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Three Approaches to Cultural Psychology: A Critique


Carl Ratner




This paper identifies the strengths and weaknesses of three predominant schools of cultural psychology. These schools are activity theory, the symbolic approach, and an individualistic approach. Activity theory explains psychology as grounded in practical cultural activities. The symbolic approach explains psychology as formed by collective symbols and concepts. The individualistic approach emphasizes individual construction of psychological functions from collective symbols and artifacts. By identifying the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches, this article seeks to illuminate the elements which can subsequently be integrated into a coherent framework for cultural psychology.

In 1984 Shweder published an overview of the main trends in cultural psychology. He distinguished an Enlightenment approach which emphasized underlying universal mental structures among human beings, and a romantic approach which emphasized cultural differences among human mental processes (Shweder, 1984). In the subsequent years since that essay, some new trends have developed in cultural psychology. I would like to review three directions which currently comprise the field. They are the symbolic approach, activity theory, and an individualistic approach to cultural psychology.

The Symbolic  Approach

The predominant approach to cultural psychology defines culture as shared symbols, concepts, meanings, and linguistic terms. These are socially constructed in the sense of being produced by individuals in concert. Cultural symbols are regarded as organizing psychological phenomena. They do so by labelling and categorizing information and directing responses in particular ways.

For example, we interpret properties of objects as indicating size and distance. Such interpretation determines our perceptual experience. Or, we interpret someone's action as deliberately hurtful to us. This interpretation determines that we become angry. A different interpretation of the action - that it was unintentional - would lead us to forgive it (cf. Ratner, 1991, 1998 for extensive documentation of this approach).

Prominent figures who take the symbolic approach to cultural psychology are Geertz, Shweder, Lutz, Wierzbicka, M. Rosaldo, and Super & Harkness (1996, p. 2).

Shweder (1996, p. 20), for example, defines culture as a reality composed of values (desirable goals) and beliefs. These beliefs are exemplified in practice, however they are not fostered or constrained by practice. Shweder exemplifies this definition in his discussion of sleeping arrangements for family members in different societies. He argues that cultural arrangements for sleeping are generated by moral concepts. He states that "the praxis [of sleeping] is an expression of [peoples'] preferences and not a by-product of a resource constraint" (ibid., p. 30). Shweder discounts material and institutional constraints which might influence sleeping arrangements, and he explains the latter as due to moral beliefs and preferences. He says that Anglo-Americans insist that husband and wife sleep together because we believe in the principe of "the sacred couple." According to this principle, the husband and wife must sleep together and alone. This principle plays no part in the choices made by certain other peoples such as the Oriya in India (ibid., p. 32).

A useful application of the symbolic approach is Olson's (1981) explanation of the rarity of child abuse among rural Turkish people. She traces the low incidence of child abuse to the prevalent beliefs that life is unpredictable and subject to the vagaries of natural and supernatural forces which transcend human will. Since humans have neither the power nor responsibility to control life, they do not seek to control their children. Nor do they set expectations for children's physical and emotional capabilities. Caretakers accept and indulge children's behavior. As a result, most misbehaviors of children are not punished but tolerated as childish naughtiness. Thus, parents' benevolent treatment of their children is mediated by beliefs about the causes of events, the powers and responsibilities of people, and the capabilities of children.

The strengths of this symbolic approach are that (1) It offers a specific description of culture. Culture is collective symbols or concepts which have a specific content. (2) It explains how culture enters our psyche and organizes psychological phenomena.

The symbolic approach is flawed in several ways. It is a purely mental view of culture: culture is symbols, concepts, and meanings. Concepts, symbols, and meanings are regarded as having a life of their own, independent of material and institutional considerations. The conditions under which people live and the ways they are treated do not figure into the symbolic account. Ignored are such issues as the way people are treated by bosses, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and administrators; the rights they have or don't have; their standard of living; educational, cultural, and occupational opportunities; laws and policies which, backed by police might, constrain behavior; financial budgets which determine many opportunities; artifacts such as tools, books, technology, cars, and housing structures; and the social distribution of political and economic power which affects peoples' lives (cf. Bergesen,1993 for a good discussion of the tendency to construe social phenomena as mental and personal rather than grounded in societal activities and conditions).

In the rare instances when symbolic cultural psychologists mention social structure, conditions, politics, power and control, these are dealt with superficially, without consideration of their real occurrences and the real affects they have on psychological functioning. For example, Shweder (1996, pp. 41-43) mentions that power ranges from legitimate forms (where the authority has valuable knowledge which is used to enhance the lives of citizens and which is accepted by citizens) to illegitimate forms (where the authority uses power to enhance her own position, oppress citizens, and which is resented/resisted by citizens). This general and banal description of power is not fleshed out by any concrete examples which illustrate the real effects on peoples' psychology. Shweder discusses power abstractly, divorced from social activities. He never mentions economic, political, legal, or military power. Moreover, he attributes the existence of power hierarchies to personal weaknesses in individuals. In a statement that sounds more like Maslow, Rogers, and other individualistic psychologists than cultural psychology, Shweder (p. 42) says that, "It is largely because human beings are vulnerable and only partially developed that the social order has evolved as a moral order, and as a power order as well." Shweder never justifies this assertion. Nor does he explain the origins of vulnerability and stunted development. Nor does he explain how psychological development can occur, or how it can overcome the massive, entrenched systems of power that structure our lives. Shweder's comment reveals the limited conception of culture that underlies the symbolic approach to cultural psychology. His cultural analysis proposes no social or political analysis or action.

Another weakness of the symbolic approach is that it fails to specify the processes by which people socially construct symbols. Although concepts are said to be socially constructed rather than natural, the inventive process is not indicated. Symbols appear to be freely and arbitrarily constructed. The origins and constraints on symbol formation are ignored. Moreover, the social-psychological processes which lead to changing symbols are not considered.

Another weakness is that the emphasis on shared symbols implies that the latter are constructed and accepted by all members of society. Little attention is paid to the heterogeneity of culture - the fact that certain groups are more powerful than others in determining the legitimacy of symbols, and the fact that symbols may be accepted by certain sub-groups and not by others (cf. Ratner, 1997a, chap. 3, and 1997b for further discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the symbolic approach).

