Synthetic Phenomena and Dynamic Methodologies



In this chapter, dynamic methodologies are viewed as empirically and theoretically informed tools which help the researcher to study developmental processes. Dynamic methodologies will be discussed from an ecological perspective, that is, by taking seriously the individual—environment reciprocity as the unit of analysis. This perspective brings into focus the issue of atomism/elementarism which assumes rigid distinctions between sensations, thoughts, and acts. Dewey (1896) already addressed the problem when he said that according to such assumptions, sensory stimulus, the central activity (standing for the idea), and the motor discharge (standing for the act proper) are three different kind of things.


Everyday Life Subject Matter Environmental Property Human Environment Psychological Phenomenon 
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In this chapter, dynamic methodologies are viewed as empirically and theoretically informed tools which help the researcher to study developmental processes. Dynamic methodologies will be discussed from an ecological perspective, that is, by taking seriously the individual—environment reciprocity as the unit of analysis. This perspective brings into focus the issue of atomism/elementarism which assumes rigid distinctions between sensations, thoughts, and acts. Dewey (1896) already addressed the problem when he said that according to such assumptions, sensory stimulus, the central activity (standing for the idea), and the motor discharge (standing for the act proper) are three different kind of things.

It is obvious that synthetic phenomena are common in everyday lives of people. Elementarism is unable to address such phenomena and so one possible way for psychology to move beyond the influence of elementarism is to study synthetic phenomena both empirically and theoretically. Dynamic methodologies must rest on theories which are able to conceive the wholeness nature of psychological processes. This is best done by studying the ecology of everyday life of humans.

25.1 Where Traditional Methods Fail—In the Study of Development

Various criticism raised against experimental research and its implications for the study of developmental processes already has led to a major focus on the study of the everyday life of children and the study of natural settings in which children live their lives together with people who are important to them. Bronfenbrenner (1977) famously articulated the basic ecological standards for the study of developmental processes when he said that much psychology is the science of the strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest possible periods of time. In his demands on an ecological science of development he echoed the quest for ecologically based child studies formulated and brought into life by Barker and Wright’s (1966, 1968, 1971) 1940ies study of Raymond and other children living in the town Midwest in the USA. What Barker and Wright and Bronfenbrenner agreed upon was to formulate alternatives to the unfamiliar and artificial nature of laboratory experiments. Even earlier, Vygotsky (in the early 1930s) derived his likewise famous concept the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978) from a critical discussion of the limitations of measurements which, he concluded, would have no prediction value with regard to the future development of a child (Valsiner & van der Veer, 1993; van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991). In his work with the zone of proximal development Vygotsky was explicitly occupied with the dynamic issue of psychological processes. The ideas formulated by those ecological and cultural-historical thinkers have informed and inspired generations of researchers of child development so that it has become common and natural to study child development by studying how the child lives her everyday life (see e.g., Tudge, Putnam, & Valsiner, 1990; Still & Costall, 1991; Cole, 1997; Valsiner, 1997; Valsiner & van der Veer, 1993; van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991, 1994; Heft, 1988, 2001; Chaiklin, Hedegaard, & Jensen, 1999; Hedegaard, 2002; Stetsenko, 2004, 2005; Tudge, 2008). However, empirical studies rarely solve theoretical problems.

25.2 Ecologizing Developmental Studies

The change to ecology in developmental science implies a need to re-conceive the unit (or units) of analysis in psychology. Obviously, the unit of analysis can no longer be the child as an isolated individual with the focus on what goes on ‘in the head’ of the child. And the child’s exchange with her environment can no longer be studied as a mechanical exchange with the child as one unit (element) inter-acting with a certain amount of other environmental (including social) units (elements). Or can it? Why should not the very old belief that the individual is the unit of analysis or the—likewise very old—belief that stimulus—response processes define psychology be able to survive attempts to ecologize developmental studies? We may, for instance, study child development by studying how a child responds to factors which she is exposed to in her natural environment. Or, we may acknowledge complexities and study how a broad variety of factors have an impact on the life of a family and how family members respond to those different social stimuli; or we might acknowledge diversities and study how ‘cultures’ impact children’s lives in different ways and how the children responds back, etc. Such studies may very well count as ecological on the laboratory—everyday life opposition, yet they remain un-ecological when seen from the mechanical—dialectical contrasting view.

The laboratory–everyday life contrast refers to the difference between research which studies children within those conditions criticized by Bronfenbrenner and those everyday conditions in general supported by ecologists. The mechanical—dialectical lens is suggested as a supplement because the term of ‘everyday life’ in itself does not protect against the ideas of treating phenomena in terms of mechanical causal models. These models lead to seeing the static side of everyday phenomena. In contrast, the ‘dialectical’ end of the scale proposes ‘everyday life’ to be greatly dynamic suggesting that no single part can be studied in isolation from other parts or be fixed in time and space. ‘Everyday life’ has systemic properties and in her studies the researcher should expect to find ways in which people co-constitute and change conditions of life in meaningful ways rather that any simple cause—effect relation. Both contrasts are needed for psychology to get beyond its elementaristic and stimulus—response approaches to psychological phenomena. In fact, we all deal with basic beliefs which are very hard to get beyond. To get beyond them one must try to perceive and to think beyond them, try to take seriously, what are the needed theoretical and methodological consequences of that which is the basic unit of analysis of ecological psychology: the individual—environment reciprocity. The somewhat paradoxical question to answer is how to still study the individual child’s development while not having the child as a unit of analysis?

In the present Chapter I approach this paradox by following the advice of Costall (2007) who finds that when wrestling with persistent problematic core-beliefs it might help to set the clock back in psychological theory. Let us take seriously the individual—environment reciprocity and its theoretical and methodological implications—and look back to Ehrenfels’ notion of Gestalt qualities, Baldwin’s dialectical notion of self, and to Gibson’s notions of direct perception and affordances. My reason to pick out those theories in particular is that whole-ism seems to form a natural alternative to individualism and Gibson’s theory encompasses Gestaltist as well as functional theory. So, I shall address the quest for dynamic methodologies by first addressing the basic issue of elementarism to which Ehrenfels as well as Gibson opposed.

25.2.1 Problems with Elementarism

What does one need to face in the attempt to develop and advance dynamic methodology? Developmental psychology has struggled with this question over decades. Firstly, it is not easy to conceive developmental phenomena in developmental ways. Describing landscapes of behaviour and organization, looking for differences or similarities and describing them, in short, painting pictures of what was, what is, and what might become is an obvious endeavour which, in itself, does not ensure a developmental perspective. What Davydov (1977) calls ‘empirical generalizations’ may very well stick to these descriptions. Secondly, this habit of making descriptions and operating within fields of categorizations is not just due to the practical constraints of empirical research. The habit of cutting into pieces—where one’s hope is to clear the sight of the researcher—is deeply problematic because it is based on the discourse of elementarism and, in general, the habit of dichotomizing phenomena that are mutually related.

The core problem in psychology related to elementarism is that of the individual and private mind. In western thought, the individual stands out by herself and it is broadly assumed that development is a process of separating oneself from other persons (parents) and from the restrictions set up by concrete material. Freedom of the individual is a core value and development is successful to the degree that this is the result. A child should grow to become independent in action and in thought. The values of freedom and independence on a societal level fit well with the epistemology following elementarism and the result is a struggle about how to define dynamic inter-relations when one has individualism as a starting point. Formulations like the problems of elementarism or of the problems of dualism indicate a negative stance, i.e. a position of pointing out the danger, limitations, and restrictions of an influential paradigm. A negative and critical stance is absolutely necessary. However, one needs to focus also on the negations of the critique, the possible positive outcome of critical reflections; what is needed is a positive stance, i.e. a position which allows theorists to move from a situation with the future negatively defined on the bases of critique to a situation with positive definitions of the field of psychology. The overall question is how to move from anti-elementarism (negative stance) to a dynamic psychology (positive stance).

