Monday, January 26, 2004

Reading:: Mind in Society

Originally posted: Mon, 26 Jan 2004 08:31:25
Mind in Society
by Lev Vygotsky
The first time I read this seminal work was in graduate school. I was coming to it fresh from reading later activity theory work (AT is genetically related to, but conceptually separate in some ways from Vygotsky's work) and Bakhtin. So I spent a lot of time looking at the basic concepts of mediation and internalization/externalization that debuted in Vygotsky's work. I mostly related these concepts to adult workers, though the book deals with developmental psychology in young children.
Well, now I have a two-year-old who is busily acquiring language. So rereading these smart and innovative studies was illuminating in a different way. Vygotsky treats his young participants with respect and admiration, using Marx's work as a basis for understanding how they absorb culture and how they contribute to it in turn. Reading Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach" before this book helped to put it in context: like Marx in that brief piece, Vygotsky wants to acknowledge the social-cultural-historical shaping of individuals without giving up the individuals' agency. So he rejects the botanical model in vogue at the turn of the 18th century (think kindergarten) as well as the notion of instinctual or inborn "stages" that children march through (think Piaget). Rather, he explores how children's development involves the interplay of biological capacities and cultural, mediated ones.
The notion of mediation is terribly important here, and Vygotsky illustrates it well with accounts of his many studies. He argues that we rarely do what animals do -- act directly on the environment -- but instead work through mediators. For example, we tie a knot in a handkerchief (or to use an analogous illustration from the US, we might tie a string around our finger) to remember something. Or to use another illustration: an infant might reach vainly for an object which is then handed to her by a parent. Eventually the grasping (an attempt to control the environment directly) becomes pointing (a sign that helps to "control" the parent). The mediator not only helps to carry out an activity that would be difficult otherwise, it changes the character of the activity; it qualitatively transforms it. And in learning and taking up a culture's mediators, we become acculturated.
Look at what this does to rhetorical theory. We tend to think of genres as communications -- ways to offer or transmit information. But for Vygotsky, I think these genres would function just as pointing does: they control or regulate or mediate both our activities and those of others. Although Vygotsky agrees that interpersonal and intrapersonal mediation are different and that tool and sign mediation are different, he provides a framework for talking about them both and relating them in terms of development. Genres are seen not as vehicles for transmitting information but as ways of exercising some influence and, in doing so, qualitatively changing the activity.
The concept of internalization/externalization is a direct result of applying mediation to learning. Something that mediates our behavior from the outside -- let's take the example of a checklist -- can over time be operationalized, even to the extent that the checklist is superfluous. And at points -- such as when a worker needs to teach a trainee how to do her tasks -- that checklist can be externalized. But internalization and externalization are qualitative changes, not simply storing and ejecting. Vygotsky was monist, and mediation was one way he got around the Cartesian divide, so it's unfortunate that he used such Cartesian-sounding terms.
Anyway, this is a landmark book and a surprisingly quick and easy read. I expect to come back to it frequently as I sort out my ideas on mediation in particular.

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