[Paleopsych] Cognitive Science: Bartlett's View of the Group as a Psychological Unit

Steve Hovland shovland at mindspring.com
Wed Dec 15 05:07:01 UTC 2004


William J. Clancey
Institute for Research on Learning
2550 Hanover Street
Palo Alto, CA 94304

AAAI Fall Symposium on Knowledge and Action at Social and Organizational 
Levels, Asilomar, CA, AAAI Press, 20-22, 1991.

Frederic C. Bartlett pioneered studies relating individual and group 
behavior. His memory experiments in particular suggest that cognition is, 
in his terms, a "socially constructive" process (1932, pps. 274-280):
coordination functions in activity, not in the individual mind;
contributions that stand must be part of a group trend;
an individual acquires greater influence in a complex community;
swift insight changes the group, but details in working out ideas emerge, 
dependent on the "form and trend of the group before the achievement is 
design rationale for artifacts emerges from practice (rather than being 
exclusively generative of the device);
modifications to an instrument develop in practice (and so cannot be att  
ributed exclusively to an individual or a linear aggregation of individual 
Bartlett draws a strong parallel between social development and an 
individual's design activity. First, an artist isn't merely executing a 
preconception, but necessarily improvises, reperceiving the ongoing trend 
of his drawing, interpreting its force and meaning, and incrementally 
adding or reshaping what is there. "Having started his design, the rest of 
the figure must fall into a certain harmony of outline and balance of parts 
which, of course, limit individual choice." That is, the artist's own 
drawing action is constrained by the trends he has himself produced. Not 
just any contribution will do. Furthermore, the characteristics of the 
drawing are themselves a realization of cultural practices, values, and 
activities. Understanding social practice as development within trends 
necessarily involves understanding development of the individual in a 
social environment.
But Bartlett leaves open the "exact relation to individual effort" of 
social constructiveness. He suggests that the process of assimilation, 
simplification, attention to odd details, and creation of characteristic 
complexes reflects mental processes of individuals. Obviously, every 
statement in a conversation or line in a drawing is somehow constrained by 
neural processes (or I could travel to a foreign country and immediately 
speak the language). But also, sense-making and comprehension is something 
each individual must accomplish as he or she interacts within a group. 
Building on Bartlett's model of remembering, I have developed a notation 
that represents the dialectic process of coordinating perception and action 
in the individual. The key ideas are that human memory is not a place where 
representations are stored, and categories are not things, but always new 
ways of coordinating perception and action, generalized and composed in the 
process of activity itself.

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