25.2.2 On Dynamic Methodologies

To move dynamic methodologies forward along this line implies that it must be based on dynamic theorizing as well as dynamic perceptions and analysis of developmental phenomena. Dynamic methodologies are those which link between dynamic theories of life and dynamics of life—they are concerned with the question of how to work with dynamic theories of dynamic life. Hence, bringing forward dynamic methodologies in the first place means acknowledging the dynamic nature of human life—the idea that dynamic realities are heterogeneous and disharmonious synthesis and that the unit of analysis therefore should be the wholeness patterns of such heterogeneities and disharmonies while also being able to keep the individual in focus. Bringing forward dynamic methodologies further means that approaches to empirical studies should refer to foundational ecological theory which, in addition, is able to overcome the habit of dichotomizing phenomena; a habit which persists with the persistent influence of elementarism. Dynamic methodologies might be successful when based on both ecological demands—studying the everyday life of children and studying the dynamic nature of that everyday life. I shall argue in the present paper that this dialectical ecological approach helps bring the individual out of the idiosyncratic private space which elementarism dooms her to stay within. Phenomenologically experienced psychological events are non-private not only in the sense that individuals can share their thoughts, feelings, and actions with others but also in the sense that those thoughts, feelings, and actions always-already originate in societal and social processes. The question of how to move from the somewhat general and abstract statement that ‘humans are societal/social beings’ to the more concrete determinations of what this in fact means and how it impacts research, is a hard question to answer.

25.2.3 The Problem of the Either-Or

When viewed in relation to dynamic methodologies, the main problem concerning elementarism is the either-or discourse, that is, the acceptance of the ‘law of the excluded middle’ in Aristotelian logic and the denial of the ‘synthesis’ in terms of the Hegelian logic. However, if we turn the clock more than a 100 years back to Baldwin, we find that he was deeply concerned with conceiving dialectical phenomena in dynamic (in fact dialectical) terms (Valsiner, 2008). In much of his writings, Baldwin wrestled with the notion of self in quite a dynamic way trying to base the notion of self on dialectical processes (Baldwin, 1897, 1899/1973, 1906, 1908, 1911, 1915; Baldwin, 1930).

Let us consider an example similar to Baldwin’s elaborations. If I (a child) think of a friend who possesses certain skills (e.g., reading well and being great at skateboarding), I may experience myself as someone who does not yet have access to those skills but might myself want to become able to read more smoothly and enjoy the pleasures of skateboarding. I know that I will have to get started with practicing and I begin the hard work to transcend my own borders of skills and of self-understanding. After a hard period of time filled with much self-challenging creative imitation of my friend’s skills I am slowly learning and now think of myself as someone who reads more smoothly and who is able to skateboard if not great then acceptable. I can feel somewhat proud of myself and feel that it is I who now possess those skills. Baldwin points out, however, that I think of myself only by thinking about my friend whom I wanted to become like and whom I tried to imitate. When I think of myself, I think of my friend or, as Baldwin states in general terms:

…each and all of the particular marks which I now call mine, when I think of myself, has had just this origin; I have first found it in my social environment, and by reason of my social and imitative disposition, have transferred it to myself by trying to act as if it were true of me, and so coming to find out that it is true of me. And further, all the things I hope to learn, to acquire, to become, all—if I think of them in a way to have any clear thought of my possible future—are now, before I acquire them, simply elements of my thought of others, of the social alter, or of what considered generally we may call the “socius” (1897, p. 342).

Baldwin finds that the notion of self should be conceived as a dialectical self—alter notion. ‘Self’ is not to be determined in isolation; it is not an element and cannot be a unit of analysis. On the contrary, in thinking of oneself, one is also essentially thinking of the alter. The personal self is filled up with the thoughts of others and the thoughts of others are filled up with oneself. The self and the alter are to our thought one and the same thing (1897, 1899/1973).

Based on his dialectical notion of self as self—alter, Baldwin elaborates certain implications of his view. An individual’s “interests”, for instance, is a self—alter interest rather than an interest which solely belongs to the individual. Similarly, an individual’s emotions or desires may be considered self—alter emotions and self—alter desires. In its perspectives, his view is a radical deconstruction of individualism and of elementarism.

Unfortunately, psychology in general did no go thus far. Elementarism still pushes forth scepticism which forces us to think in ‘either-or’s, dichotomies, and (more or less) mechanical exchanges: Something is either in the individual or outside the individual; either the individual initiates or responds to stimuli; either psychology is a matter of biology or of social constructions; either a child is creative or imitative, etc. endlessly. Further, particular domains for study are being institutionalized into practices and journals, like the study of cognitive development, of social development, of emotionality, etc.

In other words, the either-or discourse of elementarism is a challenge to dynamic methodologies; it is a deeply embedded part of the history of psychology. One needs to wrestle with this foundational issue if any progress is to be made. The point is that given those habits of thought and of practices, there is a gap to be filled out between good intentions and good practice. One may wish to look at things in a ‘dynamic’ way or to consider ‘complexities’. However, if ‘dynamic’ still means ‘interactions’ and ‘complexities’ still means ‘the impact of a lot of different things’, one might worry that one still sticks to elementarism.

25.3 The Importance of Theoretical Concreteness

There probably are several ways to go when trying to get beyond elementarism. In the present paper I shall try take a move in that direction by using the method of theoretical concreteness which finds inspiration in Hegel’s notion of ‘the concrete’. Viewed from Hegel’s (1812/1969) dialectical perspective, empiricism (which is the epistemological ground for elementarism) is related to the making of abstractions and formalizations based on the analysis of perceived differences and similarities of things (elements) which are then thus being put into fixed categories. In psychology this tendency for example influences ideas of what concepts and concept formation is about. Davydov (1977) formulated a Hegel-inspired critique of this view on concepts and processes of generalizations. He found that classifications based on perceived similarities of features are non-dynamic generalizations, while dynamic generalizations are those based on analysis of what are the driving forces and the becoming of psychological phenomena. The ideas of generalizations as categorizations is also present in Piaget as he finds inspiration in Boole’s algebra and symbolic logic (Piaget, 1957). Hegel names this process ‘understanding’. To him ‘understanding’ is merely related to abstract formalizations, not to discovery of the dynamic and concrete becoming of the subject matter given. According to Hegel, the concrete is not just what is before our senses and available to perception. The term of ‘the concrete’ refers to the becoming (history) of the subject matter. It has nothing to do with processes of abstract generalizing; quite on the contrary, it has to do with processes of concretizing particularities of becoming. What is concrete is that which passes through ongoing determinations of dynamic, changing, and evolving processes of becoming.

In Hegel’s universe, matter in isolation, identity and difference, abstract universality are all concepts related to empiricism (elementarism). Contrary to this he finds that a subject matter should not be determined from the outside but from the perspective of its own real dynamic and concrete being. Dialectics is what grasps such processes in that it constitutes a method to avoid the one-sidedness and limitations of the abstract, isolated determinations. Such determinations neither leave room for movement, nor for change or emergence. Therefore, to better grasp these processes, Hegel (1812/1969) introduces his dialectic of being and nothing. An object of knowing is not just ‘being’ in the finite abstract form which elements are made of; the object of knowing is ‘nothing’ as well. By introducing ‘nothing’ Hegel points to processes of becoming, that is, what is not (yet) there, what changes over time and so on, as an immanent feature of being itself. Therefore, a particular thing, event, etc. is never just a particular in itself, it is co-existing within dynamic processes of change and becoming.

