Introduction to Section 5.

Child Psychology: Vygotsky's Conception of Psychological Development

by Carl Ratner

Institute for Cultural Research & Education


The central idea that informs all of Vygotsky's work on developmental psychology is that qualitatively new psychological phenomena arise over the life-span. These phenomena consist of novel psychological operations, content, and relationships that are not continuous with previous ones. Consequently, perspectives and methods that are suitable to comprehending early behaviors are not necessarily suitable for comprehending mature psychology. Different concepts and methods must be devised to apprehend understand the different psychological stages.

The most fundamental qualitative change over the life-span, as Vygotsky identified it, is from lower, elementary processes to higher, conscious, psychological processes. There is a transition from "direct, innate, natural forms and methods of behavior to mediated, artificial, mental functions that develop in the process of cultural development" (Vygotsky, 1998, p. 168). Lower, elementary processes are biologically programmed, natural behaviors that are immediate responses to stimuli. Sucking and rooting reflexes are examples. In lower processes, there is nothing mental, psychological, or conscious. By contrast, psychological processes are mental and conscious. Consciousness intervenes, or mediates, between a stimulus and the response. Consciousness comprises a "mental space" of psychological phenomena such as perception, emotions, memory, thinking, motivation, self, language, and accumulated learned information. These psychological phenomena "process" incoming stimuli and construct a response that is willful and intentional. Psychological processes are humanly created, mental phenomena. They are artifacts, not natural biological phenomena.

Vygotsky emphasizes this difference as follows: "Higher mental functions are not simply a continuation of elementary functions and are not their mechanical combination, but a qualitatively new mental formation that develops according to completely special laws and is subject to completely different patterns" (Vygotsky, 1998, p. 34). "In the thinking of the adolescent, not only completely new complex synthetic forms that the three-year-old does not know arise, but even those elementary, primitive forms that the child of three has acquired are restructured on new bases during the transitional age" (ibid., p. 37).

The essence of psychological phenomena is that they are conscious, cognitive, and conceptual--that is to say, they are intellectual. It is only when the child has achieved these capacities that he develops a psychology:

Development of thinking has a central, key, decisive significance for all the other functions and processes. We cannot express more clearly or tersely the leading role of intellectual development in relation to the whole personality of the adolescent and to all of his mental functions other than to say that acquiring the function of forming concepts is the principal and central link in all the changes that occur in the psychology of the adolescent. All other links in this chain, all other special functions, are intellectualized, reformed, and reconstructed under the influence of these crucial successes that the thinking of the adolescent achieves... Lower or elementary functions, being processes that are more primitive, earlier, simpler, and independent of concepts in genetic, functional, and structural relations, are reconstructed on a new basis when influenced by thinking in concepts and they are included as component parts, as subordinate stages, into new, complex combinations created by thinking on the basis of concepts, and finally under the influence of thinking, foundations of the personality and world view of the adolescent are laid down (ibid, p. 81).

Since a fundamental criterion of psychological phenomena is that they rest upon cognitive concepts, knowledge, and schemas, psychological phenomena are all intellectualized. Vygotsky even refers to "intellectual perception" (ibid., p. 290-291). He means that what we see is not simply a function of sensory impressions; rather, these impressions are themselves shaped by knowledge and concepts about things. Emotions are also shaped by knowledge and concepts (Ratner, 1991, chaps. 1, 2, 5; Ratner, 2000.). In cases of intellectualized psychological phenomena, the subject knows what he is seeing. He knows that the thing is a flower. Moreover, he knows that he is perceiving and feeling the thing. In contrast, elementary reactions are immediate responses to things and lack cognitive, intellectual, linguistic meaning.1

