HARRÉ: Psychology for the Third Millenium
Published: Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 03:01
One of the best ways to think of the work of psychologists is with the help of the “task and tool” metaphor. Everyday life and its varieties and predicaments set up tasks for psychologists that need to be understood and accomplished according to the standards of the local situation. Few understand the wide scope of tools available to psychologists for understanding everyday situations.
We need to choose from a menu, work out the weekly budget, explain to a child that electricity is dangerous, convince a colleague not to resign, resolve a quarrel with our nearest and dearest, deter the threat of a parking ticket and so on and so on. Some of these tasks are widespread among human societies; some exist only on a local scale. But the conceptual framework for research is the same everywhere. We need to know or guess what meanings the words, gestures, costumes, situations or weather might have for us, and we need to take account of the rules and conventions that we can cite to determine what we need to do.
There are our tasks, but how are they to be accomplished? Some are practical, such as digging the garden, crossing the road and so on. Others are cognitive, such as managing the weekly budget, or deciding where to go Saturday afternoon. Others are complex, such as how, when and in what way to display an emotional response to something that has happened. What tools do we have for performing these tasks? Some are in the garden shed; some are parts of our bodies; some are symbols such as words, signs or flags. Sometimes it is the hand and motor skills that are important, and sometimes it is the visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and other sensory skills that matter — just think of the differing activities of a musician, a cook, a perfume blender, a carpenter or a lorry driver. Sometimes it is an organ of the brain and the skills in the management of symbols that we have acquired in the process of development, as we have become competent members of our culture in the family circle and beyond.
Here is the key metaphor: Most of our daily tasks, even the most biological, when we get down to the details of how we are supposed to accomplish them in our circle, are shaped by cultural considerations and norms. Our brains can be thought of in this picture as tools for using tools, some body parts, some symbolic. Neuroscience links on to cultural studies as the study of the second-order tools persons use for managing first-order tools.
With this picture of the domain of psychology, what is the relevance to studies of local meaning systems, local conventions and rules for accomplishing tasks of the neurological processes revealed in studying the tools we use in achieving them? Discursive/cultural psychology is relevant for understanding phenomena such as banking crises, jihadism in its many varieties, family customs and even college basketball. Neuropsychology is particularly relevant when we realize from a person’s behavior that one or more of the tools for thinking is defective or damaged — think of the way that damage to the brain is displayed in the speech problems of sufferers from Alzheimer’s disease. These are only problems when set against the overwhelming normativity of how most people talk in our time and place. Even the knights of King Arthur’s roundtable with their search for honor and readiness to take offense would be referred to a psychiatrist today.
Personal agency must be retained in any psychological account of human beings. People use the available tools to accomplish their assigned tasks correctly, perhaps especially well. Neuroscience can reveal much about how the tools of cognition, emotional displays and so on work, but it cannot explain why those tools are chosen and used the way they are at some particular moment in some particular context. They cannot replace a prior and independent prior study of meanings and local rules and conventions of proper and correct behavior and how far people stray from them.
To forget this would be like thinking that everything about digging can be understood by studying the metallurgy of spades, or everything about lawn mowing by studying the mechanisms of mowers. Bringing meanings and rules back into the center of our tools for research allows us to comprehend the depth, uniqueness and complexity of local ways of thinking, feeling and acting and sets the problems of how the tools work which neuroscience is uniquely qualified to solve.
Rom Harré is a distinguished research professor in the department of psychology. He is one of the alternating writers for THE PSYCH FACTOR, which appears every other Tuesday.