On methods for investigating concepts

General Information

Keywords: method of definition, search method, method of double stimulation, concept, word

Journal rubric: Theory and Methodology

For citation: Sakharov L.S. On methods for investigating concepts. Kul'turno-istoricheskaya psikhologiya = Cultural-Historical Psychology, 2006. Vol. 2, no. 5 (In Russ., аbstr. in Engl.)

A Part of Article

In consideration of the importance and key role of the method of artificial concept formation in the development of double stimulation methods and the experimental foundations of Vygotsky’s study on the development of word meaning, the Journal publishes L.S.Sakharov’s report in full (according to: Psychologiya,1930. V.3, ed.1, pp.3—33). The article provides a detailed history of the origination of Vygotsky-Sakharov’s method and analyses the previous methods of concept investigation.

The analysis starts with the description of the “method of definition” where the researcher lists the attributes of a concept and asks the child to name the concept; or the researcher lists several concepts and then asks the child to find a family concept for them. This method enables the study of the concepts which are already formed, however the process of the concept formation remains unclear. “Direct methods” for investigating concepts are free from this drawback as they look at the processes that underline concept formation. One such method is the method of studying processes of abstraction. However, even here abstraction processes are studied in an experimental situation which is remote from a natural setting in which these very processes lead to concept formation. In concept formation, the abstraction is directed and guided by word. The abstraction outputs become closely linked to the word and the concept emerges in the form of a word-meaning. At the same time such an important factor of concept formation as the functional role of a word is not taken into consideration.

The method of study of the processes of abstraction doesn’t take into account that the concept is formed only when the child’s mental operations are object oriented and word guided, that is when the child uses the word as a means of directing the processes of abstraction. “The word without its sensory material and the sensory material without the word”, — this is a short formulae that illustrates the contrast between the method of definition and the method of studying abstraction.

To explore the role of a word in concept formation the author (under L.Vygotsky’s supervision) elaborated a new method. It was based in classical experimental psychology and the work by N. Ach. A theoretical basis of Ach’s work was as follows:

1. The study of concept formation cannot be limited by the study of the concepts which are already formed; the process of formation of new concepts is important.

2. The method of experimental study should be genetic-synthetic in nature; during the course of the experiment, the subject must gradually arrive at the construction of a new concept — hence the need to cre ate experimental concepts with an artificial grouping of attributes that belong to them.

3. It is necessary to study the process by which words acquire their meaning, the process of transformation of a word into a symbol and a representation of an object or of a group of similar objects — hence the necessity of using artificial experimental words that are initially nonsense to the subject, but acquire meaning for him during the course of the experiment.

4. Concepts cannot be regarded as closed, self-sufficient structures, and they cannot be abstracted from the function they serve in the sequence of mental processes. The objective conditions only, that is a set of objects possessing common properties, is not sufficient for concept formation. Concept formation also has subjective preconditions and requires the presence of a certain need, which it is the function of the concept to satisfy. In thought and action, the development of a concept plays the role of an instrument for achieving certain ends. This functional aspect must be taken into account in an investigatory procedure; a concept must be studied in its functional context. The subject must be confronted with tasks that can be accomplished only if the subject develops certain concepts. The development of those concepts will require the use of a series of nonsense verbal signs to solve the problem, and as a result those signs will acquire a specific meaning for the subject.

The experimental material was a collection of geometric figures made of cardboard, 48 in all: 12 red, 12 blue, 12 yellow and 12 green. The 12 figures of each color were separated by size, weight and shape. Six figures of each color were large, and six were small. The six large items were divided by shape into two cubes, two pyramids and two cylinders, the pairs being outwardly identical. One cube, pyramid and cylinder were filled, and were heavy, whereas its partner was light. The same division was made for the six small units of each color: two cubes, two pyramids and two cylinders, one of each shape being heavy and the other light. The units of each color thus consisted of three large heavy and three large light items and three small heavy and three small light items.

The subject receives assignments he cannot complete without the help of some initially meaningless signs ... These tasks can be correctly performed only on the basis of attentive prior observation of the words and of attributes (written on the labels) of objects assigned to these words ... The signs (words) are means by which the subject can achieve a specific end, namely, to solve the problems posed by the researcher; and because they are given such use, they acquire an unequivocal meaning.

Ach’s method was later put to a much broader use by Rimat and Bacher with, however, certain modifications.

Aveling used double stimulation as a technical means for phenomenological description of the inner experience of the meaning of fully formed concepts.

For psychologists of the school of Determinations psychologie, i.e. Ach, Bacher and Rimat, double stimulation plays the role of an environment outside of which it is impossible to study the process of concept formation. But it must be said that the problem of double stimulation, the problem of forms of behavior and thought with regard to which external stimuli fall into two series, each with a different functional significance, is a problem N. Ach had not yet posed.

