Socio-cultural and ecological explanations to self-reflection

February 10, 2008

I was reading this sunday morning the chapter from the Cambridge Handbook of Sociocultural Psychology (2007) by (eds.) Jaan Valsiner and Alberto Rosa:

Social basis of self-reflection
by Alex Gillespie


Since i have been thinking in terms of inter-subjectivity, activity theory and cultural semiotics earlier, while now my understanding has more and more shifted towards the embodied cognition and hybrid ecology ideas, i tried to see where my standing-point is and where it differs from socio-cultural ideas.

It seems to me that the basic idea in this chapter is recognizing that signs (but then also tools, since both are mediators of action what person needs to realize his objectives in an environment?) are created during culturally constrained actions as multi-perspective and inter-subjective representations, including both the actor’s and the observer’s experiences of that action.

Gillespie suggests that in different social acts we will get experiences of the both sides of the act in lifetime (learner/teacher, giving/receiving), so we can activate these perspectives simultaneously when the we need to create/activate a mediator (sign, tool) to carry out any act.

The re-using of the signs means activating these embodied experiences and switching between these multiple perspectives when using certain sign either alone or with the others in interaction.

In Gillespie’s elaboration i can see direct relations with embodied cognition and mirror-matching theories: these theories assume that we need to experience something, embody it, and only then we can observe others doing it so that it might reactivate our similar neural processes. But embodied cognition has not dealt with this constant activation of different experiences simultaneously – my own perspective as an actor, and the other’s perspective as an observer of that action.

Secondly, in embodied cognition the representational mediation, the processing of signs that represent something is excluded, and the observation, hearing or reading can directly activate sensory-motor paths that make as feel and act.

Following Gillespie, and relating it how i understand these issues, in case of conscious self-reflective activities we might simultaneously activate several previously embodied affordances of the environment (extracted dimensionalities) to do something what we wish to do (eg. my experience of learning and also my experience of teaching), then we are running these sensory-motor activations in parallel/simultaneously/one-by-one that means as a result that we sometimes suppress some affordances in the environment that we initially perceived as coupling with our anticipated affordances for doing some actions.

Rupture and the use of internalized actions as part of self-reflection in this case are the constraints we put to the anticipated affordances of actions internally before even trying to carry them out. Can it be like conscious hindering certain sensory-motor neural activation patterns as part of our decision-making of what act to perform?

Mirroring from others and the social conflict are the constraints emerging from the environment as the response to find/make use our anticipated affordances of action. It means we consciously accommodate our sensory-motor activation paths ecologically, searching in other people, in the environment for coupling affordances of our anticipated affordances for action and hindering those sensory-motor activation paths that do not find the match to become activated.

These are some ideas what i got reading the following parts from the Gillespie’s article:

Self-reflection can be defined as temporary phenomenological experience in which self becomes an object to oneself.

People use semiotic mediators, or signs by which they pick out certain affective experiences or situations, thus distancing themselves from both self and immediate situation. These signs are combined into complex semiotic systems (representations, discourses, cultural artifacts, symbolic resources), that provide even greater liberation from the immediate situation.

Such distance enables self to act upon self and the situation.

Four socio-cultural theories of the origin of self-reflection:

1. Rupture theories of self-reflection posit that self-reflection arises when one’s path of action becomes blocked or when one faces a decision of some sort.

Peirce: A problematic situation. a small irritation or rupture stimulates reflective thought (1978/1998).

Dewey (1896): in ruptured situations the object becomes subjective because the actor has two or more responses toward the object, and the self-reflection arises.
However, from Pavlov’s experiments it is shown that contradictory responses can co-exist without leading to self-reflection.

According to Piaget (1970) the problem situation forces the child to abstract and recognize his/her developing schemas when these schemas lead to unfulfilled expectations.

It was not clear from this explanation, why semiotic mediators must be stimulated.

2. Mirror theories of self-reflection suggest that the defining feature in self-reflection is the presence of an other.

The other perceives more about self-reflection than self can perceive.
The reflective distance from self which self-reflection entails first exist in the mind of other. This can be fed back to self by other, such that self can learn self from the perspective of other (Bakhtin 1923/1990).
Other provides feedback to the self same as mirror provides feedback about our appearance that we cannot perceive unaided.

The society can be a mirror as well, leading to self-reflection (Cooley, 1902). According to him, self is a social product formed out of our appearance to the other person, the imagination of his judgement of that appearance, and some sort of self-feeling such as pride or mortification.
Cooly always related self-reflection with judgements leading to emotions such as pride, shame, guilt etc.

Questions: How does self take the perspective of the other? Is other a passive mirror, neutrally reflecting back to self?

