A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Perceiving sociocultural phenomena

This is the third in a series of posts examining the Special Issues of the journal “Ecological Psychology” commemorating the 50th anniversary of “The Senses Considered As Perceptual Systems.”

Harry Heft brings his unique insights regarding the history of psychology to bear, with a focus on the relatively-understudied implications of Gibson’s work for understanding culture. Recall that part of Gibson’s challenge to the field (see Shaw 2002) was to see how much could be covered by perceptual processes, and avoid the temptation to start hand waving at higher-level processes whenever the going got tough. One aspect of Gibson’s work, comparatively neglected by both his proponents and his critics, is his attempt to see how far he could push perceptual theory towards explaining the interaction of people in situations where cultural practice plays a strong role in determining what the world affords. As usual, Heft’s writing is clear and keen. If you haven’t read any of his work before, I suspect you will find this article deeply insightful, and that it will lead you to seek out more of his work.

Heft begins with an argument that The Senses Considered is in many respects the better place to start when understanding the Ecological Approach: It lays out the basic evolutionary logic more thoroughly than other works, and covers a wider range of topics (as most of Gibson’s other works focus strongly on vision). After summarizing the Eco-Psych work that has been done looking at interpersonal interaction, Heft points out that the vast majority of that work is about first-principles of interaction between organism, without respect to cultural practices per se:

“This is not to question the existence of continuities that are to be found across dynamic systems, but continuities should not lead us to overlook real differences that emerge with species evolution and ultimately the appearance of symbol systems….. reexamination of The Senses Considered (1966) will reveal that J. J. Gibson gave a far more central role to sociocultural influences on perceiving than has often been recognized. In this regard, a goal of this paper is to open up even more conceptual space for consideration of the sociocultural dimensions of human experience in ecological psychology.”

Gibson’s interest in social psychology (and social issues broadly) was well developed, and he spent a lot of time in his early career engaged in work on social issues, including teaching Social Psychology for quite a long time, writing relevant articles, engaging prominent scholars in the area, and helping found the Society of the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI). This early work featured the inklings of ideas that would mature in Gibson’s later works, especially the idea that cultural processes often shaped the aspects of the world to which a person attended – including leading one to avoid experiences that would be able to correct misconceptions. As Heft puts it:

“Gibson was not saying that our beliefs can shape what we perceive. The realities carried by stimulus information are there in the world. What prejudices do is to short-circuit scrutiny of what is available to be perceived. Stereotypes, and other schematic forms of thinking, tend to lead us away from even considering disconfirming empirical evidence before us.”

Beyond that, Heft covers several sense in which social perception can be “of an entirely different order” than the perception of non-animate aspects of the environment. This includes how the interaction between social partners structures crease fundamentally knew opportunities to perceive and act, the ways in which (relatively) unique human adaptations facilitate such interaction (upright posture, vocal control, etc.), and a Dewey-esqu perspective on the central role of tool use, especially the use of tools to leave markings upon surfaces. It is the latter that leads to the ability to have “indirect experience” which Gibson tried hard to incorporate within his system, and to which the remaining half of Heft’s paper is dedicated.

Needless to say, it is hard to incorporate indirect experience into an approach known for its advocacy of “direct perception.” The difficulty of this explains why Gibson directed so much effort towards the task (following in Holt’s footsteps). The first thing to note is that Gibson considered such perception to be mediated – that is, one could directly perceive the environment, and by means of that have mediated perception things not immediately present. Even then, such mediation must rest on a foundation of something perceived, and so there is work to be done in understanding how far perception extends in those cases. The general neglect of research along these lines within the Eco-Psych community is a large part of the value-added here, as Heft is pointing towards potential lines of future research, not mere historical points. 

There is more, of course. Including further discussion about the relation of language to perception, and about perception of the social (a topic I have also written about a decent amount). The emphasis is on how to handle such phenomena without sliding into dualism, and this analysis hinges on a generalization of Gibson’s treatment of the occluding edge. Heft ends by pointing out the importance of much of this material in reconciling the continuous debates within Ecological Psychology regarding how best to conceptualize “affordances.”

I leave further details to Heft, and my faith that readers will not be disappointed going to the source.

Shaw, R. (2002). Theoretical hubris and the willingness to be radical: An open letter to James J. Gibson. Ecological Psychology, 14, 235-247.

No comments:

Post a Comment