Bruner and Hybridity

Bruner and Hybridity

Talk Presented at Symposium Honoring Jerome Bruner,
Meetings of the American Anthropological Association
San Francisco, Nov. 17, 2000

My remarks today continue a conversation with Jerry Bruner on the nature of cultural variations in development and their significance for improving educational practices that began almost 40 years ago. Jerry was part of a group that sent me to Liberia to investigate the difficulties that local rural children experienced in attempting to master elementary mathematics as a part of a broad effort at curriculum reform. By a happy accident, at about the same time I began that work I moved to Yale University where Bill Kessen involved me in research on "Man a course of study" which sought to institute reforms in the teaching of social sciences. My task was to observe how the curriculum was instituted by a pair of experienced teachers who had gone through a summer training program in its use.

Consistent with everything known then or now about hominization and cultural variation, MACOS assumed a marked discontinuity across species but essential similarity within species between such cultural groups as Kalahari bushmen and Massachusetts aldermen. It ran into a lot of well publicized difficulty on this and related counts. I experienced that difficulty at the classroom level, where the two teacher's who I was observing believed firmly that Netsilik hunter-gatherers are more like chimpanzees than they are like residents of Massachusetts. This experience has remained a vivid reminder of the difficulties faced by any educational program which would seek to implement Jerry Bruner's views concerning the relationship between phylogeny and cultural history in human ontogeny.

Our next set of interactions came a few years later during a series of seminars held at Harvard and Rockefeller Universities, where we and our colleagues were describing to each other cross-cultural work we had been carrying out independently, using different methods and guided by different theoretical concerns. In these interactions it was the influence of formal schooling on development and the uncertainties engendered by cross-cultural comparisons that occupied us.

Over the ensuring decades Jerry and I have collaborated on a variety of editorial projects, but we have rarely had the opportunity to revisit the issue of cultural variation and education in the brave new light of present theoretical and practical concerns. I rashly decided to focus on the issue of hybridity because this concept had been arising often in discussions with colleagues, who, like myself, spend a lot of time worrying about how the design of educational activities for children in classrooms characterized by enormous cultural diversity. The decision was rash because hybridity is not a term that you will find in any of the reference sections in Bruner's corpus of writings. So, in the event, I have had to piece together how current conceptions relate to Jerry's ideas. I assume that later in this session Jerry will set me and the rest of the audience straight on the issues involved.

As a means of framing the discussion, I will organize it around two notions of hybridity contrasted by Renato Resaldo who wrote:

On the one hand, hybridity can imply a space betwixt and between two zones of purity in a manner that follows biological usage that distinguishes two discreet species and the hybrid pseudo species that results from their combination. ... On the other hand, hybridity can be understood as the ongoing condition of all human cultures, which contain no zones of purity because they undergo continuous processes of transculturation (two-way borrowing and lending between cultures). Instead of hybridity versus purity, it is hybridity all the way down" (1995, p. xv.)

How are we to locate Bruner with respect to these two definitions? As I read back through long-familiar texts with this question in mind, I found myself wavering. Often it seemed that Jerry's view of hybridity tended to fit most closely with the notion of diversity arising from the combination of discreet types. But repeatedly I encountered discussions which made it more plausible to conclude that he adheres to the doctrine of "hybridity all the way down." I will begin with some evidence for the first view, and then turn to evidence for the second.

I take as my starting point Jerry's publications during the 1960's that promote the idea of a developmental shift in modes of representation, where an enactive mode is followed by an iconic mode, which in turn is followed by a symbolic modes. Experiments embodying the idea of these three species of representation were conducted showing age shifts in the predicted direction and cross- cultural research took these distinctions to be sufficiently universal to be used in making comparisons. Among its many effects, schooling was assumed to privilege and promote symbolic representation. To be sure, the three modes might be combined (once they had developed) but the resulting hybrids had the three pure types as their origin. As an ensemble, such hybrids might be considered "cultural styles."

Another place one might look is at the famous essay on "Modes of thought" On the one hand, Bruner writes, there is "the paradigmatic or logico-scientific one, [which] attempts to fulfill the ideal of a formal, mathematical system of description and explanation." (1986, p. 12). The narrative mode, by contrast, "leads instead to good stories, gripping drama, believable (though not necessarily 'true') historical accounts. It deals in human or human- like intention and action and the vicissitudes and consequences that mark their course." (p. 13).

At places in the text it appears that these two modes are treated as pure types which mingle in different ways. For example, Bruner prefaces his discussion of the two modes by quoting William James to the effect that asserting the existence of two such modes of thought is "only to say what every reader's experience will corroborate." He then relates the two modes in adult thought to research on infant perception of physical and intentional movement, to argue, in effect, that these two modes of thought are natural kinds, complementary resources in the essential tasks of meaning making. On the basis of such evidence it seems as if any sense of hybridity involving the two modes of thought fits quite closely the notion of hybridity as combination of pure varieties.

