Saturday, March 21, 2015

Reading :: The Theory and Practice of Cultural-Historical Psychology

The Theory and Practice of Cultural-Historical Psychology
Edited by Seth Chaiklin

This 2001 collection is drawn from papers presented at the Fourth International Congress for Cultural Research and Activity Theory. In his introduction, Seth Chaiklin acknowledges the "risk that this volume could end as an incoherent set of chapters" (p.20)—as so many edited collections turn out to be. I'm not going to pass that judgment, but due to my current interests, I'll only discuss two of the 15 chapters.

Chaiklin, S. (2001). The institutionalisation of cultural-historical psychology as a multinational practice. In S. Chaiklin (Ed.), The theory and practice of cultural-historical psychology (pp. 15–34). Oakville, CT: Aarhus University Press.

In this introduction, Chaiklin argues that cultural-historical psychology, despite its chronological age, is still a "baby" (p.15), still "young as an institutional practice" (p.16). As Chaiklin says in footnote 2, he pessimistically expects that "institutional practices found in other psychological traditions will be recreated more or less in the cultural-historical tradition" (p.16). Yet "because we are in the relatively early stages of this institutionalisation process, we have the rare opportunity to attempt to form and develop these practices in ways that might be conducive to the epistemological assumptions that motivate cultural-historical psychology" (p.16). Specifically, Chaiklin intends to analyze the development of cultural-historical psychology dialectically (p.17).

An aside: I'm less interested in how AT is being applied by psychologists and more interested in how it's being used by rhetoricians and professional communicators, HCI, CSCW, communication, and related fields. Taking up AT and applying it in these other disciplines necessarily means changing and institutionalizing it in different ways. And interdisciplinary fields (such as HCI and professional communication) tend to be more comfortable, I think, with the ambiguity that comes from bringing different theoretical traditions to bear on the same problem. So I'm less concerned about AT's fidelity than the collection's authors seem to be. But since AT did emerge from Soviet psychology, I'm still interested in seeing what psychologists think of its pedigree.

In terms of that pedigree, Chaiklin reviews some important points: the fact that the Vygotskian tradition was "suppressed" from 1936 (when the Pedological Decree was issued) to the mid-1950s (p.18); the spread in interest to Europe, Japan, and the Americas in the late 1960s-early 1970s (p.19); and, interestingly, this tradition's spread to Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s (p.19).

Chaiklin attempts a definition of "cultural-historical psychology": "'the study of the development of psychological functions through social participation in societally-organised practices'" (p.21). This broad definition is meant to characterize a "multiplicity" of labels. Chaiklin also warns of a "danger for divergence in cultural-historical psychology" due to the multiple theoretical variations (p.24).

Ultimately, though, Chaiklin seems okay with the different variations as long as those different traditions can plug back into the main one. The other author I'll discuss, Mohamed Elhammoumi, is not as sanguine.

Elhammoumi, M. (2001). Lost—or merely domesticated? The boom in socio-historical theory emphasises some concepts, overlooks others. In S. Chaiklin (Ed.), The theory and practice of cultural-historical psychology (pp. 200–217). Oakville, CT: Aarhus University Press.

In contrast with Chaiklin, Mohamed Elhammoumi writes a jeremiad about the West's adaption of what he calls "socio-historicocultural psychology" (p.200). In his massive Footnote 1, Elhammoumi notes that this concept has been inadequately characterized as "cultural-historical" in the West, with a range of variants (ex: "sociocultural," "socio-historical"; pp.200-201). He indicts luminaries such as Cole, Wertsch, van der Veer, and Engestrom in this discussion.

Back in the main text, he continues: "dependence on approaches borrowed from the cognitive revolution and cultural psychology have resulted in oversimplification and misunderstanding of socio-historicocultural psychology, both theoretically and methodologically. Thus contemporary socio-historicocultural psychology is cut off from its explanatory and experimental potential" (p.201). In this chapter, the author attempts to restore that potential by recovering the "dialectical materialist tradition that was an important source of ideas for Vygotsky" (p.201). Here, the author emphasizes in Footnote 2 that Vygotsky understood the difference between Marxism and the "simplistic and dogmatic philosophical system" that Soviet psychologists tended to work under; Vygotsky intended to found his psychology on genuine dialectics (p.201).

So what does this mean? Elhammoumi argues that
socio-historicocultural theory is, after all, an extension of the materialist conception of history. A 'domesticated' version of socio-historicocultural theory is weakened by the absence of links to a materialist analysis. For example, analytic constructs that arise from a materialist conception of history are principles of ownership, production and distribution of wealth and resources. Socio-historicocultural theory needs to draw on these constructs in order to realise its potential to extend beyond the analysis of small scale and individual activity. (p.202)
He indicts "contemporary theorists of this school" for locking onto small-scale contexts—classrooms, families, work groups—and thus emphasizing "intention, shared meaning, individual or distributed cognition, memory, the development of speech and so forth. This construction overlooks the equally, if not more important, larger scale such as forms of social control and power, distribution of wealth, divisions of labor and social class" (p.202).

(Yes, Vygotsky tended to study dyads in classrooms and the development of speech, Leont'ev studied memory and personality, and Luria studied a variety of phenomena including memory, cognition, speech development, and shared meaning. But I think Elhammoumi would say that they consciously situated these within the ongoing societal and cultural changes in the Soviet Union; the Western psychologists he has mentioned do not take a similar view.)

