J.L.Lemke On-line Office



Articulating Communities: Sociocultural Perspectives on Science Education

 J.L. Lemke

City University of New York


Part I. Sociocultural Perspectives on Science and Education

 What does it mean to take a sociocultural perspective on science education? Most basically it means viewing science, science education, and research on science education as human social activities conducted within institutional and cultural frameworks.

 What is the scope of a sociocultural perspective on science education? Let's take the key terms of the previous broad description as our starting points. What does it mean to view sthe objects of our concern as 'social activities'? In a research perspective it means, first of all, formulating questions about the role of social interaction in teaching and learning science and in studying the world, whether in classrooms or research laboratories. It also means giving substantial theoretical weight to the role of social interaction; seeing it, as in the Vygotskyan tradition (Vygotsky 1963, Leontiev 1978, Cole 1996), to be central and necessary to learning and not merely ancillary. Similarly, it means seeing the scientific study of the world as itself inseparable from the social organization of scientists' activities, as is done in the work of Bruno Latour and many other contemporary sociologists and historians of science (e.g. Latour 1987, Lynch & Woolgar 1990, Shapin & Schaffer 1985). But this is only the beginning.

 Interpersonal social interaction, whether collaboration in a laboratory or dialogue in a classroom, is only the smallest scale of the social. Sociocultural theory proposes that such cooperative human activity is only possible because we all grow up and live within larger-scale social organizations, or institutions: the family, the school, the church, the community center, the research lab, the university, the corporation, and (depending on your particular theory) perhaps also the city, the State, the global economy, and even a potentially globe-spanning internet chatroom or listserv group. Our lives within these institutions and their associated communities teach us tools for making sense of and to those around us: languages, pictorial conventions, belief systems, value systems, specialized discourses and practices. Collectively such tools for living -- our social semiotic resource systems and our socially meaningful ways of using them -- constitute the culture of a community. Taking an ecological view of communities, we should also include as parts of such an eco-social system all the artifacts and natural species and materials people employ in making use of these tools. Finally, sociocultural theory emphasizes that all human activity functions on multiple scales, from the physiological to the interactional to the organizational to the ecological, and so also on the corresponding timescales from the momentary to the biographical, historical, and evolutionary.

 How we learn, how we talk and graph and walk and dance, what we believe and what we value, are all both unique to us and to each occasion, but also usually somehow typical of people who have led lives like ours: people of our time and place, of our 'gender' 'class' and 'race' (though with the serious caveats described below), of our own age, our customary education and religious training, our mixture of cultural heritages, and all the cultures of all the communities small and large in which we have lived. But for each similarity there is also an implied difference: every community is heterogeneous, and no individual learns and enacts all the roles in an institution. Cultures articulate across diverse subcommunities; they are never uniform or universally shared in their entirety among all or even most members, rather they constitute an organization of heterogeneity (cf. Wallace 1970). Our individual ways of living and making meaning are different according not only to which communities we have lived in, but according to which roles we chose or were assigned to by others -- how we presented ourselves and how we were seen and treated by others. Because communities also organize themselves through conflict as well as through cooperation, we are often prevented from learning to see the world as some other members of our community see it; we may even be led to believe that ours is the only way of seeing or doing, or at least that it is the best way.

 A sociocultural perspective on science education is skeptical and critical. Its most basic belief is that we do not know why we act as we do; we only know a few local reasons on a certain timescale and within a limited range of contexts. We do not know all the other reasons that arise from the functioning of our actions in far larger and more distant contexts and on longer timescales. As a research perspective this view seeks to elucidate the problems that arise from our limited view of the larger systems we inhabit, and to identify just how our actions do also function on many larger scales.

 Sociocultural perspectives include the social-interactional, the organizational, and the sociological; the social-developmental, the biographical, and the historical; the linguistic, the semiotic, and the cultural. For many researchers they also include the political, the legal, and the economic, either separately or as implicit in one of the others.


Intellectual Origins 

Sociocultural perspectives on science and science education in their contemporary forms (see discussions of some exemplary sociocultural research projects in science education below) derive mainly from developments in the social and human sciences since the 1960s. Since many researchers in science education are better trained in psychology, especially cognitive psychology, than in these other disciplines, it helps to understand their divergence. Jerome Bruner (1990) provides a useful account of how initial hopes in the late ‘60s and ‘70s for a general synthesis of cognitive and sociocultural perspectives in developmental psychology were disappointed as cognitivist research increasingly  ignored sociocultural factors in the 1980s and turned towards a pure Cartesian mentalism, especially in the United States. At the same time, however, there was a great renaissance of sociocultural research in other fields highly relevant to science education.

 The view that science represents a uniquely valid approach to knowledge, disconnected from social institutions, their politics, and wider cultural beliefs and values was strongly challenged by research in the history of science (e.g. Shapin & Schaffer 1985), the sociology of science (e.g Latour 1987, Lynch & Woolgar 1990), and ethnoscience studies in cultural anthropology (e.g.  Hutchins 1980), and contemporary science studies (e.g. Haraway 1989, 1991, 1999). Historians, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists came increasingly to see that science had to be understood as a very human activity whose focus of interest and theoretical dispositions in any historical period were, and are, very much a part of, and not apart from the dominant cultural and political issues of the day. Moreover, the core sense-making process at the heart of scientific investigation was seen to critically involve instrumentation and technologies, in effect ‘distributing’ cognition between persons and artifacts, and persons and persons, mediated by artifacts, discourses, symbolic representations, and the like.

