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Historical and Contemporary
Significance of Vygotsky's
Sociohistorical Psychology


-Vygotsky and Luria, 1930/1993

- Vygotsky and Luria, 1930/1993

Vygotsky is distinctive in the field of psychology because he articulated a profoundly social explanation of human psychology. Whereas most other psychologists postulate intra-organismic determinants of psychological phenomena (such as physiological mechanisms or free will) or some interaction between intra-organismic and social factors, Vygotsky regarded human psychology as entirely social. He said that psychological phenomena originate in social interaction, they are organized by social relations, and their constituents are social artifacts such as linguistic symbols.

Vygotsky's social account of psychology is comprehensible when viewed in relation to his political views and his early work experience. A brief discussion of this context is therefore in order before explaining the details of his psychological stand- point.

Vygotsky's Early Work and Politics

Born in 1896, Lev Vygotsky grew up during the Russian revolution. He graduated from a university, where he studied law, in 1917, the year the Bolsheviks took power. Instead of practicing law, Vygotsky became a school teacher. He read extensively in pedagogy and psychology; he lectured at various institutes, teacher's colleges, and workers' schools (on a wide range of topics including psychology, pedagogy, art, and literature); and he conducted some elementary psychological experiments. Although he was completely self-taught, he wrote a masterful article, which was accepted at the 1924 Second Neurological Congress of Psychology in Leningrad. Luria and Kornilov heard Vygotsky's address and invited him to join their faculty at the Mos- cow State University Institute of Experimental Psychology. After a 10-year career as a psychologist, Vygotsky was dead from tuberculosis (Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991, pp. 4-18).

Vygotsky was an avid supporter of the Russian revolution. He firmly believed that socialism could improve the lot of the people, and he looked forward to a classless society that would eliminate social conflict and exploitation (Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991, pp. 54-56). In 1930 he wrote an article titled 'The Socialist Alteration of Man" (in Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1994, pp. 175-184), in which he stated that revolutionary transformation of society was necessary to change the material conditions (production, standard of living, economic opportunities), social relations, educational opportunities, and cognitive and other psychological capabilities.

Vygotsky's revolutionary political stance sensitized him to the influence of broad social conditions on psychology: If social change in class structure, institutions, and the division of labor can enhance cognitive functioning and reduce prejudice, conflict, and aggression, then psychological processes must have a social nature. That is, they must be formed and reformed by broad social factors (1).

Footnote 1:
Variations in social institutions highlight their effect on psychology. In contrast, the seeming permanence and naturalness of contemporary social institutions in capitalist countries makes them appear as a constant background outside psychological phenomena. Psychological variations in individuals do not appear related to social factors because the latter appear to be constant for everyone.

The importance of Vygotsky's political views on his psychological concepts cannot be overemphasized. He explicitly sought to develop a Marxist psychology. He said, "Marxist psychology is not a school amidst schools, but the only genuine psychology as a science. A psychology other than this cannot exist. And the other way around: everything that was and is genuinely scientific belongs to Marxist psychology" (Vygotsky, 1997a, p. 341). Vygotsky sought to apply the tenets of Marxist thinking to discover the nature of human psychology. He renounced the facile path that some of his colleagues had taken, which was to invoke certain abstract dialectical pronouncements-for example, that quantitative change often leads to qualitative change, that the whole is more than the sum of its parts - or to reduce psychology to categories that Marx had developed in his critique of capitalism. Instead, Vygotsky wanted "to learn from Marx's whole method how to build a science, how to approach the investigation of the mind" (Vygotsky, 1997a, p. 331).

Vygotsky's early work at Moscow State University confirmed his view of the social plasticity of human psychology. The warfare of the Russian revolution left many victims suffering from a variety of somatic and psychological traumas. Vygotsky worked with these patients and saw that many of these traumas could be treated with social artifacts. Braille and sign language were obvious social artifacts that helped compensate for physical impairments in vision and hearing. Social support in the form of direct aid, guidance, and encouragement also helped compensate for physical and psychological disabilities. Socially mediated compensations enabled patients to engage in psychological functions such as reading, communicating, reasoning, and remembering (Vygotsky & Luria, 1930/1993, pp. 213-228). Tone deafness can be successfully treated by teaching individuals to recognize sounds. Individuals coached to sing prescribed tones, thereby matching their vocalization to the tones, were, after two to six sessions, able to more accurately hear the tones (Ratner, 1991, p. 212).

Vygotsky's work in "defectology" complemented his political outlook in leading to the conclusion that psychological phenomena such as intelligence, reasoning, language, memory, personality, perception, madness, and emotions rest on "cultural means.

Sociohistorical Character of Psychological Phenomena

According to Vygotsky, psychological phenomena are social in two respects: They depend on (originate in) social experience and treatment, and they embody cultural artifacts. Social experience includes the manner in which people stimulate and direct one's attention, model behavior, respond to behavior (encourage, discourage, or imitate it), control bodily movements, and organize the spatial relationships among individuals (e.g., many people sleeping in an area or individuals sleeping in segregated areas). Cultural artifacts include signs, symbols, linguistic terms, and humanly produced objects and instruments such as chairs and books. Social treatment and socially produced artifacts generate and shape psychological phenomena.

For example, parents controlling when, where, and how a child responds to an insult (through modeling, encouraging, and discouraging behavior) determines the kinds and intensity of emotion that the child develops. Whether individuals are segregated or integrated by spatial relations affects whether they develop an individualistic or collective self-concept (Ratner, 1991, pp. 55 - 56). Holding babies so that they face toward other people or toward the individual caretaker similarly inculcates collective or individualistic self-concepts, respectively. Moreover, restricting infants' movements inculcates passivity, whereas allowing them free expression inculcates active personalities (Ratner, 1991, pp. 173-174). Directing attention toward certain things and away from other shapes perception and emotions.