25.3.1 An Example of Theoretical Concreteness

A first step using the method of theoretical concreteness is to present the object of study, that is, the particular piece of everyday life which one wishes to research dynamically. The next step will be to work on a concretion of the object studied (synthesize it), hence reaching a point where the particular object can become wrenched free from an isolated position and, alternatively, become perceived and conceived as a snap-shot of becoming of a wholeness. Before I reach this step, let me first introduce an example on the basis of which the generalities of the method may be derived.

The example picked out could be any everyday event and the fact that it is picked out from a school context is in no way significant. If anything, the school context only illuminates a very general problem, especially because school knowledge and scholastic practices are often approached in somewhat rigid and limited ways as if we are dealing with learning only referring to quite simple matters of individual—subject matter interactions. Those reductions have been keenly criticized for a number of years. In relation to the present paper the school context serves to exemplify what kind of everyday psychological phenomena should become perceivable and conceivable by the help of dynamic methodologies. The first steps, hence, is to determine what kind of psychological phenomena we are dealing with by presenting it and synthesizing it. After that the third step will be to seek out the theoretical roots which still may contribute to the elaboration of dynamic methodologies.

25.3.2 The Physics Lesson—An Example

My example is taken from an observational study of students learning physics in a Danish high school which I did some years ago (Bang, 2006). The overall aim of the study was to investigate processes that might be helpful to explain why apparently so many students find science difficult to comprehend. It is a somewhat open focus in that the process nature of students trying to understand something is the object of study. The students and their activities and communication is what was focused upon; it is a shared process and any of the individual student’s activities and contributions has to be studied inter-relationally. This makes it apparent that the unit of analysis cannot be the individual student, even though it is exactly those individuals who are being kept in focus.

The theme of the particular lesson studied is ‘collision’, a physical event that anyone knows well from the everyday life (bumping into something, something falling down from somewhere, etc.). In the lesson, the students are asked by the teacher to analyze theoretically what happens when two cars collide on a road—the one entering a bigger road from a smaller one and hitting a car which apparently remained unnoticed by the driver until the time of the collision. The students are given a simple figure which illustrates the collision (car crash). They are asked to describe in physical terms what happens right after the crash and to illustrate it on the figure.

Three female students are going to collaborate on the task. They receive the figure which illustrates a collision and begin to work. The teacher’s intentions are to make the students train their ability to think in physical terms about an everyday event, to appropriate the language and thinking of physics. Especially, they are asked to verbalize, what could be meant by “non-elastic collision” in physical terms and what are the difference between that and an “elastic” collision. The three students accept this task willingly and, so it appears to the observer, seem to find it to be a relevant and meaningful activity as it is a part of their high school education. As they begin to work with the task, sometimes they get out of focus and begin to share something else, something which seems relevant to them as friends and classmates but not relevant in relation to the theme of the lesson. Rather, they seem to have a pleasant time sharing after school activities, plans, future events, etc. This in-and-out-of-focus pattern concerning the task continues recurrently throughout the observation. Their in-focus activities unfold like this: They put some arrows and a curlicue into the figure to illustrate the direction of the cars and the collision event (Fig. 25.1).
Fig. 25.1

Children’s work on the collision event

Soon after, they seem to have reached a ‘bump’ in their apprehension which makes further task management hard to go on with. They hesitate and begin to share what ‘elastic’ means. Still, they go in and out of focus, hesitate, return to the question but do not challenge themselves and their own conceptions. Rather, quite soon after they reach an agreement about an interpretation about the term ‘elastic’ and confirm the agreement with words like “Yes, this is the way it must be”. The agreement, however, is reached without any clear or open discussion or seeking out definitions. It is the observer’s impression that reaching an agreement of understanding is experienced at an emotional level as a relief. The shared agreement seems to help them feel on a safe ground in the task solving process; they have now reached a point of social support for what they want to believe about the troublesome term ‘collision’. Each of them agree with the other two about an interpretation to which they conform and now they soon can go on with whatever is the next to be done (what that is, is not quite clear, however). It is worth noticing that agreement is not reached on the background of disagreement, conflict or any deeper commitment or discussion of the present matter.

The ‘cognitive conflict’ experienced as a ‘bump’ in the flow of the group process is resolved by means of social conformity and social psychological appeal to consensus (in general, consensus appears to be a general attractor when sharing about some subject matter in group processes in school). What they seem to agree about (however falsely according to the textbook conceptions and the teacher’s articulations) is that a ‘non-elastic collision’ means that the cars are entangled. So, if the cars are entangled, the collision is ‘elastic’. However, they are not quite sure about this and call for the teacher to help them clarify the terms, which the teacher does. The teacher corrects their understanding and, hence, undermines what they just agreed about. Even though the subject matter and the terms involved are being sorted out—that is ‘officially’ what goes on as the teacher explains about the concepts—the students nevertheless seem to find themselves in a vacuum. Putting effort into a task and comprehending the task seem not to be the same process, however often constructed that way in a classroom context. The students do no occur to be much affected by that; when the teacher leaves, they just go on with something else as they repeat the pattern of going in and out of focus.

25.3.3 Second Step—Concretizing of the Physics Lesson

A consequence of elementarism is to view learning as an exchange between elements, that is, between the student and the subject matter—either in a Cartesian sense as a process where elements from the outer world is being transferred into the mind of the student or in the Piagetian sense as the student actively constructs her own conceptual formation and abstract thinking. If the researcher goes out in classrooms and expect to find such simple student—subject matter exchange everything else being equal, the researcher will become disappointed. The object of study is not only far more complex, it is far more dynamic. I shall now take the next step following the method of theoretical concreteness and try to reach a point where the processes of comprehension are being perceived and conceived as synthetic phenomena. The synthesizing process, of course, is not thorough; it only intends to throw light on a few methodological means that might help replace elementarism.

Let me begin with a deconstruction since it occurs to me to be essential with regard to the further synthesis. As an observer, what is being deconstructed in theoretical terms in the example is the assumed identity of learning activities and learning outcome. There is no simple connection between what is presented to the students by the teacher and what is agreed upon among the students to be the focus of their activities. The students apparently do not conform to the teacher’s hope for the activity—outcome circle: “now you do this and so in the end you will know about it”. This is the ever ongoing hope or generalized expectation which keeps up the hope for teachers wherever they practice. Of course, a critic might object that this is just an example of bad learning, that the situation is not one which offers optimal conditions for meaningful learning and probably the teacher/the students are to be blamed for this. Another teacher/pedagogy or other students might change everything to the better. Even though such a critique might be relevant; it leaves the question unanswered what is such an optimal situation—is it one with ideal teachers and students, optimal schools and home backgrounds? Even if such critique might have a point, the point is elitist. Elementarism relies on elitist viewpoints because they rest on abstractions from real life with real people and assume that there are special positions for special (particularly ‘gifted’) people. However, one must realize that the situation presented above serves to determine common processes of human exchange and it is constituted by much more than a student—subject matter exchange. One, therefore, should expect the stream of consciousness (James, 1912) of the students to absorb the much more as a global experience. In this respect, nothing is ‘private’ or just “in the head” of each individual student. From the perspective of the method of theoretical concreteness, the ‘much more’ should not be regarded as side events or disturbing ‘noise’ which prevents the ‘pure’ process of appropriation to proceed. There is no such purity to be found in everyday life of people.

