By Anna Stetsenko
Anna Stetsenko has an impressive biography. As she describes in an autobiographical sketch near the beginning of this thick book, she studied at Moscow University "at a time when it was the hotbed of Vygotsky's approach" in the mid-70s through the late 80s. There, she interacted and sometimes collaborated with A.R. Luria, both A.N. and A.A. Leontiev, P.Y. Galperin, D.B. Elkonin, V.V. Davydov, and others. After the collapse of the USSR, she worked first in Europe and then in the US (at CUNY, where she is currently) (p.15). Relocating, she said, was an eye-opening experience, allowing her to see new perspectives (p.16). It also led her to see the USSR's 1991 collapse and the West's triumphalism with a more critical eye; she sees the 2008 financial collapse as the other shoe dropping (pp.16-17).
Considering this deep well of life experiences, Stetsenko proposes in this book to develop Vygotskian theory toward what she calls the Transformative Activist Stance (TAS), an approach that "builds off from the dialectical premises of Vygotsky's project and their broader foundations in Marxist philosophy" (p.4), one that attempts to address impasses in Vygotsky's project and canonical Marxism, emphasizing human subjectivity "as a necessary vehicle of collaborative meaningful practices/activities of people aimed at purposefully transforming the world in view of the sought-after future" (p.5). Stetsenko draws on aligned sociocultural projects, but also works as diverse as feminist theory, Foucault, Bordieu, and Freire (p.5). That is, Stetsenko rereads the work of Vygotsky and activity theorists from the standpoint of activism. How do we apply Vygotsky today, and how can we positively transform our own world (p.10)?
Given Stetsenko's deep biography and her deep study—conducted in Russian as well as English—I am cautious about critiquing her work. Yet I do have some hesitations about this work, which I'll discuss more thoroughly below.
The book has five parts. Part I introduces the idea of TAS and the need for an activist theory. Part II reviews Vygotsky's project, including its development through the cultural-historical school. Part III covers ontology, epistemology, and agency, while Part IV discusses mind. Finally, Part V outlines implications for education.
We can see the resonance between Vygotsky's project and activism in Part I. From the Vygotskian perspective, "human capabilities and capacities are constituted in and through the process of development—as they are brought into realization in the course of people actively engaging in, contributing to, and transforming collaborative social practices that are culturally mediated, socially contextualized, and contingent on material resources including critical-theoretical tools ... of agency" (p.25). This perspective seems like a good fit for activism, in which "development is about participating yet is also, and even more critically, about contributing to transformative communal practices from one or the other side, or position or stance, on their dilemmas and contradictions. ... social change and agency are ubiquitous, endemic, and immanent in the world understood as a realm that not only embeds, grounds, and gives rise to human development but is co-created by social collaborative practices embodied in individual and communal ways of being, knowing, and doing" (p.34). The shift to an activist stance entails exchanging a viewpoint of competition and survival for one of collaboration and solidarity (p.36).
Stetsenko believes that this stance is crucial at the current historical moment, which she characterizes as an "ongoing crisis in social, economic, and political landscapes" in which education in particular is characterized by
an enforcement of a crude, narrow model of evidence-based, disinterested, value-neutral science that is devoid of theory and tailored to reductionist views of nature, human development, education, and mind. These models prize biological explanations that put human development in service to natural selection and adaptation; focus on isolated individuals as prime units of analysis; equate mind with the brain; and promote the mantras of neutral evidence, all taken as standards of what is claimed to be the only way to do objective science. (p.42).She characterizes this work as "supernaturalist orthodoxy" and characterizes the orthodoxy's view of research thus:
research is supposed to be based on presumably "naked" evidence composed of "raw" facts about "indomitable" nature and "pristine" reality (all supposedly residing in biological processes and phenomena)—as we find them "here and now," somehow purged of human dimensions and independent from not only society, history and context but even from the more immediately situated processes and practices of knowledge production and research. (pp.42-43)Unfortunately—and this is my first substantial critique of the book—Stetsenko provides no citations representing the viewpoints she is critiquing. The quotes appear to be scare quotes, and the sole cite for the paragraph is Gould 1988 (substantiating a more specific claim later in the paragraph). Although as a humanist I found myself somewhat receptive to this argument, it's awfully broad-brush, and Stetsenko makes enough such arguments that I grew cautious of such characterizations. (For instance, on p.316 she does cite the viewpoints she is critiquing: she lumps Hutchins, Clark, and others into a single movement, then claims that those in this movement "still often do not go far enough" because they "leave intact the basic premise of the brain as processing information through computations." Hutchins does emphatically see the brain as performing computational work, but this processing is not different in kind from other computational work being performed outside the skull—this is the very point of his book, which Stetsenko cites.)