An example of the qualitative difference between a cognitively mediated psychological phenomenon and an elementary, natural, biological reaction is the difference between infantile sensory pleasure and psychological happiness. Psychological happiness is modulated by understandings and expectations. The happiness one experiences while gazing at a sunset over the ocean is different from the happiness one experiences when one's favorite basketball team wins the championship with a last-second basket, and from the warm glow that one feels when receiving a thoughtful present from a lover. These different forms of happiness entail, respectively, an appreciation of nature's grandeur and subtle richness; an identification with a group of players and even a city or country; and an appreciation of being wanted by and being together with a valued individual. The simple, inchoate pleasurable sensation that a neonate feels when fed and rested entails none of the foregoing cognitions and therefore none of the foregoing subtly and richness. Vygotsky says that the young child can feel pleasure but he does not know he is happy; he does not know (conceptualize) what happiness is. In the same way, an infant feels hunger pangs but he does not know he is hungry because he has no concept that identifies hunger as a phenomenon. "There is a great difference between feeling hunger and knowing that I am hungry. In early childhood, the child does not know his own experiences" (ibid., p. 291).

Vygotsky's emphasis on cognitive factors as basic to psychological development highlights the social organization of psychology, because cognition is socially organized. Thinking depends upon social concepts objectified in language; it also depends upon socially structured life activities. The cognitions that shape psychological phenomena therefore implant cultural concepts, linguistic terms, and social activities into those psychological phenomena. Vygotsky speaks of "the law of sociogenesis of higher forms of behavior: speech, being initially the means of communication, the means of association, the means of organization of group behavior, later becomes the basic means of thinking and of all higher mental functions, the basic means of personality formation" (ibid., p. 169). "Thus, the structures of higher mental functions represent a cast of collective social relations between people" (ibid.).

Vygotsky strongly believed that human psychology is a cultural phenomenon. It originates in cultural processes, embodies them, and perpetuates them. He speaks about "the central and leading function of cultural development" (ibid.) in psychological growth. Specifically, the content of thinking is related to one's position in societal production (ibid., p. 43). Vygotsky contrasts his cultural-cognitive psychological approach to other approaches that explain psychological development in terms of sexual maturation or emotional changes (ibid., p. 31).

In proposing that psychological phenomena are culturally and cognitively organized, Vygotsky denied any natural, "basic," or pre-cultural form and content to psychological phenomena. The frequently noted distinction between basic psychological forms and cultural psychological content is false. All aspects of psychological functioning (both form and content) are cultural. As Vygotsky said, "Actually, the form and content of thinking are two factors in a single whole process, two factors internally linked to each other by an essential, not accidental, bond" (ibid., p. 38). He also noted that "deep, scientific studies show that in the process of cultural development of behavior, not only the content of thinking changes, but also its forms, new mechanisms, new functions, new operations, and new methods of activity arise that were not known at earlier stages of historical development" (ibid., p. 34).

Insisting that human psychology is fundamentally cultural, in both its form and content, and denying that these are natural, pre-cultural aspects to psychology, Vygotsky can be said to be one of the founders of a truly cultural psychology. If the structures of higher mental functions are "a transfer into the personality of an inward relation of social order" (ibid., p. 169) then the social order must be comprehensively understood in order to understand psychology. One must be well versed in the history, sociology, and politics of a culture in order to explain and describe a people's psychology (cf. Ratner, 1997, chaps. 3, 4; Ratner, 2000; Ratner, 2002, for examples). Nebulous, superficial conceptions of culture obscure key processes and factors for understanding the formation and character of psychological phenomena (cf. Ratner & Hui, 2003, for examples).

Vygotsky's qualitative distinction between cognitive-cultural psychological phenomena and immediate, automatic, elementary biological responses (of animals and infants) is revolutionary because it undercuts all attempts at explaining psychological phenomena in terms of biological processes. Explanations of normal psychology in terms of genes, hormones, neurotransmitters, neuroanatomy, evolution, instincts, sensory processes, and infantile reactions are negated by Vygotsky's fundamental distinction.

Let us examine one popular developmental theory to demonstrate its implausibility and incongruence in light of Vygotsky's approach. One theory holds that infants possess emotions, perceptions, motives, intentionality, memory, will, personality, and social responsiveness that are quite similar to those of adults. For example, two-day old infants are said to "prefer" their mothers' voices over other women's. This conclusion is based on an instrumental conditioning experiment where long sucks on a rubber nipple were rewarded by a tape recorded story read by their mothers while short sucks were rewarded by a story read by another woman. (I have simplified the design in this discussion.) The infants produced more longer than shorter sucks.

