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Re: [xmca] The strange situation: analyzing a land dispute

Mike refers to an interesting 1979 paper by Edwin Hutchins. Mike asks: what kinds of concepts were mediating the events described in this paper?


Hutchins analyzes a Trobriand village court judgment concerning a property dispute. He uses this example to demonstrate that claims in earlier papers by Malinowski (1920's) and Lee (1940's) about supposed limitations or lack of ability by Trobrianders to use syllogistic and inferential reasoning were incorrect.

He demonstrates that inferential reasoning is in fact quite definitely used in Trobriand discourse. He explains Malinowski's failure to find this in his need to rely on discourse he could write down with paper and pencil, not having a tape recorder. So Malinowski focused on the slower-moving forms of discourse he could record, like magic rituals. Unfortunately these do not necessarily utilize more complex forms of thinking. Hence, inferential thinking was not visible to Malinowski's fact-gathering methods (and, apparently, his intuitions, one might observe). Lee's work was entirely based on analyzing Malinowski's data, so she just continued the problem. Aspects of their work are discussed in the Wikipedia under the entry Trobriand Islands, btw.

The village court judgment Hutchins analyzes pertains to a dispute over who has the rights to a garden. Four concepts used in the judgment are analyzed by Hutchins - Tupwa, Pokola, Kesila, and rights transfer. Briefly defining these terms in my words by translating these concepts into terms from bourgeois property relations (this is not adequately or truly conceptually understanding the Trobriand concepts by any means) - roughly speaking, Tupwa refers to when a buyer has made an offer, Pokola refers to when a seller accepts an offer, Kesila refers to the land in relation to the seller after they transferred the rights, and rights transfer refers to when a transaction is completed.

Hutchins shows that many inferences and forms of syllogistic reasoning are made in the judgment. The dispute revolved around whether this garden had been "sold" (rights were transferred) 30 years earlier. If it had not been, it would be Tupwa today, since the "owner" from 30 years ago was willing to transfer the rights. But if it had indeed been transferred, the garden was Kesila in relation to the original owner. It turned out that the judgment was that the garden was Kesila in relation to the original owner - that a third party had acquired those rights 30 years earlier. Etc.

The point here is that syllogistic and inferential reasoning were clearly employed, refuting Malinowski and Lee.

So how about Mike's question. Where might Vygotsky's concept formation theory come in? What kinds of 'concept systems' or 'modes of interpretation' were in play?

One point that strikes me is that the kinds of mental **operations** made in the judgment seem more associated with **conceptually-based** structures of generalization. That is, using Vygotsky's Ch 6 categories - and his law that possible thought operations change as relations of generality change - the inferential modes of thinking Hutchins describes are the kinds of mental operations that are made possible by preconcepts and true concepts. They do not appear to be the kinds of mental operations enabled by or associated with merely syncretic or complexive thinking.

Another point that strikes me is that concepts such as Tupwa and Pokola, associated with the social conditions and processes surrounding the transfer of land rights, must be deeply embedded in the history of Trobriand culture and society. This would suggest to me that these are true, fully developed concepts.

- Steve

On Apr 6, 2010, at 7:12 PM, mike cole wrote:

Whoa!! gotta print and read,
Martin. But ALL-- could you check out the article at

Not a school. But what sort of concepts (modes of interpretation if you
prefer michael r!) are mediating this activity??

On Tue, Apr 6, 2010 at 6:43 PM, Martin Packer <packer@duq.edu> wrote:

A little while ago David Kellogg suggested that when LSV refers to
"scientific concepts" they "are simply the type of concepts that are found in classrooms." I replied that I thought LSV was hunting bigger game: he was trying to show how children develop the capacity to think scientifically.

Now, after doing some more homework,I think that both David and I are
correct. On my reading of chapter 6 of T&L,


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