Elhammoumi turns back to the classic texts of dialectical psychology: Vygotsky and Leontiev (p.202; Luria apparently doesn't make the cut.) Like contemporary Soviet psychologist Andrei Brushlinsky, Elhammoumi sees the American adaptation of the Vygotskian tradition to be faddish and unscientific (p.203), and adds that "it is combined with an inadequate regard for the traditions within which their thought developed: the theories of the materialist conception of history and dialectical materialism" (p.203). Indeed, the concepts that these Western admirers have picked up have been secondary concepts ("the role of sign and word, speech and language, in the development of higher mental functions, consciousness and human action" and "semiotic mediation, symbolic processes, and cognitive processes"; p.203). The primary concepts were excluded: "social systems, ideologies, institutionalised ways of working, institutionalised ways of educating, dialectical materialism, alienation, social relations of production, psychological means of production, psychological mode of production of social concepts and psychological relations of production" (pp.203-204). Thus "social interaction may be named as a prerequisite to cognitive development but there is no follow-up analysis of the concrete relations of the social interaction" (p.204).

Elhammoumi names names here: "In their analysis of human cognition, socio-historicocultural psychologists (Bruner, Cole, Engestrom, Rogoff, Valsiner, van der Veer, Wertsch among others) kept out of their theoretical picture any reference to larger forms of human activity and larger processes in social life, such as the realities of economic structure, class struggle, realities of labour activities, and the realities of social interaction" (pp.204-205). He argues strenuously that Vygotsky cannot be understood without understanding dialectical materialism: after all,
Engels' chapter 'The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man' played a crucial role in clarifying Vygotsky's ideas. Engels concluded that in the process of anthropogenesis a form of activity was born and shaped the course of the human species. This activity is called labour. In the final analysis, labour marks the distinction between human individuals and animals, and marks the starting point of the historical development of human individuals. (p.205)
He quotes Vygotsky as saying that labor was the "fundamental pivot" that structures society. Therefore, Elhammoumi says, "Psychological phenomena have to be explained in terms of actual concrete life, the present social relations of productive activity and current activities" (p.205). These include "the socially organised practical activity such as work, principles of division of labour which govern human action in specific social institutions, the ways of working, ways of schooling and education, distributions of wealth and resources, and division of social classes"—and he goes on to discuss material production, institutions of power, laws, and collective action to change social institutions (p.206).

Elahmmoumi proffers six theses:

  1. Human mental functions, consciousness, and activity (hereafter HMFCA) in the individual are products of the social relations of production.
  2. HMFCA are mediated by signs and tools, giving rise to labor activity.
  3. HMFCA can only be examined via developmental/genetic analysis, that is, dialectically.
  4. HMFCA are rooted in historically organized human activity.
  5. Humans make instruments and tools of production, which in turn give rise to labor activity, which then regulates the social relations of production. 
  6. HMFCA are framed and shaped by culturally organized human activity. 
He summarizes: This is a materialist conception of history (p.208). And the principal axis of society is economics, which is more important than law, politics, religion, etc. (p.209). The problem with the West's adaption of socio-historicocultural psychology, he reiterates, is that it has assimilated the socio-historicocultural tradition into cognitive psychology and consequently applied it to individual activity (p.211)—"a failure, if not a contradiction" (p.211, footnote 6).

I've spent more time than I expected on this argument, partly because I'm interested in it—I think Elhammoumi makes a compelling case that dialectical materialism is at the heart of Vygotsky's psychology. But I found the argument to be repetitive, perhaps because Elhammoumi doesn't quite engage with the question of whether an ideologically pure socio-historicocultural psychology would actually be doable or tractable. My impression from skimming his other work is that Elhammoumi is thoroughly Marxist, but it seems to be asking a lot to insist that Western psychologists follow the Marxist tradition lock, stock, and barrel. Must we actually start with Capital, as Vygotsky did, to apply Vygotskian insights? If we study cultural activity, do we really need to condemn religion as Luria did when reporting on his work with the Uzbekis? Must we start with economics, the principal axis of society, in order to analyze classroom dyads? This foundation could be firmly established and built upon in the Soviet Union because everyone agreed to it (especially after Lenin established the dictatorship of the proletariat and Stalin established the Gulag). Such shared foundations are not available today; the ideological purity that Elhammoumi desires is not enforceable, and there's really no way to guide scholars to a shared path except through jeremiads such as this one. As Latour would say, there is no transportation without transformation—for socio-historicocultural theory to be picked up in the West, it has to be adapted. 

But I also think Elhammoumi overstates his case. For instance, Engestrom obviously applies an analysis along these lines in Learning by Expanding and later works, beginning with the principal contradiction between use-value and exchange-value and consistently connecting dyadic interactions with a Marxist understanding of society. I'm not clear on whether Elhammoumi simply didn't read the relevant texts or whether he decided that Engestrom wasn't Marxist enough. Either way, I think Elhammoumi's case is weakened because he doesn't seek allies in the scholars he criticizes and he doesn't acknowledge heterodox applications that take a tack similar to the one he does.

In any case, I found the book worth the price of admission for these two essays alone. If they sound interesting to you, take a look.

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