Sociocultural psychology is the most recent in a long history of attempts to study groups and individuals together, by incorporating both anthropological and psychological perspectives (Cole, 1996).
This paper examines a core theoretical assumption of socioculturalism: that processes (sometimes called practices or situated social practices) are the fundamental unit of social reality. This focus on process raises a serious problem: it makes it difficult to understand the mutual relations between individuals and groups, because it elides the distinction between these two levels of social reality by wrapping them both into the unit of analysis of "social practice" (Archer, 1995). As a way of resolving this problem, this paper proposes an extension of sociocultural theory, referred to as "collaborative emergence," and demonstrates the potential value of this theoretical extension by applying it to an empirical example of group creativity.
The unifying features of sociocultural theory: the unit of analysis is situated social practice, rather than the individual as in traditional psychology (Hatano and Wertsch, 2001, p. 79) Situated social practices are the fundamental unit of social reality, with individuals and groups secondary and derivative.
The scientific study of group creativity raises similar issues, because a full explanation of group creativity requires an analysis of the individual creativity of each group member, as well as the group processes that bring together each member's contributions.
Until quite recently, most creativity research has been conducted by psychologists, who have focused on the mental processes and the personalities of creative individuals (see Runco 2007).
A sociocultural orientation suggests that psychological accounts of creativity are limited and that a complete explanation of creativity requires scientists to bring together studies at both the individual and the group levels of analysis (Cole & Engestrom 2007; Sawyer 2006).
Some limitations of sociocultural approach to fully explain collaborative creativity:
- empirical focus on collective social practices, neglected the internal psychological processes of participating individuals (say little about internal mental processes, cognitive development, or conceptual change); psychological individuals learning, predictable; group creativity involves novel contributions from the individual participants, and the outcome is unpredictable and emergent. To fully explain group creativity, individualist and sociocultural approaches should be combined in an interdisciplinary approach, one that considers both individual mental processes as well as group interactional processes.
- sociocultural approach focus on collective social practices, do not analyze individual contributions and how they relates successively through time. However, the moment -to-moment analysis of actions of each member of the group and how they build on prior actions and also how these influence future actions is necessary to integrate explanations at the individual level with explanations at the group level (Greeno 2006; Nercessian 2005). When groups of individuals engage in free-flowing and unstructured conversation, the flow of the conversation emerges from the successive individual contributions of the participants. Sawyer (2003) called this process collaborative emergence, because the group's properties and outcomes emerge from individual actions and interactions. The theory of collaborative emergence builds on theories of emergence developed in the study of complex systems in many other scientific disciplines. Emergent phenomena are often observed in systems that contain many components that interact in complex configurations (Sawyer, 2005). In emergent phenomena, a high-level system pattern or property is observed, and the pattern or property must be explained in terms of the components of the system and their interactions. Emergent phenomena are unpredictable before they occur, even given a fairly complete knowledge of the system components and how they interact. (p. 63)
The focus of the analysis is on how successive individual contributions result in the gradual emergence, over time, of a collective creative product. The analysis requires a constant consideration of both individual-level and group-level phenomena, as well as the moment-to-moment interactional dynamics of the group.
The analysis of the improvisationally developed scenes resulted in the identification of two types of dramatic structure that collaboratively emerged over the course of multiple rehearsals and performances: 1) foundational elements of narrative, character, relationship, and plot; 2) short segments of dialogue and action, known as 'bits', emerged collectively and were retained through subsequent performances.
To analyze how the performance emerged, all five performances were transcribed, and interaction analyses were conducted on the transcripts.
Two time scales: 1) the moment-to-moment conversational processes within a single improvised instantiation; and 2) the processes that occur from week to week, across successive rehearsals and performances. Interaction analyses conducted by socioculturalists have only considered the first time scale, the processes that occur in face to face groups in a specific encounter. This focus ends up rather narrowly constraining the analytic perspective to a single encounter. (p. 71)
Socioculturalism is valuable in that it has encouraged psychologists to focus on the emergence of group phenomena during situated social practices in social encounters. But socioculturalists tend to neglect how social properties emerge over longer periods of time, through successive encounters. (p. 71)
Collaborative emergence, a bottom-up process, is paralleled by downward social causation, a top-down process. The emergent collective product, the shared dramatic frame, is collectively created by the participants, and yet has causal influence over those participants. (P. 71)
The explanation of creativity requires us to consider three levels of analysis simultaneously : 1) individual mental processes that result in the creative contribution of a specific action; 2) interaction between these individual creative contributions; 3) the emergent, group level of analysis, the shared social creation that is represented by the dramatic frame.
The relation between the individual and the emergent frame is complex (Sawyer, 2003). Once the frame emerges, it has a high degree of stability, yet it is not fully constraining; individuals always have some range of freedom to act. (p. 71)
This paper has emphasized two valuable features of sociocultural theory: 1) focus on processes through time, and its insistence on simultaneous examination of individual level and group level phenomena. This paper further argues that these two features must be extended to more fully explain group creativity. The proposed way forward is to focus on the processes of collaborative emergence. This alternative theoretical perspective rejects two claims associated with sociocultural theory: a process ontology and strong inseparability. A revised sociocultural appraoch, focused on collaborative emergence, would allow socioculturalism to better connect with individual psychology, on the one hand, and macrosociology, on the other.(p. 72)
Empirical studies of collaborative emergence identified several characteristics of groups that are more likely to result in collaborative emergence: 1) moment-to-moment contingency (the possible appropriate actions are constrained to varying extent by the prior flow of the conversation); 2) retrospective interpretation (contribution only acquires meaning after it is responded to by the others); 3) equal participation (no group leader who establishes topic and flow of the collaboration, collective phenomena like topic, topic shifts, and decisions emerge from the conversation).