Cultural artifacts structure psychological phenomena by mediating the person's relation with the world. Sitting in chairs and eating with utensils indicates a segregated bodily space in contrast to sitting next to someone on a bench and eating with one's hands. Living in a rectangular structure provides spatial cues that are different from those in circular structures. Symbolic cultural artifacts, in the form of socially constructed concepts of what, how, and why things are, organize psycho- logical phenomena as the following examples demonstrate (see Ratner, 1991, chap. 2, pp. 264-278, and Ratner, 1997a, chap. 3, for citations).

The way we conceptualize or understand an event determines our emotional reaction to it. We become angry because we interpret someone's action as deliberately intending harm. The interpretive concept "deliberate intention to harm" is a social construct. It is popularly accepted in Western society as a way to understand behavior. However, some societies lack this social concept. They interpret a harmful action as reflecting fate or God's will. In these societies harmful action is not regarded as the perpetrator's fault, and it does not generate anger.

Perception of distance, size, weight, color, and motion also depend on cues whose significance is socially constructed. Cultures that have a different understanding of cues have different perceptual experiences. For example, Luria (1976) found that Uzbekistani peasants perceived certain colors as dissimilar (not classifiable together), whereas administrators and teachers perceived those colors as similar. Luria's explanation was that the two groups had a different conception of color. The peasants regarded color as intrinsically tied to objects, whereas the teachers regarded color as an abstract property. The peasants perceived the color 'pig's dung" as different from 'cow's dung" because the two objects in which the colors inhered were different. The teachers abstracted the brown color from the objects and categorized the two shades of brown together (2).

Footnote 2:
Luria's research was conducted in two important expeditions to Uzbekistan in 1931-1932. The expedition was designed by Vygotsky and Luria to investigate the principles of sociohistorical psychology by comparing the psychological processes of groups of people who had been differentially affected by the Sovietization of agriculture. An important participant in the project was Kurt Koffka, the famous Gestalt psychologist. The political system reprimanded Vygotsky and Luria for their cross-cultural research in Uzbekistan. Findings of cultural psychological differences were condemned as racist and as antithetical to the government's egalitarian ideology, which insisted on the equal capability of all people. Vygotsky and Luria were forbidden from publishing their findings and from continuing their cultural historical research. Luria was forced to leave the Institute of Psychology at Moscow State University, and he undertook a new program of clinical investigations of aphasia in the Psychoneurological Academy in Kharkov (Vygotsky & Luria, 1930/1993, pp. 13-16; Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991, pp. 253-255).

Misperception and unconsciousness are similarly structured by social concepts. I have explained (Ratner, 1994) that unconsciousness can be explained as a sub- category of perception. Particular social values structure perception in a manner that highlights certain characteristics and precludes noticing other aspects of self and other people. I analyzed an individual who was unaware of various flaws in his character. His unawareness stemmed, in part, from having adopted competitive values that led to perceiving himself as superior to others. Conceiving and perceiving himself as a superior person blinded him to his weaknesses.

Memory of a past event is also structured by the social meaning that the event has. Social definitions of events form templates that structure our recollection. For example, Robbins (1963) studied the manner in which well-educated parents of 3- year-old children distorted their memories of the manner in which they reared their children and the developmental milestones of their children. Robbins found that distortions in memory conform to culturally prescribed norms for these aspects. About one-half of the mothers were mistaken in their recollections of whether they fed their infants on demand or according to a schedule. Sixty-five percent of the incorrect mothers erred in the direction of more demand feeding, which is culturally favored over feeding on schedule. Bladder training was recalled as having begun 6 months later than it actually was initiated. This direction is also in accordance with cultural prescriptions. When mothers were inaccurate in their reports of thumb-sucking, all of the errors involved denying thumbsucking, which is culturally disfavored.

Along these lines, Cordua, McGraw, and Drabman (1979) demonstrated that children's memory of gender roles described in stories depends on the consistency of these roles with the normative gender division of labor in society. Normative gender roles in the story (e.g., a male doctor and female nurse) are recalled more accurately than gender roles that contradict the normal sexual division of labor in society (e.g., female doctor and male nurse) (3).

Footnote 3:
Whereas social templates shape memory, they do not always distort it. In most cases they make it more accurate. This is because social templates organize memory to recall what is most commonly experienced. Relying on templates usually enables one to recall what is most likely to have occurred. In cases where a past event does not conform to common experience, it may be distorted. However, these cases are by definition rare. The same benefits and risks hold for social templates that organize perception.

Memory of colors depends on the way that colors are used in social communication. Numerous studies have found that colors that are linguistically encoded and are used in the activity of communication are recalled more readily than colors that are not encoded or used in communication.

Ratner and McCarthy (1990) demonstrated that the best predictor of color memory is whether the color matches objects that have been experienced in one's culture. The cultural relevance of colors is a better predictor of memory than physical properties of color, such as saturation.

Psychological dysfunctions are similarly organized by social concepts. Disorders depend on people's understanding of misfortune, their expectations about receiving support and about resolving the misfortune, their sense of self and body image, and their ideas about coping with stress. All of these components of dysfunction are structured by social concepts. According to Lakoff (1993), dreams also incorporate cultural values.

Expressing the link between psychological functions, concepts, and social life, Vygotsky (1931/1991, p. 88) said that life problems

    lead to the development of the central and leading function of all mental development, to the formation of concepts, and on the basis of the formation of concepts a series of completely new mental functions arises; perception, memory, attention, [etc.] are reconstructed on this new basis [and] they are united in a new structure.

The relation between culture, consciousness, and psychological phenomena is diagramed below.

