Social and socio-
Ontogeny and symbolism
Early interaction and cognitive skills: implications for the acquisition of culture
David Messer and Glyn Collis
The precise origin of infants' social powers is the subject of conflicting views. However, there is general agreement that infants are attracted to the physical and behavioural characteristics of people, and that such capacities are likely to be the product of evolutionary processes. In these terms infants appear to have a basic social disposition which is part of our evolutionary heritage. However, this social disposition does not appear to extend to the way that infants are able to contribute to the structure of social activities in which they engage. As illustrated by studies of gaze and vocalization, infants are not full partners in the interactive process; rather interaction is structured by Western adults to appear as a co-ordinated interpersonal process.
We adopt the view that social interaction between young infants and primary care-givers provides the basis for the formation of relationships, particularly attachments. There may be considerable variability in the way these relationships are formed, given the diversity of child-rearing patterns across different cultures; but it seems likely that all relationships involve infants having quite sophisticated representations of their care-givers. As infants become older the continuing social interaction with their care-givers increases infants' social skills, so that communication with other members of the culture becomes more efficient and effective.
Social interaction with care-givers makes available, in addition, various forms of information which can be utilized to assist cognitive development. Adult behaviour provides a model for infant activities, and by the end of the first year infants are capable of imitating a range of activities. Social interaction also contains a variety of forms of information which co-ordinate the interests of infants and adults. Such procedures effectively highlight culturally appropriate objects and events, thereby promoting a shared understanding between adult and child. Cross-cultural studies have done much to call into question the idea that certain forms of social interaction common in Western societies provide an essential basis for language acquisition; and it is usually assumed that social interaction does not have a direct relevance to the acquisition of syntactic abilities. However, cross-cultural studies also strongly point to the way that the pattern of early social interaction is influenced by the characteristics of a culture. As a result infants, before they speak, are able to tune in to the values, procedures, and assumptions that are present in their culture. Furthermore, one should not forget that for older children social interaction increases the power of interpersonal activities to promote cognitive skills. Two important procedures that occur in such circumstances are the way that discussion can promote cognitive change, and the way that effective communication with adults appears to facilitate general cognitive development.
In this chapter we argue that participation in social
interaction provides a basis for relationships with
care-givers; these relationships in turn facilitate the
acquisition of social skills necessary for interaction, and
help to develop a culturally based perception in infants of
salient aspects of their environment. It is in such social
circumstances that symbols and language are employed; and this
provides a crucial step towards children becoming full members
of their culture. This is because the use of symbols and
language provides the means for children to move beyond their
first relationships to communicate about complex issues with
members of their culture who are less familiar to them.