the participation metaphor for learning and culture?

In the Field Studies preparation class yesterday we were discussing our understanding of what culture is. Having studied anthropology as an undergraduate, having participated in this exact discussion in the prep class again and again in something like six or seven different semesters now, you might think I would have some pretty well-developed ideas on the subject. In actuality, though, the concept of culture seems to get increasingly more vague in my mind the more I think about it.

There were several different definitions we sifted through in yesterday’s class. Each one seemed to me to emphasize some significant, even essential, aspects of what culture is, without ever having the final word on the subject. A couple of examples:

Culture is an ordered system of meaning and of symbols, in terms of which social interaction takes place; and a social system is the pattern of social interaction itself. (Clifford Geertz)


I will define culture as the acquired knowledge people use to interpret experience and generate behavior. (James Spradley)

As good as these definitions are at revealing components of culture—in these cases things like symbols, knowledge, meaning, interpretion, and generation of behavior get the spotlight—I always feel like another definition could just as easily highlight some other aspect in an equally insightful way. In other words, I don’t think I’ve yet seen culture defined in words so complete that there was nothing else that could be added by another statement, another definition.

With this in mind, one particular definition stuck out to me in this particular discussion, because it drew out an aspect of culture I think we often overlook. This definition comes from anthropologist Ward Goodenough:

A society’s culture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members.

Explaining why this definition was resonating so well with me this year requires a bit of explanation of some things I’ve been learning in my Instructional Psychology & Technology coursework. Specifically, I was reminded of some theories I’ve been encountering that challenge what one author (Anna Sfard, “On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One”) has called the acquisition metaphor of learning. The acquisition metaphor objectifies knowledge, understanding what we learn in the same terms that we understand the physical world of concrete things, essentially imbuing intangible ideas with a kind of material and substance. It’s a way of understanding learning that has become so ingrained in contemporary western thinking that, like forks and blue jeans, we don’t even notice its pervasiveness or significance in our day-to-day living, let alone question it. Thus we talk about “acquiring” or “gaining” knowledge in the same way we might discuss collecting apples from trees; we conceive of vast, complex, structures of linked idea-bricks that, if made visible, might look something like shifting assemblages of Tinker Toys; we imagine facts being “stored” in our minds like boxes in the attic. We do all this without any empirical evidence that any of these things—minds, memories, facts, ideas—exist at all, except as names we once made up for phenomena we still don’t understand all that well.

While the acquisition metaphor still remains prevalent in our society at large, many learning theorists today subscribe to other analogies of the learning process. One prominent alternative is what Sfard names the participation metaphor. Largely built on the foundational writings of Lev Vygotsky, as well including the more recent work of theorists such as Barbara Rogoff, Jean Lave (an anthropologist), and Ettienne Wenger (along with others, undoubtedly, who I am not yet familiar with), the participation metaphor views learning “as a process of becoming a member of a certain community” (Sfard), as an increasing ability to participate meaningfully in a particular social context.

Returning to Goodenough’s definition of culture, my initial thought was that perhaps culture, like knowledge, is something that we tend to unjustly objectify. Maybe culture is just a name that someone came up with at some point to help explain the apparent patterns in social human behavior, a noun invented to account for all the verbs, so to speak. This version of culture certainly seems to be in line with another definition we came across in class, this from the assigned reading (a chapter called “Culture Blends” from Michael Agar‘s Language Shock). Agar writes that culture is “what happens to you when you encounter differences, become aware of something in yourself, and work to figure out why the differences appeared.” In this way of thinking, culture, unlike table lamps or bowls of fruit, is something active; it’s something that happens to you.

My second thought in relating all this learning theory stuff to our discussion on culture is that the concept of knowledge and learning expressed by the participation metaphor sounds an awful lot like what I personally understand culture to be. They sound so much alike, in fact, that I have to wonder if the two aren’t actually the same process seen from different disciplinary angles. Once you start talking about learning and culture in terms of what happens, instead of focusing on the imaginary objects that presumably cause those things to happen, it really gets hard to see the difference between them, between becoming knowledgeable and becoming enculturated.

Learning is culture and culture is learning … it seems to make sense to me, at least for the time being.

4 thoughts on “the participation metaphor for learning and culture?”

  1. Jay – I miss you. But on a more related note, I teach Michael Agar’s article on culture in a class here at IU and like the definition of culture he provides. I’ve also recently been into Fanon’s idea of culture as emerging and shifting and constantly transforming being created constantly by a variety of people in a variety of interactions. We should talk sometime!

    1. I miss having you around here, too, Julie. I hope you’re still “keeping it real.” We need to catch up … I want to hear how your program is going.

      I’ve not read anything by Fanon, but any definition of culture I’ve ever found to be even somewhat satisfying has recognized how many complex factors affect culture, and continue shaping culture over time.

  2. Jay – I find your discussion in line with what I have been thinking. I am wondering (out loud at this point) if we can abandon the concept of culture with out abandoning the idea of culture. The idea of culture, I believe, is the phenomena of experiencing oneself socially and relationally situated in such a way, as you write, that we receive ourself. As I have been thinking about the relationship between experience, participation and the production of knowledge in research I am left thinking that it would not be possible to frame what we learn apart from whom we become. Learning is a self-constitutive act. In the spirit of your concluding formula, it seems to me that learning = becoming. Culture misses the processual nature of living. Like you write, culture implies reifying and objectifying the world in an attempt to make it visible–objects to see apart from us so we can contemplate their effect on us. Maybe learning = culturing = becoming…

  3. I’m not sure what definitive stance I would want to take, but I know a few scholars that I really respect that would certainly agree with what you’re proposing. They would want to talk about our meaningful engagement with the world rather than trying to understand a person or people in an abstract, decontextualized sense. It’s hard to imagine the world in these terms, largely, I think, because we’ve been trained to see it. But maybe it would be a more productive way of thinking about people when we’re actually trying to create some kind of cultural or behavior change, like we try to do in education.

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