Jean Lave: Cognition in Practice

[Readings] (11.09.08, 11:34 am)

This book is about a shift in the study of cognition into the idea of practice. Lave’s book is the construction of a complex argument to free the understanding of cognition from the limits imposed by traditional methods of study. As far as this goes, Lave asserts that the use of the laboratory and theory impose certain values into the study of cognition, classifying some uses of cognition as superior to others. Additionally, these approaches also yield incorrect results. For example, the first part of the book challenges the idea of learning transfer, which would be valid if we the functionalist theory of cognition held. Lave demonstrates that learning transfer clearly does not occur in practice.

A lot of ground is covered in this book, and Lave makes some very progressive and compelling arguments. Her work can be considered a criticism of functionalism in all its forms, which would include mental model theory. Having found model theory useful for many purposes, I would posit that practice can be understood in terms of models. This requires a subtle understanding of what a model is: a consistent system of meaning that comes with a way to interpret and translate things in the world into symbols in the model. Lave’s argument could easily be extended to argue that all theories are practices, but I would extend this further and say that theories and practices are both models in turn.

Psychology and Anthropology I

An opening example is how arithmetic is used in everyday life. Problems that ordinary people face are very unlike problems that might be specified in a classroom sort of setting. In the introduction, Lave gives an example of a shopper who is buying apples, and rationalizing how many apples to buy. As presented, arithmetic is a tool that is used in everyday life, not as an explicit approach, but rather as something like duct tape, to be used for estimations than exact calculations. Classical mathematics studies math as an artifact, a whole subject, rather than a tool.

Lave gives a solid critique of functionalist theory. This is characterized by several points (p. 8):

  • Passivity of learner: The learner is passive and receives knowledge without having an active role in its learning or use.
  • Isolation of skills: Skills may be separated and understood atomically. Separation is unproblematic, and usage is not dependent on context.
  • Leads to meritocracy: The use and adeptness at arbitrary skills leads to a value system where proficiency at one skill indicates general superiority.
  • Stress on rationality and cognitive life: This is as opposed to usage and practice.
  • Cultural uniformity: If the functionalist theory holds, then skills and functions transcend culture, meaning that culture must have uniform basis.

The book is organized into two parts: The first is a critique of the practice of cognitive theory. This challenges the functionalist emphasis on learning transfer, and the artificiality of the laboratory method. The theme of this argument is around the idea of ecological validity, where a theory is ecologically invalid if it fails to be supported in a diversity of settings. The latter half of the book explores and emphasizes the study of practice in of itself.

Missionaries and Cannibals (Indoors)

The section here is trying to understand the role and concept of knowledge transfer, the process by which knowledge from one domain is transferred to another. Presumably this happens analogically. The actual results of experiments about knowledge transfer obtained mixed conclusions. These experiments give students a math problem, which may be solved algorithmically, and give the students other problems which are isomorphic in some way. Students do not make the necessary leaps in these sorts of problems, and generally seem very confused. A functionalist theory would support a sort of reductive understanding and transfer, but this does not hold. Incidentally, this type of transfer is exactly the sort of mechanism by which Newell’s GPS worked.

Lave gives a critique of the method by which students were presented with problems in the learning transfer studies. “A number of problem characteristics are common to all four papers and by extension to the genre more broadly. The puzzles or problems are assumed to be objective and factual. They are constructed ‘off-stage’ by experimenters, for, not by, problem solvers.” (p. 35) Thus, the problems are presented as tests, and come replete with the values of producing a correct solution. These have an overall trend of disempowering the subjects, depriving them of suitable context or situation.

The learning transfer experiments rely on a sense of knowledge as component based or modular. In this point of view, knowledge is put into domains, which function like disconnected islands. However, this point of view, and the problems themselves, are cultural artifacts.

Life After School

To find an alternative to traditional problem solving, Lave conducted a study called the Adult Math Project, which studied how ordinary people use mathematics in everyday life, and more specifically, grocery shopping. This study found that people are remarkably successful at math problems, (framed both on paper, as well as in the store) but they use dramatically different methods than those taught in school.