Activity Theory

Another approach to cultural psychology is known as activity theory. Activity theorists argue that psychological phenomena are formed as people engage in socially organized activity. Practical, socially organized activity is the primary cultural influence on psychology.

The dependence of psychological phenomena on practical social activity is known as praxis, or Tatigkeit in German, or deyatelnost in Russian. This concept has a long intellectual tradition. It has been espoused by Dewey, Cole, Rogoff, Scribner, Engestrom, and various German and Russian psychologists such as Rubinstein, Bernshtein, Zaporozhets, Zinchenko, Asnin, Galperin, Davydov, Elkonin, Vygotsky, Luria (1971, p. 266), Leontiev (1979; 1981, p. 231), and Tulviste. Activity theorists  seek to correct the neglect of real organized activity (including the results of this activity in the form of social conditions and social systems) which plagues the symbolic approach to cultural psychology and all traditional approaches to psychology (Zinchenko, 1995, p. 42-43; Vygotsky, 1997a, pp. 200-201; House, 1981).

For example, Engestrom (1993, p. 66) criticized analyses which

focus on dyadic interaction, attempting to define contexts as social situations, as spaces of interactive experience, or as fields of discourse. Although contexts are here seen as interpersonal constructions, they are commonly treated as purely linguistic, symbolic, and experiential entities. This makes contexts look like something that can be created at will by two or more persons in interaction, as if independently of the deep-seated material practices and socioeconomic structures of the given culture.

Dewey similarly argued that thinking is grounded in the objective (objectified) nature of social organizations:

Social institutions, established political customs, effect and perpetuate modes of reaction and of perception that compel a certain grouping of objects, elements, and values...Every successful economic process, with its elaborate divisions and adjustments of labor, of materials, and instruments, is just such an objective organization. Now it is one thing to say that thought has played a part in the origin and development of such organizations, and continues to have a role in their judicious employment and application; it is another to say that these organizations are thought, or are its exclusive product. Thought that functions in these ways [i.e., these institutions and practices] is...thought as practical, volitional, deliberately exercised for specific aims...Moreover, such reflective thought as does intervene in the formation and maintenance of these practical organizations harks back to prior practical organizations...(Dewey, 1910, pp. 209-210).

Vygotsky employed similar terms to fault Piaget's account of cognitive development in which the stages appear to unfold because of biological maturation or some intrinsic motivation. Vygotsky said, "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" (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 87). Vygotsky explained how the tasks of social life generate cognitive growth:

The motive force that determines the beginning of [cognitive growth] and sets in action the maturational mechanism of behavior impelling it forward along the path of further development is located not inside but outside the adolescent. The tasks that are posed for the maturing adolescent by the social environment - tasks that are associated with his entry into the cultural, professional, and social life of the adult world - are an essential functional factor in the formation of concepts (ibid., p. 132).

Bruner makes this point equally forcefully:

What is plain is that the adolescent differs from the child not simply in that he uses a propositional calculus that deals with possibilities rather than merely with actualities, but rather that he is forced to deal with possibility by the nature of the tasks that he undertakes and by the nature of the unfolding and development of his drives and the social connections required for filling them...Logical structures develop to support the new forms of commerce with the world (Bruner, 1959, p. 369, emphasis added).

Activity theorists maintain that activities such as science, schooling, art, writing, and reading stimulate distinctive kinds of psychological phenomena - e.g., communicating stimulates thinking (Vygotsky, 1997a, p. 163). Activities do not express pre-formed, natural cognitive, emotional, or personality characteristics of the individual. On the contrary, artistic, literary, scientific, educational, and recreational activities generate psychological functions.1 Psychological phenomena are not acquired by simple imitation, but rather by participating in various life activities (Vygotsky, 1998, p. 43). Finally, activites determine the social arenas in which particular psychological phenomena appear, as well as the characteristics that phenomena display in those arenas. Individuals may employ different kinds of logical and mathematical reasoning in school compared with at play or shopping.

At its best, activity theory is used to elucidate the full social character of activities. This means identifying their concrete norms, roles, leadership, privileges, and opportunities. For example, in his first writings Vygotsky said that "we must be profoundly historical and must always present man's behavior in relation to the class situation at the given moment" (1997a, p. 212). He similarly stated that "every epoch has its own form of education" because educational activity has always corresponded to "those particular economic and social structures of society that defined the whole history of the epoch" (ibid., pp. 55, 56).

Engestrom (1993) similarly endeavored to analyze the concrete social character of medical activity -  the capitalist principles, division of labor, and constituent groups of corporatized medical activity in Finland - and to demonstrate how it structures particular interactions between a doctor and a patient.

While activity theorists know that activity has particular social characteristics, they often fail to analyze the manner in which the latter comprise psychological characteristics. Instead, they commonly treat activity as having intrinsic general characteristics. Reading, writing, attending school, and communicating are portrayed as activities which have an intrinsic, general character apart from particular social systems. The manner in which tools mediate psychological processes is also described quite generally. Tools are said to foster planning, deliberation, and self-control because one uses an instrument to accomplish a goal instead of achieving it directly. Such a general description overlooks the particular features and functions of instruments which reflect the needs of particular social activities (cf. Ratner, 1997a, chap. 3 for further discussion of this point).

Vygotsky's later  research typically overlooked social and economic features of education and socialization. It concentrated on general social interactions by which caretakers stimulate attention, imitation, and symbolic thinking in children. This is why several Russian scholars have accused Vygotsky & Luria of philosophical idealism despite their occasional statements about the importance of practical social activity on psychology (Zinchenko, 1984, pp. 66-67, 70-71; Zinchenko, 1995, pp. 41-42).

