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What would an integrative constructivist psychology look like?

Constructivism has a long history in psychology and related fields. Throughout that history, constructivist thinking has flourished, but has often occupied the margins of mainstream psychology One of the central organizing questions for this volume states: "Do constructivist theories offer genuinely practical and scientifically-grounded models for conducting psychological research and psychotherapy?" Herein, we argue that constructivist approaches have much to offer to psychological theory, research and practice. Several issues, however, have obscured fulfillment of their promise. In what follows, we first describe circumstances that have made it difficult for mainstream psychologists to embrace constructivist thinking. To address these concerns, there is a need to create an integrative constructivist psychology--one that offers a promise of transcending different versions of constructivism, and that shows the relevance and importance of constructivist thinking for psychology. In so doing, we describe (a) an embodied, coactive systems model of the development of persons within socio-cultural contexts (Mascolo, in press; Mascolo & Fischer, 2010), and (b) a set of conceptual and empirical tools for analyzing the construction of integrative patterns of thinking, feeling, and action as they arise in joint interaction over time (Basseches & Mascolo, 2010). We illustrate the model by tracking the construction of modes of acting in a variety of different domains, including the development of everyday skills in young children and the development of affectively charged meaning systems over the course of psychotherapy.


Constructivists use the term construction in a variety of ways. First, constructivists invoke the concept of construction as an epistemological principle that describes (the perception of) reality as a human construction. A second use simply states that patterns of meaning, feeling, and acting are structures that are built, formed or put together over time. Third, scholars differ in their conceptions of the processes by which humans construct the meanings that mediate action. Some maintain the primacy of individuals in the process of constructing meaning (Kelly, 1955; Piaget, 1954; von Foerster, 1988); others ascribe to primacy to dyads and sign-mediated cultural processes (Gergen, 2009; Vygotsky, 1978). Some senses of construction are more controversial than others. Mainstream psychologists tend to object to aspects of the first and third uses of the term. The second sense--the notion of construction as a dynamic process of building structures--is largely silent with respect to the latter more contentious uses. We suggest that the idea of construction as building can provide a point of entry for an integrative constructivist psychology.

The Construction of Reality

The first meaning of the concept of construction has to do with the idea that what we take to be real or true is something that humans create rather than something that is found or discovered (von Forester, 1988). One can offer many examples to support the constructivist claim that what humans take to be real (or true) relies upon the constructive processes of persons. However, there is a world of difference between saying, on the one hand, that the knower (scientific or otherwise) participates in the known, and saying, on the other, that "reality" is a human creation. For example, it is true that an intact visual system is essential in the construction of the experience of color; however, such experiences also rely upon the (colorless) waves of light, in relation to which color receptors evolved (Valberg, 2005). Similarly, humans represent what appear to be naturally organized events in terms of temporal-causal narrative structures organized around human meanings and interests (Brockmeier, 2012; Bruner, 1991); however, narrative modes of knowing are nonetheless fashioned out of concrete experiences within an existing physical and social world. Further, while scientific theories are constructed using metaphors, metonyms and systems of pre-theoretical assumptions (L'Abate, 2012), they are not, of course, constructed willy-nilly. The objects our inquiries fight back and resist our categories of interpretation (Sargent, 1997). If they did not, we would be unable to speak of scientific progress at all.

The idea that reality is simply a human construction arises from adopting an overly sharp distinction between subject and object (Mascolo, 2012; ter Hark, 1990). The subject/object dichotomy casts the world as something that is separate, distinct or foreign to the "inner" world of the experiencing subject. The tearing asunder of person and world creates a self-inflicted wound that becomes difficult to heal. The theorist now faces the task of building a bridge between an unbridgeable chasm. At its most extreme, the parsing away of the active subject from a passive object fosters epistemological and moral solipsism. The idea that individuals (or human collectives) are the sole authors of (their perceptions of) reality is ultimately incoherent: There can be no category of individual without the category of other. However, the moment we acknowledge the Other, we are forced to take both her and her world seriously (Levinas, 1985). Thus, we are not self-encased entities locked within our own experiences, forever barred from the world and experiences of others (Oveergard, 2006; ter Hark, 1990). Instead, humans are, as reflected in Heidegger's (1927/2008) notion of Dasein, beings who are always already in the existent world (Stenner, 1998). The fact that there is no such thing as a God's eye view of an independently existing world does not mean that there is a barrier between person and world. Our knowledge claims are neither reflections of personal subjectivity nor mirrors of an independent world; instead, they are products of our experiences-in-the-world (Clark, 1997).

