Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology, Volume 38: Culture and Developmental Systems
Someone once said that the important questions in science do not change, only our answers to them do. That is a good thing because when the topic of culture emerged as a potential one for this symposium, I had the feeling that we had done it before. Indeed we had, and not too long ago. In 1999, AnnMasten organized a symposium called Cultural Processes in Child Development. Ann’s opening remarks to that volume ended with the hope that the volume would usher in a “cultural renaissance” in developmental science. Organizing another symposium on the topic is a testament to that insight.
The role of culture in human development is undeniable. No child today has to figure out how to control fire, invent the wheel or the alphabet. For at least the last 70,000 years, the advancement of humans has depended on cultural innovation. Every generation gets information critical to its success from the generations that precede it. Yet answers to questions regarding the role of culture in human development seem to vacillate from one extreme to the other—from culture being everything, to cultures being really all the same and so not impacting development in meaningful ways. In my own line of work, questions about the role of language on thought—a line that can be encompassed within the broader umbrella of cultural relativity—have yielded apparently contradicting answers. Empirical work on the topic began with a paper by Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg published in 1954 showing that colors for which English speakers agreed on a name were better remembered than colors for which speakers did not agree on a name (these were focal hues, or the prototypes of English colors). The stage seemed to be set for work on linguistic (and cultural) relativity—that differences across speakers of different languages would analogously yield differences across speakers of those languages in thought. That view of relativity came to a dead halt in the early 1960s and 1970s when studies showed that: (1) cones in the primate retina differentially absorb hues that corresponded to the English color prototypes—blue, yellow, and green—suggesting a strong physiological basis for color perception; (2) adults whose languages had different color terms categorized colors the same way as English speakers did, suggesting that color perception was universal and language had no effect; and (3) infants—who do not know any words—also categorize colors the same way as do English adults, suggesting that color perception could not be affected by language. What followed might be viewed as the “dark ages” of nativism and universalism of the 1970s and 1980s. I wrote in the early 1990s that color might not have been the best domain in
which to look for effects of language on cognition, and started looking for effects in domains that change with development. At about the same time, John Lucy published an argument about why the color work was flawed. The “renaissance” began. Between 1990 and today, there has been an explosion of work on the role of language on cognition. Effects of language have been shown on object perception, categorization, space, number, emotion recognition, and other concepts. But even with all the evidence in support of relativity, significant questions remain. For instance, even though 1954 might seem like a long time ago, it is not long enough to bring about the evolutionary change required to alter the physiological structure of the primate retina. How can the old work showing universal tendencies be reconciled with the more recent work in support of relativity? Significant progress has been made, and chapter 2 of this volume begins to reconcile the evidence on the role of culture (via language) on color categorization specifically.
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