The Stone Soup Experiment: Why Cultural Boundaries Persist

The Stone Soup Experiment: Why Cultural Boundaries Persist

by Deborah Downing Wilson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226289809
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/26/2015
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Deborah Downing Wilson is an instructor in the department of communication at the University of Nevada, Reno. 

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The Stone Soup Experiment

Why Cultural Boundaries Persist

By Deborah Downing Wilson

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-28994-6


The Inception

The Groundwork

At the heart of this work is the notion of a coconstitutive relationship between people and culture. In living our everyday lives, we create our cultural worlds even as we become part of them. Normally we go about this process unaware, but I wanted us to "do culture" in a conscious way and to document the genesis of culture, providing a rich, theoretically informed, multiperspectival account of the process.

I found myself in the fortunate position of designing my dissertation research during the same time period when I was planning the curriculum for an upcoming university course on cross-cultural communication. Looking over the syllabi of the other courses my prospective students were taking in the department, I saw that the students were inundated with literature showing the extent to which they were products of culture, but they were exposed to very little showing how their own everyday human activities produce culture. Culture is a two-way process, but we were telling only half the story, the half that ignores the generative roles each of us plays. I decided to interlace my research and teaching goals by designing a research project that included my undergraduate students as fully complicit coresearchers. I hoped to demonstrate to my students that in carrying out their daily lives they could be powerful agents of social transformation.

Romantic Science and Participatory Research

Many of my colleagues at the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC) and I follow a research and teaching philosophy referred to as romantic science. The ideas proposed by Goethe and elaborated by those for whom romantic science provides a guide to educational practice are my major inspiration. Goethe formulated a mode of scientific inquiry that consciously incorporates the "metamorphosis of the scientist" into our understanding of the process of scientific discovery (Amrine 1998, 34). Goethe saw scientific experiments not as isolatable sources of knowledge but as artistic practices through which our "organs of perception" are developed and refined over time (Amrine and Zucker 1987, 187).

Romantic science is defined by its method of research and by the kinds of knowledge or experiences this method may produce. Scientific discovery is understood as the product of a collaborative relationship with nature — of a sympathetic participation in the development of natural phenomena (Zajonc 1998). The underlying premise is that a thoughtful observer, who stays with a phenomenon as it develops over time, cannot help but develop in concert with it. This synchronous development orients and hones the researcher's perceptive capabilities. The romantic classroom positions the students as researchers, allowing for qualitatively different learning experiences from those possible in a traditional classroom. The students come away with a scientific knowing as opposed to a collection of facts.

Rudolf Steiner, in his interpretations of Goethe's scientific writings, established the theoretical foundations for what was then a radical form of education (Steiner 1968). Steiner's vision, manifest today in the Waldorf School model (Petrash 2002; Barnes 1980), builds on the idea of participatory research, where learners embark on a journey of discovery, entering into the dynamic processes they are trying to understand. Instead of critiquing scientific hypotheses conceived by others, students of romantic science undertake a series of experiments ordered in such a way that, on their completion, the underlying ideas become intuitive (Steiner 1968).

The Research Design

My first task was to create a medium in which cultural genesis could occur under conditions that would permit observation and scrutiny. I needed a procedure that could be accomplished inside the ten-week academic term, and one that would provide enough "play," in two senses of the word, to allow culture to emerge as naturally as possible. The medium I developed should include play, in the sense of voluntary participation in fun activities with quirky or problematic situations that might promote creative thinking. It should also include play, in the sense of slippage or space where these creative solutions might take root and develop. The best way I knew to submerge people in play was to engage them in a game (see Barab, Gresalfi, and Ingram-Goble 2010). Games provide people with legitimate roles inside group activities, where their actions have perceivable effects on the outcome. Games direct players' attention to relevant tasks or events and provide the necessary concepts or tools to successfully take part; and, importantly for my purposes, games often stimulate conversation. A social simulation, a very particular sort of game, does even more. A social simulation brings people together in working relationships where players are affectively engaged and perceive themselves as having central roles in a developing story.

I searched for a simulation game that would allow us to retain many of the elements of "real-life" cultural work, particularly, unscripted interactions among the participants, unpredictable responses, and the emergence of artifacts and relationships that would be free to develop reflexively over time. At the same time, I wanted a simulation that would allow me to manipulate its parameters and factors to make certain kinds of cultural phenomena more accessible for observation, and one that would allow for interventions should the games take an unwanted turn. Culture is messy and complicated. The right game, I reasoned, would impose a measure of structure, simplicity, and clarity onto what might otherwise be a nebulous undertaking.

The solution came to me in the form of the BaFa' BaFa' cultural simulation game, designed by Garry Shirts (1977), which has been widely and successfully used for more than three decades as a tool for teaching cross-cultural sensitivity (Sullivan and Duplaga 1997). The idea behind BaFa' BaFa' is to give participants an opportunity to experience cultural border crossing in a safe space, and to reflect on and unpack their experiences without the prejudices and constraints that real-life border crossing often includes.