This abstract approach to activity overlooks important origins and characteristics of psychological phenomena. For instance, Cole (1995) sought to alter students' reading activity in order to enhance their comprehension. He primed each student to think about some aspect of a reading assignment in order to focus attention on it. However, this program disregarded important influences on reading such as the content and availability of educational materials; the structure and condition of the school buildings and equipment; the educational budget, teacher training, teacher salaries; the students' family lives; their parents' education and occupations and the social and economic rewards which accompany them; the content of media which the children watch; educational and occupational opportunities which will be available to the students.2

The abstract approach to activity is also reflected in the work of Cole's colleague, Sylvia Scribner. This charge may appear unfair in view of certain of her statements which recognize the social organization of activity. For example, her view of reading as an activity appears to acknowledge the social conditions that contextualize and constrain it. She says:

If reading is performance, we need to understand why a person undertakes to do it - the purposes and goals of reading - and we need to inquire into the conditions under which reading is carried out - the features of the social and physical settings that contextualize and constrain particular acts of reading. A performance framework of analysis requires attention not only to a reader and a text but to the task the reader is trying to fulfill through engagement with a text" (Scribner, 1997, pp. 190-191).

However, the conditions and settings which Scribner acknowledges turn out to be more physical and technical than social. One of her studies (Scribner, 1997, pp. 308-318) concerned the manner in which work structures cognitive processes. She compared workers at different jobs in a dairy for the kinds of products and characteristics which they recalled. The aspects of work which she identified as affecting cognition were technical/physical aspects - e.g., filing forms, locating products, checking products against orders/inventories, or driving trucks to deliver products. Scribner never considered how social features of occupations such as differences in creativity, autonomy, free time, status, or salary might affect cognition. Nor did she mention the hierarchical organization of occupations, the alienation of workers from control over work activity, exploitation, intimidation, the effect of maximizing profits at the expense of the workers' human needs, or competition. These social aspects of work surely have effects on workers' psychology which should be investigated by activity theorists (cf. Ratner, 1991, pp. 113-115; Ratner, 1997a, p. 211 for related discussion).

Another weakness with certain activity theorists is a tendency to ignore just how activity shapes psychological phenomena. Certain theorists identify the fact that activity influences psychology but no process is delineated. For example, Saxe (1996) was interested in the effect that commercial business activity had on mathematical reasoning. He studied groups of Oksapmin people (from Papua New Guinea) who had different amounts of experience with the money economy. Members of the different groups used different mathematical reasoning to solve arithmetic problems. While the relationship between commercial activity and mathematical reasoning is interesting, Saxe never identifies what the connection is. He fails to specify how commerce forms mathematical reasoning. And he fails to identify characteristics of mathematical reasoning which reflect specific features of commercial activity. Thus, it's not clear what mathematical reasoning has to do with commercial activity. Culture is construed as an external independent variable rather than as a system of relationships and processes which organize psychological phenomena in a particular manner. This approach really circumvents a cultural analysis of psychological phenomena.

Scribner commits a similar oversight. After reporting the number of product attributes recalled by dairy workers at different jobs, Scribner explains the results by saying that certain properties are made more salient because they are frequently encountered in symbolic or material form. However, the mere frequency of encountering objects during work does not explain the psychological effects of activity. It is necessary to comprehend the ways that work structures the manner in which different groups of workers symbolize, represent, understand, expect, and evaluate things. A theory of cognitive mediations is a necessary  part of understanding the manner in which activity affects psychology. Overlooking cognitive mediations between practical activity and psychological phenomena leads to oversimplifying the spiritual world of humans, as Zinchenko (1995, p. 43) pointed out.

Activity theorists also often overlook the opposite direction by which people construct, maintain, and reconstruct activity.


The Individualistic Approach

A recent development in cultural psychology has been the emphasis on individual factors which mediate culture. This approach champions individual creativity in selectively assimilating culture. Advocates of this approach reject the idea that culture has the power to organize psychological functions. Instead, culture is regarded as an external context which the individual utilizes and reconstructs as he sees fit. This individualistic approach (as I shall call it) defines culture as the outcome of a negotiated interaction between an individual and social institutions-conditions. In their negotiations, interpretations, selections, and modifications of institutions-conditions, individuals "co-construct" culture. Each individual constructs a personal culture out of his own experience. Social life is like a tool kit which provides individuals with the means for constructing what they like.

The emphasis on individuals constructing culture out of a social environment has been a central theme of recent psychological anthropology (cf. Ratner, 1993a for documentation). For example, in her analysis of Balinese emotions, Wikan rejected trying to understand Balinese emotions as reflections of social categories. She sought instead to elucidate the personal experience of emotions. She said, "were we to make sense of Suriati's endeavor by appealing to a Balinese `culture' endorsing `grace' we would come close to reducing her to an automaton: a mere embodiment of `her culture.'" "People do not live and embody culture. That would be too much of a reification" (Wikan, 1990, pp. 13, 14). Wikan goes so far as to say, "In my account, people occupy center stage, while my concern with `culture' is incidental" (ibid., p. 19).

Wikan espouses this individualistic orientation in a later ethnography about poor people in Egypt. She explicitly disregards the socioeconomic context of her subjects, saying, "I do not attempt to analyze the macroforces that determine the economic and social inequities that create poverty. Instead, I am trying to show how the particular forms of poverty and misery are experienced, and how they are actively shaped and transformed by the people who suffer them" (Wikan, 1996, p. 3). Wikan's statement expresses the essence of the individualistic orientation to cultural psychology - namely, that individuals create their own cultural psychology out of conditions, and that their cultural psychology can be comprehended through the self-expressions of subjects without any additional analysis of the socio-cultural system. Of course, Wikan acknowledges that external obstacles constrain people, thwart their opportunities, and corrode their social relationships (ibid., p. 15). However, she paradoxically believes that individual actions transcend this context. She repeatedly states that her subjects are resilient, energetic, resourceful, and successful. She glorifies individual transcendence of social conditions to such an extent that she sub-titled her book "Self-Made Destinies in Cairo".

The individualistic approach to cultural psychology also finds expression in the work of Jaan Valsiner. Valsiner seeks to combine the symbolic and individualistic approaches. Thus, he recognizes that there is a collective culture of socially shared meanings. However, "belief systems that exist within a collective culture do not have an effect in the sense of being copied directly (or appropriated) by individuals. Instead, they constitute resources from which active persons construct their own (personal) belief structures" (Lightfoot & Valsiner, 1992, p. 395). Valsiner argues that individuals construct a personal culture within collective culture. Culture is thus partly shared and partly personal. Since individuals contribute a personal element to culture, they "co-construct" culture.