However, this experiment does not demonstrate a psychological preference, certainly not according to Vygotsky. A psychological preference is cognitively mediated and bound up in psychological phenomena. A preference for Beethoven's music over Bartok's, for example, involves aesthetic criteria, emotional reactions, and recollections. Using Vygotsky's terminology, a psychological preference involves knowing that one prefers something to another thing and knowing something about the features that make it preferable. The response to sounds by the two-day old does not entail such knowledge or any psychological elements.

It is likely that infants suck to elicit the mother's sound because it is a familiar stimulus (similar to sounds the infant heard while in the womb), not because it is their mother's voice (which they surely do not realize). Familiar stimuli may be positively rewarding because they have been proven safe to the neonate. Novel stimuli may be difficult for the immature neonate to cope with, so they are less rewarding. Such an automatic tendency to gravitate toward familiar stimuli as a survival mechanism would be as non-psychological as the hummingbird's attraction to red flowers.

This interpretation is supported by evidence that even fetuses respond differently to familiar and unfamiliar sounds. Mothers recited a story to their fetuses from the 34th through 38th week of gestation. During the 38th week, each fetus heard either the familiar story or a novel one. Fetal heart rate was lower when the familiar story was presented and higher when the novel story was heard. This automatic reaction has nothing to do with an intentional preference. It is governed by the same biological mechanism which makes familiar sounds positively rewarding to the neonate (cf. Cooper & Aslin, 1989; Ratner, 1991, chap. 4).

Even though Vygotsky emphasizes an ontogenetic transformation from elementary biological reactions to higher, conscious psychological phenomena, he does not regard the infant as a blank slate. It is a misconception to hold that cultural psychology begins with an empty organism. Vygotsky clearly recognized that the infant comes equipped with numerous innate response tendencies that confront the caregiver. However, these natural responses gradually extinguish during childhood. The lower brain centers that control them become subsumed under developing cortical centers that enable learned, conceptually guided behavior to supercede reflexes.2

These maturational changes of the child determine his experience with the environment. Early on, when biological programs dominate behavior, behavior is an automatic, stereotyped, uncomprehending reaction to superficial features of the environment. The declining control of biology and the development of consciousness/cognitive understanding allows for increased sensitivity to the environment, better comprehension of it, and flexibility towards it (Vygotsky, 1998, pp. 293-295). "From the point of view of development, the environment becomes entirely different from the minute the child moves from one age level to another" (ibid., p. 293). Vygotsky urges adults to study this interaction and not to assume that the environment has an absolute effect independent of the child. Socialization becomes increasingly effective as the infant's biological reactions lose strength.

By seven years of age, most natural determinants of behavior have died out and the basis of behavior is overwhelmingly cultural, and Vygotsky repeatedly stresses this qualitative transformation. There is no longer an interaction of biological and social determinants of behavior. At this point, the child's individuality is a function of her particular social experience, which has increased exponentially over the years (i.e., more in the later years, less in the early years). The manner in which others have reacted to her behavior and physical traits (such as beauty, gender, and skin color) replaces biological determinants of behavior.

The child's experience with others is her individual social experience. Individual social experience filters, or mediates, experience with broad cultural factors such as school, movies, advertising, and political campaigns. Thus, two children who encounter the same movie, advertisement, or teacher may react differently because of their different individual social experiences. The individual's interaction with society is an interaction between broad cultural factors and accumulated particularized experience with society (individual social experience). Rather than personality being partly determined by biological mechanisms and partly determined by social experience, "personality is by nature social" (ibid., p. 170).

Every individual's unique social experience is embedded in broadly shared cultural elements. While every adolescent in the United States has a unique set of parents, for example, the interaction between most American adolescents and their parents manifests many similarities. Common experiences are necessary for organized, stable action and communication to occur.

