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​Hailed as one of the scholars who helped overturn the dominance of behaviorism in the field of psychology with “the cognitive turn,” Jerome Bruner received his Ph.D. in psychology at Harvard in 1941. His mentor, Gordon Allport, had conducted groundbreaking studies of personality and had also explored the psychology of the new technology of radio (Cantril and Allport 1935). Bruner was interested in both experimental cognitive psychology and the field of cultural anthropology. But he hated the way both these fields seemed to decontextualize and devalue the role of place, setting, motives, and dispositions in the context of human cultural life (Mattingly, Lutkehaus, and Throop 2012).

In his research on child development, Bruner observed that perception is a creative process, not just a biological one, and that people respond differentially to various modes of representation for learning about the world: enactive representation (experience), iconic representation (images), and symbolic representation (language). Unlike Piaget, Bruner did not position these as a set of developmental stages; he recognized that symbolic thought does not replace the other modes as we engage with experience, images and language throughout our entire lifetime. But he emphasized that perception is also inextricably tied to particular cultural and social conditions of lived experience.

In a very real sense, Bruner believed that the way we see the world is shaped by our culture’s symbols. Not surprisingly, when Bruner first encountered the groundbreaking work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, he was entranced (Bruner 1973). Vygotsky had explored the role of cultural context in human development in the 1920s and written his seminal work, Thought and Language, in 1932, working with A. R. Luria and others to create a new approach to psychology. But in Stalinist Russia, these works were immediately suppressed. For twenty years after his death in 1934, it was forbidden to discuss or reprint Vygotsky’s writing, and his work could be read only in a single central library in Moscow by special permission of the secret police (Dolya and Palmer 2005). After Stalin’s death, the works were circulated to the West, and Jerome Bruner wrote the introduction to the English translation of Thought and Language in 1962. This and another work of Vygotsky’s, Mind in Society (1978) had a substantial influence in the fields of both psychology and education (Cole 2009).


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