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2002 - Vol. 23, Numbers 1 and 2, Winter and Spring (Special Issue)

Choice and Chance in the Formation of Society: Behavior and Cognition in Social Theory by Robert E. Lana, Temple University

Chapter One: Setting the Problems

There are fashions in psychological theorizing that appear periodically over virtually the entire history of the field. Not unlike fashions in wearing apparel, styles of thinking tend to recycle, typically reappearing in somewhat modified form. This indicates that early explanations may have had some value and are, therefore, to be preserved in some form in contemporary explanation. If it is possible to determine why a system eventually fails, and why it returns at a later date in a different form, it will be possible to understand more clearly the possibilities for explanatory success regarding a particular class of empirical phenomena. This, in turn, requires that the general assumptions and conceptual contexts which psychologists have used to solve their problems be enumerated. Because many current psychological explanations may be subsumed under one of the more general behavioral or cognitive rubrics, the difference between these systems is at the center of the discussion. There is a long history to the separation of behavior from condition as the principal positions from which human activity is explained. One of the most crucial results of this history is the opposition of these two approaches in explaining the nature of any social phenomenon. Perhaps the principal point of contention between the behavioral and cognitive positions is over the causative sources of human activity. A brief review of this issue follows.

Chapter Two: The Behavior Analytic Approach to Language and Thought

In psychologists’ attempts to explain the nature of language and thought, all pretense of building an axiomatic system was laid aside. The severely limited success of formal axiomatic systems in psychology eliminated most of the desire to even attempt such a project shortly after Hull’s work was completed. Whatever axiomatic qualities psychological theories possess, they are rarely expressed as such. We have seen that Dollard and Miller (1950) translated some Freudian principles into those of Hull, and although they demonstrated the similarities that existed between the two theories, this never induced Freudians to change their vocabulary or their theoretical concepts to those of Hull. Freudian theory was so extensively interpretative and so restructured in a formal, or even semi-formal, axiomatic manner. However, as we have seen, since Skinner developed a system that lent itself to axiomatic arrangement, a successful attempt to account for the functional aspects of language and thought through the principles of behavior analysis would constitute a major advance in psychological theory.

Chapter Three: The Cognitive Approach to Language and Thought

It has been maintained (e.g., Baars, 1986) that the so-called cognitive approach to explaining the nature of language and thought began as a reaction to the entrenched behaviorism of the 1950’s. The reader will recall that during the period from roughly 1930 to 1957, strict behavioral interpretation of animal and human activities of all sorts was challenged both from within and without. Edwin Tolman (1927) – who called himself a behaviorist – spoke of “cognitive maps” developing in rats who were given certain learning tasks. Wolfgang Kohler (1959) described “insight” in chimpanzees, in contrast to the step-like learning processes described by Hull (1943). What I hope to do in this chapter is summarize some of the most important contemporary cognitive interpretations of the last forty years regarding the nature of language and thought with the intent of contrasting them with the behavior analytic interpretation of language acquisition and use presented in Chapter 2.

Chapter Four: Current Language Theories

“Learning a language involves learning what the predicates of a language mean. Learning what the predicates of a language mean involves learning determination of the extension of these predicates. Learning a determination of the extension of the predicates involves learning that they fall under some truth rules. But one cannot learn that P falls under R unless one has a language in which P and R can be represented.”

Fodor concludes that there must be language elements already present in order for a child to learn a natural language. This implies that the organism comes equipped, presumably by the evolutionary development of the species, with certain basic language abilities. Having accepted one or more of a few variations of this argument, cognitively oriented researches turned to internal processes to account for much, but not all, of the nature of language. Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek (1990) have summarized a number of different types of theories concerned with the acquisition and use of language. Before these systems are discussed it is necessary to define a number of terms critical to their understanding.

Chapter Five: Behavior, Cognition, and Society

The conflict between the behavioral and cognitive positions (see previous discussion on the nature of language and thought), has permeated a good deal of psychological theory. Over the years the various emphases placed on the influence of the environment or the operation of the central nervous system on various aspects of human activity go in and out of favor in the psychological community. The core problems, however, remain the same. Progress, when it is made, occurs in predictable ways. Within the cognitive emphasis the technique of analysis usually consists of description of existing states. The more imaginative and penetrating the observations, the more convincing are the descriptions that presumably indicate that the way an organism acts is a question of its given genetic proclivities. The next step is to understand more about the actual physiological condition of the neural structure of the brain and central nervous system. The behavioral emphasis continues to focus upon the external environment and attempts are made to construct experiments that systematically analyze the effects of these various external conditions on behavior.

Chapter Six: Attitude

I have chosen to examine the behavior analytic and cognitive approaches to the concept of attitude as a case study that reflects these two major systems’ influence on theory development pertaining to social phenomena. Attitude seems a worthy choice for such an exercise since it has been used as an explanatory concept for almost the entire history of the field of social psychology and remains one of its major theoretical obsessions although sometimes appearing in different guises.

Chapter Seven: Deconstruction and Psychology

At the end of the last chapter the degree of reality assessment characteristic attitudes was briefly discussed. It was concluded that the beliefs characteristic of an attitude are sometimes demonstrably false as in the belief that, for example, most barbers are Italian, and sometimes demonstrably true as in the belief that, for example, Chinese eat more rice per capita than do Norwegians. This raises the more general issue of how to assess the reality of social perception and how that reality is perceived by the social scientist who would explain it in predictive terms. In short, not only the validity of social perception, but the way we explain social perception is challenged by what we know about the way attitudes function, since social scientists function within the same social perceptive milieu. The most severe challenge derived from those who espoused what came to be called “deconstruction.”

Chapter Eight: The Behavior-Cognition Dichotomy

There has not been, nor is there likely to be, a fusion of behavioral with cognitive solutions to the same psychological problems. Neither will a behavioral nor a cognitive solution be eliminated in favor of the other regarding social phenomena. To date, our theories have been conceptually solidified within the environment-organism polarity so that our epistemology tends to favor one or the other. It is no wonder that the mind-body dichotomy has followed us for over two thousand years. Even though we accept the idea that physical evolutions is a function of the conditions of survival presented by the environment, the finite and definite way that the human body operates requires that we, at least momentarily, separate it from the changing environment in which it resides. In addition, the social scientist as observer participates in the vary phenomena which she seeks to explain that that participation confounds method and epistemology. The assault by the deconstructionists on extant models of social inquiry broadens the issue of how to obtain useful information beyond that concerned with t methodological problems. As we have seen in earlier chapters, many theorists have insisted that social context is at the core of understanding social action. With this emphasis, the history of a functioning group provides the primary material which allows for comprehension of both the individual and the group’s collective behavior. The methodologies needed to comprehend this historical context are fundamentally hermeneutic in nature. Rhetoric and interpretive group history become more crucial to understanding than experimental method. The risk in favoring these methods over the experiment is that one loses the deductive certainty contained in experimental method. Such a loss disallows the possibility of utilizing any form of the hypothetico-deductive system to build successful theory. If, as I believe I have shown, the centrality of group history usually, but not always, prevents the building of hypothetico-deductive systems to explain social activity then the loss is inevitable. However, an historically oriented interpretation of group activity is, at best, only one among many possible rhetorically sound explanations. There is no exclusivity in the interpretation of any phenomenon. However, the historically oriented interpretation of group behavior may be the most effective way of explaining social activity.


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