The object in focus is not just learning activities or having a social exchange or going to school or receiving instruction or discussing something or whatever parts (elements) the situation appears to consist of. The object in focus is those actions among the students which seem to be meaningful to them, some of which recurrent over time and therefore—probably—expressing some ongoing pattern of meaningfulness. What should be researched, therefore, is
  1. a)

    a pattern of activities which constitute the situation in dynamic ways,

  2. b)

    how the individual’s stream of consciousness is saturated by/saturating the dynamics and

  3. c)

    how the dynamics as a synthesis are experienced and may become described at a phenomenological level.


Starting from the basic ecological unit of analysis, the individual—environment—reciprocity, one should expect to find such transitions. For the purpose of my general argument, I shall pick out a few dimensions which appear to have the qualities of being meaningful to the students and, further, add to the process of synthesizing. Those dimensions are the following activities: work with the object of the lesson, the being attracted by consensus, and the going in and out of focus of the activity.

Work with the object. What is it that the students are working with, what are the particular properties of the object in focus (collision), what is the order revealed? The teacher’s explanation to the students reveals a general order of theorized physical objects which also holds true for this particular one. A theoretical understanding of collision includes two dimensions that are often fused—the dimension of what might be called a theoretical ideal construction and a theoretical real construction. The theoretical ideal construction is an idealization of what might be the case in a physical world concerning objects and movements. The theoretical ideal construction is the consideration of concrete circumstances concerning those objects and movements. It is only in the world of ideal theoretical constructions that one should expect a collision with no loss of energy to happen. In the real physical world, there will always be a transformation of energy into heat. Other examples of idealizations are the difference between the ideal and the drawn circle. Davydov (1977) found that the ideal circle is identical with the procedure to be followed when producing a real circle (i.e., using the equation of the circle as a prescription for action). A falling object is ideal only if one ignores the fact of the resistance of the medium, the wind, etc.—in short, particular environmental circumstances. The ideal <-> real nature of the physical object constitutes a cultural artifact which is part of the scientific practice. In this case, the ideal <-> real artifact is the elastic <-> non-elastic collision which established the physical object concretely. Hegel’s ideas about what established something as concrete also works in the case of the subject matter. What the students meet is not just a physical event; rather, it is the cultivated access to the event and the subject matter becomes concrete for the students to the extent that the cultivation process itself (its history) becomes available and meaningful to the student. Hence, the double theoretical nature of the cultural artifact presented to the students constitutes part of the cultivation which contributes to the particular subject matter of situation.

However, the students seem to be confused and do not really know how to approach the example given; rather, they guess about possible explanations by drawing on other kinds of order like that of ‘two things which tangle become one thing’. What is ideal, how the ideal anyway is real (part of practice), what is real about the collision as an everyday event, what is essentially important, what is less important, how and why are own experiences and ideas relevant and (perhaps) why not—all of those multidimensional processes of sorting things out are present in the situation mostly as an experienced open field and as experienced confusion, disintegrated activities, and ways of approaching the object. The process of reaching a point of concreteness partly fails, but this partly failing is in itself part of the dynamic of the situation. The double theoretical nature of the object as an artifact mediates cultural experiences within a specific domain and the students meet this specific part of history when working with the object. Even though the car collision example appears to draw on everyday experiences, it is a little illusory and marks only the opening of the process. Soon the feeling of familiarity turns into confusion as the students try to identify the history present (absent present). In fact, they do not know what to identify.

Being attracted to consensus. The students in the present situation seem to agree that agreement about an interpretation is important. This might be a relevant social motive in school when one feels uneasy or hesitant towards the own level of understanding. If they do and think like others do and think, each student will bring herself in a more ‘secure’ position and feel some comfort in protecting herself against the tests and the individual evaluations of the school system. Being wrong about an interpretation does not feel so bad if one shares it with others. In fact, it may be less important if one is right or wrong about things in school, as long as one is a member of a community who share the views. Consensus appear to be a strong motive in a system which rests on the idea of testing and evaluating individuals on the one side, and, on the other side, sometimes offers the individuals chances to collaborate. No wonder that collaboration and consensus tendencies go together.

The ways in which collaboration and consensus go together can be seen in the activities of the students. The fact that consensus seems to be a relevant and action guiding motive for participation may link to the fact that the students tend to go in and out of focus rather than to engage themselves whole-heartedly into the task given by the teacher. They often start a conversation about something else, like what is going to happen in the next lesson when they have another subject and another teacher, are they well prepared and why not, what did they do yesterday afternoon after school and what will they be doing in the weekend and with whom, etc. In short, they go in and out of focus constantly. The discussion of the subject matter, consequently, did not get into any depth. Agreement substituted discussion in an early phase.

Going in and out of focus. The actions of going in and out of focus I shall discuss as a way of managing the general order of the school system. McNeil (1988) argues that school should be viewed as a societal institution where practice is influenced by the overall tension between educating new generations of citizens and controlling the educative goals—the school rests on the tension between educating and controlling. This sets the stage for ways of doing school in a society. McNeil is especially occupied with the tendency of defensive teaching which follows from the control side of the tension. If control of outcomes (tests) rules the everyday practice of school, standardization of courses will occur and standards will become restricted and ‘school like’. As a consequence, teachers and students might reduce their interest in school and minimize efforts. Instrumental relations might occur and begin to define practice. It might grow difficult to find examples of whole-hearted engagement among participants. The students might even work against the attempts to control them and control will increase. From this perspective, the level of engagement in learning situations might mirror appropriated strategies to manage the basic tension of school in society. In addition to McNeil’s analysis of the dynamics of control, the overall educational goals lead to the construction of a variety of courses which the students must join throughout their career. The particular physics lesson is but one among others in a course and also, it is one among the lesson of other courses. The everyday practice of school means that the students must focus attention on a lot of separate things while also keeping in mind the continuation and transformations of everything. To master this order of school practice, the students have to develop relevant general strategies. They have to become ‘good enough’ students in their attempt to master the heterogeneities and contradictions of school. A “good enough” student is someone who is able to show some progress and avoid trouble. The ‘good enough’ performance protects the student and helps her make it through the courses and manage the order set to be followed. Engaging into particular subject matters or a particular issue has to co-exist with not engaging too much due to the fact that next lesson will be about something else and so on and so forth. Mastering the lesson must co-exist with mastering the day—digging oneself into some matter and spreading oneself out on several matters. This is the order set by the institutional organization of educational goals by school. There may be many ‘levels’ of being a good enough student. However, the dimensions of order described above seem to create an inescapable order which the student enters as she enters school.

25.3.4 The Good Enough Student

The following results appear on the basis of the three research foci suggested above:
  1. a)

    A pattern of activities which constitute the situation in dynamic ways: The activities of the students are distributed rather than focused solely on the task given by the teacher. It was found that several relevant dimensions concerning the school system were directly active in the situation and saturating the students’ activities and thoughts. Especially relevant was the history and cultivation of the subject matter and the history and ongoing practice of the school as a societal institution. Activities were found to be saturated by both in a recurrent shifting flow.

  2. b)

    How the individual’s stream of consciousness is saturated by—and saturating—that dynamics.

There is a meaningful relation between activities unfolded and the stream of consciousness of the students. In this respect it is found that both historical dimensions mentioned above contributed to the heterogeneity of the situation—even to the contradictions found between
  1. 1)

    being a “good student” who is much occupied with the particular subject matter—versus being a “good student” mastering the ongoing flow of everyday life in school, and

  2. 2)

    being exposed to individual learning, testing, and evaluation versus collaborating with others.