This points up a number of distinctive characteristics of Ach’s method. The experiments begin with a mechanical association of individual objects with individual signs. The subject does not know why he is doing this, he does not have a ‘task’. The grouping of the figures, by virtue of its symmetry, diverts his attention from the conditional connections forming between the objects and the verbal signs, leading to the formation of new connections, namely, connections among the objects themselves. As a result, the mechanism of association (even when the first exercise period is deliberately prolonged to several dozen repetitions) becomes impotent: a concept is not formed. Though having received a task, the subject is unable to resolve it. However, now a decisive turning point occurs: a task and a goal conception have appeared; all processes are gradually reordered, the mechanism of association acquires a new use and, after one or several attempts, the task of selecting a group of figures is resolved on the basis of a concept formed with the aid of words. That is the sub stance of Ach’s method.

So what is the difference from the Ach’s method of the one presented by the author? In contrast to Ach we are interested not in the determining role of the task, but in the special functional significance of the verbal signs that, in the particular case, organize the subject’s reactions that are directed toward objective stimuli, the material. We term verbal stimuli that play this role ‘instrumental’ stimuli, to refer to their use in the subject’s behavior.

On a game board divided up into fields, about 20— 30 wooden figures resembling draughtsmen are placed in one field. These figures are differentiated as follows: (1) by color (yellow, red, green, black, white), (2) by shape (triangle, pyramid, rectangle, parallelepiped, cylinder), (3) by height (short and tall), (4) by planar dimensions (small and large). A test word is written on the bottom of each figure. There are four different test words: ‘bat’ written on all the figures small and short, regardless of their color and shape; ‘dek’, small and tall; ‘rots’, large and short; ‘mup’, large and tall. The figures are arranged in random order. The number of figures of each color, shape and of each of the other attributes varies. The researcher turns over one figure — a red, small, short parallelepiped — and asks the child to read the word ‘bat’ written on its exposed underside. Then the figure is placed in a special field on the board. The researcher tells the child that he has before him toys that belong to children from some foreign country. Some toys are called ‘bat’ in the language of this people, for example, the upturned figure; others have a different name. There are other toys on the board that are also called ‘bat’. If the child guesses after thinking carefully where there are other toys called ‘bat’ and picks them up and places them on a special field of the board, he receives the prize lying on this field. The prize may be a sweet, a pencil, etc. The time and the order in which the child removes the figures are recorded.

The most varied types of responses are observed: test reactions without any reasons, choice on the basis of a set (e.g. forming a collection), choices on the basis of maximum similarity, on the basis of similarity with regard to one attribute, etc.

The basic features of the procedure we developed amount to the following. There is a collection of figures of different shapes, colors, height and planar dimensions. Unlike Ach’s set of figures, this collection is a motley, unorganized whole: it is irregular and asymmetric. Different attributes occur an unequal number of times. The collection is based on four experimental concepts associated with test words, which are written on the bottoms of the figures, not visible to the child. Each concept contains two attributes, e.g. height and planar dimensions. One concept embraces all tall and large figures; the other, all tall and small; the third, all short and small; and the fourth, all short and large. The experiment is done as a game. The figures are arranged on a game board at random, without any pattern. These are toys of a foreign nation. One of them is turned upside down, and its name in the language of this people is read aloud. According to the rules of the game, the child must remove all the toys that have the same name as the upended model and place them in a special field on the board without turning them over and looking at the inscription. The entire game consists of the child’s attempts to place correctly all the figures with the same inscription as the model. After each such attempt, the researcher turns over the new figure, revealing the child’s mistake, which is either that among the removed figures there is one figure with a different name from that which is on the model, or that among the figures not removed there is one with the same name as the model and hence belongs to the field. Since after each placement of the figures the child discovers the name of a new figure (which the researcher has upended), every new attempt of the child to solve the problem is done on the basis of a larger number of model.

Thus, the principle of the experiment is that the series of objects is given to the child immediately as a whole but the series of words is given gradually, and the nature of the double stimulation continually varies. After each such change we obtain the child’s free response, which enables us to assess the changes that have taken place in the child’s psychological operations as a consequence of the fact that the series of objects now contains a new element from the verbal series.

In conclusion the author reports that with an aid of a new method a word passes through three stages that are present in outline in the ontogeny of children’s concepts: 1) Initially, it is an individual sign with its own name; 2) then it becomes a family sign with its own name associated with a series of concrete objects (complex concept); 3) finally, it becomes a general abstraction.

Thus, we have an experimentally organized picture of the ontogeny of concepts and are able to carry out analytical studies of the functional role of words in all stages of this ontogeny.

Information About the Authors

Lev S. Sakharov, Moscow, Russia



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