Contextualism

Contextualism is a philosophy of science based on modern variants of American pragmatism. The core analytic unit of contextualism or pragmatism is the ongoing act in context: the common sense-situated action. It is doing as it is being done, such as in hunting, shopping, or making love. This has sometimes been termed the historical act, but not in the sense of a thing done in the past. Rather, the term historical act recognizes that acts occur not just in a current situational context, but also as part of a stream of purposive acts in an individual life. In practical terms, contextu-alists (1) focus on the whole behavioral event, (2) are continuously sensitive to the role of context in understanding the nature and function of this event, and (3) maintain a firm grasp on a pragmatic truth criterion. Contextualism is commonly distinguished from mechanism, formism, and or-ganicism as other broad philosophical approaches.

To contextualistic psychologists, a psychological act-in-context cannot be explained by an appeal to actions of various parts of the organism such as its brain or muscles. Legs do not go shopping, brains do not go hunting, and penises do not make love. People do these things, and people are integrated organisms. This does not mean that information about the operation of the brain or other parts of the organism are not relevant, but that the whole event is always primary and reductionism and expansionism are rejected. Contextualism is applicable at all levels of analysis. If one were to become interested in the action of a part of the organism (say, the brain) then this would become the new whole and all else would be context at this new level of analysis. What is learned at one level of organization will not, however, fully explain events at other levels of organization.

Each participant in a whole event defines the qualities of the other participants, much as the front of a coin implies a back and vice versa. For example, going shopping implies a place to go from and to, a reason to go, a method of going, and future events that shopping will enable. All of these facets working together are the whole event, and none can be examined out of context and be fully understood. The legs may move in a particular fashion as one goes to the store, but moving legs are not "shopping," and the same leg movements may participate in completely different acts in other contexts (e.g., dancing, exercising). To a contextualist, the whole behavioral event cannot be built up from its components, because qualities of the whole event exist only in the totality.

What creates the whole event is the purpose of the behaving organism and, at another level, the purpose of the person doing the analysis. In other words, units of action are entirely functional. It is not assumed that there are "true" units, only useful ones. The universe is the ultimate context, but the universe is not something that can be described, so all units are taken to be convenient analytic fictions. The specific contextual or behavioral features to be abstracted are those that contribute to the achievement of the goals of the therapist or scientist in doing an analysis.

The truth criterion of contextualism emerges from the core analytic unit itself: successful working. Going shopping implies a place to shop, and when that place has been reached and shopping has occurred, the act is complete. Similarly, a pragmatic truth criterion implies a goal to be reached, and when that goal is reached the analysis is complete. Since successful working is the means by which con-textualists evaluate events, and goals allow this criterion to be applied, analytic goals themselves cannot ultimately be evaluated or justified. They can only be stated. To evaluate a goal via successful working would require yet another goal, but then that second goal could not be evaluated, and so on ad infinitum.

Logically this means there are as many forms of contextualism as there are sets of scientific goals. Nevertheless, in psychology we can organize contextualists into two rough groups. Descriptive contextualists seek a full and personal appreciation of the participating factors in a whole event. They are like historians, wanting to appreciate a unique historical event by examining closely all the strands that make up the whole story. Dramaturgy, hermeneutics, narrative psychology, interbehaviorism, feminist psychology, and social constructionism are all examples of this type of con-textualism. Functional contextualists seek the prediction and influence of events as an integrated goal. Contextual-istic behavior analysis, some forms of Marxist psychology, and some forms of psychobiological thinking are examples.

The choice of a goal in contextualism is pre-analytic. It is a means of analysis, not the result of analysis. Thus, neither descriptive nor functional contextualists can claim that their goal is the "right" goal. But we can examine what happens when these different goals are adopted.

Consider, for example, the environmentalism that is so characteristic ofbehavior analysis. Initially this focus seems dogmatic, since obviously behavior influences the environment as much as environment influences behavior. The dogmatism is removed when one realizes that the contextual features to be abstracted in any contextualistic analysis are those that contribute to the achievement of the goals of the analysis. Functional contextualists want analyses that achieve prediction and influence as an integrated goal. Only contextual features that are (1) external to the behavior of the individual being studied and (2) manipula-ble, at least in principle, could possibly lead directly to behavioral influence as an outcome. Verbal analyses generate rules for people, not rules for the world. To accomplish prediction and influence, rules must start with the environment, in the sense of the "world outside of the behavior," because that is where the consumers of these rules are. The environmentalism in behavior analysis is thus made more coherent (and nondogmatic) when it is seen as part of a particular contextualistic system.

In the hands of a contextualist, mundane clinical statements can lead to unusual outcomes. For example, suppose a client says "I can't leave my home or I will have an anxiety attack." A more mechanistic therapist might wonder why the person is anxious or how the panic can be alleviated. Among several other steps, contextualistic clinician might (1) look for the larger contexts that are implied by this formulation (e.g., that anxiety is bad); (2) examine the context in which the client would say such a thing (e.g., what the person is accomplishing in therapy by this speech act—is the person asking for support, explaining dependence, etc.?); (3) look for contexts that exist or could be created in which panic and staying home are unrelated events (for example, if anxiety was no longer avoided, would anxiety still lead to staying inside?); or (4) see if there are parts of this statement that could be supported therapeutically, and so on. Several new forms of intervention in the behavioral and cognitive therapies (e.g., Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Functional Analytic Psychotherapy) are contextualistic, taking advantage of the new light contex-tualism casts on old issues.

Steven C. Hayes

University of Nevada

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