[If you can see the picture, you have a Graphical Interface]

The figure shows that culture (including tools) fosters cognitive schemata (which maybe explicit or implicit, as Helmholtz maintained). Schemata mediate the impact of impinging stimuli. Emotions, sensations, motives, needs, perception, memory, and imagination are integral parts of cultural cognitive schemata and are imbued with their social, conscious character. Finally, individuals act on the world of objects, individuals, and institutions through the intermediaries of technology and social institutions (cf Ratner, 1991, chap. 1).

Sociogenesis of Psychological Phenomena

Vygotsky recognized that whereas psychological phenomena are organized by cultural processes and artifacts, they involve biological processes as well. The role of biological processes in affecting psychological experience varies over the life span. Biological processes entirely determine the infant's reactions; however, the influence of biological processes recedes as social experience dominates psychological phenomena. Vygotsky called this transformation the sociogenesis of psychological phenomena.

According to this account, natural mechanisms-reflexes, instincts, and hormones - determine the behavior of infants as they do animals. Naturally determined infantile behaviors include smiling, grasping, crying, persistence, distractibility, and reaction speed. They are simple, stereotyped, nonconscious, involuntary, stimulus- bound, transient behaviors. Vygotsky called these behaviors elementary, or lower, processes. The infant equipped only with these lower processes is directly tied to the world; he reacts immediately to it; he is at one with it. The infant does not truly perceive or think about the world; he is submerged in it (Vygotsky & Luria, 1930/ 1993, pp. 144-145). Lower biological processes are not psychological phenomena in the true sense: They do not involve comprehension or experience. In Vygotsky's words, they are immediate blind reactions to stimuli.

Psychological phenomena require that the organism be differentiated from the world. The individual stands back from the world, so to speak, and thereby comprehends and experiences it. This differentiation requires that the natural ties between organism and world be broken. Instead of natural processes determining the organism's reactions to the world, a complex system of mental processes mediates between the organism and the world. Consciousness understands, interprets, and anticipates features of stimuli. It also decides how to respond psychologically to them (cf. Ratner, 1991, chap. 1).

Vygotsky and Luria (1930/1993) argued that "a significant cultural reconstruction has to take place in order for the child to shift from the stage of primitive perceptions to the next one -to the stage of competent forms of adaptation to the external world" (pp. 149-150). This cultural reconstruction involves other people prompting, guiding, rewarding, punishing, restraining, imitating, and modeling the child's behavior. It also involves teaching the child to use cultural artifacts to organize his or her behavior.

Biological changes in the brain are also necessary for lower, elementary processes to be replaced by higher psychological ones. The cortex develops and takes over most of the reactions that were handled by lower parts of the brain in infants. However, the cortical changes are both stimulated and supplemented by social relationships. Social experience stimulates cortical developments (4).

Footnote 4:
"The number of synapses and the arborization of neuronal dendrites are responsive to experience in adult animals, even those considered quite old ... The distinction between hardware and software that is so obvious in a computer is not present in the living brain where experience continues to alter the connections throughout life" (Wahlsten & Gottlieb, 1997, p. 169). Phylogenetic advances in the brain cortex were also stimulated by social complexity (Donald, 1991, pp. 137-139).

Social experience also provides the cultural means for regulating elementary processes and placing them under conscious control, which transforms them into psychological phenomena. Grasping, pointing, babbling, and even paying attention are regulated by infants' caretakers. Caretakers channel them in new directions by speeding them up, slowing them down, directing them to new stimuli, and generally teaching the children to control them. In this way behaviors lose their involuntary, impulsive, stereotyped, mechanical quality. They become controlled by conscious decision and understanding. Vygotsky explained how attention is transformed from a simple, involuntary "orientation reflex" controlled by objects in the environment to a conscious, voluntary, psychological process:

    The importance of the organic process, which lies at the foundation of the development of attention, decreases as new, qualitatively distinct processes of attentional development emerge. Specifically, we have in mind the processes of the cultural development of attention. When we speak of the cultural development of attention, we mean evolution and change in the means for directing and carrying out attentional processes, the mastery of these processes, and their subordination to human control ... Voluntary attention emerges owing to the fact that the people who surround the child begin to use various stimuli and means to direct the child's attention and subordinate it to their control ... in and of itself, the organic, or natural, development of attention never could, and never will, lead to the emergence of voluntary attention. (Vygotsky, 1981, pp. 193-194) In exactly the same way, the child's first words are nothing other than an affective cry. Objectively they express one need or another of the child long before the child consciously uses them as a means of expression. Others, not the child, fill these affective words with a certain content. Thus, the people nearby create the objective sense of the first words apart from the will of the child. Only later are his words converted into speech for himself, used deliberately and consciously. (Vygotsky, 1998, p. 172)

Memory is also culturally reconstructed from a natural process to a psychological one. Young children directly memorize items before them. However, school-age children use socially devised mnemonic devices in the form of symbolic associations and reminders. "It is this transition from natural forms of memory to the cultural ones that constitutes development of memory from child to adu lt" (Vygotsky & Luria, 1930/1993, p. 177). The manner in which memory uses cultural concepts to retrieve information is illustrated by a personal experience: I could not recall the name of a book I needed. I knew the subject matter of the book, however, then I remembered the course in which I had discussed this topic. Next, I thought of the books I had used in the course, and, finally, I came up with the name of the book I was searching for. This complex cognitive operation produced recollection that was not available from direct memory.

