The cultural organization of attention

Brown, P. (2011). The cultural organization of attention. In A. Duranti, E. Ochs, & B. B. Schieffelin (Eds.), The handbook of language socialization (pp. 29-55). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
How new social members are enculturated into the interactional practices of the society they grow up in is crucial to an understanding of social interaction, as well as to an understanding of the role of culture in children's social-cognitive development. Modern theories of infant development (e.g., Bruner 1982, Elman et al 1996, Tomasello 1999, Masataka 2003) emphasize the influence of particular interactional practices in the child's developing communicative skills. But interactional practices with infants - behaviors like prompting, pointing, turn-taking routines, and interacting over objects - are culturally shaped by beliefs about what infants need and what they can understand; these practices therefore vary across cultures in both quantity and quality. What effect does this variation have on children's communicative development? This article focuses on one aspect of cultural practice, the interactional organization of attention and how it is socialized in prelinguistic infants. It surveys the literature on the precursors to attention coordination in infancy, leading up to the crucial development of 'joint attention' and pointing behavior around the age of 12 months, and it reports what is known about cultural differences in related interactional practices of adults. It then considers the implications of such differences for infant-caregiver interaction prior to the period when infants begin to speak. I report on my own work on the integration of gaze and pointing in infant/caregiver interaction in two different cultures. One is a Mayan society in Mexico, where interaction with infants during their first year is relatively minimal; the other is on Rossel Island (Papua New Guinea), where interaction with infants is characterized by intensive face-to-face communicative behaviors from shortly after the child's birth. Examination of videotaped naturally-occurring interactions in both societies for episodes of index finger point following and production, and the integration of gaze and vocalization with pointing, reveals that despite the differences in interactional style with infants, pointing for joint attention emerges in infants in both cultures in the 9 -15 month period. However, a comparative perspective on cultural practices in caregiver-infant interactions allows us to refine our understanding of joint attention and its role in the process of learning to become a communicative partner.
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