An integrative constructivism would examine how human knowledge, experience and action arise as a result of the inherent embeddedness of embodied persons within their physical, personal and socio-cultural worlds. In so doing, an integrative constructivism need not embrace either epistemological or moral relativism (Evanoff, 2005). It would justify its knowledge claims in terms of the corroboration and convergence of multiple forms of mediated evidence rather than through appeals to so-called objective data. It would work to answer the call for rigorous and accountable methodologies that are capable of producing corroborated, if not Real or True, knowledge about the world (Madill, Jordan & Shirley, 2000). Further, an integrated constructivism would acknowledge the embeddedness of all psychological theory in systems of social-cultural and moral values (Shorter, 1975). In so doing, however, it would work to articulate those values and submit them to the continuous scrutiny of public discourse and personal reflexivity (Gilbert & Sliep, 2009).

Non-Constructive Reductionisms: Individual and Social Construction

Constructivism has its origins in the idea that meaning arises not as a mirror of nature, but instead as the result of individual action on the world. This view has its origins at least as far back as Kant, who argued that our experience of the world would be unintelligible in the absence of a priori categories (e.g., causality, substance). In the 19th century, building upon the foundation erected by Kant and others, Piaget maintained that the schemes we use to organize experience are not innate properties of the mind, but instead arise through sensori-motor action on objects in the world (Piaget, 1954). For example, according to Piaget, the symbolic concept of object--a bounded entity that exists independent of an observer--is not a given; instead, it arises from the successive differentiation and integration of sensorimotor actions over the first years of life. Developmental changes in the structure of action and thought occur as events conflict with a child's existing knowledge structures (schemes). Such conflicts prompt a reorganization of existing knowledge in order to adapt to novel events (Piaget, 1985). While social experience is important in promoting development, for Piaget, the individual attempt to restore internal equilibrium in the face of conflict is the primary source of development.

For Piaget, knowledge had its origins primarily (but by no means exclusively) on the active and coordinating processes of individual actors. While acts of individual construction are essential for the development of knowledge to occur, they are nonetheless insufficient. Higher-order forms of knowledge and skill--understanding concepts like inertia, democracy and beauty--have their origins in cultural practices accruing over long historical periods. Individuals do not construct such concepts on their own; instead, they are culled from the repositories of cultural wisdom and communicated using the cultural tool of language (Wertsch, 2007). Language has special properties; it allows humans to represent and communicate more-or-less arbitrary, socially shared and communally constructed meanings. Without the use of language, children would not acquire higher-order cultural concepts like democracy. Children even learn that basic conceptual relations like in, on, and above contain considerable cultural content (Bowerman, 2007); such relations are not simply semantic primitives that are acquired through individual action on objects.

Some constructivist approaches tend to privilege the individual actor in the construction of the meanings that mediate human action (Piaget, 1954; Kelly, 1955); others privilege social (Gergen, 2009), semiotic (Wertsch, 2007) and cultural-historical processes (Arnason, 2010; McHoul & Rapley, 2005). It is increasingly clear, however, that the construction of meaning is not a process that can be reduced to acts of individual construction or the internalization of cultural forms. The constructivist/social constructionist antinomy rests on a false premise, namely that acts of individual construction can operate independent of social relations, and vice-versa (Cole & Wertsch, 1996; Pavlovic, 2011; Raskin, 2002). An integrated constructivist psychology would be one that can account for the ways in which self, other, culture and world operate in relation to each other in the dynamic construction of meaning and action.

The Metaphor of Construction as Building

A third meaning of the term construction is organized with reference to the metaphor of building or forming a structure. Drawing upon this metaphor, one can understand any given instance of human action and experience as exhibiting some type of structure. A psychological structure (Mascolo & Fischer, 2010) consists of the organization of goal-directed meaning, feeling and motor action as they arise in any given context. The concept of psychological structure implies that persons do not function as series of isolated parts; all psychological acts necessarily involve some integration of motivational, affective, experiential, representational and sensorimotor activity. To the extent that psychological life is structured, the task of identifying the ways in which psychological structures formed, made or constructed over time becomes a central one.

This use of the concept of construction is most congenial to a developmental analysis of origins of psychological structures, especially those organized around the concepts of epigenesis (Gottlieb & Lickliter, 2007) and orthogenesis (Werner & Kaplan, 1984). Epigenetic models of development maintain that anatomical and psychological structures are neither pre-formed nor predetermined, but instead emerge in development. Epigenetic approaches examine the ways in which anatomical and psychological structures emerge over time as products of vertical (gene-cell; cell organ; organ system-organism; organism-environment, etc.) and horizontal (gene-gene; cell-cell; organism-organism, etc.) coactions that occur within a complex developmental system. Orthogenesis refers to the idea that developmental changes can be understood in terms of principles of differentiation and integration (Raeff, 2011; Siegler & Chen, 2008; Werner & Kaplan, 1984). Drawing upon the metaphor of the developing embryo, development involves the successive differentiation of the parts of developing systems (e.g., cells, different types of cells), the integration of its parts to form systems and subsystems (e.g., the cardiovascular system; the respiratory system), and finally the hierarchic integration of systems to form a single unified whole (e.g., an organism). The analysis of development in terms of increasing differentiation and integration is central to many psychological analyses, including Piagetian and neo-Piagetian theory (Case & Mueller, 2001; Piaget, 1954), organismic-developmental theory (Raeff, 2011; Werner & Kaplan, 1984), personal construct theory (Kelly, 1955), dynamic skill theory (Fischer & Bidell, 2006), and dynamic systems models of development (Camras, 2011).

