Wertsch (1998) provides a framework to conduct social cultural analysis regarding mental functioning. First and foremost, he stresses the importance of context when doing any sort of analysis. He argues much of existing scholarship has a long history of segregation on ideas of human nature, even within disciplines. The division of scholars among narrow fields of study insulates scholars from each other’s perspectives. He points to a need for having perspectives on perspective among scholars, where they can be “a kind of “translation at the crossroads”—that would make it possible to link, but not reduce, one perspective to another” (p. 7). To do such work, he presents the idea of mediated action “to explicate the relationships between human action, and the cultural, institutional and historical contexts in which this action occurs” (p. 23).

To analyze mediated action, he employs Burke’s Pentad: “what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)” (p. 13). Wertsch focuses on the agents and their cultural tools to mitigate the centeralized mindset and as gateways to the other elements of the pentad. In the remainder of the second chapter, he outlines 10 claims about mediated action. Critical to his claims is that mediated action is “characterized by an irreducible tension between agent and mediational means” (p. 25). He discusses how the agent alone does not act without cultural tools and vice versa. Each shapes the other and evolves overtime. Of note is his acknowledgement that language is particularly restrictive in analyzing human action, as it limits our ability to interpret and describe something within an artificial construct that may be inadequate for a particular context. Language is also shared between the sender and the receiver, where large assumptions are made about how each interprets language to try and arrive at a similar understanding.

Wertsch’s (1998) work covers much ground in the first two chapters and lays the foundation for critically considering how to approach social cultural analysis in research. Although not directly cited, Burke’s pentad is remarkably similar to the three dimensions of narrative inquiry (Clandinin, 2013): sociality, temporality, and place, which I used as my methodology for my master’s research. Clandinin, like Wertsch, heavily cites Dewey and Geertz, which likely explains the similarities. In Clandinin’s work, she stresses the necessity for considering all three elements simultaneously throughout the research, including the influences of the researcher on how the research is conducted and the types of data that can be gathered from participants. As Wertsch notes, there is an irreducible tension between the five pentad elements, and considering more than two elements becomes highly complex, if not nearly impossible. Although not discussed in the first two chapters, this leaves me to wonder how a researcher can balance attending to multiple elements without becoming overwhelmed or being lost to endless “what-if” scenarios of interpretation. No doubt, some level of compromise must be reached to conduct (and finish) any given study.

Clandinin, D. J. (2013). Engaging in narrative inquiry. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc.

Wertsch, J. V. (1998). Mind as action. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195117530.001.0001

~This post is part of a weekly reflection requirement for a graduate level introductory course of the historical and philosophical foundations of the Learning Sciences. As such, it may seem a bit out of place without the context of the in-class discussions, but I’m including it here for posterity. The general premise is to create a brief summary of each reading and include a reflection about them.~