Alfred Lang

University of Bern, Switzerland

Conference Project 1991

Objectives: Symposium on the Cultural Environment in Psychology


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 Last revised 98.10.26

Alfred Lang & Urs Fuhrer

"The Cultural Environment in Psychology", Symposium in Honor of Ernst E. Boesch -- Merligen (Lake Thun) October 21-24, 1991, organized by Alfred Lang & Urs Fuhrer

© 1998 by Alfred Lang

Scientific and educational use permitted

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The following notice is thought as a precis of the intent of the Symposium organizers. Everything has in principle been said or implied in our previous announcements. However, we found it suitable to remind you in time before the final elaboration of your papers of our perspective for the discussions and also for the planned publication in order to optimize pertinency of exchanges as well as coherence of the prospective book. AL & UF


To comprehend the relation between people and their environment is obviously crucial for understanding both, this particular human animal, as an individual or as groups, as well as this particular human ambiente. The latter is found and modified by the former and, in addition, created and further elaborated upon in the course of time; in the last case it is generally called "culture". One might well argue that conceiving the relation between or the whole of people and their environment should precede or at least be concurrent with conceptions of either part. Perhaps this is why a priori definitions of either person or of culture are as numerous as unsatisfying.

Many scientific endeavors directed at culture run the risk of objectifying culture and thus losing sight of its relation to people. On the other hand, psychology in its short history has strangely neglected the environment of people or dealt with it in rather peculiar ways. It thus probably has been operating with too narrow an image of human existence. Both the behaviorists degradation of the environment to stimuli and the cognitivists removal of the environment into the heads of individuals are supposedly leading astray. Insight is spreading in growing circles that the long common transfer of the subject-object opposition of natural science' positivistic attitude -- culture as a kind of independent variable, however complex -- is quite inadequate. Insight seems to be less common yet in the modern constructivist attitude that the reciprocal consequence of the subject-object split, viz. the idea of the general epistemic subject, and, as a sequel, unconditional rationality, are also detrimental to human existence, however admirable some of the achievements also in this line of thought may be.

In these times, for many scientists from various disciplines, a fundamental redefinition of man-environment- relations is imperative. If one accepts that psychology, like physics in reference to matter and energy, is a core science in reference to information, because it is informed or misinformed action that carries social systems and transforms nature, then this discipline has not yet reached maturity. No wonder in view of the vast task. Of course, no monopoly claim must be raised. Many disciplines can and should partake. Ours is an open system endeavour. For those involved, therefore, a well-founded redefinition of people-environment-relations is a medium and long range objective. And for the time being, if not for ever, we have to comply with a set of complementary redefinitions. Our theoretical and empirical attempts at understanding the person-environment-complex should stretch from basic philosophical or anthropological questions right to the study of observable interactions between people and their surrounds in human everyday conditions.

The recent upsurge of interest into the role of culture in various quarters of psychology and related fields is therefore most welcome in principle. However, great care must be taken in proceeding. The problem at hand deserves not to become another of the myriad compartiments in scientific suburbia. What can we do then to prevent institutionalization of a cultural psychology amongst the many other xyz-psychologies? At this time, hopefully, many psychologists are eager to learn both from experienced members of other disciplines as well as from the history of the particular.

So the the symposium has for its principal objective to fan-out and compare a sample of perspectives for understanding person-culture-relations. Some participants will do it by example, others by reflective abstractions, some will do it broadly, some in an exemplary fashion using their particular range of experience. It is too early to attempt at a systematic inventory of approaches to possible parts of culture in psychology. Yet exemplars of particular understandings should be formulated and compared in the light of others. At best we might be able to develop and propose a set of tools for dealing with constructions of culture in a psychological perspective. What we would want thus to concentrate on is the structures and two-way-processes that carry the relationship between people and their cultural environment. This is obviously an approppriate undertaking to honour Ernst Boesch, because he has been one of the first to again point out this long neglected task and to have given us his proper prospect of a psychology within and about culture.

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