Vygotsky's cultural psychology is not mechanical. The fact that a culture pre-exists the newborn, is external to him, and structures his life, does not mean that psychological development is a mechanical process of receiving inputs passively. Children actively strive, concentrate, learn, remember, figure out patterns, differentiate essential from non-essential issues, and identify with cultural events and figures (cf. Bandura, 1986 on the active nature of human learning). Vygotsky prized children's activity and insisted that educators encourage independent activity in order to enhance learning. Vygotsky despised autocratic pedagogy and rote learning of boring material (Vygotsky, 1926/1997).

At the same time, Vygotsky believed that educators should direct children's education, to ensure that children learn similar things and that they learn important information about their social and natural world. Vygotsky was by no means suggesting that children's activity should be highly personal, idiosyncratic, or only spontaneous.

Contemporary Uses of Vygotsky's Approach

Vygotsky's theories of child development have been supported by quite a few contemporary researchers (Ratner, 1991, chap. 4). In particular, Bronfenbrenner has formulated an explanation for individual psychological differences that is consistent with Vygotsky's law of sociogenesis of psychological phenomena. Bronfenbrenner explains how biologically determined temperament relates to a child's particular social experiences. Instead of temperaments directly determining personality, they are "personal qualities that invite or discourage reactions from the environment of a kind that can disrupt or foster processes of psychological growth. Examples include a fussy vs. a happy baby; attractive vs. unattractive physical appearance; or social responsiveness vs. withdrawal." Gender, race, and birth order are other such qualities. "The effect of such characteristics on the person's development depends in significant degree on the corresponding patterns of response that they evoke from the person's environment" (Bronfenbrenner, 1989, pp. 218-225). The eminent child psychologist Jerome Kagan similarly wrote, "Temperamental factors impose a slight initial bias for certain moods and behavioral profiles to which the social environment reacts. But the final behavior we observe at age 3, 13, or 33 years is a product of the experiences to which the changing temperamental surfaces have accommodated" (cited in Ratner, 1997, p. 153).3

       This formulation generates a new interpretation of Lewin's formula that behavior is a function of the person and the environment: B = f(P,E). It transforms how P & E are conceived and interrelated. One conception of Lewin's formula is that P & E are independent entities that each impart certain qualities to behavior, or to psychology. E is construed as generally homogeneous (imparting similar influences to everyone) while P is construed as introducing personal variations into behavior. However, Bronfenbrenner and Kagan argue that the environment treats different attributes differently; therefore, E also promotes behavioral diversity. In addition, the person and environment are not independent. What P contributes to behavior/psychology is not an intrinsic characteristic of P, because P is a function of E. P contributes to behavior as P has been affected by E. Therefore, P is the accumulation of particular encounters with various environments; it is not the person's intrinsic character. The formula B = f(P,E) could be written as B = f(Ep , Eg) where Ep is one's personal environment and Eg is the general environment that most people confront.

       The social treatment of natural characteristics organizes the child's personality. It even affects the individual's initiative and creativity. "It is true that individuals often can and do modify, select, reconstruct, and even create their environments. But this capacity emerges only to the extent that the person has been enabled to engage in self directed action as a joint function not only of his biological endowment but also of the environment in which he or she developed" (Bronfenbrenner, 1989, p. 223-224; cf. Ratner, 2002, pp. 59-67). Bronfenbrenner explicitly rejects the idea that individuals are the primary shapers of their own development, with the environment playing only a secondary role. The reverse is closer to the truth.

       Cross-cultural research demonstrates how personality attributes are socially structured. Chen, et al. (1995, 1998) found that shyness-inhibition can arise from social experience and be shaped by social experience to result in quite variable personalities. Shy-inhibited children are treated quite differently in China and the US, and they develop corresponding psychological differences. In Western countries children are likely to become shy, reticent, and sensitive because they have been rejected by significant others. Inhibited children are then likely to be rejected or isolated by peers. They are regarded as incompetent and lacking in social assertiveness. These children experience difficulties in social adjustment and become withdrawn in the company of peers. They also experience academic difficulties and become lonely and depressed. In China, shyness-inhibition results from positive experiences with significant others who encourage it, not from negative experiences as in the West. Shy-inhibited children in China are more accepted by their caretakers and peers than their average counterparts are. They are considered more honorable, mature, competent, well behaved, and understanding. They receive higher scores on leadership than average children do. Finally, they are no more at risk for depression than other children.