Toward More Constructive Constructivisms

Most theory and research in psychology continues to be dominated by positivist and realist epistemologies. In an effort to fashion itself as a science, psychology continues to embrace objectivity as a central value. Ideally, from a positivist view, an objective description is one that is (a) based on publically observable evidence, (b) records only what is observed (without adding or subtracting), and (c) describes events as they truly are. However, despite its ubiquity, the quest for objective observation is a quixotic one. All observation necessarily occurs against the backdrop of some form of pre-understanding; without a conceptual lens to focus the eye of inquiry, observation is simply unintelligible. The failure to achieve objectivity is not a technical problem that researchers can solve simply by refining their methods. To the extent that the knower participates in the known, objectivity is unachievable in principle. Constructivist approaches face this philosophical problem head on. If constructivist models of inquiry and personhood have not entered the mainstream of psychology, it is most likely because of psychology's continued commitment to the positivist methodology (Cupchik, 2001; Gadenne, 2010). However, it is also likely that some versions of constructivism are marginalized because they have been organized around extreme positions (Boden, 2010; Schmidt, 2001), or because they have not yet demonstrated that methodological rigor can be achieved outside the context of a positivist epistemology. In what follows, in broad strokes, drawing upon constructivist, social constructionist, and embodied systems approaches, we propose an Embodied Coactive Systems account of what an integrative and methodologically rigorous constructivist psychology would look like.


The following principles provide an overview of the basic principles of a coactive system model of the nature and development of human action and experience.

Human Actions Operate as Meaning-Mediated Control Structures

1. Humans act with reference to the meaning that events have for them. Actions are meaning-mediated, goal-directed operations. As such, any act necessarily involves an integration of cognition, conation and emotion.

2. Human actions function as hierarchically-organized control structures (Carver & Scheier, 2002; Powers, 1971). In any given context, higher-order goals and meanings activate lower level operations directed toward bringing perceptual experience in line with those higher-order goals.

3. Although they regulate lower-level operations, higher-order conscious representations are themselves coactive products of non-conscious processes. Non-conscious emotion-generation plays a central role in organizing the conscious representations that drive human action (Freeman, 2000).

Higher-Order Meanings Develop through the Coordination of Lower-Level Action and Experience

1. Action and experience are ontogenetically prior to symbolic or reflective thought. In development, symbolic thought develops through the coordination of lower-order elements of action into higher-order representations. Thinking operates as a kind of interiorized goal-directed activity.

2. Drawing on dynamic skill theory (Fischer, 1980; Fischer & Bidell, 2006), integrated structures of meaning-mediated action develop through 13 hierarchical levels of complexity. Skill theory provides a set of conceptual and empirical tools for identifying the integrative structure of meaning-mediated action as it emerges within particular contexts and conceptual domains.

Novel Meaning Structures Are Jointly Constructed but Individually Consolidated Over Time 1

1. Although individuals exert control over their actions, persons are not autonomous in doing so. Individual actors function as a part of a larger person-environment system (Gottlieb & Lickliter, 2009; Mascolo & Fischer, 2010). In social exchanges, partners mutually regulate each other's thoughts, feelings and actions. The actions of others thus function as an integral part of the process of the actions of the self (Fogel, 1993).

2. Higher-order meanings develop in social interactions through the use language and cultural tools. Language is a special type of cultural tool (Wertsch, 1998). Because of its capacity to represent shared social meanings, language is a vehicle for communicating cultural meanings that pre-exist any particular individual and for generating new meanings between individuals.

3. Through their participation in discursive activity, individuals gain the capacity to use language to mediate higher-order modes of thinking, feeling and action. In this way, language functions as a vehicle for the higher-order construction of the self and social relationships (Mascolo, 2004).


Action consists of any goal-directed, meaning-mediated process. Acting consists of the goal-directed manipulation of meaning for the purpose of regulating perceptual experience. The execution of any given action implies some sort of integration of cognition, affect and conation. It follows that meaning and experience are part of the very process of acting. As a result, action is not a synonym for "overt behavior" or "motor movement." There is not a separate or autonomous sphere of "mind" or "mental action" that exists behind and controls (motor) action. Instead, acting itself is a type of meaning-mediated doing. When humans advance their goals by operating on their environments, actions involve motor movement; other times, as when individuals engage in private contemplation, psychological activity action occurs without motor action. Figure 1 provides a schematic diagram of the dynamic structure of individual action.

