beyond — because each new emergence is necessarily unique. Recognition of the similarities in the group of unique phenomena is possible on the basis of similarity, not sameness (Sovran, 1992).1

    How can a generalizing science deal with uniqueness? Since 2004 (Molenaar, 2004, 2007; Salvatore and Valsiner, 2010), psychology has been enriched by the notion of idiographic science. At first glance, if seen within the framework of Quetelet's “social physics” and its sequels, this label may seem to us as a contradiction in terms—if idiographic (= unique) nature of phenomena are of interest, there can be no generalization. The position stemming from the constructionist cultural psychology of semiotic dynamics is precisely the opposite—because of such uniqueness, generalization is possible. However, it is not generalization from the given phenomenon to a hypothetical “typical” form (e.g. “the average X”), but to the principles that govern the emergence of ever new uniqueness.

    Generalization from single cases to generic processes that make these cases possible has a time-honored tradition in science. Astrophysical generalizations are based on unique cases of self-organizing systems: galaxies, planetary systems, and single planets or comets. General biological principles, such as those of immunology (where one needs to explain the emergence of immunity towards ever-new viruses), have to be applicable to each and every, known or not-yet-known, case. Explaining the role of Ivan Pavlov's findings in physiology to the lay audiences of his time (1920s), Lev Vygotsky emphasized that Pavlov's experimental work with (a few) dogs was not about dogs as a species, nor about their salivation, nor about a particular dog, but:

    In the case of the dog he studied not the dog, but the animal in general, in salivation—the reflex in general, i.e. in this animal and in this function he pointed out what it has in common with all similar functions. That is why his conclusions pertain to not only all animals, but to all biology. (Vygotsky, 1926/1982, p. 404)

    Our invitation of the reader to cultural psychology is in line with Vygotsky's claim. Any unique cultural phenomenon carries within it general principles of semiotic mediation that makes it possible. All phenomena of “local culture” (Geertz, 1983) are thus made possible by general processes of semiosis. These processes are oriented towards variability amplification (Maruyama, 1963), and thus result in ever more new, “local,” versions of cultural phenomena.

    Fourthly, culture is not a thing, but a process of semiotic mediation. Culture, when viewed as the process of the semiotic mediation of human living, is thus a tool for the flexibility of the human psyche to encounter a wide variety of settings. Some of these are oriented towards the construction of something new, reaching new frontiers of understanding and being. Others lead to destruction. Human history is filled with calamities—wars devastate what has been constructed in peacetime, epidemics rage through the places where human beings live, and famines destroy the crops. Interestingly, our regular accounts of human psychology remain focused on the positive side of human existence. Psychologists are more likely to talk and write about the role of playground environments in children's cognitive and social development than those of war experiences, floods, or earthquakes. Or if they deal with the latter, it is the traumatic aspect (e.g. post-traumatic stress) rather than the human capacity to work out new forms of resilience to cope with the calamities in the future.

    The oversight of the horrible and the preference for the positive in psychological accounts may in itself be a coping strategy with the former. Why dwell upon the miserable past and try to endlessly explain it—this bringing it into the present? It is better to distance ourselves from it, and move on to create something positive. In practical life this may be a usual way of being. Yet, for the fullness of science, psychology needs to be clear of the functioning of the “dark side” of human existence—the readiness to kill, obedience to orders to act against fellow human beings, and readiness to plan and create tools for such acts of destruction. I have yet to find a study in psychology of people who make arms, be those rifles, bayonets, tanks, drones or landmines—some manufactured even in the form of children's toys. What kind of meaning would a worker in such “toy factory” construct for his/her feelings about such a job? By and large, public worries about arms trafficking are not represented equally to the social discourses on drug trafficking.

    In addition to our—researchers'—own anxieties of dealing with these “shadow sides” of the human psyche, we also have a problem of access to the humanly central phenomena as these are on the border of life and death. A psychologist has no place on a battlefield, interviewing soldiers who might be killed at the next moment, or even giving out questionnaires to fill out in between battles. The frontline is a dangerous place, both to the fighters and the psychologists. They might be killed, or they might find out something that the commanders do not like.

