PUTTING A (DIALOGICAL) PRACTICE INTO OUR PRACTICES:
Review of: J.S. Bruner, The Culture of Education (Harvard Univ Press, 1996) for the journal Mind, Culture, and
JOINT ACTION AND PARTICIPATION IN AN "ENABLING COMMUNITY" -
A WHOLE NEW LANGUAGE-GAME FOR PSYCHOLOGY
John Shotter See footnote 1
'Psychology, alas, seems to have lost its center and its great integrating questions. I think it has
given up prematurely...' (p.167) [endnote 1].
'The origin and the primitive form of the language game is a reaction; only from this can more
complicated forms develop. Language - I want to say - is a refinement, 'in the beginning was the
deed'' (Wittgenstein, 1980, p.31).
'The great student of jurisprudence Robert Cover has argued that law arose in the first instance...
as an extension of joint action' (p.156, my emphasis).
'People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don't
know is what what they do does' (Foucault, in Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1986, p.187).
'We desperately need to look more closely at what we mean by an 'enabling' culture...' (p.77).
'This entails building... cultures that operate as mutual communities of learners, involved jointly in
solving problems with all contributing to the process of educating one another' (pp.81-82).
As I see it, in The Culture of Education (TCE) Bruner is gradually bringing into visibility what until recently we have
almost all ignored: the crucial importance, and ineradicable presence, of our cultural practices. And more than in any
of his other books - still 'unfinished' at 80 plus! - he carries us on yet further toward a cultural psychology suitable for
What I want to do in this review of TCE is to claim that in it, he confronts those of us concerned with the
project of constructing a cultural psychology, with some very important phenomena indeed, phenomena to do with the
joint or social nature of our mental activities that we cannot ignore. However, under the influence of the very
antimonies he discusses in TCE - the tensions between the intra- and interpsychic nature of the mental; the importance
of the local (small things) and of the universal (overall themes) in the expression of a culture; the difference between
explanation and understanding; as well as the talents of the individual in relation to the shared 'tools' of a culture - he
oscillates in his accounts of these phenomena between emphasizing their individualistic, mind-like nature, and
alternative ways of accounting for them that focus more on aspects of our socially distributed cultural practices. In other
words, although he claims that the central thesis of TCE is that 'culture shapes mind' (p.x), he still nonetheless
oscillates between that view (of our cultural practices as radically prior to all that we do), and writing as if his task is
to offer each of us, individually, new ways of thinking, i.e., still a view of mind as primarily shaping culture. Overall,
I think the oscillations he shows in TCE can be formulated in terms of a tension between a focus on narrative as
coherent, organized container-structure into which, clearly, a complexly inter-related set of events can placed, but
which nonetheless, he presents as a finished product, and the dialogically-structured processes that not only go into
their construction, but which, as Bakhtin (1981) shows, are still at work in the structure of most narratives, i.e, their
meaning making is in fact unfinished. If Bakhtin is correct, the unfinished structure of the dialogic, not the coherent
finished narrative, is the basic structure of our experience.
In what follows, then, I want to take seriously what I take to be the unavoidable primacy of culture for us in
all our talk of our human ways of being. I want also to take up a large number of suggestions Bruner makes in TCE
which I think are of help in elaborating talk of 'cultures that operate as mutual communities of learners' (p.81) - for
it is in the creation of such (dialogically-structured) communities that I think our future lies. But further, I want also
to elaborate more explicitly the dialogic tendencies already present his work, for, as he himself comments: 'It is not
that we lack competence in creating narrative accounts of reality - far from it. We are, if anything, too expert. Our
problem, rather, is achieving consciousness of what we so easily do automatically, the ancient problem of prise de
conscience' (p.147). For I want to focus in this review on Bruner's most important idea of an "enabling or learning
community," and within such communities, I think, a focus on dialogic structures will be even more helpful than what
has so far been achieved by a study of narratives.
