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The Discovery Of Situation

In a number of disciplines in the 1920s and 1930s, especially sociology, psychology, history, and anthropology, the term "situation" came to play a central role. Karl Mannheim, for instance, one of the pioneers of the sociology of knowledge, treated ideas as socially situated (literally "tied to the situation," Situationsgebunden). At much the same time the sociologist William I. Thomas was stressing the importance of what he called "the definition of the situation" for social action. In psychology, Lev Vygotsky and Aleksandr Luria argued that the mentality of illiterates was characterized by "concrete or situational thinking."

In the case of history, we might contrast the French with the British approach. Marc Bloch's famous study Les rois thaumaturges (1924) attempted to make the belief in the supernatural power of the royal touch intelligible by presenting it as part of a system of "collective representations," while R. G. Collingwood and Herbert Butterfield concerned themselves with contexts and situations at the individual level. For Butterfield, the historian's task was to place an individual action "in its historical context." For his part, Collingwood declared that "every event … is a conscious reaction to a situation, not the effect of a cause."

Anthropology is sometimes perceived as the contextual discipline par excellence. More exactly, it became this kind of discipline in the 1920s, thanks to Bronislaw Malinowski. Meaning, he argued, is dependent on the "context of situation." In a famous example he referred to a stick that might be used for digging, punting, walking, or fighting. "In each of these specific uses," he claimed, "the stick is embedded in a different cultural context." Malinowski's ideas about context were taken further by his pupil Edward Evans-Pritchard, in a study of witchcraft, oracles, and magic among the Azande in which the author argued that "an individual in one situation will employ a notion he excludes in a different situation."

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshContext - Texts In Context, The Rise Of Cultural Context, The Discovery Of Situation, The Contextual Turn