Vast cultural differences in memory exist because of different cultural mnemonic systems. Carruthers (1990) reported that, in medieval monasteries and schools, mnemonic strategies were taught so that the educated elite could memorize an enormous amount of information. In addition, medieval scholars had amazingly agile memories. They could recite entire works backwards, they could recite the next-to- last verses in each book of Virgil, and they could recall all the passages on a given topic in a lengthy work. Students were taught to accomplish these feats by dividing texts into sections, which were identified by cues. The cues often were embedded in the written material to facilitate memory. Such cues included capitalizing the first word of a paragraph with a large, vivid letter, drawing images in the margins next to paragraphs, and even coloring the pages to distinguish them. This cultural mnemonic system superseded natural memory processes and accounts for the different memory capabilities among different peoples (cf. Ratner, 1991, pp. 93-95) (5).

Footnote 5:
Ceci, Rosenblum, Bruyn and Yee (1997, p. 317) report that mnemonic systems rather than some natural/physiological "raw recall ability" determine other aspects of memory: The speed in recognizing letters and numerals depends on how those stimuli are represented in memory, with more elaborate representations leading to faster recognition rates.

Vygotsky emphasized the fundamental difference between 'higher, social psychological activities" and 'lower," natural acts as follows: "Within a general process of development, two qualitatively different lines of development, differing in origin can be distinguished: the elementary processes, which are of biological origin on the one hand, and the higher psychological functions of sociocultural origin, on the other" (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 46, emphasis added).

Primordial, natural, infantile functions are not simply supplemented by mature social psychological processes; they are sometimes dispelled and replaced by higher processes, and sometimes they are integrated into and reconstituted by them. As Luria (1932) wrote:

    The genesis of organized human behavior is through the development and inclusion of new regulating systems which overcome the primitive forms of behavior and transfer them to ... a new and more systematized organization. There is every reason to suppose that the primitive forms of organization of behavior, characterized by the sub-cortical type of activity, are completely transformed into the processes of the highest development. (p. 394, emphasis added)

Infantile processes have no adult analogue because they cease to exist as such in the mature individual. Conversely, adult activity has no natural analogue with human infants or animals (or machines!). Luria (1932) explained this in the following words:

    The reactive process as we know it in the normal adult human is a complicated elaboration in structure not having anything in common with those impulsive relations which we observed in the child or the reflex activity of animals. The chief difference of the [adult] reactive process from those forms of activity in the child and animals is that in the former the direct character of the motor discharge is controlled . . . It is thus incorrect to say that the stimulus directly provokes the reaction [in the adult] ... The outstanding feature of the reactive process is the fact that the tendency of every natural reflex act to discharge its excitation directly is controlled by a complex reactive process. (p. 394)

Vygotsky used historical alterations in psychological phenomena to verify his sociogenetic theory. The fact that humans across the world have nearly identical biologies yet evidence vast cross-cultural differences in psychological phenomena proves that the latter are not determined by biology (Vygotsky & Luria, 1930/1993, pp. 168-171).

The social development of consciousness transforms the individual's biology. It transforms biology from a set of mechanisms that directly determine responses to stimuli into neutral conduits of information. From middle childhood onward, biological processes only conduct information; they do not determine how the information is organized and experienced. Sensory and motor processes transmit information between the organism and the outside world, and neural processes transmit information from one area of the brain to another within the organism. The information is organized by signs, symbols, and instruments as discussed above. Natural mechanisms lose their deterministic function and operate only as a substratum for socially mediated mental processes (cf. Ratner, 1998).

The reduction in biological determinism of reactions is a prerequisite for the emergence of psychological phenomena. Biological determinism of reactions is inimical to psychological phenomena. Vygotsky and Luria (1930/1993) explained how this is true is the area of perception: 'The child who at the beginning of life had only organic sensations (of rest or anxiety, of tension and calm, of pain, touch, warmth, and primarily of stimulations from the most sensitive areas) lacks, of course, the perception of space that we possess" (p. 146). Only after biological processes cease governing the child's being can he or she break through the protective canopy to perceive reality. It takes about half a year for this to occur. Perception of reality requires that biological processes step aside as determinants of experience and allow the world to impinge on the organism and affect perception.

Of course, the world does not directly and entirely determine perception. The worldly information that biological processes make available to the organism is organized by his or her social experience and cultural artifacts. "The child begins to see the external world not simply with his eye as a perceiving and conducting apparatus - the child sees with all of his previous experience, and in doing so some- what alters the objects perceived" (Vygotsky & Luria, 1930/1993, p. 148).

"Ultimately, for man the environment is a social environment because even where it appears to be a natural environment, nevertheless, in relation to man there are always definite social elements present ... In his interaction with the environment man always makes use of his social experience" (Vygotsky, 1997b, pp. 53-54, 133).

Biological processes transmit physical attributes of things such as color, size, and shape from objects to the mind; however, one's perceptual experience of these at- tributes is shaped by cultural experience and artifacts (6).

Footnote 6:
Helmholtz (1867/1968, p. 181) made this point in stating that "reminiscences of previous experiences act in conjunction with present sensations to produce a perceptual image ... [T]he elements in the sense-perceptions that are derived from experience are just as powerful as those that are derived from present sensations" (cf. Ratner, 1991, pp. 204-207). Melzack (1961) similarly demonstrated that in higher species at least, there is much evidence that pain is not simply a function of the amount of bodily damage alone. Rather, the amount and quality of pain we feel are also determined by our previous experiences and how well we remember them, by our ability to understand the cause of the pain and to grasp its consequences. Even the significance pain has in the culture in which we have been brought up plays an essential role in how we feel and respond to it. (p. 41)

Biological conduits of information do not determine how the information is comprehended, ordered, preferred, stored, or accessed (cf Ratner, 1989a, 1989b, 1991, chap. 4, for documentation of this point) (7).