In the original version of BaFa' BaFa,' participants are divided into two groups. Each group spends about an hour learning a different set of cultural norms. The groups then exchange members for short periods of time in an effort to learn about the other group's culture. The goal is to learn as much as possible about the other group's values and customs without directly asking questions — much like we are forced to learn when we travel to a foreign country. The two cultures in the BaFa' BaFa' simulation are vastly different: Alpha culture is geared toward community spirit and sharing, and Beta culture is focused on personal achievement. This difference provides ample potential for misunderstanding when moving from one group to the other. During the simulation each culture develops hypotheses about the other, which are tested when the two groups come together in the end to talk about their experiences. While the game was originally developed as an experiential teaching aid, not as a research tool, it nonetheless appeared to contain the necessary "seeds" (a few simple rules and artifacts) for planting the kind of small-group cultures that I hoped to watch grow.

In its standard form the game is evaluated through retrospective accounts of attitude change (e.g., Sullivan and Duplaga 1997). The speed with which groups cohere and attitudes change in BaFa' BaFa' is remarkable, but the game's brevity, while hyperefficient for training purposes, obscures the processes of cultural formation and change. To address questions related to the ways that small cultures come into existence, persist, and are transformed over time, the BaFa' BaFa' time frame had to be extended. The twice-weekly scheduling of a university course provided the basis for thinking of the sequential class meetings as generations of cultural experience, where solutions to problems developed in one meeting could be accumulated and passed on in the next. I hypothesized that if I slowed down the simulation and let the two cultures evolve over the academic quarter, the participants would have the opportunity to come to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of cultural processes.

The rules of BaFa' BaFa' were few and easy to learn, just enough to deal with the situations that were likely to arise in half-day seminars. The rules so written proved perfect for my purposes as well, precisely because they were inadequate to meet the demands of prolonged social interactions. In a more extended time frame they would require embellishment and additions as the events of the simulation unfolded, allowing us to observe the evolution of artifacts and the process of social norm formation and change in situ.

The extended BaFa' BaFa' game also allowed us to structure the research in such a way that as the simulation unfolded, as situations and questions arose, the students and I would read and discuss relevant social theories, testing them against our immediate experiences and using them to inform our analyses. It also became possible for the students to reflect on and write about their experiences in weekly field notes and reflection papers. These documents would be the core of my research data.

Student Ethnographers

In previous experience with undergraduates, I had seen that asking them to write "thick" or richly detailed descriptions of their experiences, and, importantly, having them include personal reflections about how they were thinking and feeling at the time, provided a way for them to define and evaluate their roles in social interactions and to better understand the impact their participation had on the development of group relations (Downing-Wilson 2008). In this regard the student field notes become powerful tools for thinking and reflecting. Not only do they offer a recording of the daily experiences, understandings, and interpretations of an ethnographer "in the field," but writing field notes allows students to synthesize and organize this knowledge into coherent narratives. I hoped that becoming ethnographers and writing ethnographic field notes would inspire the students to think more deeply about the simulation, relate the events to their larger lives, and reveal more about what they were thinking and feeling than would traditional participation, note taking, and report writing.

Narrative Theories of Culture

Following Jerome Bruner (1993), Elinor Ochs (2011), James Wertsch (2001) and others, I find it useful to think of cultural genesis as a multivocal narrative process. Narrative theories work in perfect harmony with the foundational argument of this research; culture is a two-way process through which we both create and are created. In the authoring of our personal stories, we are also contributing to larger social narratives, which in turn have profound influence on the kinds of personal stories we can write.

According to Bruner, narration is entwined with and constitutive of human life. It transforms mere existence into human experience. When we tell our personal stories, our acts are put into relationship with the acts of others and become meaningful. Stories are problem solvers. Bruner (2002) writes, "[Narrative] is a way to domesticate human error and surprise. It conventionalizes the common forms of human mishap into genres — comedy, tragedy, romance, irony, or whatever format might lessen the sting of our fortuity" (31). Narrative achieves these feats not only because of its structure, but because of its flexibility. Our stories are the product of language, remarkable for its sheer generativeness, permitting countless versions of a single event to be told. Each version is particular, local, and unique, and yet can have tremendous reach. Stories bring us to life in the sense that we come to see ourselves, or feel ourselves, in each other (Bruner 2002, 60).