Those heterogeneities and contradictions appear assorted to the students, they are not being reflected, sorted out, focused upon, or ordered hierarchically. Rather, they tangle into that, which is the situation. The students’ actions are assumed to express how they absorb it all, the ‘good enough student’ position may be considered the most obvious possible social position for the well adapted student who is able to fill out the gaps and overcome the contradictions from time to time. The stream of consciousness of the students as saturated by the heterogeneities and contradictions of the situation and their activities and thoughts acts it out and contribute to maintaining the flow as a shared process—how the dynamics as a synthesis are experienced and may become described at a phenomenological level. In this analysis, no attempt to ‘look inside the heads’ of the individual students is to be undertaken. The unit of analysis is the student—environment reciprocity and hence it should be expected that each student lives in a non-private world when it comes to the level of phenomenological experiences. If that is so, one should expect each student to experience herself as a participant in relation to the global whole of the situation. The heterogeneities and contradictions should be expected to find their way to how the students experience to be there and to participate in activities in school. The ‘good enough’ student hence is supposed to be not only the most probable social position but also the one to saturate the experience of the student herself. The ‘good enough’ student, of course, must be an ongoing compromise and an unstable balance—not a fixed position. It is a student who must put energy into keeping herself up in this possible position not one who rests in it. This is so, of course, because of the constancy of heterogeneity and contradictions in her school environment. Hence, she must constantly co-constitute her position and co-constitute her self-experience. The ‘good enough’ student is someone who succeeds in keeping things together by help of relevant and socially accepted strategies; the not good enough students are those who do not. The ‘good enough’ student is one who masters sufficiently well the heterogeneities and contradictions of school. The result is exactly what the present situation reveals—students who engage ‘just enough’ and who go in and out of focused activity.

The suggested synthesizing shows how actions, thinking, perceiving, feeling, experiencing is a kind of ‘summing up’ of the multidimensional and global nature of a situation filled up with heterogeneity and contradictions. I have tried to describe the presence of global phenomena which cannot—and should not—be reduced into elements. The global nature of the situation, encompassing heterogeneities and contradictions, is what the individual meets in her everyday life, it is her reality which she has to master. This is true for any individual in any everyday situation of everyday life, hence the whole way of thinking constitutes a challenge to stage-theoretical conceptions of development, but this is a story to be told elsewhere.

25.4 The Notion of Gestalt Qualities and the Dynamic Nature of Synthetic Situations

It may be a good idea, with regard to understanding the synthetic phenomena genuinely, to begin with the beginning. I shall therefore present von Ehrenfels’ initial notion of Gestalt qualities and then expand the analysis to the field of everyday phenomena discussed in the paper.

Ehrenfels defines a Gestalt quality like this:

By a Gestalt quality we understand a positive content of presentation bound up in consciousness with the presence of complexes of mutually separable (i.e., independently presentable) elements. That complex of presentations which is necessary for the existence of a given Gestalt quality we call the foundation (Grundlage) of that quality (Ehrenfels 1988, p. 93).

Elementarism visibly is a background problematic to Ehrenfels who argues against it when saying that it is possible to directly ‘sense’ Gestalt qualities of a system. He discusses the example of a melody and finds that we do perceive directly the tone-Gestalts of a melody. It is:

…a commonly held belief that a presentation of, say a spatial shape, or even of a melody, does not originate from outside consciousness as something complete, but rather, if it is to enter consciousness at all, stands in need of some integration or synthesis of the relevant individual component sensations” (1988, p. 83).

In Ehrenfels’ view, the positive alternative to elementarism is to acknowledge the existence of Gestalt qualities which can be perceived directly by the perceiver. If one perceives a coloured surface, for instance, every part can be decomposed infinitely into ever smaller parts and psychology would end up with a problem of processing those elements in consciousness as a phenomenon of infinite regression. Fortunately, we are able to perceive the surface as a plane surface which means that the phenomenon studied is not infinite amounts of elements but the continuation of a surface. We are able to perceive those Gestalts surrounding us. We are also able to perceive the family resemblance in the faces, bodies and movements of relatives even though we are not able to specify exactly on which basis we do our judgements. The Gestalt quality of family resemblance is a meaning-unit which connects the family members despite their differences. The Gestalt is a glimpse of that family’s particular history which may appear to the perceiver.

A Gestalt, hence, is not a mental construct but the percept of an environmental property to which we have direct access. Spatial shapes and melodies exist without any contribution of the intellect, without the need for application of mental activity. Gestalt qualities are given in consciousness simultaneously with their foundations, without any activity of mind specifically directed towards them. This view
  1. 1)

    places Gestalt qualities in the world rather than (primarily) in the mind of the perceiver, Gestalts are not mental constructions

  2. 2)

    assumes that there is a synomorph relationship between the Gestalt quality of that which is perceived and the perception, and

  3. 3)

    that Gestalt qualities are perceived directly and immediately (without intermediate mental processes) as the perceiver turns her attention toward some matter in the world.


Ehrenfels’ basic insight may be helpful when applied on synthetic everyday phenomena. Let us first try to apply the Gestalt view on the learning activity presented above: what is the psychological phenomenon studied from this perspective? Clearly, as I have argued, it is not just the individual student struggling with the subject matter. The history, organization, and ongoing practice of different co-constituents tangle so that it becomes practically and empirically impossible to stay with the idea of the ‘pure case’. The object of study rather seems to be the situation as a Gestalt, that is, (following the realist notion of the Gestalt qualities summarized above) the heterogeneous and contradictory Gestalt qualities which make up the situation and how the actions, perceptions and stream of consciousness of the individuals at the same time grow out of it and contribute to it. The main conclusion of the synthesizing is exactly that the students are able to perceive and act adequately to the heterogeneity and contradictions which constitute the Gestalt-like wholeness of the situation. The students are adequately adapting themselves to that dynamic nature of this particular (though recurrent) situation. The synthesized ‘good enough’ student position grows out of the ability to adapt to the wholeness of heterogeneity and contradictions.

In general, institutional practices may be viewed as having Gestalt qualities, that is, there is something about the situation that transcends to particular co-constituents; it may be identified as a kind of wholeness which the participants co-constitute through their personal contributions which, on the other hand, are based on the perceived wholeness. This view is anti-elementaristic in the sense that (a) the object of study is the wholeness of the situation—the Gestalt qualities of the co-constituents, and (b) it is no longer clear what belongs to the individual and what belongs to the environment—the individual co-constitute her own environmental conditions hence, brings herself out of the shell of privacy.

The individual is not ‘opposite to’ her environment, she co-constitutes it, hence is part of it. I shall return to this point later because it helps expand the notion of the environment beyond the commonly held belief that it is that which surrounds the individual, has an impact on her, etc—a belief which is anchored in the strong influence of elementarism and stimulus—response ideas mentioned earlier in the paper. This view expands Baldwin’s ego—alter dialectics into a global environmental idea—the alter is expanded to refer to all that is a result of human life and practice, the ego is expanded to mean also that, with which she contributes to the situation and how she contributes to her experiencing the situation. Her perception and her actions are dialectically constituted.

25.4.1 The Heterogeneities and Contradictions of Situational Ecology

When applying Ehrenfels’ version of Gestalt psychology on the cases of human social practices, some reconsiderations and adjustments must be done. A social practice is not a Gestalt quality similar to a melody or a surface. Those are examples of how harmonious wholeness is the result of foundational parts. A situation within the field of social practice is not a harmonious or homogeneous whole. We are not dealing with harmony in the example, quite on the contrary. The closest thing we come to ‘harmony’ is the ‘good enough’ student who manages to operate within the heterogeneity and contradictions which constitute the wholeness of the situation. The ‘good enough’ student is a compromise, as argued earlier. The students are being pulled simultaneously in different directions; they perceive and act in a field of dilemmas without obvious choices because the different co-constituting dimensions are all at work. The students must perceive the dynamics of the field and act accordingly; she is adapting to the ecology of heterogeneity and contradictions and may in general grow and develop accordingly to how she masters it all.