    Furthermore, there is no direct access for the psychologist to phenomena that occurred in the past. There is no way to send a psychologist to study the impact of the guillotine on the well-being of the political opponents of the current powerholders who were subjected to the rapid blade of that cultural instrument of “humane2” execution. Neither would such a researcher be left near the ritualized act of a political kind—and possibly be arrested as a “spy”. All evidence of the psychological events in the past comes through culturally mediated signs. Psychology is in this sense close to a number of neighbouring disciplines—such as archaeology or history—of having to make inferences from sign-mediated materials that existed in reality in the past, but not anymore. As such, psychology's data are signs, not facts. This realization goes back in psychology to the mid-19th century and finds its predecessor in Hermann Lotze's idea of local signs (Lokalzeichen—Valsiner, 2012).

    This feature of psychological research—centered on data as signs—provides us with new access to phenomena. Chronicle and fiction writers, portrait and landscape painters, who all have left surviving records, provide us with culturally encoded evidence that can be usable in a psychological investigation. The evidence from these literary sources needs to be considered as equal to the direct recording of evidence from living research participants (Brinkmann, 2009). A psychologist who gathers data with a questionnaire or interview today will be analyzing a historical record—now on one's computer screen—that is, in principle, similar to the analysis of the sayings or actions of a fictional character in a novel. Anna Karenina's psyche—completely created by Leo Tolstoy (Eco, 2009; Valsiner, 2009)—is as real as that of Anna Ivanova's, who may live next door to a psychologist. A novelist's description of the life in the given time and the social environments can be superior to efforts to reconstruct that from soulless historical records (e.g. Heider, 1959, on Marcel Proust). It is not surprising that the ways of thinking of literary scholars—Mikhail Bakhtin and Lev Vygotsky are good examples—becomes easily transferred to theory building in psychology. Cultural psychology is closely tied to semiotics—as a science of signs and their functions. Thus, the objects of investigation form a unified universe—the semiosphere.

    Considering all psychological data as fictions—as their nature as historical records starts from the moment of their derivation—does not make the data flawed in any sense. Fictions are important in human lives—human language is the primary semiotic source in our everyday lives to create non-existing objects3 that play very central roles in our lives. All our generic notions—Self, patriotism, love, justice, etc.—are hyper-generalized signs of field-like kind. While ontologically these are non-existing objects, functionally they are signs that regulate our ongoing lives in dramatic ways that sometimes lead to their end. Monuments to perished war heroes or martyrs of any kind are semiotic markers of events of the loss of real life for the sake of non-existing objects.

    We create culture, and through it, ourselves. The person—a socially emerged subjective actor within the socially structured life-field—is in constant motion towards horizons that will always stay beyond reach. Yet in that movement—from birth through maturity to death—the person creates his/her meaningful life course. To make sense how that happens is the task for the new field of cultural psychology. No persuasion is needed to allow the reader to understand a discipline that has been involved in self-searching (as if it is always seen as being “in crisis”—Valsiner, 2012, Chapter 8). Cultural psychology—an “up and coming disicipline” in the 1990s (Cole, 1996)—is by the 21st century well established to provide new insights into the full complexity of human life.

    1The practice of treating similarity as if it were sameness is the basis of the static viewpoint where categories of events are established by recognition of their similarity, united into a category, and subsequently treated as if these were each a representative of the homogeneous class. Heterogeneity of classes (where similarity prevails) becomes substituted by their homogeneity, fuzzy sets become treated as crisp ones, and time is considered only a dimension within which these events are detected.

    2At the introduction of the guillotine, this new technology of execution was presumed to be more “humane” than the hand-held sword of the human executioner (Smith, 2003). The use of the notion of humanity in the business of killing—in wars or peacetime—is a remarkable cultural meaning construction by itself.

    3In the sense of Alexius Meinong (1853–1920) of the “Graz School” of psychology. Meinong's distinction between existing and non-existing objects (that subsist, e.g. “golden mountain”) is an ontological pre-condition for looking at psychological regulation in terms of sign hierarchies. Signs that present the subsisting non-existing objects in these hierarchies make the psyche capable of transcending the limits of the here-and-now setting in the meaning-making process.


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