Socio-Cultural-Focused Discourses


Attending to the collective aspects of human knowledge, activity, and identity

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … actions and interpretations that have been collectively developed and sanctioned
  • Knowing is … situationally appropriate actions and interpretations
  • Learner is … a participant in a collective
  • Learning is … becoming a more expert participant
  • Teaching is … modeling (i.e., acting as a more-expert agent while involving learners in culturally relevant experiences)




Socio-Cultural-Focused Discourses tend to operate from the assumption that collective knowing unfolds from and is enfolded in individual knowers. Consequently, most of these discourses attend the situated learner and/or the collective learning system – rather than the individual learner. Matters that figure prominently include context, participation, collaboration, ethics, democratic obligation, and tacit norms – often coupled to desires and efforts to prompt critical awareness. In the context of education, popular notions associated with Socio-Cultural-Focused Discourses include:
  • Appropriation of Knowledge (1990s) – Drawing on both Embodiment Discourses and Embeddedness Discourses, Appropriation of Knowledge is seen to occur when the individual has selected aspects of cultural knowledge and adapted them in ways that are personally meaningful and useful.
  • Behavior Setting Theory (Roger Barker, 1940s) – a perspective that is concerned with the study of human behaviors in their natural settings, and one that is intended to explain small-scale social systems. A “behavior setting” is a cultural form – particularly any social environment – that is useful for making sense across the dynamic individual activity and the stable social structures.
  • Discourse Theories (Discourse Studies) (diffuse authorship, but Michel Foucault figures prominently; 1970s) – a cluster of theories and domains that share interests in better understanding communication, meaning, and the constitutive role of language in social, political, and cultural contexts. Most Discourse Theories address matters of power (i.e., discourses are shaped by power structures and, reciprocally, can serve either to maintain or interrupt those structures), knowledge (discourses arise in and legitimize understandings of truth and reality), and subjectivity (discourses are necessary for the creation, maintenance, and negotiation of identities and positionings). Most Discourse Theories align with the sensibilities of Post-Structuralism.
    • Big “D” Discourse (James Paul Gee, 1990s) – a notion that reaches across ways of knowing, doing, and being – which are seen to arise in and reflect integrations of language, (inter)activity, beliefs, tools, and artifacts
    • Little “d” discourse (Small “d” discourse) (James Paul Gee, 1990s) – the analysis of specific uses of language
    • Discourse Community (Martin Nystrand, 1980s) – a hazily defined notion that can be applied to any group of people who share some sort of orienting convictions (e.g., public goals, ideology, shared history, or religious belief) and who are able to communicate about those convictions
  • Enculturation – coming to embody the tacit and explicit dimensions of a culture through informal and formal encounters
  • Externalisms – accounts of thought, mind, and/or consciousness that assert that those phenomena do not fully happen or reside in the brain, but that also (and, in some discourses, principally) involve what occurs and exists beyond one’s skin (Note: should not be confused with Externalisms of Motivation Theories.)
  • Object-Based LearningObject-Based Learning is oriented by the conviction that a physical artifact can serve as a window into its context. That is, an object can afford insights into traditions, sensibilities, assumptions, and norms – and thus serve to focus multi-perspectival discussions, in-depth investigations, creative expression, and critical self-reflection.
  • Participatory Epistemology (Participatory Theory) – Variously defined, most versions of Participatory Epistemology cluster around rejections of such dichotomies as subject/object, internal/external, and human/nonhuman as they assert that meaning arises through participation in the world.
  • Participatory Learning – a loosely defined phrase that, depending on context, aligns with Discourses on Individual Learning in Group Settings or Discourses on Learning Collectives. Most often, Participatory Learning is engaged as a discourse to inform teaching.
  • Postformalism (Joe Kincheloe, 1990s) – a theory designed to reject Correspondence Discourses while embracing (but blurring boundaries across) Embodiment Discourses and Embeddedness Discourses, while particular emphasis placed on Activist Discourses.
  • Shared Cognition (Socially Shared Cognition) (John Seely Brown, Allan Collins, Paul Duguid, 1980s) – a descriptive phrase used to span a range of phenomenon involving mutual influence among participants. In more provocative formulations, Shared Cognition is presented as a mode of collective thinking, as individuals come together into grander cognitive systems. In less provocative formulations, Shared Cognition is aligned with Distributed Cognition, Situated Cognition, and/or collaborative engagement.
  • Taken-as-Shared (Paul Cobb, 1990s) – a descriptor applied to different knowers’ understandings of the same notion. Taken-as-Shared is used to highlight that different individuals cannot have identical understandings – because each person’s knowing is rooted in unique sets of personal experiences. Even so, knowers tend to act as though their understandings are fully compatible – that is, those understandings are typically taken as shared.
  • Sociological Social Psychology (Social Psychology) (Charles Cooley, 1910s) – a domain that studies the relationship of the individual and the collective, typically placing more emphasis on the influence of the collective and the context on the individual than the individual’s influence on larger systems.


Socio-Cultural-Focused Discourses began to press into the field of education in the 1960s, spurred by social movements and academic discussions that foregrounded the collective (and often oppressive) character of knowledge. That historical moment represented a sharp turn in cultural sensibilities around the production and perpetuation of “truth,” as it was made evident that most cultural knowledge was not inscribed in the universe. Rather, it was principally a matter of social accord. The cultural enterprise of formal education was thus implicated in the project of perpetuating such knowledge, and this realization was key in prompting a shift away from seeing schooling in terms of preparing children for adult lives toward seeing schooling as an ethical obligation to involve learners as active participants in (vs. passive recipients of) cultural knowledge.


  • Appropriation of Knowledge
  • Behavior Setting Theory
  • Big “D” Discourse
  • Discourse Community
  • Discourse Theories (Discourse Studies)
  • Enculturation
  • Externalisms
  • Little “d” discourse (Small “d” discourse)
  • Object-Based Learning
  • Participatory Epistemology (Participatory Theory)
  • Postformalism
  • Shared Cognition (Socially Shared Cognition)
  • Taken-as-Shared
  • Sociological Social Psychology (Social Psychology)

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Socio-Cultural-Focused Discourses” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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