Footnote 7:
Wahlsten and Gottlieb (1997) demonstrate that even genetic information does not specify what we think or remember, any more than the colors of the artist's palette dictate the artistic quality of the painting. Genes do not make finished neural structures but rather code for protein structure which is influenced by an amazingly complex metabolic system. 'The developmental fate of the protein is not determined upon its production; influences from higher, supragenetic levels in the developmental system play a role in specifying the incorporation of the protein into a mature, functional unit that is integrated with other parts of the nervous system" (p. 186; cf. Gottlieb, 1991). Gould (1997) provides a good example of an important psychological phenomenon which is not genetically caused. Firstborn and later born siblings have substantially different personalities. Firstborns are typically confident but conservative while laterborns are flexible and innovative. These personality differences "cannot be ascribed to genetics" (p. 76). They are only explainable by parental treatment of first- and laterborn children.

Biological impairments that disturb the transmission of information interfere with perception. However, the vast majority of people have normal biological processes, and their perceptual experience is determined by social experience and cultural artifacts organizing sensory information.

Socially organized psychological functions enable the individual to comprehend the environment more realistically than biologically determined processes do. Biologically determined processes determine automatic, fixed responses in infants and animals. They prevent true comprehension of, and adaptation to, the environment. As Vygotsky and Luria stated in the foregoing quotation, perception, memory, emotions, and motives that are socially mediated supersede organic sensations and enable contact with the world (Vygotsky, 1998). This is an important point because most people erroneously believe that biological mechanisms provide the most valid in- formation and that social mediation distorts information (8).

Footnote 8:
See Footnote 3. Size constancy is a good example of how experientially derived knowledge deter- mines more valid perception than biological mechanisms do. The size of the physiological image on the retina changes with the distance of the object from the viewer. However, the objects true size remains constant regardless of its distance from the viewer. Size perception that was determined by the physiological image on the retina would change with the object's distance and would be an inaccurate reflection of the objects constant size. Perception that is determined by experientially derived knowledge of an object's constant size accurately perceives size to be invariant.

Perception, reasoning, memory, emotions, needs, motives, and personality use social means (such as linguistic concepts) as their operating systems. They are not natural functions determined by biological mechanisms. As Luria (1978b) wrote:

    Perception and memory, imagination and thought, emotional experience and voluntary action [cannot] be considered natural functions of nervous tissue or simple properties of mental life. It [is] obvious that they have a highly complex structure and that this structure has its own sociohistorical genesis and has [thereby] acquired new functional attributes peculiar to man. (p. 275)

Donald similarly contends that collectively devised and maintained systems of verbal and written symbols constitute psychological functions. Such "external symbolic systems" greatly enrich the individual by enabling him to utilize the fruits of many people's efforts. The individual's capacity becomes expanded to include the capacity of the group. This is especially noticeable with regard to memory. An individual who participates in an external symbolic system is not limited to his own memory of things. He has access to permanent records which have been written down in collectively shared symbolic notations (Donald, 1991, pp. 308-325). Echoing Vygotsky's point that collective symbols constitute new psychological functions, Donald says that 'the external symbolic system ... imposes new search strategies, new storage strategies, new memory access routes, new options in both the control of and analysis of one's own behavior. It enables new skill-complexes (like reading or programming) in which the locus of memory is partly or mostly external" (Donald, 1991, p. 19).

If psychological functions are composed of social means rather than specific biological mechanisms, then psychological functions are acquired according to one's exposure to social means rather than upon a specific biological capability for the psychological function. Individual differences in psychological functions are there- fore due to differences in exposure to social experience that provides the social means for performing psychological phenomena.

To illustrate this point, consider mathematical reasoning. There are no natural determinants of this phenomenon because the human organism is not preprogrammed to develop it. Humans lived for thousands of years without math. It did not spontaneously arise because of natural determinants. Quite the contrary: Historical needs (especially commerce) led to the invention of mathematics at particular places and times (Ratner, 1991, pp. 98-99). When the need arose, humans invented mathematical symbols and systems for manipulating them. Therefore, it makes no sense to postulate a natural ability for mathematics. Mathematics only depends on natural processes in the trivial sense that a normal brain must exist to carry out the mathematical operations that are devised. If natural processes do not determine mathematical thinking, then individual differences in this capability must be due to differences in the social experience that is necessary for performing it (cf Fischer et al., 1996, for a similar argument and documentation).

If this argument seems perplexing, consider an analogous cognitive phenomenon, computer programming. This recently acquired skill is obviously a historical invention rather than a natural ability with natural determinants. Surely nobody would postulate an innate capability to program computers, because computers are only a few decades old. Computer programming involves the use of humanly created symbols (artifacts), which are manipulated according to humanly devised rules. These cultural artifacts can be learned by anyone. A normal brain and sense organs are necessary for conducting the information that is involved in computer programming; however, natural mechanisms do not determine the quality or level of the skill. From Vygotsky's standpoint, the same can be said for all psychological phenomena.

Donald (1991, pp. 9, 261-263, 373-380) supports this conception. He argues that the human brain is characterized by an overall capacity to learn (a "general-purpose learning capacity"), symbolize, and manipulate symbols which can be tailored to produce any specific capability which peoples' cultural lives demand. He cautions against modular neuropsychological models which specify an architecture that depends on many built-in, specialized neural components.