I want to begin this endeavor with his claim that: 'The 'reality' we impute to the 'worlds' we inhabit is a
constructed one' (p.19), and with his suggestion that: ''thought' as it is usually discussed may be little more than a way
of talking and conversing about something we cannot observe... a way of talking that functions to give 'thought' some
form that is more visible, more audible, more referable, and more negotiable... one of those 'oeuvres'... that we create
after the fact' (p.108, all my emphases). And I want to explore how such a way of talking ('of' rather than 'about'
thought) can be used within a group to help it collaboratively to construct itself as a community of learners, all
contributing to the process of educating each other. For if we are to replace psychology's 'lost center' and to generate
'integrating questions' of worth (see p.167, quoted above), then, I suggest, this is also what we in a cultural psychology
should work toward: to introduce into at least some of our own human practices a degree of mindfulness of our own
roles in their construction. For, as Bruner remarks in this sphere, 'mindlessness is one of the major impediments to
To take our first steps toward this goal, we must take as our central focus, our own actual, ongoing ways of
talking and conversing, both in psychology and in everyday life at large; we must make our own current,
conversationally entwined ways of acting the new 'exemplary subject-matter' of our studies. However, if we do do this,
instead of still taking our primary task to be that of providing yet another new way in which properly and finally to
represent (to picture theoretically) our human nature, thus to scientifically explain it, we must first confront ourselves
with a new task [endnote 2]: that as Bruner puts it of 'becoming aware of practice' (p.79), the problem of, to repeat,
'achieving consciousness of what we so easily do automatically' (p.147). Our task, then, is a task of cultural social
construction - and this is a new kind of task altogether. It is that of us helping to devise new practices within which we can
all collaborate, and in which those with (or who have a special way of inquiring into) 'local', specialized, awarenesses
of an aspect of our currently existing, automatic practices can help the rest of us achieve a similar degree of
consciousness of them. Indeed, we fail to notice the immensity of the daily flow of automatic, background,
conversationally structured activity in which what we do notice and talk of has its place.
In other words, the way to join together all the disparate pieces of a new cultural psychology Bruner provides
us with in TCE, is, I claim, to see them all as having a place within an ongoing, conversationally conducted, but
'ecologically' differentiated, social life (Shotter, 1984) - that is, a social life within which, in different but
interdependent regions and moments of it, we live out different relations both to each other and to our surroundings -
an already existing social life that, until recently, we have not taken very seriously in academic psychology. It is only
with the advent of Wittgenstein's (1953) later philosophy, Goffman's (1959, 1967) and Garfinkel's (1967)
microsociology, with its associated videotape and conversational analysis, that we are just beginning to scratch the
surface of its pervasive and immense complexity (see e.g., Edwards, 1997; Ochs, Schegloff, and Thompson, 1996).
Our aim, then, is not to put yet another new theory into practice, but to help put a special kind of extra practice
into people's already existing practices. And the way to begin that task, it seems to me, is hardly different from the
process Bruner describes (in contrasting the 'impoverished' communicative negotiations of chimpanzee pairs with
human mother-child negotiation): 'Consider an example of mother-child 'book reading',' he suggests (p.182), 'where
the mother was engaged in teaching her son, Jonathan, the names of things pictured on the pages of the book... As soon
as Jonathan could give a passably correct label in reply to his mother's standard 'What's that?' question, she would
begin a next 'And what's the X doing?' routine. She was elaborating the name given to the object at the focus of their
joint attention into a wider system of symbols... Indeed, Jonathan's mother even used a distinctive intonation pattern...
reverting to the rising intonation she used whenever entering new intersubjective territory.' In other words, this is
clearly not a process in which one person observes another from a distance, and only later provides them with
theoretical formulations of the results of their observations to ponder over, cognitively. The two people are in a living,
embodied, responsive contact with each other's activities. They are not just coordinating their activities cognitively,
but are interrelating them dialogically (Bakhtin, 1986): that is, only if you respond in a way sensitive to the relations
between 'mine' and 'your' movements can 'we' act together as a 'collective we' and produce something that is not 'mine'
or 'yours' but 'ours' - indeed, in dialogically structured joint action, an 'It' (which is 'our It') is always produced, an
'oeuvre,' as Bruner calls it, with 'Its' own requirements.
If we are to come to a grasp of the rich and differentiated structure of the cultural practices in which we are
embedded and have our social being, and which underwrites our existence as the cognitive western individuals we are,
a grasp of this issue is crucial. Indeed, this issue of us surrounding ourselves with such 'Its' of our own making which,
in 'calling out' various responses from us, work to 'distribute' our intelligence out into the world around us, is crucial
to Bruner's account of a cultural psychology in TCE. And in what I think is one of its most important sections (the
section on what he calls The externalization tenet (pp.22-29)), he discusses the nature of such 'Its'. He sees them as
serving many functions. For instance: ''It' takes over our attention as something that, in its own right, needs
[something]... 'It' relieves us in some measure from the always difficult task of 'thinking about our own thoughts'... 'It'
embodies our thoughts and intentions in a form more accessible to reflective efforts' (p.23), and so on. Indeed, what
is especially important in people's living, responsive, involvements with each other, is the fact that they find the living
'Its' they create between them exert moral obligations on them in some way (see Shotter, 1984, 1993a and b, 1995) -
which leads Bakhtin (1986) to talk of such 'Its' as superaddressees (p.126). Goffman (1967) also notes that as soon as
we move into a 'joint spontaneous involvement' with others, then an immediate pre-moral (unformulated), ethical
sense of a certain set of 'involvement obligations' (p.115) specific to the involvement in hand appears - if we sense
someone we are talking to is looking over our shoulder at someone else while we are trying to talk to them, we are
immediately incensed (while often lacking a justifiable way of expressing our anger).