Thus, personality attributes take quite different forms and have different social and psychological consequences depending upon how a culture treats them. Shyness that is fostered and valued, and shot through with competence, popularity, maturity, and decisive leadership is qualitatively different from shyness that stems from rejection, disappointment, embarrassment, unresponsiveness, insensitivity, and punishment, and is shot through with low confidence, dependence, immaturity, fear, withdrawal, and isolation.

Criticism of some neo-Vygotskians

Vygotsky's central theme--that higher psychological processes are formed by cultural processes, including semiotic concepts, rather than by biological ones--is anathema to most mainstream psychologists today. They typically insist that psychological phenomena are either universal or individual phenomena--with biological origins in either case. Laws of perception, memory, learning, attitude change, and group process are construed as universal processes, while personality and mental illness are regarded as individual phenomenon--and all of these are said to be rooted in human nature. According to this mainstream view, biology determines most of the form and content of psychological phenomena, and social processes have a marginal effect at best. Broad cultural factors and processes such as social institutions, legal systems, forms of government, social class, and prevalent ideologies are accorded virtually no role in mainstream psychology

Although they claim to be inspired by his writings, some neo-Vygotskians also misunderstand and or even reject his most important concepts. This is particularly true of the law of sociogenesis of psychological phenomena (the cultural organizing of psychology) and the distinction between early, simple, biological reactions and mature, complex psychological phenomena.

Misunderstandings of sociogenesis

Certain neo-Vygotskian cultural psychologists and activity theorists have repudiated the notion of an organized culture that is external to the individual and structures his psychology. They glorify the individual as the producer of his own psychology and even of culture at large. Each person is said to decide how to confront culture, how to behave in the culture, what to accept and reject from culture. In other words, the individual appropriates culture (in the sense of taking it over for herself and making it her own) rather than internalizes culture (in the sense of incorporating culture into herself and being formed by it).

These neo-Vygotskians state that they are combining individual activity with culture, and sometimes employ the term "co-constructionism" to denote both elements. However, their writings emphasize the individual's construction of psychology and culture, and neglect the influence or even the existence of organized culture.4 For instance, Valsiner claims that individuals do not simply synthesize culturally provided material; they reconstruct it to produce their own material of a personal sort. He goes so far as to construe culture as a toxic milieu that individuals avoid by creating their own meanings (cf. Ratner, 2002, chap. 2, for documentation and discussion of Valsiner's position).

Wertsch, another influential writer on Vygotsky, similarly implies that individuals construct personal meanings about things, rather than reflect social meanings. For example, consider the case offered by Rowe, Wertsch, and Kosyaeva (2002) of two patrons in a museum, looking at a painting that depicts the Winter Palace and its locale:

K: See here? It's the Winter Palace, and in 1985 I lived in St. Petersburg for a summer with a friend in her apartment down this street here.

S: You lived right there?

K: Yes, well, not right in that building but down the street here a little way and I would walk down to the square everyday.

From this minimal interchange, the authors conclude that the two patrons have imbued the public painting with personal meaning (i.e., where one of them lived) and they have disregarded any historical-social significance: "Instead of bringing autobiographical narratives into contact with official culture as part of an attempt to enrich the latter, it seems to us that this [narrative] involves an escape from the public memory sphere These visitors are refusing to engage in the museum's public memory space It is meaning making on one's own terms (ibid., p.106)." This conclusion diametrically opposes Vygotsky's emphasis on the social formation of psychology. Where Vygotsky emphasized that personal activity incorporates cultural factors, Wertsch et al, similar to Valsiner, proposes that personal meanings refuse and escape from cultural life.