Valsiner construes the personal element of culture as idiosyncratic products which are produced by independent individuals. In his words, "Individuals construct their idiosyncratic (personally meaningful) system of signs, practices and personal objects, all of which constitute the personal culture" (Valsiner, Branco, Dantas, 1997, p. 284). Valsiner's co-construction of culture combines two entirely distinct and separate processes: an impersonal, social component plus a non-social, personal component. The collective part is "alien" while the personal part is "one's own" (ibid., p. 285). As an example of this personal construction of culture and psychology, Lightfoot & Valsiner discuss how a parent might react to an advertisement. She may comply with the message and buy the product. However, she may just as likely re-interpret portions of the advertisement and purchase other kinds of products; or she may reject the message completely and buy nothing. Her reaction is her choice, it is not shaped by external social situations. Social situations are grist for the individual's mill, they are not the mill which structures the individual's work.

In Lightfoot & Valsiner's model, social influences are regarded as "collective cultural viruses" which are

affect-laden meanings [symbolic concepts] meant to infect or penetrate personal belief systems (systems of personal sense). Their success, however, depends on whether the individual's personal culture in its present state is susceptible to such influence, or whether it contains psychological `antibodies' or conflicting beliefs (that had emerged during previous experiences), that block or neutralize the `attack' (Lightfoot & Valsiner, 1992, p. 396).

In other words, individual processes determine the effect that social life has on a particular person. Social life only affects someone to the extent that he lets it.

The co-constructionist position separates the production of social relations, institutions, and conditions from the ways in which individuals utilize or consume them. Individuals choose how to consume social products and this choice is guided by one's "psychological antibodies" rather than by social factors.

Another version of the individualistic approach to cultural psychology is the work of Baerveldt & Voestermans (1996). They claim that the human organism is a self-maintaining system whose internal stabilizing mechanisms refract and assimilate culture. These writers speak of the individual's body as mediating culture or being a source of culture through "the bodily production of meaning" (p. 709). Like Wikan, they argue against the social constructionist view of the body which regards it as the bearer of socially constructed meanings. To speak of a socially constructed or regulated body is, in their view, a reified account which treats the body as a mannequin.

These psychologists argue that culture is not imposed on passive subjects; rather individuals actively express themselves in the culture. Individuals create meaning in their interpersonal interactions. This process they call "co-regulation." Co-regulation occurs by non-verbal communication rather than cultural linguistic forms. The authors liken co-regulation to the ritualized fighting of dogs - a spontaneously worked out interaction on a non-verbal level. In the authors' words, "the example of the dogs demonstrates that a regulation of behavior is possible without the need for a supra-individual moral order and without the explicit need for the discursive or linguistic negotiation of power differences. Instead, ordered forms of behavior can emerge from the immediate co-regulation of expressive bodily activity" (ibid. p. 705).

Baerveldt & Voestermans illustrate their view of cultural psychology by analyzing the bodily disorder anorexia nervosa. Their analysis rests on the view that "The body is conceived of as a natural juncture of co-regulative skills" (p. 705) rather than the juncture of cultural activities and conditions. The authors protest the social constructionist account which construes anorexia nervosa as being symptomatic of a given order (e.g., a system of gender roles and stereotypes). The authors go so far as to redefine anorexia as "a lack of co-regulative skills that serve the selfing process" (p. 709). Anorexia is not a distortion of body image which reflects cultural roles and stereotypes; it is an inability to co-regulate one's relationship with other individuals: "anorexics are observed to be especially afraid of spontaneous, informal social relations" (p. 707).

The individualistic approach to cultural psychology is correct in noting that individuals actively construct culture and assimilate cultural influences. Culture does not function apart from  individuals. Terms such as culture, social institutions, social conditions, school, work, and government should be used with the understanding that they denote the activities (and the products of activities) of people rather than reified entities. To speak of schools affecting cognitive processes really means that educational activities of people stimulate and structure cognitive processes.

Individualistic cultural psychologists are also correct in observing individual variations in psychological phenomena. Viewpoints and voices are heterogeneous rather than uniform. Misunderstandings and contradictions are commonplace.

However, the individualistic approach also falsifies the cultural nature of human psychology. It postulates society as intrinsically alien and harmful (infectious) to personal culture and then seeks to protect the individual from deleterious social influences by exaggerating his ability to invent his own psychological reactions on a personal or interpersonal level. Societal origins, constraints, content, distribution, and functions of psychological phenomena are disregarded (cf. Ratner, 1997b for further discussion of this position). Individualistic cultural psychologists want to empower the individual to resist social influences by exercising internal capabilities ("antibodies") which are independent of society. They seek to insulate individuals from social influence. They don't want psychological processes to be portrayed as social phenomena because this will, in their view, discount agency and subjectivity and infect it with alien culture. The result is an anti-social view of the individual in which the individual is more powerful than society and can act toward it in any way he desires.3

Although individualistic cultural psychologists pay lip service to the existence of collective cultural constraints which comprise part of culture, they rarely analyze it. Instead, they emphasize the personal side of culture which consists of personal meanings and actions. Individual idiosyncracies and differences take priority over socialization, internalization, learning, and sharing. Agency is construed as striving to produce idiosyncratic meanings and behaviors. These psychologists fail to acknowledge that agency also strives to adapt the individual to social norms. (Cf. Hochschild (1979) who shows that individuals actively strive to do "emotion work" on themselves to configure their emotional reactions to social norms.)

The individualistic emphasis subverts a cultural analysis of human psychology and it has deleterious socio-political consequences as well. For example, in Lightfoot & Valsiner's discussion of individual interpretations, selections, negotiations, and modifications of the social environment, they fail to consider societal influences on this activity. The authors never indicate societal factors which lead certain parents to comply with advertisements and others to resist in various ways; they are unconcerned with how many parents are able to reject the ads; and they show no interest in understanding whether the parents' diverse reactions to ads reflect any other social influences. Any parental reaction appears to be an individual choice. The cultural character of the reaction vanishes from view.