Bruner too notes the importance of these ethical/moral issues in his comment that 'The great student of
jurisprudence Robert Cover has argued that law arose in the first instance... as an extension of joint action. Hebrew
law, in its jurisgenic phase, was an extension of the action of groups that worshipped together, shared a common God
and community, and felt connected by bonds of family. Such a system of jurisgenic law did not require abstract
concepts like justice and rights. It required little more than practice...' (pp.156-157). For, from within an already
shared set of agreed right practices, to arrive at agreed decisions as to what to do regarding an alleged transgression,
those already involved in their practice have no need to spell out principles. Like Jonathan's mother, they need only
'to draw attention to' certain crucial details of a right practice to make their case. The way of talking that works to direct
people's attention in this way, that works to confront them with what in one sense 'they already know', is the 'little
more than practice' that is required here for this kind of jurisgenic law to work. And there are many further suggestions
Bruner makes in TCE for the 'little more than practice' that is required, if a practice is to be transformed from a
mindless practice into one of a mindful kind. As I see it, what is needed are more dialogically-structured activities of
the kind in which people spontaneously 'call out' responsive reactions from those they must 'instruct' to aspects of their
own behavior not previously noticed by them. As Vygotsky (1986) has pointed out, what we do first spontaneously
under the control of our surroundings, we can later, as the result of instruction by others, come to do deliberately under
our own control.
In relation to some of my own recent work (with my colleague Arlene Katz - see Katz and Shotter, 1996, 1997;
and Shotter and Katz, 1997), this point of Vygotsky's, taken along with Bruner's comment on the importance of what
he calls the 'turning points' (p.144) in us socially constructing our 'narrative realities,' is of especial significance -
Katz and I call such events (oxymoronically) 'arresting or moving moments.' Again, in the creation of a new
(dialogically-structured) practice from within the ongoing conduct of an old one, events such as these, in which a first
person (often an outside Other) arrests the routine, mindless flow of a second's conduct, and moves them to notice
something so far unnoticed, seem to be crucial in the first helping the second to change their habitual routines. Indeed,
if we want to articulate a practice in a way which makes the practice teachable and learnable in a way flexibly relevant
to the circumstances in which it must be conducted, then nothing less than the continual noticing and dialogical
voicing of 'hundreds of small 'things'' (p.158) seems to be involved - not the learning of few basic principles from
which to derive the details of one's practice as if deriving theorems. As Bruner points out, 'much of what is involved
in being a member of a culture is doing what the 'things' [the 'Its'] around you require' (p.151) [endnote 3]. And it is
in the invention for ourselves of new 'Its' to 'call out' from us new required actions, that we can change our cultural
practices - perhaps sufficiently extensively to elaborate them into the self-developing practices of an 'enabling
This, then, as I see it, is the main thrust of Bruner's The Culture of Education - except that I have extended
his remarks on 'enabling communities' to apply to other practices outside of schools in other spheres of our social life
at large, and to suggest that bringing a degree of mindfulness to such practices could be cultural psychologists's new
role. In this new role, they must work collaboratively (dialogically), from within an ongoing practice along with the
other practitioners, uncommitted to any prior systematic theories, merely to help point out some of their previously
unnoticed features, and to suggest new possible ways in which these features might be linked or related to others
aspects of people's lives. Indeed, in such a process, commitment to a systematic theory could be an impediment: for,
just as '... all stories... are justifications told from the perspective of a norm' (p.96), so are systematic theories, and as
such, they can work to enforce a repetition of the status quo ante, rather then to help in noticing the radically new. But
to argue this point convincingly is another story! Let it suffice here simply to note that what Bruner has to say in the
sphere of school education is beginning now to have clear resonances in many other spheres also - in the realm of work
life research (Gustavsen, 1992; Toulmin and Gustavsen, 1996); in the resolution of family abuse and the treatment of
psychosis (Kjellberg et al, 1995; Seikkula et al, 1995); in the conduct of mentorship programs in medical schools (Katz
et al, 1997); and in public dialogues projects (Becker et al, 1995), to name but a few. A new cultural project - to create
collaborative self-educative, self-developing communities - may be in the process of emerging.
1. All page only references are to TCE.
2. The task here is one of cultural transformation, the creation of a new cultural construction. Scientific
explorations of the new culture's 'world' or 'reality' must of necessity follow later, once it has stabilized, else
there can be no clear agreement amongst members as to what, exactly, is being studied.
3. See also Billig (1995) for an account of all the 'small things' involved sustaining a country's nationalism.
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Department of Communication,
University of New Hampshire,
Durham, NH 03824-3586,
Overseas Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge, U.K., and Visiting Professor, Arbetlivsinstitutet, Solna, Sweden.