25.5 James Gibson and the Situational Ecology

The need to explore the ecology of the situation grows naturally out of the expanded Gestalt ideas. This is no wonder since ecological psychology in general suggests a move away from having the individual as the unit of analysis to having the individual—environment reciprocity as the unit of analysis. Gibson is one of the influential ecological thinkers who found inspiration in Gestaltist ideas of Kurt Koffka. However, unlike many Gestalt psychologists, Gibson found perception to be direct rather than indirect.

Gibson was occupied with the organism-environment reciprocity and developed his theory of direct perception also as a general comment to the dualism problem in psychology. The dualism problem is varied but may find its basic form in the Cartesian dichotomy between the (mechanical) world and the human mind. His struggle to formulate an ecological alternative to elementarism is present in his books in the form of his theory of information pickup. He finds the idea that perceptions of the world are caused by stimuli from the world to be problematic. The very notion of stimulation as typically composed of discrete stimuli leads to elementarism and mentalism in the Cartesian tradition, hence isolate the individual from the world. Discrete percepts (Descartes-like) will not do, he finds; in thinking so, he is in full accordance with Ehrenfels’ critique of elementarism. According to the discrete percepts view, we do not know the external causes of our sensations; we cannot know the outer world. Since we cannot detect the causes of our sensations, we must deduce them by mental acts. Gibson speaks against this view and draws on Gestalt ideas to argue for his realist position contrary to the traditional view of perception.

Gibson theorizes perceiving to be direct in the sense that there are no intermediaries or ‘constructions’ in the brain going on between the perceiver and the thing being perceived. Perceiving is not the result of constructive brain processes:

According to the theory here proposed (…) the neural inputs of a perceptual system are already organized and therefore do not have to have an organization imposed upon them—either by the formation of connections in the brain or by the spontaneous self-distribution of brain processes.

The evidence of these chapters shows that the available stimulation surrounding an organism has structure, both simultaneous and successive, and that his structure depends on sources in the outer environment (…). Instead of postulating that the brain constructs information from the input of a sensory nerve, we can suppose that the centers of the nervous system, including the brain, resonate to information. (Gibson, 1966, p. 267)

Perception, he finds, is not a response to stimuli, rather, it is an observer’s awareness of the environment. This awareness is based on information specific to its sources in the environment. He regards exploratory action to be a basic unit of analysis which makes information available for an actively exploring organism. With his direct realism he claims that it is possible to perceive the environmental properties directly on the basis of information already available in the environment. No mental representations are needed for that process. Perceiving refers to “…a keeping-in-touch with the world, an experience of things rather than a having experiences” (1986, p. 239). What is perceived is not colors or forms or other abstract ‘properties’ but real properties of the world and the habitat of the organism. ‘Place’ for instance, is not an abstract notion but somewhere in the world where an organism is located and exploration of places means moving oneself around from one place to another; places are nested within larger places.

Similarly, information refers to the qualities of objects; it is a specification of the perceiver’s environment. A perceiver can keep on noticing facts about the world she lives in to the end of her life without ever reaching a limit. The information can be the same, despite a radical change in the stimulation obtained (again a thought similar to Ehrenfels’, who finds that a melody can remain the same despite the change of key). Along this theoretical line, the theory of information pickup requires perceptual systems, not senses. By a perceptual system is meant the activities of looking, listening, touching, tasting, or sniffing and it is susceptible to maturation and learning.

Everything in the world persists in some respect and changes in other respects. So does the observer himself. The continuous pickup theory of perception assumes that the apprehension of persistence is a simple act of invariance detection. In the case of the persisting thing the perceptual system simply extracts the invariants from the flowing array. According to the theory, perceiving is a registering of certain definite dimensions of invariance in the stimulus flux together with definite parameters of disturbances. The invariants are invariants of structure, and the disturbances are disturbances of structure. The invariants specify the persistence of the environment and of oneself. The disturbances specify the changes in the environment and of oneself. A perceiver is aware of her existence in a persisting environment and is also aware of her movements relative to the environment. The perceiving of the world begins with the pickup of invariants.

Perceiving means perceiving the affordances of things, that is, the ‘invitation qualities’ (Aufforderungscharakter) of things. Gibson’s inspiration in Gestalt theory is explicit here:

The hypothesis of the “invitation qualities” of objects, their valences, or what they afford, was central to Gestalt theory, especially as developed by Lewin (1936), but the phenomenal field in which they appeared had an uncertain status, neither wholly internal nor wholly external. If these valences are taken to be invariants of stimulus information, the uncertainty disappears. The stick’s invitation to be used as a rake does not emerge in the perception of a primate until he has differentiated the physical properties of a stick, but they exist independently of his perceiving them (Gibson 1966, p. 274)

Gibson’s concept of affordance intends to ‘cut across the dichotomy of subjective and objective’—it is both a fact of the environment and a fact of the agent. An affordance points both ways, to the environment and the observer (Gibson, 1986; Good, 2007).

The Gestaltist inspiration to affordance theory finds its way to the idea that visual information is available to specify what an object affords (Costall, 1981). What is graspable, what can be eaten, what can be walked on, etc. are affordances, that is, what the environment offers the organism (animal). According to Gibson, affordances are real; they are objective properties or invariant groupings of properties. A surface which affords walking, for instance, must be level, solid, rigid, not frictionless, etc. (Costall, 1981). When linked to another major source of inspiration—pragmatic functionalism—Gibson’s theoretical systems appears to become a kind of applied Gestalt approach to perception-action studies. The concept of affordance is an important one because it grasps the direct access of the organism to the environmental properties relevant to that organism: Hence, the notion of affordance implies a notion of the relevance which goes beyond the mere perceiving of continuous surfaces (Ehrenfels). Gibson’s striving is to unfold “…an adequate functional account of living processes that have co-evolved with respect to a set of environmental conditions and maintain a dynamic and reciprocal relation with those conditions” (Heft, 2001, p. 15). He is not searching for any inner mechanisms or structures to explain mental phenomena. On the contrary, he finds that the exploratory activities of an organism make the information about the environment available for the exploring organism.

25.6 Gestaltist Ideas as a Source of Progress and Limitation to Ecological Theory

So far, I have argued for the presence of synthetic phenomena in everyday lives of people—and for theories which help conceptualize those phenomena. This endeavor is not just meant to be an anti-thesis to elementarism; it is an attempt to move from a primarily critical formulation of the problems of elementarism to a primarily positive formulation of alternative stances. I found that the ecological unit of analysis, the individual—environment reciprocity is a basic empirical and theoretical source for dynamic methodologies. However, the interpretation of the example mostly aimed to illustrate this reciprocal relationship by pointing to how environmental properties and demands (the history of ongoing practices and available environmental properties) find the way to the activities and the (probable) experiences of the participating individuals.

