Culture Magazine

Scaffolding Imitation in Capoeira [Coordinator]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Downey, G. (2008). Scaffolding Imitation in Capoeira: Physical Education and Enculturation in an Afro-Brazilian Art. American Anthropologist, 110(2), 204–213. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1433.2008.00026.x
ABSTRACT: Imitation plays a crucial role in apprenticeship in the Afro-Brazilian performance genre capoeira, as in many skills across cultures. In this article, I examine the interactional dynamics of imitative pedagogy in capoeira to better understand physical education as a form of bodily enculturation. The ability to learn through imitation is widely considered a hallmark of our species. Imitative ability,however, is a social accomplishment rather than a capacity of the learner in isolation. Human models often provide assistance to novices seeking to imitate, including a variety of forms of what educational theorists call “scaffolding,” which are astutely structured to a novice’s ability, perceptions, and even neurology. Scaffolding techniques vary. I here examine how instructors reduce students’ degrees of movement freedom, reorient their model in perceptual space, and parse complex sequences into component gestures. Close analysis of pedagogical interaction highlights the divergence between forms of instruction and practical skills being taught.
From the article itself, in the conclusion (p. 211):
Typical scaffolding techniques, however, also shed light on what is actually learned in imitation; that is, the tactics of scaffolding help us to better see what transpires in enculturation. In his study of practical skills in the Amazon, Mark Harris argues that many models of practical knowledge—including Mauss’s influential discussion of bodily techniques—assume “that knowledge is a thing that can be inherited and isolated from practice and context” (2005:199). Instead, borrowing from Tim Ingold (2000), Harris argues that skills are a form of coordination between a person’s body, perception, resources, tools, and environment. In other words, learning a skill is the development within the novice of an ability to coordinate the body with the environment. The example of capoeira apprenticeship supports the argument that skills are built up through “guided discovery,” as suggested by Roy D’Andrade (1981:186), rather than passed on or transmitted (see also Ingold 2000:349–361). The metaphor of enculturation as transmission can thus mislead on several levels: Mauss (1973:73), for example, writes of a novice borrowing a se- ries of movements from another person. Rather, instruc- tors assist novices to perform tasks in their own ways and, thus, discover their own, potentially novel, forms of skill.
I note that a couple of years ago I decided to adopt the term "coordinator" as the cultural equivalent to the biological gene.

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