Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Reading :: Vygotsky and Research

Vygotsky and Research
By Harry Daniels

Harry Daniels has a series of books on Vygotsky, including both monographs and collections. This one is a monograph—a succinct overview of Vygotskian theory, Vygotsky's own research, and research strands influenced by it (including distributed cognition, situated cognition, and activity theory). It's a rewarding overview of Vygotsky-related research traditions that will be of interest to neophytes as well as those who are well acquainted with the relevant literature.

Since I'm in the latter category, I'll skip the first two chapters, which cover Vygotsky's theory and his circle's research.

Chapter 3, "The sociocultural tradition," tackles studies that have been labeled "sociocultural"—a term that tends to be applied in different ways, but that generally refers to "its focus on the development of an understanding of the social formation of mind" (p.51). One critical issue that is considered in this literature is whether social and individual worlds are separable or indivisible (p.51). In a handy summary table, Daniels identifies scholars belonging to weak and strong views about inseparability (p.55): Wertsch, Cole, and Valsiner are on the weak side, while Rogoff, Lave, Wenger, Matusov, and Shweder are on the strong side. Daniels also discusses mediation, quoting Wertsch's ten claims concerning mediation (p.61). Finally, Daniels discusses something that has interested me lately: whether Vygotsky was a dialogical thinker, as Wertsch sees him, or a dialectical one. Daniels lays out Wegerif's (2007) argument that the dialogic should be understood as an ontological principle (pp.65-66). (This find alone made the book valuable for me, since I have been looking for just this sort of discussion.)

In Chapter 5, "Situated action and communities of practice," Daniels reviews "a move from research that takes its major preoccupation as being that of cognition to a more concerted interest in action" (p.91). After overviewing this body of work, he reviews some of the major criticisms of it. Here, he quotes Valsiner (1988)'s citation analysis of Vygotsky, noting that a large percentage of Vygotsky cites in English are to flawed translations (p.107; n.b., I am currently finishing up that Valsiner book). According to Valsiner and others, Western interpreters have subsumed Vygotsky's original intentions under their own priorities (p.107).

In Chapter 5, he also returns to the question of separability that was earlier aired in Chapter 3. He quotes Matusov as asserting that Vygotsky himself advocated the separability thesis, while Bakhtin advocated the non-separability thesis. According to Matusov, Vygotsky ethnocentrically regarded Western societies as the most advanced, while Bakhtin was more concerned with how people constitute each other and participate in unending dialogue (pp.113-114).

In Chapter 6, "Activity theory and interventionist research," Daniels identifies AT with the inseparability thesis, but airs the criticism that it has not yet come to terms with that thesis methodologically (p.115). Daniels briefly reviews the Vygotsky-Leontiev difference, noting Cole and Gajdamaschko's argument that Leontiev did not fundamentally repudiate Vygotsky so much as complement his work (p.116). He also notes the difference between Western and Russian approaches to AT, quoting Hakkarainen's claim that Western CHAT sees activity as an object of scientific study and management, while the Russian activity approach sees it as an explanatory principle (p.117). Daniels then overviews CHAT, identifying five principles:

  • expansive learning
  • dialogicality and multivoicedness
  • boundary objects, translation, and boundary-crossing
  • cognitive trails
  • labor power (pp.123-131)
Re the latter, he critiques Engestrom's identification of the primary contradiction of capitalism as use-value vs. exchange-value. Daniels says that Engestrom sources this primary contradiction in Leontiev. However, Daniels says, this view does not adequately take into account Marx's identification of two classes of commodities: (a) a general class of commodities and (b) labor-power (p.130). Daniels argues that "Education, training and work-related learning are forms of social production of labour-power potential," which he says suggests that "the 'meta-object' of a workplace activity system is the expansion of labour-power potential" (p.130). He says that "the development of Vygotsky's activity theory in the subsequent work of Leontiev and Engestrom is rooted in a concern with the collective aspect of labour-power" (p.130, his emphasis). And he charges that "object-oriented activity is rendered contradictory because it constitutes both directly functional work and the social production of labour-power, which is always riven with contradictions" (p.131). 

In Ch.7, "Institutions and beyond," Daniels continues his discussion of activity theory in its application to institutions. Among other things, he argues that "activity theory needs to develop tools for analysing and transforming networks of culturally heterogeneous activities through dialogue and debate," citing Engestrom and Miettinen 1999 (p.164). He proposes a diagram to examine dominance in networks of activity systems over time (p.167). 

Overall, this is a dense and highly rewarding book. It focuses heavily on Western interpretations of Vygotsky, which may not be a plus to all readers, but it provides a nuanced and wide-ranging overview of these interpretations. If you're interested in any of these Western applications of Vygotskian thought, definitely pick this one up. 

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