Section 2


The Rockefeller Years

At the invitation of his former PhD mentor, William Estes, Michael Cole spent the 1969-1970 academic year at Rockefeller University. The visit provided two distinct opportunities. The first was a chance to bring together the evidence from the research in Liberia that resulted in publication of our book on cultural context, Liberia that resulted in publication of our book on cultural context, The Cultural Context of Learning and Thinking. The second was a consideration of whether it would be appropriate for Cole to join Rockefeller University with an eye toward establishing a laboratory focused on culture/cognition relationships. The great freedom to choose one’s own research path and the support that Rockefeller University provided for this research decided the issue. These unusually rich assets fostered a continuation of the cross-cultural research program while at the same time offered an avenue to explore the research in the context of the interrelationships of culture, development, and schooling in New York City.

The creation of a research facility to enable integration of the two efforts became the academic goal of LCHC.

Over time, LCHC became a hub of intellectual excitement, drawing together people from many institutions around New York City as well as colleagues from all parts of the globe who stopped for a day or more to exchange views. It was a diverse group, representing a broad array of disciplines and cultural/national points of view. Weekly Lab meetings provided an event where diverse voices could come together and discuss how better to understand the role of culture in human development. Simultaneously, of course, it was impossible to ignore other categories of difference that were closely intertwined with and co-constitutive of development: social class, ethnicity, and gender among them. This continuous intertwining of many threads has continued to be a constant feature of the Lab’s identity and work.

The chapters in Section 2 are focused on the projects that “launched” LCHC as a distinctive, interdisciplinary program of research.

Chapter 3: Setting Up Shop and the Early Use of Ethnographic Psychology begins by describing two cross-cultural projects that grew directly out of the prior research in Liberia: one focused on schooling and the other on literacy. The chapter then considers how the lessons learned in those projects were applied to different populations in New York City. Though distinct, each line of research sought to better understand the complex relationships between culture, development, and schooling, including the methods used to study those processes.

Chapter 4: The Cognitive Analysis of Behavior in Activity addresses a major issue in our attempts to combined experimental/psychological and ethnographic/anthropological methods. This issue was two-fold: the difficulty of “locating” psychological tasks within a wide range of socio-cultural settings and the inverse problem of providing psychologically respectable claims about thinking on the basis of ethnographic descriptions of people engaged in their everyday activities. The chapter provides a brief account of the work specifically designed to address this problem, notably a study of a group of school children engaged in a variety of activities in a variety of settings through the lens of the classic problem of the ecological validity of psychological research methods.

Chapter 5: Coming to Terms with Methods and Theories summarizes our path to articulating our research efforts in theoretical terms. This entailed working to more deeply understand and engage the theories associated with methods we were beginning to use: the design and implementation of small group activities, the use of audio and video recordings as data, speech act theory as a means of describing and quantifying behavior in different settings, and so on. These complex topics are discussed in terms of two major themes that preoccupied Lab members at the time: conceptions of context and their methodological consequences, and the role accorded to culture in theories of human cognitive development.

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