Action and the control of perception. We begin with the observation that psychological acts are intentional processes (Searle, 1983). Psychological acts are intentional in the sense that they are performed on something, directed toward something or are about something, real or imagined. Ted does not simply swing an axe; he swings the axe toward the tree; Nancy does not simply calculate; she calculates how long it will take to reach her destination. Todd is not simply thinking; he is thinking about what he will have for lunch. There is an intimate relationship between acts and their objects; the object of an action is part of the process of acting. When Ted chops down the tree, the tree has a role in Ted's chopping. Ted will adjust the intensity, angle and direction of his swing to the shifting height, density, and position of the tree (Bateson, 1973). Thus, all actions are best understood as actions-on-objects. The action-object relation is represented in Figure 1 by the large arrow (a) directed toward its "object" (b).

To say that humans are actors implies that persons have agency, individuals are able to exert control over their behavior. The concept of control implies that action is goal-directed. We use the term goal to refer to valued reference standards against which the outcomes of action are judged. The goals that regulate psychological functioning are constructed representations of some desired state of affairs. When we act, our goal-directed behavior is directed toward producing changes in our experience. In this way, human action proceeds as an attempt to control perception. We act in order to bring the flow of perception in accordance with representations of how we want the world to be or how we believe the world should be. When we act, we are essentially saying, "Make my experience look like this" As he chops the tree, Ted does so with reference to his image of the final desired state of the tree. His chopping actions function to bring his perception of the tree in line with his image of how he wants the tree to be.

It is helpful to think of action as a kind of control system (Mascolo, Fischer & Neimeyer, 1999; Powers, 1973). Miller, Galanter and Pribram's (1960) early TOTE model of action describes the basic structure of a control system. The acronym TOTE stands for Test-Operate-Test-Exit. From this approach, any given act is regulated by a goal (e.g., chop down the tree). To complete the act, the system first tests the goal against goal-relevant sources of input (e.g., "Is the tree lying on the ground?"). If the goal has not been met, the system operates (e.g., "Chop the tree"). The system continues to test relevant input against the goal until the goal is met (e.g., "the tree is lying on the ground"). At this point, the system exits. Of course, the production of human action is not nearly so simple. Actions are hierarchically organized. Higher-order goals (e.g., chop down the tree) exert downward control over lower-order goals (e.g., swing the axe), which imply still lower-order goals (e.g., hold the axe), which regulate muscle action (e.g., squeezing the fingers and hand around the axe handle). Figure 2 describes two levels in hierarchical structure of making a chop in a tree. The structure of chopping is represented in terms of two levels of embedded TOTE units. The higher level TOTE unit is governed by the goal: chop down the tree. The system tests the goal against the current position of the tree. If goal has not yet been met, the system operates: Chop a notch in the tree. The system continues the test-operate-test process until the higher-order goal is met.

Thus, chop a notch functions as the operation phase of the higher-order TOTE unit: chop down the tree. However, in order to chop a notch, the person must perform a series of subordinate level acts, namely raising the axe and swinging the axe toward the notch. Thus, the operation chop a notch serves a dual function within the hierarchical organization of the process of chopping down a tree. The operation chop a notch functions as both (a) the operation phase of the higher-order unit (i.e., chop a notch is the operation phase regulated by the higher-order goal chop down the tree) as well as (b) the reference standard that regulates the operations of the lower-order unit (i.e., chop a notch functions as the goal that regulates the lower-level operations raise the axe and swing the axe). Thus the operation phase of the higher-order unit is the same as (equivalent to) the goal or reference standard of the next lower-level unit. Together, these nested TOTE units illustrate the hierarchical structure of the act of chopping down the tree. Of course, these two levels of functioning comprise only a part of the hierarchical structure of action. The subordinate level operations/goals of raising and swinging the axe are composed of still lower-level control structures, which ultimately regulate control structures that regulate the operation of specific muscle movements. Moving upward to higher-levels of activity, the act of chopping down the tree is itself embedded within higher-order control structures. Chopping down a tree can be part of the higher-order activities of gathering firewood or building a hut. The hierarchical regulation of action is indicated in Figure 1 at Point (d).

Affect and the organization of consciousness. To appreciate the role of emotion in the organization of action and development, it is helpful to elaborate on recent theory and research on the nature of affect. We begin our discussion with an analysis of the operation of fast-acting, intuitive, emotion-generating processes. Current theory and research on the nature of emotion suggest that emotional experiences are composed of three component processes (Mascolo, Fischer, & Li, 2003): (a) motive-relevant appraisals (Lazarus, 1991), (b) core affective experience or phenomenal tone (Bermond, 2008) and (c) motive-action tendencies (Frijda, 1986). Appraisal, affect, and motor action function as coactive systems. Individually, each of these classes of processes is continuously active. However, as coactive systems, appraisal, affect, and action mutually regulate each other in the constructive organization of any given emotional state or experience.