The claim that individuals continually displace, negate, escape, or reconstruct culture by creating personal meanings is an overstatement, one that is contradicted by massive standardization, monopolization, and conformity in society. It is also contradicted by the vast psychological literature on the power of modeling and referencing to mold behavior (cf. Bandura, 1986). And it is contradicted by the uncanny ways that children's psychology recapitulates parents' psychology, and by the enormous difficulty of breaking this pattern even with the aid of a therapist. In addition, social coordination, continuity, and communication require that individuals accept and abide by social conventions. Internalizing social values and norms is critical to preserving social life. If social conventions were continually being transformed into personal constructs, this would subvert social coordination, continuity, and communication. Freud, Hobbes, and all thoughtful social theorists have recognized this potential.

Of course, individuals do have personal ideas that color their sense of life. A child's sense of school is colored by her needs, desires, expectations, and fears. A factory worker may conjure up erotic thoughts to make his job bearable. Normally, these personal ideas are compatible with common social norms and pose no threat to them. Extreme personal experience, such as trauma, can radically distort one's behavior, and profound thinking by geniuses may also lead to novel behavior. Apart from these exceptions, personal thoughts do not usually displace, negate, escape, or transform the required regularity of social life.

To follow Vygotsky's intentions more closely, it can be noted that much of what appears to be personally invented meanings actually recapitulates the individual's social experience (how people have treated that person differently from the way they have treated others) or broadly shared social experiences and meanings that many individuals have internalized in similar fashion (the Ep and Eg in the earlier discussion of Lewin and Bronfenbrenner). In these cases, the individual cannot be said to have created meaning on his own terms. When a particular pupil fails in school, his behavior is often attributed to his own disinterest. However, his behavior is frequently characteristic of many children who have similar backgrounds and attributes (gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status). Shared experiences with social institutions, and with similar physical infrastructures of their neighborhoods, lead these students to adopt common social meanings about formal education--that, for example, it is insignificant to their lives--and to lose their motivation to master it. The fact that an individual violates a particular set of social codes (e.g., the teacher's) does not mean he lives in a world of self-created, personal meanings. His action may be shaped by other social experiences, norms, meanings, and expectations, those of his own social group. Individualistic neo-Vygotskians are so intent on construing culture as a personal construct that they overestimate the presence and influence of personal constructs and underestimate the effect of organized culture on psychology.

K's casual remark, that she lived on a street that appeared in the painting, does not imply that she is escaping from the public memory sphere, refusing to engage in public memory, or regards the painting entirely as a personal projection. If anything, the limited statements in the dialogue of S & K appear to be cultural responses rather than spontaneous, idiosyncratic ones. Making personal remarks about a historical artifact conforms to a prevalent tendency in modern society. The entertainment and news media often glamorize personal issues such as sex scandals over social, political, religious, and artistic issues. When S & K enact this pattern in the museum they are recapitulating culture not refusing it (Ratner, 1993, 1999, 2002, chap. 2). They are introducing one set of social norms (to personalize social issues) into a social domain that prescribes other social norms (to appreciate historical artifacts in museums). They are not really creating new values on their own terms. When neo-Vygotskians exaggerate the individualistic, personal basis of behavior they too are simply introducing a certain Western ideology into their study of psychology; they are not creating a new point of view.

Elementary vs. higher psychological functions

Vygotsky's distinction between early, simple, biological reactions and mature, complex psychological phenomena has also been neglected, misunderstood, or rejected by mainstream psychologists who seek to reduce higher mental functions to lower explanatory constructs. The distinction has escaped some neo-Vygotskians as well.

Rogoff, for example, is sympathetic toward Vygotsky's sociocultural approach. Yet she maintains that biology and culture contribute equally to generating social-psychological phenomena. She believes that "gender roles can be seen as simultaneously biologically and culturally formed" (Rogoff, 2003, p. 76). According to Rogoff, certain specific features of gender roles spring from the genetic make-up of men and women (which is the result of phylogenetic evolution), and certain features spring from contemporary cultural factors. She claims that this in fact accords with Vygotsky's explanatory schema: "In Vygotsky's terms, evolutionary (biological) preparedness of gender roles involves phylogenetic development, and social learning of gender roles involves microgenetic and ontogenetic development of the current era's gender roles during the time frame of cultural-historical development" (ibid., p. 76).