What about the opposite reading, the reading that provides evidence of Bruner's belief that it is "hybridity all the way down? Here I feel myself on shifting ground,

Unsurprisingly, evidence for this alternative interpretation can be found in some of the same sources that point to Jerry's adherence to a notion of hybridity as the mixing of pure kinds. We can begin with Studies in Cognitive Growth, a publication that summarizes his ideas on the three modes of representation and research concerning their elaboration in different cultures and the ways in which they are influenced by schooling.

Neither Jerry nor I currently find the methods of cross-cultural experimental research used in that volume or that I was then using in my work particularly compelling, but one of his introductory essays provided developmental psychologists of the time with a marvelous summary of then-contemporary work on the process of hominization. In summary, he adopted the view that "the human brain evolved due to new selection pressures after bipedalism and consequence upon the use of tools." (Washburn and Howell, 1960, p. 49). Following Peter Medewar, he pointed out that in so far as human biological evolution is conditional on human cultural evolution, humans depend for their survival upon the pool of cultural resources, which are socially inherited acquired characteristics. In this sense, although he did not use the term, human evolution is a hybrid of Darwinian and Lamarckian evolutionary mechanisms.

During the 1980's and 1990's Jerry wrote a number of essays elaborating on his ideas about the dialectical relation between biology (phylogeny) and culture. He explicitly adopted Clifford Geertz's view that in the absence of culturally mediated experience, we are "unworkable monstrosities" ... incomplete or unfinished animals who complete ourselves through culture." If we missed the point he quotes Geertz again: "there is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture" (quotes in 1990. P. 12).

By this reading, the presumably "pure type" represented by the species homo sapiens sapiens is itself a hybrid of two evolutionary principles, inextricably interwoven with, and influencing each other. The psychological processes of such a creature, however they might be described, can plausibly be characterized as requiring "hybridity all the way down."

In the writings on two modes of thought, which might be considered ripe for a "combination of pure types" interpretation, there are plenty of hints that despite the dichotomous rhetorical stance of the writing, the author knows fair well that neither the varieties he posits nor their combinations are pure types. In his early essay on this topic, Jerry pointed out, the. "Scientists, perhaps because they rely on familiar stories to fill in gaps in their knowledge have a harder time in practice. But their salvation is to wash the stories away when causes can be substituted for them." In short, we are no longer dealing with a pure modes of thought. They appear pure only when they have been "washed" through a set of cultural practices that create momentary "purities" based upon (decidedly impure) cultural categorizing systems and practices.

In his recent essays entitled The culture of education (1996) he goes even further to break down the purity of the paradigmatic "mode" of thought by suggesting that "we characteristically convert our efforts at scientific understanding into the form of narratives.... (p. 125)". ...The process of science making is narrative... En route to producing testable hypotheses, we play with ideas, try to create anomalies, try to find neat puzzle forms that we can apply to intractable troubles so that they can be turn into soluble problems, figure out tricks for getting around morasses (p. 126). ...

Alternatively, his discussions of narrative make clear that they may contain "paradigmatic moments" within them, when logic, verification, and the methods of critical inquiry dominate the thought process. In the light of such heterogeneity within the presumed "pure types" the notion that its hybridity all the way down becomes plausible, if not essential.

Finally, when one examines contemporary efforts at educational reform that Jerry holds up as exemplary, they have the hybrid quality that many educationalists refer to as a "third space," (discussed by Kris Guitterez and others), educational practices that are neither entirely formal, skill-oriented, transmission education, nor the "free schools" of the decade of the 60's when we first began to interact. These activities, such as the communities of learners project initiated by Ann Brown and Joe Campione, mix together features of mythical pure types from the past: drill and kill versus experiential learning, transmission education versus discovery learning, and so on. They are hybrids in the best sense of the word, because they nurture the children who have the luck to participate within them.

It might be tempting to argue that the new, hybrid educational practices that we see springing up around us can easily be incorporated into the notion of hybridity as the mixing of pure types. But as recent decades of research on classroom organization and culture have demonstrated, the "pure types" that competing theorists hurl at each other like epithets are themselves always made up of a variety of more local cultural practices. Moreover, the hybrids currently being produced cannot properly be considered "pseudo species." Rather, they like the earliest mammals, are a new species of educational practice, eeking out their existence in an environment dominated by educational practices that can be appropriately termed, dinosaurs. And, perhaps, from their current humble beginnings, such fragile new species will come to dominate the educational world. Should this happen, it would be well for people to remember that at its origins, this new species owes paternal respect to Jerome Bruner.


Bruner, J. S. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Bruner. J.S. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Bruner, J.S. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Rosaldo, R. (1995).....