Appraisals consist of ongoing assessments of the relation between perceived events and a person's motives, goals and concerns (Frijda, 1986). Different emotional states reflect different ways of appraising events relative to motives and desires. Positive emotions accompany motive-consistent appraisals (i.e., getting something that is wanted); negative experiences arise when events clash with one's motives, goals, and concerns (i.e., unwanted events). For example, a person experiences anger upon making the appraisal that someone has violated conditions that ought to exist; joy with the sudden experience of wanted outcomes; guilt with the awareness that the self has performed some wrongdoing. Appraisals are often conceptualized as "cognitive" processes. However, while appraisals involve cognition (and increasingly so with psychological development), they are motive-relevant processes. They are assessments of changes in the status of one's motives (Roseman, 1984); they reflect changes in one's relation to the experienced world. Thus, although "cognitive" processes mediate appraisal activity, appraisals function in the service of a person's motives

The processes that generate conscious appraisals are fast-acting, automatic and occur primarily outside of conscious awareness. We experience fear, for example, when we are immediately aware that an automobile is passing into our lane; however, we are not aware of the processes by which we become aware of the looming vehicle. Indeed, when viewed from the

standpoint of conscious activity, the question of why we become aware of certain classes of events over others is a puzzling one. Most drivers, for example, have had the experience of operating their vehicle for long periods of time without being consciously aware of their driving actions. During this time of largely non-conscious driving, the driver may be aware of the radio, the scenery, or the discussion she is having with passengers. Why does the driver become aware of the threat of the oncoming car? Although we experience our consciousness as shifting seamlessly from our interlocutor to the automobile, we cannot explain the shift from the lack of awareness of driving conditions to awareness of those conditions by appealing to conscious experience (e.g., "the driver saw the ongoing car"). We cannot consciously shift awareness to an oncoming car if we were not already previously aware of road conditions.

Thus, non-conscious processes must participate in organizing the driver's awareness of the oncoming automobile. The emotion process plays a central role in organizing such awareness. At any given point in time, appraisal processes non-consciously monitor the status of a person's entire system of motives, desires, standards, or concerns. Appraisals that identify changes in events that are relevant to the fate of a person's motives generate affective changes (i.e., feeling tone, bodily transformation) and motive-action tendencies (i.e., voluntary and involuntary action patterns that function in the service of one's newly activated motives). For example, as she travelled along routine roads and conditions, non-conscious appraisal processes monitored a variety of different classes of motive-relevant input (e.g., "Is the coast clear?"; "Is my car on the left hand side of the middle lane?"; "Am I sitting up straight?"; "How will I respond to my interlocutor's last comment?"). As the errant automobile swerved into her lane, nonconscious appraisals began to register the threat. The appraisals thereupon began to generate affective changes, which result in feeling states that we ordinarily identify as "fear" or "horror." Thereupon, these affective changes provide immediate, fast-acting feedback to the very same appraisal processes that precipitated the affective changes. This internal affective feedback functions to select, amplify and organize the driver's conscious awareness of the threat of the oncoming automobile. From the thousands of concurrently monitored events undergoing appraisal, affective processes select processing of the oncoming car for conscious awareness. The participation of the feeling tone of fear amplifies the importance of that event in consciousness. In this way, appraisal and affect-generating processes mutually regulate each other in the production of emotional experience. (1) Although initial appraisal activity occurs primarily out of consciousness, as they are active, emotions amplify and organize the content of motive-relevant appraisals in consciousness. In this way, emotion plays a role in the organization of all psychological activity (Freeman, 2000; Mascolo, Fischer & Li, 2003). The lack of independence among affect, action and appraisal activity suggests there are no purely "cognitive" or "affective" actions; psychological actions are necessarily integrative structures.

The meaning of meaning. Psychological acts are predicated on the meaning that events have for individuals. The same outstretched arm can function as a reach, a point, or a request depending upon the meaning that it has for the person within her social community. From a coactive perspective, meaning is neither something that exists "in the head" nor "in the external world." It is neither an innate property of the mind nor a product of the registration of sensory experience. Instead, meaning is a product of constructive activity that occurs between an individual and her physical and social worlds. At its most general level, meaning can be understood as the structuring of experience. Meaning is both a part of the process of constructive activity and its product. To the extent that meaning has its origins in action, there as many forms of meaning as there are modes of acting on and structuring our experience of the physical and social world.