Baerveldt & Voestermans' notion of co-regulation similarly obfuscates the ways in which men and women, parents and children, leaders and followers co-regulate their behavior in dramatically different ways in different societies. Using co-regulation as an explanatory concept to explain anorexia nervosa further dissolves the specific cultural form and content of the anorexic's thoughts, perceptions, ideals, feelings, self-concept, and bodily functioning in this vacuous abstraction.4 The fact that co-regulatory mechanisms which govern animal behavior are biologically predetermined, involuntary, and stereotyped, makes them inimical to human cultural activity and agency altogether (cf. Ratner, 1991, pp. 12-30; Ratner 1998; and Ratner forthcoming for a critique of this kind of sociobiological, psychobiological thinking).

Wikan's ethnographies, which were mentioned earlier, also obfuscate the concrete cultural character of psychology. Her ethnography of Egyptian poor disregards macro cultural forces and fails to link her subjects' actions to specific features of culturally organized activities. Consequently, it degenerates into a series of banal tales of life-in-poverty which are characteristic of poor people anywhere in the world. Throughout most of the book, the reader gets little sense of the distinctly Egyptian culture of poverty because Wikan abstracts personal experiences from cultural activities, institutions, structures, conditions, and dynamics. She rarely explains any specific social reasons for her subjects' behaviors; she simply describes individual behaviors in common terms such as "she felt hurt and therefore lied to him." Such personal descriptions of behavior would only become concrete and interesting if they were described and explained as embodying concrete cultural activities and values. Bourdieu explained this point in the following words:

To describe the process of objectification and orchestration in the language of interaction and mutual adjustment is to forget that the interaction itself owes its form to the objective structures which have produced the dispositions of the interacting agents and which allot them their relative positions in the interaction and elsewhere. Every confrontation between agents in fact brings together in an interaction defined by the objective structure of the relation between the groups they belong to (e.g., a boss giving orders to a subordinate, colleagues discussing their pupils, academics taking part in a symposium), systems of dispositions...and through these habitus all the objective structures of which they are the product...

 "Interpersonal" relations are never, except in appearance, individual-to-individual relationships and the truth of the interaction is never entirely contained in the interaction (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 81).

Divorcing personal interactions from social activities and conditions, the individualistic approach to cultural psychology acts as a deculturizing agent just as psychoanalysis, behaviorism, phenomenology, and other traditional psychological approaches do (cf. Ratner, 1991, pp. 292-294; Ratner, 1993b; Ratner, 1997a, pp. 109,119, fn. 6; Ratner, 1997b).

The individualistic approach to cultural psychology not only undermines a cultural analysis of psychological phenomena. Exaggerating individual agency, autonomy, and diversity also denigrates the reality of culture altogether. Shared, organized culture becomes devalued. Lightfoot & Valsiner (1992, p. 411) state that "the particular hierarchy of beliefs constructed from media suggestions may vary from individual to individual." Such individual diversity would impede interpersonal communication as well as cultural organization. This follows from the fact that becoming a social/cultural being  requires adapting oneself to normative, regulated activities and concepts. As Zerubavel (1997, p. 15) states, "It is the process of cognitive socialization that allows us to enter the social, intersubjective world. As we become socialized and learn to see the world through the mental lenses of particular thought communities, we come to assign to objects the same meaning that they have for others around us... Only then do we actually `enter' the social world." Repudiating  common socializing experiences in favor of individual experiences precludes entering the social world. It also reduces cultural psychology to clinical psychology, since idiosyncratic psychologies replace shared psychological phenomena and indiosyncratic explanations replace cultural explanations which are rooted in shared life-activities.

Exaggerating individual agency and differences also denies social trends which can be predicted and directed. The free choices that construct personal culture are unconditioned, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. Valsiner calls this presumed state "bounded indeterminacy" by which he means that there is a bounded field of temporary social and psychological factors within which, however, "the actual course of development is not predictable" (Valsiner, Branco, Dantas, 1997, p. 284) since free choices ultimately determine the actual course.

Exaggerating individual agency also discounts organized social change because culture is construed as the aggregate of individual constructions. In the individualistic view, culture changes through the accretion of individual changes in thinking and acting. The actor is a cultural innovator because everything he does adds his idiosyncratic experience to collective cultural norms and expectations. Valsiner & Litvinovic (1996, p. 61) claim that individuals continuously change culture in the simple act of dialoguing with it. Wikan (1996) similarly insists that individuals resist and transform culture in their everyday actions. Baerveldt & Voestermans (1996) agree that culture is individual interactions of co-regulation, and these interactions are continuously changing by virtue of individual adjustments.

This view of cultural change is extremely apolitical. Individuals change culture on an individual level without undertaking political, legal, or social action. There is no reason to engage in institutional change because institutions don't directly affect the individual. Regardless of how repressive or alienating a social system is, whether we become injured, imprisoned, unemployed, or divorced, we can decide whether to selectively incorporate or disregard these events in our construction of a life-space. With individual solutions so available, there is no need to consider social action. [Moreover, since society is construed as inherently alien to personal culture, there is no possibility of reforming it.]

For instance, Valsiner, Branco, & Dantas (1997, pp. 287-292) complain that the asymmetry of parents directing children's behavior gives too much authority to parents and limits the child's self-actualization. However a facile solution is at hand - children can mentally distance themselves from parental guidance, they can co-construct their culture by imagining their own goals which they may implement at a later time. Social asymmetry, like other social problems, is dissolved by an individual thought or behavior.

Likewise, Baerveldt & Voestermans'  discounting broad cultural issues from the description, explanation, and treatment of anorexia implies that it can be treated and prevented by facilitating normal co-regulation skills. There is no need to consider or alter social roles and stereotypes. Disregarding the existence of organized cultural activities and focusing on general interpersonal processes such as co-regulation leaves organized culture intact. Culture is thus reified by exempting it from analysis and transformation.