A problem I found with her study, though, is that it is placing supermarket decisions primarily in terms of cost. This relates back to the fallacious idea of the rational consumer. Supermarket choices may factor in cost, but also have a great deal to do with social and class awareness and attitudes, preferences, and identity.

Psychology and Anthropology II

Lave is attempting to undermine the false dichotomy of scientific and “everyday” thought. This descends from dualism and cultural colonialism. The central theme in this is that science itself is a practice, and that it is culturally constructed.

Inside the Supermarket (Outdoors) and From the Veranda

The goal in this section is to develop a theory of practice. The first part of this is to distinguish between practice and formal knowledge domains, or conceptual spaces. A primary difference is that practice occurs simultaneously within other activities, and may be synchronized with them to some degree. An example of this that Lave gives is knitting and reading. Instead of taking place individually, they are situated within each other and affect each other.

There is a concern over the form of scientific inquiry. This may be seen as a concern over model building. How do we decide what to model, or decide what is important or relevant? This is an authorial judgement, and comes in part with judgement of value. Lave asks, “Further, who is to decide what cognitive phenomena are significant objects of study, and how? Are guidelines to be found in normative models of cognition, in an investigation of the activities of peoples’ lives, in some combination, or in other sources altogether?”

To address this concern, she introduces the idea of ecological validity. Experiments are ecologically valid if they get the same results regardless of situation. This is important for the study of cognitive science, because the way people think within a laboratory setting may be different in some ways than how they think outside. If a cognitive experiment yields one set of results within the laboratory, but totally breaks down outside, then the theory on which that experiment is based must be questioned.

An experiment that Lave critiques a great deal in this section is another supermarket math experience, conducted by Capon and Kuhn. Their experiment is intrinsically biased towards the knowledge domain understanding of math. The experiment was set at a grocery store, but still carried the structure of laboratory problems: answers were right or wrong, and the type of reasoning was intended to be proportional. Instead of asking “what sort of math occurs in grocery shopping?” they tested whether subjects could perform a certain kind of math.

Out of Trees of Knowledge into Fields for Activity

This chapter frames the complexity in problem solving. Instead of problem solving existing at one small and discrete domain, it is situated within a broader context. “People experience ‘problems’ subjectively in the form of dilemmas and, so motivated, ‘problem-solving’ actively often leads to more or less enduring resolutions than precise solutions.” (p. 124)

An example that Lave focuses on is a study of practitioners of Weight Watchers, who incorporate the goals of Weight Watchers into their daily routines of shopping and food preparation. Thus, these activities are recast with a new set of motivations. I would argue that these practices are totally consistent with model theory. Weight Watchers has a model with one underlying principle: the quantization of food. This causes activities involving food to be understood as systems of quantities. These models and motivations are necessarily in conflict with others.

Outdoors: A Social Anthropology of Cognition in Practice

In the opening to her concluding chapter, Lave overviews some of the elements of her study of practice (p. 171):

  1. The context of a study is important, (for example, in the supermarket), but the context surrounding the situation is also important. The supermarket is also contextualized in peoples’ lives, in which the shoppers’ dilemmas are construed.
  2. Conventional premises and analytic questions must be understood critically. This book can be seen as a project which makes these assumptions to be objects of study.
  3. The study focuses on “whole-person activity” rather than attempting to understand cognitive functions in isolation. This places cognition as dependent on on time and setting, within culture.
  4. Accepting that activity is situated, then those activities are placed within some point in history and culture, and must be understood in that context. Thus, the dilemmas of the shopper (and hence the form of math and cognition used) in 1950s America may be different from those found in contemporary Beirut.

Lave’s final conclusion has a good review of her project as a whole: “I have tried to move the investigation of ‘cognition’ outdoors in several senses: out of the laboratory, out of the head, out of a confusion with a rationalistic ‘culture,’ out of conflation with conventional ‘knowledge structures,’ and out of the role of order-producing, primary constraints on activity in the world.” (p. 189-190)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorLave, Jean
TitleCognition in Practice
Tagsspecials, anthropology, psychology
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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