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This chapter proposes that the ideas of cultural item and cultural system are reconciled by something that they have in common: Neither idea exists without the simpler idea of a functional relation. Functional relations are the interface that joins items and systems together, and one can look to them for a solution to the item/system problem. Culture and language hinge on shared meaning, and so the chapter focuses on semiotic systems. The idea of a semiotic system is well illustrated in Darwin's account of the expression of emotion in animals. The chapter also proposes a minimal causal scheme for biased transmission which has four functionally defined loci at which any transmission bias may contribute to regulating the cumulative transmission of culture. In language, items are structured into conceptual frames, systems of categorization, semplates, conceptual metaphors, structural paradigms, and syntagms.
Most studies of social interactions with peers, including studies of friendship, assume that the basic rules and values about children's interaction in European American culture are universally shared by all cultures around the world – for example, parental goals for children's social interaction, concepts of friendship, and patterns of interacting with other children. Ethnographic studies of other cultures strongly suggest that this is not a reasonable assumption to make. Rules about social interaction in general and the nature of friendship in particular vary widely from one culture to the next. Thus, the culturally structured goals for the socialization of children and the daily activities of children also differ (e.g., Whiting & Edwards, 1988). Under these conditions, children's social behavior, including their interaction with other children, will differ widely by culture. This chapter illustrates such variation through a case study of Yucatec Mayan children growing up in their traditional village in Mexico. These children spend most of their time interacting with family members, including their siblings and other children who are their close relatives. Friendships and other significant peer relationships outside of this family circle are rare. This chapter examines how the literature on friendship and peer interactions is relevant for interpreting these children's experiences as well as how this case study is relevant for reevaluating current theories about children's social interactions.
Activity theory is the theoretical perspective that underlies this study.
The defining characteristic of the human species is its culture-bearing capacity whereby very similar biological organisms develop and sustain extraordinarily diverse behavioral repertoires. Research on human behavior, then, must necessarily concern itself with the scope and significance of this diversity and the process of its development in childhood. However, contemporary psychological research often assumes instead a homogeneity of repertoire and of underlying psychological function - coupled with a concomitant assimilation of the psychological to the biological - and neglects the process of culture acquisition. Theories and methods developed from such a perspective neither incline their proponents to developmentally oriented comparative research nor provide a set of concepts and tools adequate to undertake it.
The reality of cultural diversity requires us to adopt a comparative perspective from the beginning as part of a coherent effort to account for the actual range of human psychological functioning and the process of its formation. Such a coherent effort demands more than simply testing whether our local findings generalize to other cultures or looking for a specific, naturally occurring equivalent for some odd manipulation we cannot perform within our own culture for one reason or another. Rather, it requires taking seriously the proposal that the human developmental process is designed to support diversity in behavioral outcome and that psychological research programs must take account of this from the outset if they are to produce adequate methods and theories.
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