3. Conflict theories of self-reflection suggest that self-reflection arises through social struggle.

Hegel: self-consciousness arises through gaining recognition from an other who is not inferior to self. Self and other treat each other as physical objects, and thus deny any recognition to each other. Due to this denial they enter into a struggle, the outcome of which is the relation of domination and subordination, that is master-slave relation. The slave can get recognition from the master but not vice versa. Slave struggles for recognition, developing new skills and competences. Self-onsciousness arises from struggling for recognition.

Psaltis & Duveen: Explicit recognition of new acquired knowledge by other and self is needed for durable cognitive development through interaction – the interaction needs to provide mutual self-reflection.

Sigel’s (2002) Psychological Distancing Theory asserts that discrepancies introduced by utterances of others can put a cognitive demand on the child which can in turn lead to representational work and thus distancing.

Activity Theory (Engeström, 1987) assumes that problematic situation includes problems introduced by the perspective of others. Participants within an activity system prompt each other to reflect upon the conditions and rules of their ongoing interaction. Thus contradictions between different counterparts of an activity system lead to reflection.

Social representation theory (Duveen) emphasizes that there are contradictions in the bodies of knowledge that is circulated in modern societies. Bauer and Gaskell (1999) suggest that people become of aware of the representations at the points at which they overlap or contradict each other. This coexistence of multiple forms of knowledge in the society can lead to self-reflection.

Similarly to rupture theories, it is not clear through which semiotic processes self-reflection arises.

4. Internalization theories of self-reflection posit that thought is a self-reflective internal dialogue with absent others, between their internalized perspectives.

Self-reflection arises through internalizing the perspectives that the other has upon self, followed by self taking the perspectives of other upon self.

Vygotsky (1997) emphasized that the process of internalization is a process of transformation rather than simple transmission. Signs are first used to mediate the behaviours of others, and later used to talk about self, reflect upon self, and mediate the behaviour of self.

Mead and Vygotsky conceive the sign (or significant symbol) as comprising two perspectives – the actor perspective and the observer perspective.

On one hand, there is the embodied actor perspective (the response) to some object (the child reaches hand to point to an object she wants to get). On the other hand, there is the distance introduced by the observer perspective of the other on the action (mother sees the grasping gesture indicating desire to get the object). The grasping becomes pointing when the child uses both of these perspectives.

Thus the sign (significant symbol) is fundamentally inter-subjective: it evolves both actor and observer perspectives in both self and other.

Questions: if the sign is composite of the perspective of self and other, how does this composite form, how are these two perspectives brought together.

Gillespie (2005) now starts to generate his own theory. He relies on the Mead’s theory of the social act suggesting that people move amongst the positions with a relatively stable social/institutional structure (host/guest, buyer/seller).

Each social act pairs (eg. giving/receiving, teaching/learning) entails reciprocal actor and observer positions and perspectives which mots people have enacted. They have previously been in these social positions of the other. Thus we are able to take these perspectives in each social act. The self becomes dialogical, containing multiple social perspectives for each act.

The social act is the institution that first provides individuals with roughly equivalent actor and observer experiences, and second, integrates these perspectives within the minds of individuals. When both actor and observer perspectives are evoked within a significant symbol (or sign) /like in gesture/, then there is a self-reflection, because self is both self and other simultaneously.

Gillespie calls self-reflection triggered by an actor perspective self-mediation and the self-reflection triggered by an observer perspective on an actor short-circuiting.

Gillespie assumes that different socio-cultural theories of self-reflection are not in opposition, but rather theorize different proximal paths leading towards self-reflection.

The magic of social act is that it integrates the actor and the observer experiences or perspectives into the formation of signs enabling higher level of semiotic mediation. Conceiving of the sign as this integration of perspectives elucidates the logic of self-reflection.

Whenever one uses the sign it can carry self from one perspective to another continuously.
Introducing the concept of sign (significant symbol) as a complex semiotic system entails abandoning the assumption that complex semiotic systems mirror the world. Instead, it conceptualizes these semiotic systems as architectures of inter-subjectivity, which enable translations between actor and observer perspectives within a social act.

Any narrative is not just a narrative that is analogical to self’s own experience, it is an inter-subjective structure that enables translations between actor and observer perspectives. Partially integrated actor and observer perspectives are the pre-condition for self-reflection. Rupture, feedback, and social conflict can cause self-reflection because of a pre-ecxisting and only partially integrated architecture of inter-subjectivity.


  1. [...] Pata, Sociocultural and Ecological Explanations to Self-Reflection Embodied cognition and hybrid ecologies [...]

  2. [...] Another interesting thought is that several kinds of ruptured situations become visible. Ruptured situations are usually assumed to be the triggers of self-direction. [...]

  3. The social act is the institution that first provides individuals with roughly equivalent actor and observer experiences, and second, integrates these perspectives within the minds of individuals.

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