Rogoff is not simply claiming that biology prepares gender roles in a general way by preparing humans to learn, speak, use tools, and think; she claims a much more specific role for biology. Rogoff (2003, pp. 71-73) claims that biological mechanisms prepare features of gender roles and personality as follows: A biological trait of women, which they share with many animals, is that they have to invest heavily in each child to reproduce their genes, whereas men need invest little time and effort. Women need to spend nine months pregnant, two to three years nursing, and more years protecting and teaching the child how to survive. In contrast, it is possible for men to father as many children as women allow, with very little time invested. Biological, reproductive processes of men and women are said to generate a social psychology wherein women are more attentive to and involved with children than men are.

Our discussion has emphasized that Vygotsky opposed biological explanation of social-psychological phenomena--even in combination with cultural explanations. He denied that biological mechanisms determine the form and content of higher, complex psychological phenomena; only cultural processes do. Biological mechanisms only determine simple reactions in animals and human infants. Biology enables psychology to develop, but it does not determine the specific features of psychology. Vygotsky was not an interactionist--he did not believe that biological mechanisms and cultural processes each contribute particular features to psychology. He believed that cultural processes supercede biological determinants of behavior. Vygotsky explains psychology in thoroughly sociocultural terms, not as something partitioned into biological features and cultural ones.

In Studies on The History of Behavior: Ape, Primitive, and Child, Vygotsky and Luria (1930/1993) specifically address the question of phylogenetic (evolutionary), ontogenetic, and cultural-historical processes in psychological development. They argue that human culture marks a qualitatively new stage in phylogeny. Culture replaces evolutionary, biological mechanisms as determinants of behavior: "The use and `invention' of tools by anthropoid apes bring to an end the organic stage of behavioral development in the evolutionary sequence and prepare the way for a transition of all development to a new path, creating thereby the main psychological prerequisite of historical development of behavior" (ibid., p. 37, my emphasis). All human psychological development depends upon cultural processes because organic, biological evolution has ceased determining human behavior.

Vygotsky and Luria adopted the dialectical philosophy of Marx, Engels, and Hegel to emphasize qualitative transformations in historical development. What is true of one stage and one species is not true of other stages and other species, because fundamentally new processes have arisen. In dialectical qualitative transformations, new processes are not added onto antecedent, "primitive" ones. Rather, a new integration occurs in which the older ones are subsumed within the new ones and alter their function to make way for them. For example, "primitive" parts of the human brain, which are vestiges from animals, are controlled by the neo-cortex, which transforms their functioning. They do not simply maintain their old functioning next to, or in addition to, cortical processes.

Human psychology, according to Vygotsky, does not consist of cultural behavior plus natural (evolutionary, biological) behavior. What is natural behavior in animals (and infants) is converted into cultural behavior in humans. "The development of man's behavior is always development conditioned primarily not by the laws of biological evolution, but by the laws of the historical development of society" (ibid., p. 78). Vygotsky and Luria rejected an eclectic combination of biological and cultural determinants in psychology, where both would have equal footing.

As behavior develops from natural to cultural-psychological, the role of biology changes. It strictly determines the behavior of infants and animals; however, it relaxes its control over adult behavior. Biology provides a potentiating substratum that allows a wide range of behaviors to be organized by cultural processes. Biology provides the energy, anatomical structure, physiology, and neuroanatomy that make psychological functioning possible, but biology itself does not make psychological functioning occur, nor does it determine what its specific form will be (cf. Ratner, 1991, chaps. 1, 5; Ratner, 2000; Ratner, 2004). This perspective would interpret Rogoff's examples as being more culturally formed than she recognizes. Where she believes that biological mechanisms determine differential involvement of  fathers and mothers with children, Vygotsky would argue that any such differences are due to different social roles that men and women occupy. Thus, male and female reproductive biology do not necessarily determine even a portion of gender roles and personality.5

Vygotskys theories of  psychological development are powerful tools for understanding human psychology. Psychologists would do well to read his ideas closely and follow his argument that human psychology arises out of a biological substrate but then develops into a qualitatively new (emergent) phenomenon which functions according to distinctive principles.