Vygotsky argued that the distinction between lower and higher processes leads to a new way of conceiving and treating psychological disturbances. Psychological dysfunction may be due to disturbances in either higher or lower processes, with crucial differences in the cause and treatment. Disturbances in lower functions are due to damage to particular sense organs or cortical areas. These dysfunctions can be partially alleviated by supplying alternative sensory artifacts such as braille letters or hearing devices. Disturbances in higher functions can often be caused by social impoverishment and can be treated by restructuring the patient's social environment. 'Any given defect [in lower processes] in a child produces a series of characteristics which impedes the normal development of his collective relations, cooperation, and interaction with others. Isolation from the collective or difficulty in social development, in its turn, conditions underdevelopment of higher mental functions which would otherwise arise naturally, in the course of normal affairs, linked to the development of the child's collective activities" (Vygotsky, 1931/1991, p. 199). Vygotsky believed that 'the greatest possibilities for the development of the abnormal child most likely lie in the higher rather than the lower functions" (p. 198) because the former can be alleviated by incorporating the patient into a supportive social environment which will foster the higher functions. Moreover, higher functions can compensate for deficits in elementary processes. Thinking and understanding can compensate for deficiencies in hearing, vision, and other senses because the patient can know what things are like despite an, incapacity to sense them directly (cf. McDermott & Varenne, 1995).

Contrasts Between Sociohistorical Psychology
and Other Approaches

Vygotsky's sociogenetic account of human psychology is distinctive in explaining psychology in purely social terms. Not only did he oppose biological reductionism, he also opposed interactionism between biology and culture as well. In other words, not only can psychological phenomena not be reduced to biological phenomena (such as genes, hormones, neurotransmitters), but these mechanisms do not even determine a portion of psychological phenomena by interacting with cultural means. For Vygotsky, cultural means supersede biological mechanisms in providing the entire explanation of psychological functions. Biological mechanisms only conduct information that is determined by cultural processes.

The distinctiveness of Vygotsky's approach can be seen by contrasting it to other psychological approaches, such as psychoanalysis and Piagetian psychology. Vygotsky criticized both for overemphasizing natural, biological processes and underemphasizing social processes in explaining human psychology.


Luria was initially a firm believer in psychoanalysis. "It is no exaggeration to say that Luria played one of the most prominent roles in the growth of the psychoanalytic movement in the Soviet Union" (Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991, p. 87). He founded and led local psychoanalytic associations, and he corresponded with Freud for some time. Luria believed that psychoanalysis was compatible with Marxism. Vygotsky disagreed that the two are compatible and he repudiated psychoanalysis. His strongest critique was leveled in his famous booklet "The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology" (Vygotsky, 1997, pp. 262-269). Vygotsky argued that

    psychoanalysis displays not dynamic, but highly static, conservative, anti-dialectic and anti-historical tendencies. It directly reduces the higher mental processes - both personal and collective ones to primitive, primordial, essentially prehistorical, prehuman roots, leaving no room for history. The same key unlocks the creativity of a Dostoyevsky and the totem and taboo of primordial tribes; the Christian church, communism, the primitive horde - in psychoanalysis everything is reduced to the same source... We can see that here it does not continue, it contradicts, the methodology of Marxism. (p. 263)

Vygotsky criticized psychoanalysis for postulating natural, biological mechanisms as the basis of psychological phenomena. According to Freud, psychosexual stages of development, the Oedipal complex, and id impulses are all assumed to be natural, universal processes. Society's role is limited to regulating these natural processes. Even when society represses them, natural mechanisms called defense mechanisms determine the outcome of the repression. Regression, projection, and conversion are all presumed to be natural, universal ways of handling socially repressed im- pulses. Thus, both the initial impulses themselves and the mechanisms that handle the social repression of the impulses are natural, biological, and universal.

Freud modeled the psyche on mechanical physical principles. His mechanistic conception of the mind culminated in his 1895 work "Project for a Scientific Psychology." Although Freud became discouraged over his failure to devise a systematic, coherent neuroanatomical basis to psychology and abandoned further attempts to refine it, he never abandoned the basic percepts that motivated it. Holt (1989) reviewed numerous instances of Freud's mechanistic explanations throughout his later works. Freud continued to believe that the Psychical apparatus was constructed like a reflex apparatus, that reflex processes remain the model of every Psychical function, that the psyche was composed of organiclike instincts that aimed at dis- charging energy and reducing stimulation to maintain a minimum level, and that the psyche is composed of forces and energies that operate according to physical principles such as laws of thermodynamics (cf. Sulloway, 1979). Freud's mechanistic view of the mind was not only derived from psychophysics; Darwinian biological principles were equally influential. As Ritvo described in her book, Darwin's Influence on Freud (1990), Freud adopted several biological assumptions from Darwin's book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872/ 1965).

Freud's naturalistic view of the mind contradicts Vygotsky's sociohistorical view. According to Vygotsky, culture does not simply regulate natural processes; it supersedes lower elementary processes and forms the entire content of psychological phenomena. Cultural processes and products constitute mental processes (cf. Ratner, 1994, for further discussion of the contrast between Vygotsky's and Freud's standpoints).

Piagetian Psychology

Vygotsky criticized Piaget in many of the same terms he leveled against Freud. This is not surprising in view of Piaget's endorsement of many of Freud's concepts. Piaget believed that the mind was governed by biological mechanisms. He also believed that cognitive processes are originally egotistical and antisocial. They only become directed at reality and social intercourse after 7 to 8 years of life (cf. Broughton, 1981; Ratner, 1991, pp. 120, 124-127, 142, for a discussion of Piaget's biological concept of child psychology).

In the second chapter of his famous 'Thinking and Speech," Vygotsky (1987) criticized Piaget's Rousseauian view of the child. In this view, the child is originally an antisocial creature governed by biological impulses and the tendency toward wish fulfillment in an-egotistical, subjective manner. Until 7 to 8 years of age, the child's natural processes assimilate and deform social experience in accordance with their own laws (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 61). For example, Piaget believed that children's language is originally directed at expressing imaginary wishes of the self. True social communication only develops after the stage of egocentric speech is surpassed.