The discussion here has mostly been focused on understanding what streams in the stream of consciousness of the individual and how its public nature could be understood by using the method of theoretical concreteness. While the argument has been to describe the ‘reciprocity’ at the level of the individuals, less effort has been put into understanding the terms of ‘the environment’ and ‘the individual’ and how they conceptually relate to each other. Obviously, the environment is not just that which surrounds the individual; and the individual does not meet the environment anew all of the time as that which she sees and feels when she wakes up in the morning. The environment is not just what is materially present before the eyes of a single individual; and a single individual does not stand alone to meet the environment, she is saturated by the environment in non-reducible ways. If the environment is reduced merely to that which surrounds, the principle of reciprocity will immediately fade and the individual—environment exchange will be reduced into a mechanical one based on elements (so we are back where we started). Hence, the constituent ‘parts’ of the reciprocity deserve particular interest. In human life, the constituents of the reciprocity—the individual and the environment—constitute each other. It has already been illustrated by the example how the environment lives in the stream of consciousness of the individual and how the individual becomes part of her own environment as she experiences herself as a co-contributor to the ongoing flow of activities. Apart from the feeling of agency, it increasingly becomes blurred what is ‘inside’ and what is ‘outside’ of the individual.

25.6.1 Isomorphism and Immediateness

The organism which Gibson seems to have in mind is one who continuously explores its immediate environmental properties by help of a proper environmental medium (light); the invariant structure is directly perceivable which means that there must be a simple and non-ambiguous interrelation between the needs of the acting organism and the properties perceived in the environment. Some things afford ‘eat me’; others afford ‘sleep here’, etc. Organisms in this world may contribute to the change of their ecological niches if not exactly in purposeful ways. One must assume that because Gibson does not talk about humans (who do change their environment purposefully) environmental changes occur in the attempt to adapt to the environment by learning proper perception-action systems over time. I suggest that the world which Gibson theorizes within is the world of the animal, assuming that perceptual processes follow a similar pattern across species.

I would suggest that his inspiration from Gestaltist ideas at the same time contribute so his ecological thinking and puts limitations on it. The idea that one has to obtain stimulation in order to extract information (1966, 1986) seems to focus much on the detection of immediate environmental stimulus material. The alternative to operating with dichotomies between the individual and the environment (no surprise) is the suggestion of a close connection or even an isomorph relationship between the individual and the environment according to which there is no difference or disconnectedness between what presents itself to the individual and what the individual picks up. When it comes to human life, however, the immediate relation between the individual and her conditions of life is being changed. According to Holzkamp (1983), this breakthrough is due to the division of labor which changes the life conditions for the individual. Her individual existence is now mediated by the common societal conditions of life. I tend to think that this point of view might be relevant to Gibson’s ecology—at least if applied on human life. We do not, of course, deal with a problem solely related to Gibsonian thinking. Quite on the contrary, this isomorph ‘trick’ appears to be a common ‘solution’ to the problems created by dualism.

Good (2007), for instance, discusses the perception of social knowing, and his quotation of Asch illustrates the idea of an isomorphic relation between experienced emotions and expressions of emotions. The perceiver, it is argued, can perceive the emotion by perceiving the expression because of the assumed isomorphic relation:

Our problem of relating actions to inward experiences would be solved if we could abandon the assumption that phenomenal facts and the actions that correspond to them are utterly heterogeneous, if we could reverse this assumption and say that the organized properties of experience are structurally similar to those of the corresponding actions. We could then conclude that the emotion of joy and the expressions of joy have identical characteristics, that formally the same qualities are present in the experience and movements of tension, hesitation and daring. With this step we would provide the basis for the grasp of the psychological situation of others through the observation of their actions. At the same time we would be reversing completely the subjectivist conception of consciousness: from being hidden and private, consciousness would become something accessible to us through action (Asch, in Good, 2007, p. 267).

According to Good, Asch here seems to capture the essence of a non-mentalistic conception of social knowing which is revealed directly in actions. Further, he finds that Asch’s position may be seen in a tradition of direct perception that includes (among others) Gibson. Asch’s explanation of the link between the psychological properties of persons (like feeling joy) and these kinetic structures (expressing joy) is described as characteristically Gestalt; it is based on an isomorphism between brain states and human actions.

It seems as if the eitherto ecological solution to the problems of elementarism is to stress the immediate nature of the relationship between the individual and the environment. As a consequence, perception is suggested to be the point of departure for psychology. I do find, however, that the ecological solution may only be a half step away from elementarism if it sticks into immediateness; even though Gestaltist ideas may contribute productively to overcoming dualisms, it may also restrict the solutions suggested as long as those solutions assume isomorph and immediate relations between the individual an her environment.

25.6.2 Adapting and Transcending—Two Merging Processes in Human Life

An ecological theory of perception is useful—yet insufficient—to understand the dynamic phenomena in human life. It is a fact, for instance, that the school in which the observational study was carried out is a societal institution invented to educate young people, and that the need for educating people is a need of the society as it has developed through active transformations across generations of people. If we start with perception, this fact may create theoretical challenges to ecological theories or, worse, become theoretically ignored.

Since there seem to be Gestalt qualities in the world one should value and protect those insights and use them as important theoretical points when developing dynamic methodologies. However, those important insights cannot stand alone. We can, for instance, not understand the phenomenon of the learning situation presented earlier in adequate ways if only theorizing it as a perception-action situation (even though it is also a perception-action situation). The mere fact that the students participate in societal institutions and practices—they find themselves in socially invented and produces physical environment and co-contribute to the keep going and the keep changing of practices, etc.—transcends the immediateness perspective on human life.

25.7 The Individual—Environment Reciprocity Reconsidered

Dynamic methodologies for the study of human life must rest theoretically on two basic assumptions—that of adapting to and that of transcending environmental immediateness. With the animals we share the ability to live in an immediate connectedness with our environment and adapt to it; we are able to pick up information about what is immediate (invariants) in a direct way—this is the legacy of Gestalt psychology and functional-pragmatic theory. Further, humans transcend their immediate connectedness with the environment because they are producers of their own societal life. This means that the human environment is produced environment and, further, that future directedness of humans puts change, creation, and invention into the centre of understanding dynamic phenomena. This is the legacy of Marxist philosophy and its impact on cultural-historical activity theory.

As Marx wrote, it is a fact of human life, that it is produced by humans themselves:

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life. (Marx, 1845)

When synthesizing those apparently contradictory assumptions we find that human life is dynamic in that it is based on the ability to adapt by not adapting—transcending the immediate means adapting to the future—to future possibilities and desired states which may or may not become realized when also adapting to the specific environmental constraints and the ever present social order. At a first glance, those basic assumptions may appear contradictory; however, approaching action from a functional perspective, Gibson already stressed the exploring intentional nature of agents (Gibson, 1966, 1986; Heft, 2001) and the meaningful nature of perception. Therefore, I do not find incommensurability between the theories, only different contributions to the understanding of dynamic phenomena in human life.

25.7.1 Reification of Human Intentions—The Historical Nature of Human Environment

As mentioned above, the human environment is a produced environment. Our human world consists of artifacts, guiding ideologies, norms, and practices. All this, of course, can be described as being more or less directly available to a human agent, however not reduced to its immediate appearances. A book in school, for instance, is an artifact with thing-like properties; however, its meaning lies in its produced purposes which are being materialized in the ‘thing’.

There is no simple isomorphism between the material thing and its intentional purpose, even though the thing expresses certain functionalities and affords ‘reading’. The artifacts of human ecology express and witness the particular reified wholeness of cultural and historical processes so far. Therefore, the notion of human environment refers not only to the presence of things and people in specific environments but also to the presence of an absence (temporality/historicity) of societal processes. Artifacts are expressions of the future directedness of humans, of their transcending and historical nature. One would become guilty of reductionism if ignoring this fact. The historical nature of humans is an absent present co-actor in the otherwise immediate individual—environment reciprocities. When an individual establishes a reciprocal relationship with her immediate cultural environments, she interacts not only with things and people being present present and available—she simultaneously interacts with the intentions of humans across generations—with what is absent present. Wartofsky (1979) stresses the general intentional nature of human environment:

The objectification of human intention is embodied both in the tools used in production, in the skills acquired and adapted to this use, and in the forms of symbolic communication which develop in language, in art, in dance and poetry, in their origins….‘environment’ is itself not a neutral term, but is what is functionally adapted to, and changed by an organism, or a population of organisms…..the very environment itself, as a space of action, is invested with the characteristics of an artefact (1979, pp. 205–206).