Social relations become irrelevant when agency is regarded as an intrinsic attribute of individuals. If one is always an agent, regardless of whether social conditions are humane or inhumane, and regardless of the act's content or consequences, then, of course, there is no reason to consider or transform social institutions. However, such a conception of agency is abstract, asocial, and false. One's ability to be a true agent who can direct one's life depends very much upon the social position one occupies in a concrete social system. It also greatly depends upon the kind of content one is able to implement in one's actions. Agency is a social phenomenon which is to be achieved. It is not an intrinsic attribute that occurs equally everywhere (cf., Marcuse, 1973, pp. 157-190). To say that individuals are active agents is trivial and vacuous unless the extent and content of agency is considered.

The range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual...Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear - that is, if they sustain alienation. And the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls (Marcuse, 1964, pp. 7-8).

The extent and content of agency depends upon the manner in which social activities are organized. As Taylor (1985, p. 206) argued, "the free individual of the West is only what he is by virtue of the whole society and civilization which brought him to be and which nourishes him; our families can only form us up to this capacity and these aspirations because they are set in this civilization."

In other words, agency must be constructively created by creating conducive conditions. It is not an inalienable attribute of the individual which can be elicited by withdrawing social influences. O'Neil (1998, p. 83) expressed this well when he said, "Autonomy is not just the absence of heteronomy...Autonomy requires also settled dispositions and commitments that define what it is to have a character and hence the conditions in which these can develop."

Individualistic cultural psychologists accept alienation in social institutions and believe it can be circumvented by creating personal meanings in one's individual life. This belief is false because it fails to recognize that personal choices reflect social practices, values, and conditions. Where alienation and ignorance prevail, as they do in most sectors of today's societies, individuals cannot wishfully concoct personal freedom and creativity. Individual freedom can only be achieved when individual decisions control social practices, values, and conditions - that is, when the latter are democratically constructed by individuals through collective social action. As Taylor said, "since the free individual can only maintain his identity within a society/culture of a certain kind, he has to be concerned about the shape of this society/culture as a whole. He cannot be concerned purely with his individual choices and the associations formed from such choices to the neglect of the matrix in which such choices can be open or closed, rich or meagre" (Taylor, 1985, p. 207).5

The strengths and weaknesses of the three approaches to cultural psychology can be tabulated as follows:


Strengths And Weaknesses of Three Approaches to Cultural Psychology






Emphasizes cognitive basis of psychological processes 

Elaborates social content of psychological processes 

Recognizes social construction and  sharing of concepts

Overlooks practical activities, artifacts, and conditions 

Symbols appear arbitrary 

Minimizes individual differences  in concepts and processes 

Indefinite process of social construction


Emphasizes individual agency in constructing psychological phenomena  from social influences 

Emphasizes individual differences  in psychological  phenomena 

Overlooks practical activities, artifacts, and conditions which affect psychology 

Overlooks organized social action necessary to alter cultural and psychological phenomena


Emphasizes action rather than pure cognition 

Emphasizes tools 

Emphasizes social agency 

Recognizes heterogeneity of psychological processes

Activity and tools are conceived as devoid of social content 

Unclear about how activity organizes  psychological processes 

Minimizes individual  agency 


Toward an Integral Framework for Cultural Psychology

A viable approach to cultural psychology should synthesize the strengths and avoid the weaknesses of the foregoing three theories. Synthesizing their strengths yields four fundamental tenets of cultural psychology.

#1) Psychological phenomena are cultural in their essence. This tenet is drawn from the symbolic and activity approaches to cultural psychology. It means that psychological phenomena are formed as people participate in social life, they embody characteristics of a particular social life, and they generate behavior that perpetuates particular social relationships.

To say that psychological phenomena are cultural means that they are social facts, formed and shared through social processes that transcend individual processes.

Of course, nothing collective can be produced if individual consciousnesses are not assumed; but this necessary condition is by itself insufficient. These consciousnesses must be combined in a certain way; social life results from this combination and is consequently explained by it. Individual minds, forming groups by mingling and fusing, give birth to a being, psychological if you will, but constituting a psychic individuality of a new sort. It is, then, in the nature of the collective individuality, not in that of the associated units, that we must seek the immediate and determining causes of the facts appearing therein (Durkheim, 1895/1938, p. 103-104, my emphasis).

Cultural-psychological phenomena "are psychological in nature but they do not have their source in individual psychology, since they infinitely transcend the individual. They must, therefore, be the object of a special science charged with their description and the investigation of their preconditions" (Durkheim, 1888/1978, p. 63). This science is cultural psychology.

Even emotions, which appear to be deeply personal, are cultural phenomena. In the sociological tradition of Durkheim, Gordon stated, "Although each person's experience of emotion has idiosyncratic features, culture shapes the occasion, meaning, and expression of affective experience. Love, pity, indignation, and other sentiments are socially shared patterns of feeling, gesture, and meaning" (Gordon, 1981, p. 562). "Social life produces emergent dimensions of emotion that resist reduction to properties inherent in the human organism...Socially emergent dimensions of emotion transcend psychological and physiological levels of analysis in terms of (1) origin, (2) temporal framework, (3) structure, and (4) change" (ibid., p. 563; cf. Zerubavel, 1997 for additional examples).

Vygotsky called the cultural formation of psychological phenomena "the basic law of historical human development" (cited in Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1994, p. 176). Vygotsky argued that "the social moment in consciousness is primary in time as well as in fact. The individual aspect is constructed as a derived and secondary aspect on the basis of the social aspect and exactly according to its model" (Vygotsky, 1997b, p. 77). "Essential is not that the social role can be deduced from the character, but that the social role creates a number of characterological connections" (ibid., p. 106).

#2) The cultural essence of psychological phenomena consists in practical social activities. This point is taken from activity theory which is the only approach that emphasizes the centrality of practical activities for culture and psychology. Other approaches ignore activity and fail to comprehend the full nature of culture and psychological phenomena. As Zinchenko (1984, p. 73) said, "The exclusion of the real process of the subject's life, of the activity that relates him to objective reality, is the underlying cause of all misinterpretations of the nature of consciousness. This is the basis of both mechanistic and idealistic misunderstandings of consciousness."