Vygotsky held a quite different conception of the child. He believed that natural mechanisms govern the behavior of infants. However, by 2 years of age, the child participates in social relations. Biological mechanisms operate for a brief time as survival aids. However, they are quickly superseded by social influences. As soon as infancy ends, the individual begins to participate in social relations. Social relations form the developmental context of children and constitute the child's nature. Vygotsky regarded the child as inherently social, whereas Piaget regarded the child as inherently antisocial. For Vygotsky, social relations constitute the child's psychology from the start. For Piaget, social relations are secondary to the child's biological nature. They also must combat this entrenched nature much as Freud postulated.

Vygotsky believed that the child's first language is already a form of social communication. It is only later that the child uses social language for private ends. Thus, Vygotsky argued that egocentric speech develops after social speech rather than before it, as Piaget believed. Vygotsky (1987) wrote:

    In Piaget's view, the development of the child's thinking moves from autism to socialized speech, from illusory imagination to logical relations ... Our hypothesis obligates us to represent the overall process of development in the following way. The initial function of speech is social, that of social interaction or social linkage. ... The notion that speech is socialized is incorrect in that this implies that speech was originally non-social, that it becomes social only through development and change. (p. 74)

Vygotsky further criticized Piaget's understanding of social influences on psychology (9).

Footnote 9:
Bandura (1986, p. 488) echoed Vygotsky's critique of Piaget in stating that other people do not simply cause perturbation in our cognitive equilibrium; they serve as indispensable sources of knowledge and as models and shapers of our cognitive structures. Self-generated cognitive development is generally a secondary process, which is stimulated by social encouragement and which inevitably draws on many didactic aids.

Piaget only conceived of social interaction as pure communication. He did not comprehend that social interaction also includes practical, socially organized activity. In other words, people do not simply interact semiotically; they interact in engaging in practical activities such as working, studying in school settings, and following laws that are decided by governments. This context of social activities shapes the child's psychology. Vygotsky (1987) wrote:

    What is missing, then, in Piaget's perspective is reality and the child's relationship to that reality. What is missing is the child's practical activity. This is fundamental. Even the socialization of the child's thinking is analyzed by Piaget outside the context of practice. It is isolated from reality and treated as the pure interaction or communication of minds. (p. 87; cf Ratner, 1997a, chap. 3; 1997b; Bruner, 1959)

Role of Individual Agency in Sociohistorical Psychology

I conclude this incomplete and summary exposition of Vygotsky's approach by considering the question of individual subjectivity, or agency, in sociohistorical psychology. If human psychology is socially determined, does this mean that the individual is reduced to an automaton that passively receives social influences? Does society become in this view a reified set of conditions and institutionalized norms devoid of human action? In short, does Sociohistorical psychology succumb to the problems of mechanism that plague behaviorism, role theory, and other social theories?

Vygotsky clearly did not conceive his sociohistorical approach as endorsing mechanical determinism. He certainly believed that individuals are active even though their psychological processes are socially determined. Individuals think, evaluate, analyze, synthesize, abstract, and select from social influences. Individuals construct new meanings that modify existing socially constructed ones, and they certainly recreate social institutions and norms. These do not operate automatically apart from human maintenance. Figure I depicts the active role of individuals in constructing culture (cf Ratner, 1991, pp. 179-182; Lawrence & Valsiner, 1993).

Although Vygotsky recognized individual agency, he regarded it as socially organized. He opposed Piaget's model of subjectivity that stands outside social life and assimilates and deforms social experience in accordance with the mind's own processes.

The thrust of Vygotsky's work leads to the conclusion that new meanings, constructions, conditions, and institutions are fashioned from existing social reality. Vygotsky's entire emphasis is on the socially mediated character of psychology. His definition of higher psychological processes is mental activity, which is shaped and objectified through cultural artifacts such as signs and symbols. Individual subjectivity (agency) must exist as a moment of social activity. Subjectivity is active; how- ever, it functions within parameters of social life (Arievitch & Van der Veer, 1995). This is why Vygotsky wrote that what is "essential is not that the social role can be deduced from the character, but that the social role creates a number of characterological connections" (Vygotsky 1997a, p. 106).

Individual subjectivities exist as participants in a system of social activities and values. Even novel psychological phenomena which individuals construct are always permeated by the characteristics of social activities and values.

In the first place, the motivation to construct new psychological phenomena is generated by social experience. Certain categories of individuals, occupying particular positions in the social system, and experiencing definite irritations, become motivated to construct new phenomena. The motivation is socially distributed among classes, genders, and ethnic groups. It is not randomly distributed among individuals.

In addition, new psychological phenomena rest upon social values. Most new phenomena are simply new forms of existing values and social activities. For ex- ample, deviant behavior is innovative in that it violates social norms; however, deeper analysis reveals that deviant behavior is only an exaggeration of existing values and activities (violence, depersonalization, possessiveness, competitiveness, materialism, self-aggrandizement); it does not transcend them (Rieber, 1997). Although the deviant behavior is a creative invention, it recapitulates prevailing values and activities. Unusual forms of psychosis have been analyzed to be extreme forms of common social values such as individualistic self-expression, presenting a false self, and blaming oneself (Ratner, 1997b). Homosexuality is innovative in the sense that it rejects socially sanctioned heterosexual sexual objects; however, homosexual couples recapitulate the violence and other psychological phenomena of heterosexual couples (cf. Lie, 1991). Consequently, homosexuality is innovative only in the sense of expressing prevailing values and social relationships in a new form (10).

