How Children Piece Together Culture through Relationships

  • Karen Gainer Sirota
Part of the Culture, Mind, and Society book series (CMAS)


This chapter provides an overview of Gestalt theory and its relevance to psychological anthropology. Drawing on Gestalt principles, the chapter introduces the concept of configurational learning. It argues that this learning facilitates children’s sense-making capacities as they are mentored into culturally resonant ways of attending to, and aligning, dimensions of experience in conjunction with one another. On this view, children actively assemble culturally salient information into an intelligible, culturally patterned “whole.” The chapter provides a comparative analysis of such learning by examining children’s sleep practices in two diverse cultural settings: the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire and middle-class families in Los Angeles, California. It proposes that configurational learning depends, first, on the cultural shaping of attentional processes. Concurrently, intersubjective attunement facilitates this learning as caregiver and child orchestrate a consensually shared frame of reference that sets a feeling tone and moral valence for apperception, understanding, and action. The chapter asserts that psychocultural Gestalt processes of configurational learning are pivotal in composing culturally emergent selves and sensibilities, and, thus, are central for understanding how cultural practices operate from the ground up. The chapter concludes with a discussion about the utility of Gestalt theory to contemporary psychological anthropology and allied fields.



I wish to extend my sincere appreciation to Naomi Quinn, Peter Stromberg, and an anonymous reviewer for their encouragement and constructive commentary on an earlier rendition of this chapter. Any oversights or shortcomings in the work, as it appears here, are solely my own.


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Authors and Affiliations

  • Karen Gainer Sirota
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Human DevelopmentCalifornia State UniversityLong BeachUSA

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