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versión On-line ISSN 1668-7027


BORDONI, Mariana. Imitation reconsidered: Its social function in early infancy . Interdisciplinaria [online]. 2018, vol.35, n.1, pp.119-136. ISSN 1668-7027.

Infant imitation is a controversial topic that has been widely studied in the field of developmental psychology. In the last decades, since Piagetian theory of infant imitation, the research on it has been revolutionized. This article intends to review a set of studies on imitation in early infancy that have caused a change in the understanding of this phenomenon. In this review, Piaget's description of the development of imitation and its relationship to symbolic formation are set as a starting point. Piaget's theory has made an essential contribution to the study of imitation: it highlights its importance in development of symbolic function; it stimulated the realization of numerous longitudinal studies, promoted the development of techniques and observation systems for its evaluation in psychology labs, and led to the generation of different assessment scales of psycho-motor child development. However, experimental studies that demonstrated the ability of imitation in newborns have questioned Piagetian developmental theory of imitation and they revolutionized the understanding of the phenomenon. Data on neonatal imitation, which have received different theoretical interpretations, bring out that certain intra and intersensory coordination exist from the first month of life; that the capacity for imitation is selective; that its sequence of development is different from that proposed by Piaget and shows different evolutionary paths depending on the act in question. Beyond experimental studies, early imitation has also been studied in natural contexts. The data show that during the first two years of life, imitation is a frequent pattern of social interaction between adult and baby, providing a pleasant experience to both participants. In that context, imitation is not only bi-directional, but it is the adult who imitated more frequently. Such data suggest that the ability to imitate actions does not appear in development as a product of an exclusively individual process; but, on the contrary, is a capacity that gradually emerges in the context of social patterns of baby-adult reciprocity as a result of the communicative intentions of the latter. Also, imitation is an important relationship tool when the participants interacting are similar in age. There are several studies showing that young children use imitation as a basic way to interact and develop social and communication links between them, as well as to coordinate playful actions. Finally, experimental studies on the effects of being imitated indicate that adult imitation facilitates social interaction with the baby during the first two years of life. It causes greater visual attention from the baby, and more frequent smiles than a spontaneous interaction. Even it has been observed that babies are able to monitor adult imitation, testing it by modulating their behavior (for example, sudden stops or sudden changes in the direction of their behavior). Data from studies on neonatal imitation, spontaneous imitation in adult-baby interactions, peer interactions and the effects of being imitated have allowed reconceptualizing imitation, highlighting the social aspect and its role in the establishment of the first interpersonal connections between the baby and its congeners. All these new empirical evidence highlights the value of imitation in the establishment of social interactions in the early years of a child´s life, beyond their cognitive function of accommodation. In order to construct an integrative theory of imitation, it is proposed to conceive imitation as a matching activity through which emerges a social engagement that might serve to convey different functions according to the context of social interaction. It is suggested to carry out new longitudinal studies that investigate the contexts of interaction in which imitation events emerge, as well as the integration of the results of neurocognitive studies and Comparative Psychology.

Palabras clave : Early infancy; Early social interaction; Neonatal imitation; Development; Communication; Being imitated.

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