Footnote 10:
It is important to analyze the extent to which novel psychological phenomena reflect existing cultural values, because this is an indicator of emancipation. Phenomena that only superficially alter the form of cultural values tie individuals to existing social relationships and recapitulate their deficiencies. For example, Davis (1997) argued that American slave culture, despite its heroic efforts at resisting White oppression, was, nevertheless, dominated by it and was unable to offset its harmful effects. Davis criticized the tendency to romanticize slave culture as an escape from White oppression. Such a view, which exaggerates the autonomy of slave culture, obscures the real problems that plagued it:

    In his desire to refute the traditional image of slaves as passive victims, Gutman overreacted to the point of denying the realities of power - not only physical power ... but the subtle cultural and psychological influences that emanate from superior power when it is exercised with conviction for any length of time ... A central question is the degree to which slave family life, far from being a wholly autonomous force as Gutman maintained, became subject to rules which whites pragmatically chose to ensure the stability and profitability of the slave system. (p. 37)

Although most innovations in psychological phenomena are variants of existing social psychological characteristics, more radical transformations in psychology are possible. Individuals may devise psychological phenomena that have social characteristics that are substantially different from those of current phenomena. In an era of extreme individualism, competitiveness, and materialism, individuals may form personality traits and motives that are altruistic, empathetic, and cooperative. Qualitative changes in social psychological phenomena are actually inspired by social activities. These may be historically prior activities, which inspire individuals to model their psychologies on those of previous "golden ages." For example, people may reminisce about earlier times when individuals respected, cared about, and listened to one other. They may attempt to recreate these motives and traits in their own personalities. Another source of novel social psychological phenomena are possibilities that are de-emphasized in the existing social system. For example, individuals may see that in modern society people are tremendously interdependent. Our food, ideas, and even air quality depend on the activities of other people in far-flung places. This vast interdependence may lead people to become more concerned with what others are doing and to organize activities rationally for mutual benefit. In this case, developing a cooperative, altruistic personality and motives would be inspired by aspects of social life which are neglected by most people in their pursuit of private wealth. The social values which underlie new psychological phenomena are distributed among groups within the population. Only certain groups adopt certain values. Consequently, psychological changes are socially distributed among social classes, ethnic groups, and genders. They are not randomly distributed among individuals. For example, romantic love was a psychological change of momentous significance which was developed in its distinctive modern form by the bourgeois class in the 18th century. The nobility and the working class, which had not yet adopted bourgeois roles and values, did not experience romantic love (Stone, 1977, pp. 272-284). The bourgeoisie actively constructed modern romantic love although its construction had a social basis that confined it to this group of people. Romantic love only generalized to other classes as changes in life activities made it appealing to them.

Sexual liberation was another psychological innovation that was pioneered by middle-class individuals. Working class people were slow to adopt sexual experimentation. For example, 45%of college educated men had experienced oral sex in 1948, whereas only 15% of high school educated men had (Rubin, 1976, pp. 134-144). That sexual experimentation was not randomly distributed throughout the population testifies to play of cultural motives and values in generating it among particular groups.

Similarly, hysteria was a psychological innovation of 19th century middle-class women; it was uncommon among middle-class men or working-class women. Anorexia nervosa is another psychological creation that is almost entirely confined to middle- and upper-class Western women. Fright psychosis and phobias are almost entirely female afflictions. Running amok in Malaysia is an unusual reaction that is strictly a male phenomenon (Ratner, 1991, pp. 272-278). The social conditions and values of these groups of people make certain kinds of new expressions appealing to them but not to other people.

A final way in which novel psychological phenomena are social is that most of them are formed through communication, persuasion, and other social processes. An individual may initiate certain changes in psychological phenomena; however, these are always compromised by other people's input. In many cases, people form organizations to publicize new forms of evolution, perception, personality, and cognition. The, social formation of psychological phenomena was recognized by Wundt, Durkheim, and others. Wundt (1912/1921) said that social psychological phenomena are "mental products which are created by a community of human life and are, therefore, inexplicable in terms merely of individual consciousness, since they presuppose the reciprocal action of many" (p. 3). just as language, religion, and customs are not the accidental discovery of an individual, so all higher psychological functions are creations of the social community (cf. Durkheim, 895/1966) (11).

Footnote 11:
The social process that forms the content of psychological phenomena is usually not a dispassionate give-and-take among isolated intellectuals. It often involves organized behavior among groups of people who passionately try to have their psychological phenomena accepted. Economic, political, and even police power are some of social actions that groups use to promulgate psychological phenomena in the media, schools, family, and at work. Social struggles were fought over whether workers should have a punctual sense of time, the level of emotional expression that is appropriate at work (Ratner, 1997, p. 105), and the kinds of smells that are perceived as disgusting (cf. Ratner, 1991, pp. 55-56, 73).

Although psychological phenomena are social creations, this does not mean that all members of society are equally influential in constructing their form. In many, if not most, cases, psychological phenomena are constructed by a small minority of individuals who have the power to popularize them, institutionalize them, and get them accepted by others (cf Ratner, 1997a, pp. 115 - 116). The extent to which psychological phenomena are democratically or undemocratically formed is an important aspects of their social character.

In conclusion, active subjectivity is integrated within social life. It does not possess its own intrinsic processes for constructing psychological phenomena from social interactions. Social life remains the inspiration for psychological constructions. It also determines the extent to which subjectivity is active. Active subjectivity is not a constant. It is more or less pronounced according to the social system in which individuals reside. Extremely homogeneous, stable societies restrict the creativity that subjectivity can muster. Heterogeneous, dynamic societies would be more hospitable to the subjective and active construction of truly novel social psychological phenomena. (The most profound changes in social and psychological phenomena occur in periods of revolutionary social upheaval.) In summary, subjectivity depends on social life not only for the content of its activity but for the extent of its activity as well (12).

Footnote 12:
Cf. Luria (1978a) for an experimental demonstration of how different kinds of social context lead to different degrees of creativity.


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