1. Vygotsky's view that human psychology has a cognitive basis stems from his rationalist view of man, which he derived from Spinoza's philosophy. This does not deny that human thoughts and actions can be irrational in the sense of being illogical, contradictory, careless, or impulsive. It simply means that there is a cognitive basis for irrationality as for all psychological functions (cf. Ratner, 1994). For instance, a man might compulsively gamble despite the high risk that it will bring financial ruin upon himself and his family because he believes he will beat the odds and win more than he loses. This belief in individual exceptionalism--the individual's ability to overcome a system stacked against him--is a cognition rooted in Western cultural ideology. The gambling compulsion is a need in addition to a belief. However, it is an intellectualized need where the gambler knows that he needs money, what money is, why he needs it, and how he will obtain it. Human psychological need is not a pure, blind impulse, as a fish needs food but has no awareness of the need, its basis, object, or means of fulfillment.

2. The maturing cortex enables increasingly complex cognitive operations, as Piaget emphasized. However, the rigid, age-graded sequence of cognitive stages that Piaget attributed to biological epigenesis ("chreods") has been discredited. High-level cognitive operations are possible only after several years of brain maturation. Moreover, the fact that they only appear during late childhood and adolescence in particular societies is due to different social stimulation and requirements in those societies. One's cognitive level also varies considerably according to the familiarity of the task. Level of biological maturation does not dictate a uniform cognitive competence across tasks. Even biologically mature individuals utilize sensorimotor operations in certain situations. Furthermore, many of the specific sequences of cognitive development that Piaget proposed turn out to be culturally variable. Finally, many specific behaviors which Piaget attributed to biological mechanisms--such as animism, egocentrism, counting, adding, and subtracting--are due to social requirements, stimulation, and constructs (Ratner, 1991, pp. 108-111, 120-121, 124-127, 142).

3. A child's temperament may contribute to her reactions. A fragile, sensitive, intense child may be frightened by a harsh, critical parent more than a robust or distractible child would be. However, the effect that fear has on later psychology is itself a function of social experience. A frightened child may elicit patience or impatience from other people. The result affects whether the child becomes withdrawn, boastful, cooperative, aggressive, hopeless, careless, depressed, resentful, or forgiving. Temperament therefore does not determine mature behavior, motivation, personality, thinking, or memory (Ratner, 1991, chap. 4).

4. Co-constructionism, like all eclectic notions is a nebulous concept. Co-constructionists (i.e., individualistic neo-Vygotskians) never stipulate how the personal realm specifically interacts with culture, i.e., how much influence personal construction has vis-a-vis organized culture in generating psychological and social phenomena. No criteria are stipulated for distinguishing whether an individual act results from a personal choice, a biological abnormality, or particular social experiences that steer one in a particular direction. This makes research on the topic vulnerable to arbitrary interpretations that are difficult to validate.

5. Rogoff recognizes cultural differences in the way mothers relate to their babies, and she realizes that these challenge the idea of innate, universal maternal roles (Rogoff, 2003, pp. 111-114). However, she holds to her incongruous mix of biological-phylogenetic and cultural explanations. She accepts the sociobiological explanation of psychological phenomena as having something to offer. This contradicts a coherent model of biological and cultural processes in psychological development (cf. Ratner & Hui, 2003, for examples of other failures to produce a coherent model). Vygotsky rejected eclectic combinations of theoretical constructs. He sought logically consistent integrations of concepts (cf. Vygotsky, 1987, pp. 243-246). Psychological phenomena cannot be partly conscious, conceptually organized, intellectualized, intentional, and culturally variable, and partly an automatic, stereotyped (fixed), non-conscious, immediate, natural response to a stimulus, as biological determinism would dictate.


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