We have seen that much contemporary activity theory has a truncated conception of activity which must be broadened. Activities are socially organized behaviors which people devise to meet their practical needs.  Activities include working, educating, playing, governing, treating disease, adjudicating disputes, arranging family life. Activities are conducted according to particular behavioral norms; rewarded with different levels of prestige, wealth, privileges, rights, and opportunities; alloted to certain members (groups) of the population;  controlled by certain members (groups) of the population; and structured with other activities in a division of labor. This social organization is built into activity and constitutes its concrete character.

Activities are the ways human life is organized. As such, activities define the kinds of things that people think about, perceive, imagine, remember, speak, and feel; activities also structure how we think, perceive, imagine, speak, feel, and remember.

The manner in which activities are organized also accounts for the diversity of psychological phenomena within a society. Activities which are specialized in a complex division of labor promote heterogeneous phenomena, viewpoints, and voices. The psychological heterogeneity which individualistic cultural psychologists identify (and exaggerate as vitiating shared phenomena and understanding) is a function of the division of labor of activities. Heterogeneity is not a natural manifestation of individual idiosyncracies. Individual differences depend upon a particular social order, they do not preclude social order.
#3) Psychological phenomena are organized by social concepts as symbolic cultural psychologists, and certain activity theorists such as Vygotsky, emphasize. However, contrary to the symbolic approach, people do not collectively form symbolic concepts on a purely mental level. People's conceptions about things, people, and events depend upon the activities which they devise for dealing with them. (Concepts also depend upon experience with the natural environment.)

Thus, psychological phenomena are fashioned from, and reflect, the structure of social activities, the natural environment, and concepts which are inspired by social activities and natural conditions. Bourdieu expressed this idea in his notion of the habitus. The habitus is a structure of understandings about the nature of things which structures psychological phenomena and which is itself structured by social practices. The habitus is a socially structured, structuring, structure: It is a social product in that its dispositions are durably inculcated by the possibilities and impossibilities, freedoms and necessities, opportunities and prohibitions inscribed in the objective conditions (Bourdieu, 1977, chap. 2; 1990a, pp. 76-86, 91; 1990b, chap. 3).

We have noted earlier that Engestrom's (1993) work utilizes this perspective in linking doctors' treatment of patients to corporatized medical activity. Carol Tavris similarly argues that the different activities associated with men's and women's roles in society generate psychological differences in emotionality, cognitive processes, aggression, kindness, sensitivity and empathy. Contradicting a feminist insistence on the natural basis of psychological differences, Tavris says, "New studies find that the behavior that we link to gender depends more on what an individual is doing and needs to do than on his or her biological sex." "Much of the stereotype of women's innate advantage in empathy derives from the different jobs that women and men do and their different average levels of power" (Tavris, 1992, pp. 63, 65; cf. Ratner, 1997a, chap. 3 for additional examples).

#4) Social activities, concepts, and psychological phenomena are devised by humans, as individualistic cultural psychologists insist. However, contrary to their view, agency is not an individual attribute which spontaneously and unpredictably spins out idiosyncratic meanings. Nor is it formed on a purely interpersonal level through face-to-face co-regulations. Agency develops through participating in broad, collective social activities.

Moreover, once agency is objectified in social activities it becomes constrained by their objective form. Most agentive acts recapitulate prevailing activities in one form or another. As Bourdieu, 1977, p. 95 said, "Because the habitus is an endless capacity to engender products - thoughts, perceptions, expressions, actions - whose limits are set by the historically and socially situated conditions of its production, the conditioned and conditional freedom it secures is as remote from a creation of unpredictable novelty as it is from a simple mechanical reproduction of the initial conditionings." Bounded choice is a far more appropriate notion for cultural psychology than Valsiner's notion of bounded indeterminacy is.

The complex social institutions and systems which objectify agency set the parameters for forming concepts. Activities and concepts form the parameters - the working material and driving force - for agency to form psychological phenomena. In other words, the agency which forms psychological phenomena is structured by the agency which has been objectified in social activities and concepts.

Even most acts of resisting organized society unwittingly recapitulate central values and practices of it. As Wertsch (1997, p. 14) observed, "even when consumers of state-produced official histories resist or reject these histories, their accounts of the past are heavily influenced by them" (cf. Ratner, 1993a for examples). The consumption of culture is heavily influenced by the production of culture, just as consumption of commodities is greatly affected by what is produced and how it is marketed. Consumption is not a free act as individualistic psychologists maintain.

Of course, individuals occasionally mount a serious challenge to the status quo. They achieve a comprehensive analysis of prevailing views and practices, devise radically alternative views and activities, and begin acting them out. These steps may be initiated by a few individuals, however they are sociocultural in that 1) the individuals who initiate these steps generally occupy positions in society which facilitate their comprehending and critiquing the status quo; 2) the steps are inspired by contradictions in previous social activities, 3) they are intentionally directed at existing social activities, 4) they are constrained by tendencies and limits of the existing system, 5) they must gain acceptance by many individuals, 6) they are refined through social interaction with other individuals,  7) they must be coordinated in political, social, economic, and military maneuvers to transform cultural activities.6

Grounding psychological phenomena in cultural activities, institutions, and conditions does not reify them as individualistic cultural psychologists imagine. Durkheim explained this point when he said that "sociology in no way imposes upon man a passively conservative attitude." On the contrary, "sociology which by discovering the laws of social reality will permit us to direct historical evolution with greater reflection than in the past" (Durkheim, 1909/1978, p. 75).
Unfortunately, space does not permit me to explore the manner in which activity, concepts, psychological phenomena, and agency are constructed and integrated. I have begun to articulate this in other writings (Ratner, 1997a, chap. 3; Ratner, 1998; Ratner forthcoming) and in work which will appear in future publications.



