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research and essentialism


The discussion of cultural essentialism and particularly the questions
embedded in the following posting are intriguing:

"One question to take from all of this might be, can we pinpoint the essence
of a culture, perhaps through an ideal individual or experience? Some might
say yes- this guy is quintessentially English or that was a classic Italian

But I think all of us here would be of the mind that culture and identity
are continually made and reshaped, as history- there is no one answer to
what is ______ culture. Each person at least in part making themselves and
made by the intersection of their own experience and their version of
cultural knowledge.

But the nagging, and compelling question remains (as I mentioned in an
earlier post)- how do we account for continuity in identity, culturally and
historically? And how do we do it without falling into reductionisms like
essentialism or overly evolutionary theories?"

Rogoff and Gutierrez addressed these issues in a recent theme issue on
culture and educational research (edited by Carol Lee, 2003):
We argue against the common approach of assuming that regularities are
static, and that general traits of individuals are attributable
categorically to ethnic group membership. We suggest that a cultural
historical approach can be used to help move beyond this assumption by
focusing researchers' and practitioners' attention on variations in
individuals' and groups' histories of engagement in cultural practices
because the variations reside not as traits of individuals or collections of
individuals, but as proclivities of people with certain histories of
engagement with specific cultural activities. Thus, individuals' and groups'
experience in activities-not their traits-becomes the focus" (p. 19).

Their argument that culture is developed through local, historical action
interaction militates against the idea of the 'ideal' of 'essence,' and
resonates with the notion
in the above posting that people and groups 'make' culture. Regularities or
among people do emerge through their shared interactions and participation
in cultural activities,
but those features are in constant negotiation and flux. Identity, then is
also both identifiable
and mutable.

It seems to me that these
claims are related to the work on internal and external spheres of activity
there really is no way to identify those spheres separately, as they are in
dialogic conversation. Makes me think to Vygotsky's claim that the essence
of word is meaning,
which is constructed through interaction and activity, rather than 'ideal'
or static...