Visual Pattern Construction A Case of Historical Change

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The worldwide direction of change on all critical demographic variables - toward greater population density, formal education, technology, and commerce-based wealth - yields an historical push toward the pole of individualism. I will use the domain of visual representation to provide an example of how historical change can move cognition in the direction of the individualistic paradigm of thought. One of the marks of a collectivistic cultural system is respect for elders and their traditions. The individualistic side of this coin places a value on novelty and innovation. The typical economy in which respect for elders predominates is agricultural subsistence. Innovation, in turn, is an important value in commercial entrepreneurship. An experiment demonstrated how a shift from one economy to another affected the representation of culturally novel patterns.

In 1969 and 1970, I did a pattern representation experiment in a Zinacantec Maya community of Chiapas, Mexico (Greenfield & Childs, 1977) that involved, among other things, continuing both culturally novel and culturally familiar (from traditional weaving) striped patterns. The experimenter would place sticks of different colors in a rectangular wooden frame, providing three repetitions of the pattern (for example, green, green, green, yellow would be a single repetition of one of the patterns). She would then ask the subject to continue the same pattern. At that time, the dominant economy was agricultural subsistence with relatively little cash or commerce.

I returned to the community in 1991 after a period of economic development in which commercial entrepreneurship and a cash economy had grown greatly with a corresponding decline in agricultural subsistence. I predicted that skill in continuing novel (not familiar) patterns would have increased, and this is exactly what I found. Even more interesting, I was able to relate this skill with novel representations directly to participation in commerce. Change had been uneven, and children whose families were most involved in commercial activities in both their business dealings and as consumers showed the most skill in constructing the novel patterns. Structural equation modeling indicated a causal relationship between correct completion of the novel patterns and commercial involvement.

At the same time in this community, where weaving was the most important skill learned by all girls, there had been a shift in woven patterns from tradition to novelty. At the earlier period, there was a closed set of about four patterns that girls and women wove for clothing and other utilitarian purposes. By the time we went back in 1 991, the basic patterns still existed, but they had been supplemented by an ongoing process of innovation through girls and women who created an infinite number of woven and embroidered designs. So skill in representing culturally novel patterns in our experiment was a reflection of change in the culture as a whole as it moved from subsistence agriculture to money and commerce.

In terms of the socialization processes that could develop these new cognitive styles, we found an historical change in weaving apprenticeship that also had moved toward a more individualistic model. In commercial families, weaving apprenticeship had, between 1970 and the early 1990s, moved from help and guidance from the teacher to a more independent trial-and-error learning process for the novice weaver. Moreover, we also found a correlation between the more independent, individualistic mode of weaving apprenticeship skill and continuing the novel patterns in our experiment.

So these basic cultural paradigms of thinking are not constant. They are adaptations to social conditions, including socialization processes, that change over time. As the world becomes more commercial, more dense, and more formally educated, the Zin-acantecs illustrate this worldwide trend from a more collectivistic to a more individualistic paradigm of thought.

conclusions and future directions

Identifying two basically different paradigms of thought, value, and behavior has linked together phenomena in the domain of culture and thinking that were once considered unrelated. With this linking thread has come deeper understanding of basic cultural differences. Although providing theoretical coherence, it has also removed some of the ethnocentrism from earlier accounts of difference, in which, for example, collec-tivistic forms of categorization, reasoning, and logic were considered the absence of Western skills rather than as examples of a different set of values about the nature of intelligence.

The primary omission in the preceding account is probably the ecocultural approach to everyday cognition and particularly the role of cultural artifacts in thinking. For good reviews from these perspectives, I recommend Everyday Cognition by Schliemann, Carraher, and Ceci (1997) and Culturally Situated Cognition by Wang, Ceci,

Williams, and Kopko (2004). The empirical body of work generated by these approaches is not at all antithetical to the theoretical paradigm presented here. In the future, I believe further theoretical integration will take place.

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