Following this perspective, I find that human environment simultaneously has historical properties—reified intentions in the form of ideal and material artifacts as well as ongoing human practices—and functional properties—properties which are regarded relative to some individual’s (or group of individuals’) actual actions (see also Bang, 2008, 2009).

25.7.2 Reification of the Individual—Her Quasi-Environmental Properties

The fact that humans produce their own environment (= conditions of life) certainly transcends an individualistic and hedonistic perspective which is not far from functionalist thinking. According to a Marxist notion, the individual is not primarily someone who utilizes her immediate environment for own private purposes (this happens and is regarded a distortion of her societal being) but someone who contributes with her forces to the community. Productive labor, rather than perception, is the starting point for psychology in that it is stressed how the individual offers to the community through her productive activities.

To extend Baldwin’s ego—alter dialectics presented earlier one might say that the notion of ‘the alter’ should include the human environment in a broad sense. When applied to the discussion, Baldwin’s ‘alter’ should not only refer to specific present social others (like a father and his daughter, or the student and her teacher). The ‘alter’ should be considered a heterogeneous cultural category which includes the absent presence of history, of reifications and of practices, of that which has become removed and changed as well as that which has become created and invented. In the human world, everything has a history and is part of ongoing changes. Cultural artifacts are invented and produced for certain purposes and they undergo changes along the way as other needs emerge and as they contribute to the emergence of new needs. Social others are human beings with agency and personal histories and they interact actively and in undetermined ways in situations, hence create new possibilities and restrictions for themselves as well as for others. The dialectical growth of self must have reference to this expanded notion of the alter, since each individual is a member of shared and co-produced historical environment which are being reified in particular forms hence appear ‘immediate’ to the observant individual.

When generalized to the notion of individual—environment reciprocity it seems obvious that imitating others and imitating generalized human practices by help of artifacts are closely linked processes. A child who cooks the dinner with her parent does not only imitate the actions of her parent but at the same time imitates a commonly shared practice by the help of proper culturally produced artifacts. She acts as if it is true for her that she is a cook like her parent, hence co-producing the commonly shared practice, the child-parent relationship, the food and herself in one and the same activity. The child is ‘all that’ potentially as she cuts the carrots her way, makes the pieces larger than her parent would do, hence puts her energy into the small community and reifies her intentions into a meal.

When thinking the Baldwinian way about developmental processes (valuing the dialectical relationship of imitation and creativity as the basis of development) and, further, when we extend his notion of the alter to mean not only the social others who are present in the developing individual’s life but the human environment and its societal and historical nature—it increasingly grows difficult to remain satisfied with the simple individual—environment reciprocity which still seems to build on the idea that what we research is the individual in herself who stands in a relationship with her environment that surrounds her. In any activity where an individual reifies her intentions (even the child who helps cook a meal) she transcends the usual dichotomy between what ‘belongs’ to the individual and what ‘belongs’ to the environment. Through her activities, the individual becomes part of her own environment. The child mirrors herself in the carrots which she cuts and she creates a new dimension which merges with the initial one in that the evaluation (supporting comments from her parent, for instance) of her creativity grows to become part of the activity as well and of her ways of understanding herself.

While participating in cultural practices, the individual experiences her own participation in the situation as part of practice. In short, I suggest self to also be relevant in relation to the notion of environment. More precisely, two dimensions of self—that of experiencing own participation in a situation and that of experiencing oneself as a person participating in a situation—should be considers parts of the reification processes. In this sense, the individual herself becomes part of her environmental properties through her activities.

This analysis expands the notion of environment to include the experiencing individual herself—the individual is not just the centre of perceiving, acting, experiencing; she also is a quasi-artifactual environmental property to others, hence to herself. This notion of environment radicalizes the issue of what is inside and what is outside of the individual of what is mind and what is environment; it is an ecological position which does not stop with the simple individual—environment reciprocity whether this is formulated in mechanical or in mutualist terms.

Adding ‘self’ to the environmental analysis adds to the notion of Gestalt qualities of the situation researched. The co-perceiving of oneself as a participant and as an existential person should be viewed as a Gestalt quality as well. The individual is available to herself in the co-constitution of the situation. Gestalt qualities, hence, have not only reference to purely ‘objective’ phenomena (in the sense of not depending on the perceiving individual)—it is an overall quality of individual—environment reciprocity as well.

In the process of participation (like the students of the example above) the individual remains the centre of experience and of agency. At the same time the individual is one among other participant in the particular social practice. She therefore inhabits a double-position as an agent and as a cultural being. In the situation, her agency and her quasi-environmental qualities merge with the overall Gestalt qualities of the situation and the individual becomes able to co-experience herself as a person participating. Participating in a situation may feel comfortable and meaningful to an individual or uncomfortable and meaningless. How it is experienced by an individual is part of a complex dynamic of her life and she includes this perspective in any present situation of participation. An individual may very well feel, for instance, that no changes of a situation or of her participation is possible or that alternatives are so challenging and filled with anxiety that she makes non-developmental generalizations about herself which makes her stick to passivity or circular self-protecting patterns of participation, some of which at the same time prevents the individual from actively altering her own conditions of life. The learning situation discussed in the present paper might be regarded as both contributing to personal growth and putting limitations on personal growth. Any single of those interpretations probably would be wrong because no situation is simple and unidirectional in its Gestalt and in its potentials.

25.8 Conclusions

Dynamic methodologies are empirically and theoretically informed tools which are helpful in the research of developmental processes. In the present paper I have argued that to develop such tools psychology should take the individual—environment reciprocity seriously both when it comes to the question of what kind of phenomena are we studying and when it comes to the question of how to understand the theoretical terms themselves. The foundational issue addressed was elementarism, but here I have attempted to get beyond elementarism by applying the method of theoretical concreteness on a particular example. The example itself, of course, serves paradigmatic purposes which are to focus on the overall presence of synthetic phenomena to be researched in the everyday life of humans. As a result of the synthetic phenomena presented, it was argued that dynamic methodologies need to rest on theories which are capable to grasp the wholeness of heterogeneities and contradictions out of which synthesis grows. This theoretical endeavor led to attempts to re-consider the notions of ‘individual’ and ‘environment’ as those ‘parts’ which make up the reciprocity. Especially it was argued that the historical nature of human living should be taken seriously when conceiving the notion of environment; further, it was argued that when taking the notion of reciprocity seriously, it becomes radicalized. ‘Inner’ and ‘outer’, ‘mind’ and ‘environment’ distinctions could not be preserved in the traditional form (meaning that the individual has a mechanical exchange with the environment). Through her agency the individual becomes part of her environment and acquires quasi-environmental properties. This, in the end, offers her chances to include self-experiences into the synthetic processes in which she takes part.

These are the principles working in the dynamic human field and what dynamic methodologies should be become able to grasp. In addition to this story a few further problems might become resolved; one of them being the ‘mediation’ metaphor and its hidden dualist roots (Costall, 2007); the other being the repeated discussion whether an experience of something should be rooted in realism or in mutualism—this includes phenomena like ‘affordances’ (Costal, 1986) or ‘the ideal’ (Stetsenko, 2005). Both, of course!


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark

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