Exploring The Social Genetic Model of Cognitive Development

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September 2, 2019
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During the 1970′, at Geneva, a new perspective on cognitive development has begun to emerge. The self-defined school of socio-genetical psychology advanced theories that represented a challenge addressed to the spirit of genetical epistemology.

Willem Doise, Gabriel Mugny and Jean Claude Deschamp, to name but a few of the representatives, declare that social interactions constitute the privileged setting which gives birth to the intellectual acquisitions of the child. There is a direct cause-and-effect link between social interaction and individual cognitive development.

The Tripolar Ego-Alter-Object Perspective

Psychologists have conducted studies on the development of intellect with the goal of transitioning from bipolar ego-object psychology to tripolar ego-alter-object psychology. This shift is deemed necessary as it aligns better with reality. In other words, the thesis that regards cognitive development as a result of merely the child’s interaction with his or her environment – see Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development – should be replaced with one that admits to the fact that in certain key moments of mental growth, cognitive acquisitions have their origin in the confrontational actions or opposing ideas that occur between individuals.

The Main Postulates of the Theory

Social interaction plays a generative role which manifests in the form of a spiral; if the social interaction allows for the child to elaborate new cognitive instruments, these new instruments allow, in turn, for the child to participate in more complex social interactions, thus favouring a new cognitive restructuring

The psychosocial theory of intellectual development proposed by Doise and Mugny (1998) is:

  • opposing epistemological individualism;
  • aiming at explaining the mechanisms that help articulate the intellectual and social dynamics;
  • surpassing the workings of imitation, reaching toward social activism and postulating a socio-interactionist and socio-constructivist view. 
We could say that this outlook is compatible with the conception around which most of Lev Vygostsky’s work is built. Social interaction is perceived differently depending on the theory being considered. Vygotsky’s theory focuses on an asymmetrical interaction between a mentor and a novice, while genetic social interactionists describe a symmetric interaction where equal partners cooperate to solve problems and reach a shared response. Research has shown that socio-cognitive conflict is necessary for social interactions to promote cognitive development.

The Role of the Socio-cognitive Conflict

The socio-cognitive conflict is defined by diverging initial responses given by partners that are faced with a problem situation which has to be countered with a mutually accepted method of solving.

The socio-cognitive conflict integrates two types of conflict:

  • an interindividual conflict – determined by the divergence between the initial responses of the two;
  • an intraindividual conflict – which arises as a result of becoming aware of the differences between the responses.
So that it proves itself efficient and produces the expected individual progress, a sociocognitive conflict must carry out certain conditions:
  • the presence of different initial reponses to the same problem and the obligation of reaching a common response in order to counter it;
  • the participants must already possess certain cognitive and sociocognitive abilities;
  • the interaction must give birth to an active engagement on both sides.

Cooperative Learning Groups

Specialists in the field of educational psychology have taken a keen interest in the research conducted by the Geneva School. For instance, D.W. Johnson and R.T. Johnson were particularly fascinated by group learning activities in academic and scholarly settings. They attributed a significant role to socio-cognitive conflict, which arises when members of cooperative learning groups actively participate. Constructively handled, such conflicts can promote curiosity and uncertainty and encourage active research, leading to a better memorization of learning material. Comparatively, individuals working or competing alone don’t have such opportunities, which negatively impacts their performance. The two authors identified five essential elements of cooperative learning groups, including:

  • face-to-face interaction,
  • positive interdependence,
  • individual responsibility,
  • cooperative abilities, and
  • group processing. Group members must monitor both group operations and relationships while learning about group dynamics.


While the main ideas of the theory have been proven to be valid, certain rules must be followed to ensure that socio-cognitive conflicts lead to desired mental growth. One such rule is the regulative intention, which helps to resolve the conflict.

Research on socio-cognitive conflict and cooperative learning groups has shown that confrontations can aid learning when conflict is regulated in an epistemic manner but can impede learning when conflict is just relational. In other words, if one party agrees with the other to end the discussion or is out of compliance, both parties fail to enhance their abilities.

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