Piaget described processes by which we learn and grow, adapting to our social and physical environment. He names these processes Assimilation and Accommodation. In assimilation, the experience or item is incorporated from the outside world into the inside world without interrupting or changing our pre-existing ideas or “schema”. This works particularly well where the new item is an additional item of something we are familiar with e.g. a new flavour of ice cream. The process can be useful but sometimes however it results in squeezing reality to fit. In such cases it can result in stereotyping and prejudice.
In accommodation, the internal world or schema has to change in response to new evidence about the world. This can be more difficult, especially in adults because it may mean changing something fundamental about something which someone has always taken for granted e.g. a belief in the sanctity of marriage and moving toward divorce. Leon Festinger termed this uncomfortable state as “cognitive dissonance”. He stated that it is impossible to hold two incompatible notions in your head at the same time. For example, an absolute belief that it is wrong to kill yet being forced to become a soldier.
Assimilating the World Wide Web
For anyone under about 35, the use of the World Wide Web as an oracle for all things both important and trivial is taken for granted. Wikipedia sits waiting for us to consult its seemingly-endless, virtual pages on all things from lists of “who did what, where and to whom”, to serious help to understand anything from advanced pharmacology to the holocaust. Facebook allows us to connect with our family and what we now loosely call “friends” and EBay allows the whole world shopping to be beamed closer to us than our nearest town centre.
For those over the age of about 40, we have had to assimilate the web into our lives as a tool for familiar activities: research, social interaction and shopping. Before it existed we had to consult encyclopaedias, annual collections of trivia such as “The Guinness Book of Records” and the television for information and research. For contacting friends and family we used the ‘phone or letter and shopping was done in vivo and not in virtual space. There must be very few people indeed who will regret the passing of snail mail (letters) or the limited choices of high street shopping. The World Wide Web has been one assimilation which has been comfortable, easy and enjoyable.
This is an example of assimilation because while the way we use the web to carry out these aspects of our lives, the basic concepts of research, communicating and shopping have not changed in themselves.
The Christian religion, its teachings and influence has been a dominant force over most of Europe and since 1620, when the pilgrim fathers landed and marked Plymouth Rock,( ironically to escape religious persecution) in North America too. Since the mid 1960’s this has changed. Not only are we more ethnically diverse, the fastest growing religion in many European Countries is Islam.
Where we have assimilated many cultural artefacts such as world food, music, clothes, design some aspects of multiculturalism have sparked a fierce debate which has caused tensions. Prince Charles, heir to the UK throne sparked off furious debate when he declared that he wanted to change the oath sworn by a British Monarch to be “defender of the faith” to “defender of faiths”. Within the last few days too, there has been a suggestion that verses from the Koran should be included in his coronation too. The emotion expressed in the debate would suggest that people had a lot of mental accommodation to do.
The ability of some minority Islamic clerics to radicalise young Muslim girls and boys suggest that accommodation to a western style of living is a difficult battle within their culture too.
How to honour and meet two traditions which have such differences and enable acceptance of each by the other will require accommodation in which some fundamental changes to the way we experience our religions. This has to happen since our existing schemas about faith and religion are separate and discrete and even contradictory and have always been since The Crusades in the 12th century.
A Case of Accommodating Gender Identity
It is widely accepted nowadays that the definition of sex in humans is based on chromosomes and biological dimorphism (two forms) but gender is much less rigidly based and include a mixture of biological, psychological and social factors and is connected with identity. This means that while someone may be born male their brain identity may be female and their sexual identity may be heterosexual which would lead them to want to be female and sexually attracted to other biological males.
Some of the firs psychological investigations on this phenomenon were conducted by Dr John Money who introduced the terminological distinction between biological sex and gender as a role in the 1950’s although the term “gender” was not used widely until some twenty five years’ later when the feminist movement used it to highlight gender stereotyping.
Money is famous or infamous because of the case of David Reimer. David was a twin born in 1965 but during circumcision an electrical fault in the machine burned off his penis. Money thought at the time that gender was an entirely social phenomenon, and surgery to remove his testes and treatment with female hormones combined with raising him as a girl would lead to a successful outcome for Bruce, renamed Brenda. Reimer never accepted the gender role assigned to him and during his teens he changed his name to David and began to live as a man. His short life was punctuated by unfortunate events and dealing with his childhood traumas. David killed himself aged 38 in 2004.
The rise of the feminist movement, the acceptance of homosexuality, cases such as David Reimer’s and the growing acceptance of transgender and transsexuality, means that society has had to accommodate a whole new construct of the concept “gender”. This accommodation has proved particularly difficult for those who hold the literal truth of The Bible who believe that sex and gender are equivalent terms.
There is some suggestion that the piagetian view of assimilation and accommodation suggests that children are better at both than adults. Perhaps the world would be a better place if we could see our world with the eyes of a child.
- Festinger, L.: A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press(1957)
- Money, J & Tucker, P: Sexual Signatures on Being a Man or a Woman. Little Brown & Co (1975)