chapter  5
31 Pages

The ecological perspective: Gibson's legacy

I need to make the tradition of ecological psychology clearer because it is central to my claims that the work of J. J. Gibson (1950, 1966, 1979) is understood. This is the case both because he was right about important matters and because he was wrong about one. Gibson's conception of psychology was radi­ cal in that it proposed a completely different view of how humans come to know about their environment, a different view of the relation between the structure of the environment and the structure of evolved perceptual/cognitive adaptations to it, and a different view of the relation of the psychological systems of perception, cognition and action to each other. Gibson opposed any thinking which was not premised on the assumption that to understand the nature of the organism one had to understand it through its relation with its ecology. This put him at odds with existing theorists:

The ecological approach is a new approach to the whole field of psychology, for it involves rejecting the stimulus-response formula. This notion... helped to get rid of the soul in psychology, but it never really worked. Neither mentalism on the one hand nor conditioned-reflex behaviourism on the other is good enough. What psychol­ ogy needs is the kind of thinking that is beginning to be attempted in what is loosely called systems theory. (Gibson, 1979, p. 2)

In taking this contextualist position, Gibson was bound to be critical of any methodology which intentionally avoided natural complexity. He observed that the dominant method used to study human psychology, controlled experimentation, meant that normal behaviour in normal environments was never observed, let alone explained. There is a place for such work, but what it cannot do is to locate the function of the behaviour of organisms within ecological systems. One exam­ ple: studying the grip of infant monkeys in isolated experi­ mental, controlled conditions may reveal much of the physiology and mechanics of grip, but nothing of its function or origins. Observe the animal in the wild clinging to its mother as the nomadic band move through the undergrowth and all is immediately made clear: hang on for dear life.