Several examples illustrate the different ways in which meanings function as both parts and products of action. First, consider the process of forming images. Imagine that you are in front of the Eiffel Tower. Imagine seeing the top of the tower. Imagine seeing its base. Now, shift your focus from the bottom to the top again. As you do so, attend to the movement of your eyes. If you are like most people, you will find your eyes moving up and down as you shift the focus of your imagining from the top to the bottom of the Tower. This simple experiment suggests that, contrary to the conventional notion that images are "mental pictures," imagining is a form of constructive action. The process of imagining the Eiffel Tower is similar to the processes that occur when one actually looks at the Eiffel Tower--except the actual Tower is absent. Based on this view, one would predict that imagining the Eiffel Tower involves abbreviated patterns of sensorimotor activity (e.g., movement of the eyes) and brain activity that are similar to those that occur when one actually looks at the Eiffel Tower. In this case, the visual-motor meaning of the Eiffel Tower is a product of reconstructive activity--reconstructing what is done when one looks at the Eiffel Tower (or looks at a picture or video of the Eiffel Tower).

As a second example, imagine an infant learning how to point. At first, the infant stretches her hand in an attempt to reach for a wanted Teddy Bear. The child's mother interprets the child's gesture as a manifestation of her desire for the Teddy Bear. The child's mother might say to the still preverbal infant, "Do you want the Teddy Bear? Here it is." In this interaction, the mother treats the child's reach as if it was a request. In so doing, the mother recasts the meaning of the child's reach for the child. Over time, with many permutations of this interactive routine, the child will be able to abstract or generalize a common social meaning from these social routines. Appropriating the meaning that her outstretched arm has for her mother, the child will gain an understanding of the social function of this action-turned-gesture. She will come to use this gesture as a social request rather than as a personal attempt to grasp the object. The child's ability to abstract regularities from such joint interactions provides a second example of how higher-order meanings are constructed through the structuring of experience. Unlike the imagining of the Eiffel Tower, which involves the reconstruction of individual acts of looking and seeing, the child's constructive abstraction of the social meaning of his reach-turned-request is born from jointly structured intersubjective experience.

A third example highlights the ways in which language operates as a tool for creating meaning through the structuring of experience-in-action. A father takes his son to the park. As the boy begins to climb up the ladder of the slide, a little girl attempts to squeeze in front of him. The boy's father says, "Be a gentleman. Let the little girl go first." The word "gentleman" has cultural meaning that precedes both the child and the father. In this situation, the father's use of the socially-shared concept of "gentleman" structures the meaning of the child's experience. The child is being encouraged to identify himself in terms of the cultural meaning of "gentleman." He might be encouraged to act in accordance with the rule "ladies before gentleman," to hold the door for women and so forth. When the child learns the meaning of the word "gentleman," he can now use it to structure his experience. Of course, because, the meaning of the word "gentleman" is part of a larger system of discursive meanings available to structure a child's experience, the child will learn that the connotations of the word may differ depending on whether he is speaking with his grandfather or his feminist aunt.


How does meaning develop? What does it mean to say that meanings are constructions? How are meanings coactively constructed over time? In this section, we examine how psychological structures--integrative structures of thinking, feeling and action--undergo constructive developmental change over time. In so doing, we focus first on how psychological structures develop within individuals through the coordination of lower-level components of action into higher-order meaning structures. In a later section, we more fully examine the coactive processes by which higher-order meanings are created in joint action that occurs between individuals within socio-cultural contexts. Meaning has its origins in contextualized action. We draw upon dynamic skill theory (Fischer & Bidell, 2006; Mascolo & Fischer, 2010) to understand how meaning structures develop over time through the coordination of action. Dynamic skill theory provides a set of conceptual and empirical tools for tracking the development of psychological structures--integrated structures of acting, thinking, and feeling--as they arise within particular contexts and conceptual domains (Mascolo & Fischer, 2010). According to skill theory, skilled activity develops as individuals actively coordinate lower-level actions into higher-order structures of meaning. Within any given context, a skill or psychological structure consists of an integrated structure of acting, thinking, and feeling. Consistent with the arguments articulated above, skills operate as control structures. A skill refers to those elements of acting, thinking, and feeling that are under the control of an individual within a given context. Using dynamic skill theory (Fischer & Bidell, 2006; Fischer, 1980), one can identify the structure of any type of controlled activity as it arises within particular contexts and domains.

According to skill theory, within any given domain of action, structures of action and meaning develop through four broad tiers: reflex activity (i.e., innate action elements that require direct stimulation for their activation, emerging at birth), sensorimotor actions (i.e., controlled actions directed toward objects and people, emerging around 4 months), representations (i.e., concrete symbols and ideas, emerging around 2 years), and abstractions (i.e., abstract meanings, emerging around 10 years). Within each tier of development, skills develop through four basic levels: single sets, mappings, systems, and systems of systems. Within each tier, the last level of skill--systems of systems--is the equivalent of the first level of the next broad tier of development (single sets). The progression of skill levels from the sensorimotor (2) through the abstract tiers is depicted in Figure 3. Any particular skilled action is represented by a base term and a modifier enclosed in brackets. A single set is represented in terms of a single skill element. Mappings consist of relations between at least two skill sets. Mappings are indicated by a line between two skill sets: one skill set is mapped onto another. Systems consist of the integration of two (or more) mappings.