 Meanwhile, the view of science education (and education in general) as a second socialization or specialist enculturation into a sub-community was developed out of anthropological theory (e.g. Spindler 1987, Lave 1988) and neo-Vygotskyan perspectives in developmental psychology (e.g. Cole 1996, Wertsch 1991, Rogoff 1990), in opposition to asocial views of autonomous cognitive development. Piaget’s view of the autonomous child-scientist constructing a Kantian epistemology from direct experience and Platonic logical schemas was revised along Vygotskyan lines to take into account the social and cultural origins of learners’ logical, linguistic, and semiotic resources and models -- learned from more experienced social partners -- and the actual role of social interaction in learning and normal development. Nor was this an idealized view of social interaction as autonomous minds meeting in a rational parliament of equal individuals, but instead a richer and more complex notion of learning-in-community, often among unequal participants, with a significant role assigned to power relationships and differences of age, class, gender and sexuality, language and cultural background.

 Finally, along with all the social sciences in this period (cf. Foucault 1969, Geertz 1983), both science education and the new science studies (in history and sociology) took the 'linguistic turn' and began to examine how people learned to talk and write the languages of science and meaningfully and cooperatively engage in its wide range of subculturally specific activities (e.g. observing, experimenting, publishing) and signifying practices (data tabulation, graphing, etc.). In place of a Chomskyan view of language as an automatic, gene-guided machine for correct syntax, people who were studying the functions of language in social interaction (e.g. Halliday 1978, Martin 1992, Schegloff 1991, Mishler 1984, Lemke 1990, Bazerman 1988) began to see language as a culturally transmitted resource for making meaning socially (e.g. Gee 1990, Lemke 1995) that was also useful for talking oneself through science problems. Language, however, was just one such tool; science and science learning are in fact best characterized by their rich synthesis of linguistic, mathematical, and visual representations (Lynch & Woolgar 1990, Lemke 1998a, in press-a). In the sociocultural view, what matters to learning and doing science is primarily the socially learned cultural traditions of what kinds of discourses and representations are useful and how to use them, far more than whatever brain mechanisms may be active while we are doing so.

Perspectives on Science

 What sorts of research questions do these perspectives pose about science itself? I believe that what best characterizes any approach to research is its questions. The means and methods of trying to answer the questions change with our ingenuity as researchers. The answers we come up with may be of enormous local importance in some time and place,  but I would always look with greater skepticism on claims to have found general and abstract, much less universal answers. Therefore, whether we are talking about sociocultural approaches to science itself, or to science education (see below), the key differences with other perspectives lie not so much in constrasting claims about the object of study (as they do when the object of study, as in physics, is relatively invariant from instance to instance) as in the posing of different sets of questions about it. Look at each of the following questions as a question about science, and as a question about science education. Ask yourself in each case how important the question is, how relevant it is to achieving the goals of science education research, and to what extent it is addressed by other approaches in our field: 

 In answering these questions, we should also ask ourselves which sciences we are thinking of? Can we generalize about science as such, or is each different science unique?


Science Education

 Each of the questions above can be posed both about science and about science education, and about the latter both as a teaching practice and as a research field. What sorts of implications would various answers to these questions have for the teaching of science and for research on science education?

 We might ask, for example, to what extent students acquire frameworks within which to think critically about science, in general and in its details, in the absence of sociocultural perspectives on science? However much we may teach them about electrical circuits, redox reactions, or genetic recombination, or even about controlled experimentation and graphical analysis of quantitative covariation, how much better able does this really make them to decide when they should trust expert opinion and when they should be skeptical of it? For all that the factual science curriculum is teaching them, are our students any the more knowledgeable about the economic, sociological, technological, and political role of science in the modern world? If we teach more rigorously about acids and bases, but do not tell students anything about the historical origins of these concepts, or the economic impact of technologies based on them, is the scientific literacy we are producing really going to be useful to our students as citizens? The most sophisticated view of knowledge available to us today says that it is a falsification of the nature of science to teach concepts outside of their social, economic, historical, and technological contexts. Concepts taught in this way are relatively useless in life, however well they may seem to be understood on a test. 

If we turn from implications for curriculum to implications for learning theory, a sociocultural approach requires that we ask ourselves some very tough questions about what kinds of personal identity and cultural values our science teaching accepts, respects, or is compatible with.

 Our goal is science for all, but what does this mean if our particular view of science is too aggressively masculine to sit well with many students’ identities? Too narrowly rationalistic to accomodate spiritual longings?  Too technicist, abstract, and formalist for a wide range of humanistic, esthetic, sensualist, and pragmatic  dispositions? Must all students love machines, numbers, predictability, and control to be welcome in our construction of what science must be? Do we have to continue to ignore the well-attested and documented (e.g. Wechsler 1977,  Tauber 1996, John-Steiner 1985) esthetic, intuitive, and emotional components of scientific creativity in our teaching methods?

 Science education research has embraced cognitive psychology with almost unseemly haste, but there is very little research on the affective response of students to our teaching, and on what exactly is happening as so many students get put off by our approach to science at just the age when they begin to consolidate their adult identities. Moreover, science education is increasingly a global enterprise, and even in one country, students today more and more often come from diverse cultural backgrounds. How welcoming is our received tradition of what science must be and how it must be taught of the beliefs and values of other, especially non-European cultures? Or even of non-middle class subcultures (cf. Heath, 1983)? How critically are we reflecting on the fact that our science education subculture’s acceptance of the current political movement toward more requirements and more high-stakes testing often appears to students as an essentially more coercive approach? Where is our ethical response as science educators to such issues? Where is our intellectual response as researchers to the problem of understanding the frequent conflicts between our view of science and our students’ views of themselves?