This a piece I wrote following John’s death so as to mark John’s role in elaborating a social-relational account of developmental psychology.
John Shotter passed away at his home outside Cambridge on 8 December 2016 after a prolonged illness.
John’s career began at Nottingham University in the mid-1960s where his initial interests were in the implications of Chomsky’s work for the foundations of psychological theory, and for how the notion of rule-following might be programmed into machines so as they could learn and use language.
Being at Nottingham meant John was daily influenced by the work of John and Elizabeth Newson, whose work on child development was focused on the social nature of developmental processes (e.g. Newson and Newson, 1975), and this led him to regard Vygotsky as a prime source of inspiration, rather than the work of Piaget, who was adopted as central to developmental studies elsewhere in the UK.
John was always meticulous in crediting his ‘textual friends’ – the sources of his inspiration – and we can gain a grasp of the intellectual crucible of his Nottingham outset in the Newsons’ work:
We must shift perspective . . . so as to look at the process of communication from the point of view of a participant observer. . . . Furthermore we, as observers, must use an effort of imagination so as to share with the baby’s caretaker the general feeling of what it is to engage in an ongoing dialogue with him: otherwise we will not be in a position to describe the evolution of those shared understandings which subsequently begin to develop through this intricate process of interpersonal involvement and negotiation. (Newson, 1978, pp. 36-42).
It was in this context that John became disenchanted with the idea that the search for psychological mechanisms was a viable project. Many of John’s early papers (e.g. 1973a and 1973b, 1974a) laid the foundation for his later work.
Among developmental psychologists, he is likely best known for his chapter (1974b) in Martin Richards landmark volume The integration of a child into a social world; for a study with Sue Gregory (1976) on the interactive foundations of personhood; for his role in the national seminars that led to the founding of the Developmental Section of the BPS; and for his elaboration of Vygotsky’s relational-constructionist position on development. Much of John’s early, specifically developmental, work is integrated in his 1984 book Social accountability and selfhood.
John wanted to change the field of psychology
John took an odd pride in having been labelled as representing ‘the last kicks of an outdated culture’ for his increasingly articulate critiques of empirical psychology by none less than Donald Broadbent (1973, pp. 8-9): ‘odd’ in the sense that he always wanted to be recognised and applauded for his strenuous efforts to take the psychological establishment down, without seemingly realising that this was a politically self-defeating way of attaining that desire.
He never gave up on wanting to change psychology into a discipline that put meaning in all its facets at the heart of the discipline. In this he shared a common goal with Jerry Bruner, who drew from, and contributed so much to, the British version of interactive and cultural developmental psychology that was so exciting in those days (see, for example, Bruner, 1990).
But as with Bruner, the ‘establishment’ eventually wore John down, and this led to his leaving Britain in 1987, when he took up a Chair in the ‘Citizenship and Development’ programme at the University of Utrecht, with fellow expats David Ingleby and Bryan Turner as his colleagues.
In Holland, John discovered a new passion for dialogue
John regarded a highlight of his time in Holland as being at a seminar on developmental processes and communication where he was introduced by Chris Sinha to the work of Voloshinov and Bakhtin on the nature of dialogue.
Both these Russian writers came increasingly to the fore in his subsequent work at the University of New Hampshire, along with a continual re-reading and rethinking of the implications of Wittgenstein’s ideas for psychological inquiries.
He became a central figure, along with his collaborators Ken and Mary Gergen, in the elaboration of a social constructionist approach to cultural life, but John continued to maintain his ‘outsider’ persona, wanting always to move on to explore the implications of where he had currently got to.
In his retirement, John becomes a famous speaker and teacher
In the late 1980s and 90s John’s work explored rhetoric, poetics, and the wider contexts of the history of his increasingly distinctive position as to the central role of change and uniqueness in the conduct of everyday inter-activity.
We find Vico and William James reappearing in his writings because of their interest in how consciousness emerges and becomes structured (and restructured); a new interest in Goethe as a theorist of change as a process of growth; a continued elaboration of notions of change, and thus of development; and through both an increased emphasis on time as a fundamental dimension for psychology.
It is during this period that John’s work began to be picked up by practitioners of directed change – management scientists and therapists, for example – and he became, in his retirement, a much-in-demand speaker and teacher at international gatherings, conferences, summer schools and the like.
His wide influence is best appreciated by contributions to the recent volume in his honour, Joint action: essays in honour of John Shotter, edited by Tim Corcoran and John Cromby (2016), and in viewing the video of an event in John’s honour – his last public appearance – at the University of Hertford, organised by Gail Simon in October, 2016.
In his final period of work when he retired back to Britain, John’s thinking and writing continued apace, reworking his notes from a lifetime of reading.
In his last book, published shortly before his death, he returned to his developmental roots and remained ever the constructive critic:
A crucial implication of the fact that most of our everyday ‘works’ emerge from within our dialogically-structured activities is that what we all too easily think of as a continuous, cause-and-effect, quantitative process of development is nothing of the sort – instead, the process is marked by gaps, by discontinuous, quite unpredictablequalitative changes. … To the extent that all our understandings, along with the ‘works’ to which they give rise, are produced in our dialogically-structured engagements with each other, their outcomes are not only unfinalized, and still open to further articulation, but arenovel in the sense of never having existed before. This means that, although we may now feel that we have little use for ‘objective or calculated truths,’ for ‘fixed and finalised truths,’ or for what we have in the past been pleased to simply call ‘The Truth,’ the fact is we now have a major use for the still-in-evolution realm of unfinalized, indeterminate, still open, shared, thick, Prospective Truths (2016, pp. 47, 46).
This is a returning full-circle, re-emphasising the importance of the nature of development as a process of joint action whereby a meaningful way of life is transacted from one generation to the next, a process to be understood through a participative stance, a return to the ethos of John’s roots in the developmental work going on in Nottingham in the 1960’s and 70’s.
For John, returnings were the opportunity for new beginnings, for shifts in perspective, for useful new prospective truths. His focus was the essence of developmental psychology, and thus deserves the wide audience it is gaining.
For even more information visit John Shotter’s website.
Author: Andy Lock