1. Donald (1991) makes a convincing argument that symbolic processes, and psychological functions in general, have a practical social basis: "Language is usually placed at the top of the cognitive pyramid; but language evolved in, and continues to be employed in, a wider cultural context" (p. 201). According to Donald, language evolved to enhance cultural development. That is, language enabled people to conceptualize, plan, coordinate, reflect on (evaluate), and revise social activity, making it far more effective than spontaneous, unsymbolized behavior. "Language is the ultimate social arbitrator. It is used for watching the activities of others, keeping records of interpersonal relationships, regulating interactions, coordinating people, sharing practical knowledge of things like food sources and neighboring human tribes, and making collective plans and decisions" (pp. 213, 140). Language did not evolve for the purpose of intellectually sharing ideas, it evolved to facilitate practical survival by enhancing the effectiveness of social relationships.

Donald proposes that social activity inspired the phylogenetic development of all psychological capabilities, not just language. His argument is that large, complex, group structures have an adaptive advantage over simple, unstructured groups (such as herds). Organizing complex group activity to maximize this cultural advantage demands enhanced intelligence, planning, memory, and refined emotions (which motivate specific behaviors). Furthermore, these psychological capabilities require a biological substratum such as a larger brain and especially a larger neocortex . (The relative increase in brain size as a proportion of body weight is called the encephalization quotient.) Therefore, group activity is a primary selective factor in increasing psychological capabilities and brain development (Donald, 1991, pp. 137-138).

 2. Ogbu (1987) levels a similar critique against those who attribute low levels of literacy to psychological and interpersonal factors such as cognitive style, communication style, style of interacting with others, pattern of language socialization, and upbringing. Instead, Ogbu argues that low levels of literacy are due to social conditions and historical and ongoing social practices such as discrimination: "the problems experienced by minorities in acquiring literacy and in academic performance generally are a function of their adaptation to the limited opportunity historically open to them for jobs and other positions in adult life requiring literacy, and where literacy pays off" (p. 151; cf. Cressy, 1983).

3. This position is similar to a popular gene-environment interactionist model which many psychologists erroneously believe. This model postulates two separate and distinct processes: genetic processes internal to the individual and social processes external to him. Each is regarded as contributing some fixed influence to phenotypical behavior. A popular example of this position is the diathesis-stress model of psychological disorder. Genetically determined physiological processes are supposed to determine how one reacts to stress in the environment. An environment is only stressful (pathogenic) insofar as the individual is weak and intolerant of stress. A strong individual in the same situation will not experience stress. Consequently, it is the individual's diathesis (deficit) which ultimately explains his disorder (cf. Ratner, 1991, pp. 285-289 for discussion and critique of this viewpoint). As Gottesman, a leading advocate of this position stated, "No consistent evidence exists that the social environment, or any specific nongenetic factor, will induce schizophrenia in individuals who are not genetically predisposed to this condition" (Moldin & Gottesman, 1997, p. 555).

Lightfoot & Valsiner are led to similarly contend that people only conform to social demands if they are too weak, or disinterested, to resist - i.e., if they have not developed the psychological antibodies to neutralize the demands. Strong individuals will not conform. This position, of course, leads to blaming the victim for misdeeds and exonerating powerful leaders of social institutions.

4. Stripping away the concrete cultural characteristics of psychological phenomena also obfuscates their concrete psychological quality. Defining anorexia as co-regulation prevents distinguishing anorexia from antisocial personality, egocentrism, or conformity. All of these entail some difficulty in co-regulating interpersonal interactions, and their specific psychological features (thoughts, feelings, ideals, perceptions, self-concept) are what distinguish them as identifiable disturbances.

5. The personal approach to cultural psychology echoes the ideology of postmodernism and shares its errors (Koertge, 1998). Postmodernists glorify the individual's ability to construct a life-style that is unique, independent, changing, and indeterminate. Multiple, diverse, changing selves are taken to co-exist in social space that is unregulated and unpredictable. Postmodernists repudiate cultural organization, commonalities, and influences.

Ironically, postmodernism's values are the predominant values of capitalist economic activity (Harvey, 1989). Continuously revamping oneself, differentiating self from others by creating unique styles of self-presentation and making independent decisions, and eschewing social regulations, obligations, commonalities, and order are hallmarks of capitalist economic activity which continually alters the labor market, productive techniques, consumer products, and needs. Moreover, these characteristics have deleterious effects on people and nature, as Marx and other critics have analyzed (cf. Putnam, 1995 who documents the decline in community associations, social trust, and altruism in contemporary capitalist society, and cf. O'Neil, 1998, p. 62 who similarly explains how "the corrosive of the conditions of human well-being...The forms of commitment that are constitutive of personal relations are incompatible with the contractual relations of the market order.").

Glorifying individualistic behavior is politically conservative and conformist because it endorses the capitalist economic system with all of its faults. As Harvey (1989, p. 111) observed, "If the conditions of capitalist modernization form the material context out of which both modernist and postmodernist thinkers and cultural producers forge their aesthetic principles and practices, it seems reasonable to conclude that the turn to postmodernism does not reflect any fundamental change of social condition."

6. The extensive institutional alliances and struggles which are necessary to form and reform culture, and which escape the attention of most cultural and mainstream psychologists alike, are exemplified by the manner in which American capitalists forged the system of corporate capitalism at the turn of the 20th century:

many visible human hands worked together in a conscious effort to establish and solidify the new social order. The very conditions of its possibility were laid down by concerted legal and political action, from the mid 1880s through the turn of the century...Corporate leaders acted purposefully and collaboratively, along with political allies, to extend their command and negotiate the conflicts over regulation and trusts that marked the first decade of our century...They fought in the political arena, not just at factory gates, against unions. They agitated for American imperial power to enlarge and protect international markets and investments. 

Furthermore, in such matters corporate leaders acted consciously as a class - or really, as a class-in-formation...They collaborated through such organizations as the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Civic Federation, trade associations, and government commissions, as well as in political parties, especially the Republican. They sat on one another's boards. And, of course, they mingled in social organizations, cultural circles, private schools, elite suburbs. The ensemble of their activities amounted to a social movement, one that...produced a new hegemonic class within a transformed social order (Ohmann,1996, pp. 60-61; cf. Smail, 1994 for additional examples). 




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