Reflexive Intersubjectivity: Foundations for Individuation and Social Relations

The first tier of development (not indicated in Figure 3) consists of reflexes. A reflex is an innate action pattern that requires direct stimulation for its evocation. In skill theory (Fischer, 1980; Fischer & Hogan, 1989), a reflex is not the equivalent of a simple knee-jerk or eye-blink; a reflex is a pattern of behavior over which the infant is able to exert some control. Such action patterns include sucking a nipple placed in the mouth; orienting to a noise; closing fingers around an object placed in the hand. Further, reflexes are not simply actions evoked by objects. They also include social actions, such as actively looking at someone's face and even imitating facial actions produced by others.

The finding that neonates are capable of imitating facial actions is an important one with deep implications for how we understand the problem of how we come to know "other minds" (Melzoff & Moore, 2005; Overgaard, 2005). In order to imitate facial actions in others, an infant must be able to connect her own facial actions--actions that she cannot herself observe--with the facial actions of others. Further, the infant must have some sense--however primitive--that her caregiver's facial actions are in some way "like me." How could this be possible? One answer comes in the form of the discovery of "mirror neurons" in monkeys (Gallese, Eagle, & Migone, 2007; Rizzolatti, 2005). Mirror neurons are those that are activated both when a monkey performs a given action as well as when the monkey observes that same action being performed by conspecifics. This duality of function suggests that neurons involved in the production of an act can also mediate the process of observing that same action in others. This finding provides the neurobiological grounding for understanding neonatal imitation. To the extent that the same neural systems mediate both the observation and production of certain facial actions, neonates may be able to imitate facial actions in a reflexive fashion.

More important, these findings suggest a radical inversion of the ways in which we think about the problem of "other minds." Rather than conceiving of infants as socially isolated beings who must "break into" social interaction by learning how to take the perspective of others, these findings suggest that the capacity for social interaction and perspective taking builds upon an already existing capacity for establishing primitive forms of intersubjectivity with others (Meltzoff & Brooks, 2007). As such, "social development" is not a derivative product of "cognitive development;" instead, a primitive capacity for coordinating experience with others, given at birth, provides the intersubjective foundation for psychological and socio-emotional development (Overton et al., 2007). We are not individuals first and social beings second. Instead, both individuation and connectedness are built upon a primitive foundation for coordinating experience (Matsov, 2003). We take the inherent capacity for intersubjectivy as the foundation for later development.

The Sensori-Motor-Affective Roots of Meaning (3)

In infancy, beginning around four months of age, infants gain the capacity to control single sensori-motor-affective acts (Level 4/SM1). At this level, an infant can direct an act of looking at or seeing his mother's smiling face. The mother's smile is not something that is separate from the infant's actions. By four-months of age, infants and their caregivers are engaged in complex emotional exchanges. A caregiver's smile is often sufficient to evoke a smile in the infant--as well as the accompanying state of positive affect. In this way, a caregiver's smile is part and parcel of the socio-affective regulation of a child's experience (Shore & Shore, 2011). In the world of objects, an infant can direct the act of looking or tracking the movement of a toy placed in front of him. An infant can reach for a bottle placed before him. The structure of such single sensori-motor acts is indicated at Level 4/SMl in Figure 3. Although four-month-old infants can exert smooth control over a single sensorimotor act, it is not until about 7-8 months of age that they can seamlessly coordinate two or more such acts in relation to each other. This is achieved at the level of sensorimotor mappings (Level 5/SM2). At this level, for example, an infant can reach for a bottle in order to look at it, or, alternatively, look at a bottle in order to reach for it. In the socio-affective world, a child can actively look at his mother's face in order to see her smile. Alternatively, the infant can smile at the mother in order to evoke a smile in return. The shift from single sets to mappings illustrates how higher-order actions are constructed from the coordination of lower-level acts.

Beginning around 12 months of age, infants gain the capacity to construct skills at the level of sensorimotor systems (Level 6/SM3). A sensorimotor system emerges from the inter-coordination of two or more sensorimotor mappings (i.e., it is a mapping of mappings). At this level, children are capable of a variety of coordinated socio-affective interactions involving treating others as social agents. These involve pointing (Tomasello, Carpenter & Liszkowski, 2007), establishing joint attention (Corkum & Moore, 1995), and other forms of secondary intersubjectivity (Fogel & DeKoeyer-Laros, 2007; Trevarthen & Aitken, 2000). Prior to about 9-10 months of age, infants are able to direct their attention to objects in the world or to other people. They cannot yet share attention on an object with a caregiver. This skill requires the capacity to coordinate one's own intended actions toward an object with another person's awareness of that object. The structure of this skill is depicted at Level 6/SM3 in Figure 3. In this situation, a 1-year-old is able to coordinate looking at mom and reaching toward a toy in order to prompt his mother to shift from looking at me to looking at the toy. At this level, children are capable of pointing toward objects in order to attempt to influence the psychological states of others (Tomasello, Carpenter & Liszkowski, 2007).

