[xmca] The social origins of pointing??

From: Mike Cole <lchcmike who-is-at gmail.com>
Date: Sun Nov 04 2007 - 10:47:37 PST

Dear XMCA-ites

      A few weeks ago in our seminar on mediational theories of mind, we
read recent work by Tomasello and colleagues on the ontogeny of pointing as
communicative gesture. Tomasello

does not cite the work of Vygotsky on this topic because in his opinion,
Vygotsky's oft-cited views about the social origins of pointing have been
definitively proven erroneous.

       Given how often the example of the social origins of pointing are
repeated in chat-inspired writings, it seems worthwhile in light of current
research to question his views and to ask what difference it would make to
our ways of theorizing if we were to incorporate current work such

as that of Tomasello and others.

     What follows is a brief descriptions of the issues. If people are
interested, we could go into this more deeply. If not, not.

1. (From out Group's discussion). For Vygotsky, pointing as a communication
gesture arises out of a failed grasping motion. An adult, seeing an infant
unsuccessfully grasp for an object, interprets the grasping as pointing at
the object and treats it as a communicative act. The movement "becomes a
gesture for others" (56, Vygotsky /Mind in /Society), and the adult gives
the movement meaning. Through this interaction, the original unsuccessful
grasping-motion is transformed into pointing, which becomes more refined and
simplified over time. Vygotsky interpreted the pointing gesture as an
example of internalization and transformation of the intermental to the

2. (From Cole and Cole, The development of Chidlren (2001), p. 295)

Between 9 months and a year, babies acquire *secondary
intersubjectivity,*the ability to share mental states with another
person and to understand
what they are intending to do (Chapter 5, p. 197). The close link between
secondary intersubjectivity and communication is evident in the form of
behavior called *social referencing,* the process through which babies check
their caregiver's reactions to an uncertain event or an unfamiliar person as
a guide to their own behavior. Secondary intersubjectivity is a crucial
precursor to language acquisition because babies and their caregivers are
sharing knowledge about the objects and events that are the focus of their
joint attention.

Secondary intersubjectivity is also apparent when babies begin to point at
objects (Butterworth, 2003). Pointing is clearly a communicative act
intended to create a joint focus of attention, but it is a primitive one.
When 12-month-olds see a remote-controlled car roll past them, first they
point at it and then they look to see how their caregivers react to it
(social referencing). At 18 months of age, the function of pointing becomes
communicative in a more complex way. Now children are more likely first to
look at their caregivers to see if they are looking at the car and then to
point to it. If babies this age are alone in the room when the electric car
appears, they do not point until the caretaker walks back into the room,
clearly demonstrating that their pointing has a purpose and is meant to
communicate to another person (Butterworth, 2003).

3. (From Class discussion)

Tomasello, on the other hand, argues that pointing arises as a
pre-linguistic communicative gesture. Instead of viewing pointing as
something that acquires a communicative meaning through interaction,
Tomasello argues that pointing has a communicative meaning from its initial
formation because the infant has acquired the social-cognitive skills to
share experiences with others, view others as mental agents,
and form goals with others. Pointing initiates joint attention of the infant
and another towards an object because of a shared communicative
intentionality. The infant points because he wishes to inform, request
information from, or share an emotional expression with an adult about an
object. For Tomasello, pointing is more than just a request for an
object, as Vygotsky seemed to imply.

Not only does pointing serve various communicative functions, but Tomasello
also argues that human pointing forms the basic foundation for language.
Both pointing and language both require the same social-cognitive skills of
requiring infants to see others as "intentional agents with whom one can
share experience" (Tomasello et al. "A New Look at Infant Pointing," 718).
Pointing serves the same purpose as an utterance: it introduces a topic (old
or new) for communication.

4 (Some questions).

What is significant about the following?

a)Tomasello does not cite the work of Butterfield and Butterfield's account
does not appear to lean heavily on the idea of secondary intersubjectivity.

            b). There is still an obviously important role for the adult in
ontogeny of pointing in Tomasello, but it attributes communicative intent to
the child from the onset. So clearly the role of the social other is

Overall, however, it seems wise to me that people seeking to illustrate
Vygotsky's ideas about the social origins of higher psychological functions
not use the example of pointing unless or until they

can take account of the research briefly noted above.

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Received on Sun Nov 4 10:51 PST 2007

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