Our everyday conversations about fresh events, those stories that we create with others, are different from those we tell to others in that they are not fully organized into standardized narrative structures. Life does not unfold in well-formed plots with beginnings, clearly defined central characters, and tidy endings that tie up all of the loose logic threads. Instead, the collaborative narrative process becomes a creative space where life's moments are brought into the light. Interlocutors move freely from teller to listener and back again to provide the commentary and criticisms that shape the direction and content of the developing story. Storytellers and listeners, in the acts of recounting, interpreting, responding and clarifying, become coauthors in the moment-to-moment, locally organized, emergent narrative achievement that we know as culture (Ochs and Caps 2001).

In "National Narratives and the Conservative Nature of Collective Memory," James Wertsch (2007) suggests that we socially construct and actively maintain "schematic narrative templates" that help us deal with the contradictions of living inside cultural systems that are at once constant and ever-changing (23). These templates exert a powerful organizing force on the narratives we create, directing our attention to information that fits within their structures, excluding information that is inconsistent with earlier assumptions, predisposing us to certain conclusions. These templates belong to particular narrative traditions that have developed over time as the result of historical events that are specific to particular communities, times, and spaces.

Narrative and Identity Formation

One question we were addressing in this research was how we come to identify ourselves as group members. Ricoeur (1991), Gergen and Gergen (1997), and Bruner (2002) all suggest that a large part of identity formation is accomplished through narrative. They boldly propose that an "essential self" does not exist. Instead, we use unspoken, implicit cultural models of what selfhood might be to tell ourselves stories about who and what we are, what has happened, and why we do what we do. Our self-making stories accumulate over time and pattern themselves on conventional genres as we continually rewrite them to fit new circumstances. Bruner (2002, 78) puts it like this:

A self-making narrative is something of a balancing act. It must, on the one hand, create a powerful conviction of autonomy, that one has a will of one's own, a certain freedom of choice, a degree of possibility. But it must also relate the self to a world of others — to friends and family, to institutions, to the past, to reference groups. But the commitment to others that is implicit in relating oneself to others of course limits our autonomy. We seem virtually unable to live without both, autonomy and commitment, and our lives strive to balance the two. So do the narratives we tell ourselves.

Paul Ricoeur (1991) suggests that through the construction of narratives we reinterpret our identities within social, cultural, and historical contexts. Narratives work to synchronize ideologies and power relations, defining what identities may be possible within a given cultural context. Through narrative we find voice and agency, which Ricoeur calls the ability to emplot (32). He holds emplottment, or the authoring of our own roles in the many unfolding narratives that we will take part in over our lifetime, as the central process in identity formation and maintenance. Through emplottment, we shape our identity and the ways in which selfhood is expressed (Ricoeur 1991).

Narrative Manages the Temporal Dimension of Life

We use narrative to situate our simulation in time and to author our world as it emerges from the past, unfolds in the present, and moves into the future. Bruner describes the process like this: "We seem to have no other way of describing 'lived time' save in the form of a narrative. Which is not to say that there are not other temporal forms that can be imposed on the experience of time, but none of them succeeds in capturing the sense of lived time: not clock or calendrical time forms, not serial or cyclical orders, not any of these. It is a thesis that will be familiar to many of you, for it has been most recently and powerfully argued by Paul Ricoeur (1984)" (Bruner 2004, 692).

In telling our stories, we are not only recounting the important events in our lives but also making meaning of these events and, importantly, integrating the past (in the form of cultural-historical memories and norms) and the future (in terms of what we believe is probable or possible) into our understanding of current events to inform our immediate decisions (Abbott 2005). Social scientists refer to this process as prolepsis, "a cultural mechanism that brings the future into the present" (Cole 1996). Against a backdrop of history, we forecast the future, and from this construal we formulate our plans of action for today. Bruner (2002) says storytelling is forever in the now, at center stage, a dialect between the comfort of the familiar past and the allure of a possible future.


Excerpted from The Stone Soup Experiment by Deborah Downing Wilson. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Romantic Classroom
1. The Inception
2. First Encounters, First Crimes
3. The Justification
4. The Unreconciliation

What People are Saying About This

Howard Gardner

“Alas, we cannot re-create the original state of nature as envisioned by Rousseau or Hobbes. But in this fascinating and surprising book, Downing Wilson provides vital clues about the evolution of different human cultures.”

Kysa Nygreen

The Stone Soup Experiment is a highly engaging, theoretically sound, and original book that reads as swiftly and seamlessly as a novel. This narrative quality does not subtract from its scholarly merit, however. It weaves cultural theory and scholarly literature to offer new insights about cultural formation in small groups and, importantly, new insights about teaching about culture, which opens its audience up to anyone who teaches about cultural diversity, multiculturalism, cultural communication, or any related subjects.”

James Wertsch

“This is the most important controlled study of how groups construct themselves through confrontation since Sherif and Sherif wrote about the Robbers Cave experiment a half century ago. It is beautifully documented and written, a fast-paced ethnographic account with lessons for everyone from cognitive scientists to international relations scholars.”

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