Representations and the Origins of Symbolic Meaning

Beginning around 18-24 months of age, children gain the capacity for single concrete representations, which is the first step of the next broad tier of development. Using representations, a child is able to use one thing (e.g., an object, an image, a picture, words, etc.) to refer to an absent object or concrete meanings that go beyond the information given in sensori-motor-affective experience. Linguistically, a simple single representation corresponds to a simple declarative sentence. Single representations emerge as children gain the capacity to coordinate multiple sensori-motor action systems into a system of sensori-motor systems. In this way, the fourth level of the sensori-motor tier of development (systems of sensori-motor systems) is the equivalent of the first level of the representational tier of development (Level 7 [equivalent to] SM4 [equivalent to] RP1). Children construct single representations by abstracting across what is common (or typical) to multiple sensori-motor-affective experiences within a given psychological or social domain. For example, abstracting across multiple cooperative exchanges with caregivers, a child can construct single representations of the concrete meaning of those interactions. This process is represented in Figure 2 at Level 7/Rpl. At this level, a child is able to coordinate multiple sensori-motor action systems (Level 6/SM3) for participating in cooperative exchanges with caregivers into a system of sensori-motor systems, which is the equivalent of a single representation. As indicated in Figure 3, a child can construct concrete representations related to self ("I like my Teddy Bear"), other ("I love mommy"), and social interactions ("Mommy plays with me"; "Mommy gives me a toy") and related meanings.

The form of representational activity that emerges between 18-24 months of age differs from sensori-motor action in many ways. Prior to 18-24 months of age, children are able to construct images, are able to produce and understand speech, and are able to use gestures to communicate meanings. However, these capacities are largely tied to the sensori-motor-affective contexts in which they occur. An 8-month old can hold an image of his mother in mind after she leaves the room; but that image is tied to the sensori-motor experience of the mother's leaving. A 12-month old child points to objects that are present or within his sensori-motor sphere; a 15-month old child is able to recognize herself in the mirror; but her recognition is tied to the presence of her reflection in the mirror. In contrast, by the end of the second year, children can begin to construct concrete images and meanings in the absence of the objects and people that those meanings are about. In this way, the child gains control over the representational activity, whether it be speech, imagery, pretend play, or other symbolic acts.

Although infants both understand and produce words at earlier phases in infancy, the capacity to use language in a fully representational way arises between 18-24 months. The capacity to use language to represent meaning is one of the single most important milestones in the development of a person (as well as in the evolution of our species). This is because language allows the child to acquire shared, socially constructed meanings that are the products of cultural history. With the capacity for language, a child can begin to use sign systems (e.g., words, mathematical notion, etc.) not simply to express needs, thoughts, and feelings to others, but also to formulate higher-order meanings that have their origins in cultural history rather than in personal experience. In a later section, say more about the role of language (sign systems) in the joint construction of meaning in development. At present, we bracket the question of how language fosters development and continue our analysis of how psychological structures undergo structural transformation over time.

Prior to about three and a half years of age, a child is only able to hold in mind one concrete idea at any given time. Beginning around three and a half to four and a half years of age, children gain the capacity to construct representational mappings (Level 8/Rp2). Using mappings, children can form representations embodying various forms of relations between ideas (e.g., cause and effect; part-whole; sequence; reciprocity; size; quantity; etc.). Figure 3 shows how representational mappings build from the intercoordination of lower-level single representations. Abstracting across multiple interactions with caregivers, a 4-year old can begin to build mapping-based "working model" of his relationship with a caregiver. For example, coordinating single representations such as "My mommy plays with me" and "playing with my Teddy Bear is fun," a child can construct a mapping like "Mommy plays with me so that we can have fun." Similarly, abstracting across multiple occasions of having received gifts, a child can form a representation like "I love Mommy because she buys me presents." Around 6-7 years, children begin to coordinate two or more lower-level mappings into a higher-order representational system (L9/Rp3). For example, as indicated in Figure 3, at this level, a child is capable of development of what makes life meaningful, when asked what was most important in his life, one 8-year old boy said, "My mom and dad are important to me because they let me play hockey. They buy me stuff to play hockey with my friends. They take me to my hockey games and they come to see me play." One precocious 5-year old girl produced the following systems level articulation of what is most important in her life: "ourselves ... people are more important than toys because toys are not real and people are real."
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Title Annotation:p. 246-272
Author:Mascolo, Michael F.; Basseches, Michael; El-Hashem, Amanda
Publication:Studies in Meaning
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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