Back to activism. Stetsenko notes that in the adaptionist ethos, sociocultural and critical approaches typically focus on challenging the status quo, but not on fundamentally changing it (p.62). Examples include Foucault, Latour, and Deleuze (p.64). Later, she discusses the activist limits of other sociocultural scholarship, noting that one ramification of many such views is that they imply that "extra-personal forces" (neurological processes shaped by genetics; collective cultural or power processes) "guide and shape human development and learning"—"eschewing the status of human beings in their own lives and communities" (p.79). Missing is
the transformative agency of people, qua social agents of communities and their histories, to shape and essentially create their world, their future, and their own development while relying on the social and cultural resources that they bring into existence and co-create in each and every act of their lives. (p.79)And here's my second critique. If you've been reading my recent reviews, maybe you are thinking of the same thing I am. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet Union was also wrestling with two views: a causal, determinist, teleological view of history and human development, and a nondeterminist one that put collective human agency and achievement at the center. Both were rooted in the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. The first view, the mechanist or Bukharinite view, meshed well with early pedology: the assumption was that as Russia transitioned from a capitalist to a socialist footing, the new environment would transform the students. Some pedologists even called for a "withering away of the school," in which schools would become obsolete in the new environment. The second view, the dialectical or Deborinite view, focused on human agency and became more popular in education in the early 1930s—when it became clear that a socialist regime in itself did not cure the problems of education. Vygotsky, who knew his Marx and was deeply influenced by the 1925 publication of Engels' Dialectics of Nature, arguably tended toward the dialectical. The Deborinites won decisive victories in 1931 and 1938 (i.e., Stalin endorsed their views), and pedology was banned in 1936. Hence, for political and historical reasons, activity theory tends to reflect the dialectical stance—if it had not, it would not have survived as a going concern.
On p.79 and elsewhere in the book, Stetsenko recapitulates the basics of the debate between mechanists and dialecticians—although she does not draw the connection explicitly, and I doubt that she sees the parallel. But the cultural-historical school and the activity-theoretical school were historical products, and understanding their history helps us to understand how they are predisposed to understanding human activity in specific ways. When Stetsenko complains that "many contemporary critical and sociocultural approaches" undertheorize "active human persons and activities," and urges us to understand "the power of human transformative agency ... as an individually unique achievement of togetherness" (p.83), she selects a research stance that was formed specifically to focus on that transformative power, and developed within a political milieu that mandated such a view.
Side note: This point made me wonder about something that Engestrom notes in his new introduction to the second edition of Learning by Expanding. Engestrom complained:
there is a risk that activity theory is split into the study of activity systems, organizations, and history, on the one hand, and subjects, actions, and situations, on the other hand. This is exactly the kind of split the founders of activity theory set out to overcome. To bridge and integrate the two directions, serious theoretical and empirical efforts are needed. (p.xvi)I now wonder if this split interacts with the latent tension between mechanist (contextually oriented, causal) and dialectical (individually oriented, agential) traditions. Now there's a dissertation topic if someone is looking for one.
Back to Stetsenko. At the end of this discussion, she argues that Vygotsky's "passionate quest for equality and justice" has been "all but ignored" in the West (p.89, her emphasis). "The project of immediate relevance to Vygotsky and his colleagues consisted of efforts at creating a new system of education for society that was in the process of being created and forged, practically from scratch" (p.89), and like Vygotsky, Stetsenko "commits to matters of equality as the first analytical step" (p.90). She adds that this method is "the very gist of Vygotsky's project": an egalitarian society for a future society. "This future society cannot be charted nor predicted in full detail in advance, that is, it cannot be construed as a utopia ... imagined as something one can simply await in hopes that someday it might arrive" but through active struggle (p.91). This passage seems to sum up the dialectic case against the mechanists, although Stetsenko does not refer to that historical debate.
Let's follow this line of critique further. At this point in the book, Stetsenko begins to discuss her project in the context of history. She does not draw on critical historical scholarship of Soviet psychology such as Bauer, Joravsky, Valsiner, Veresov, Haenen, Petrovsky, Blunden, Valsiner & Van der Veer, or Van der Veer & Valsiner. She does briefly mention one of Kozulin's articles to dispute his claim that Leontiev broke with Vygotsky (p.146), but she does not cite either of the books in which he lays out this case: Vygotsky's Psychology or Psychology in Utopia. Perhaps as a result, the historical exploration of Vygotsky's ideas is oddly ahistorical. Vygotsky is portrayed as "uniquely" activist and focused on egalitarianism, but the historical conditions that validated and enabled this stance are barely discussed (p.96). The break between Vygotsky and Leontiev is sutured together and dismissed (p.97; 146). At the same time, Vygotsky is sundered from his intellectual forebears: Stetsenko notes the complementary viewpoints of Piaget and Dewey, the "three key frameworks on human development in the 20th century" (p.128) and says that "it is remarkable—and highly ironic—that the common grounds of the theories have been all but ignored" (p.153), without acknowledging that they are similar in part because Vygotsky drew heavily from both Piaget and Dewey's pragmatist colleague Mead. Similarly, she plays up Vygotsky's reliance on Darwin without noting that he interpreted Darwin through Engels's origin story. She argues that Vygotsky "appeared to waver" at times, and argues that the task of stabilizing his views fell to Leontiev (p.147).
That is, Vygotsky is portrayed here as a lone genius who developed a uniquely activist stance. Leontiev is portrayed as taking up this project and developing it further—although she acknowledges that Leontiev and Davydov erroneously accepted objective reality "at least in part due to them working under the pressures of a unidirectional, top-down ideology" (p.183)—a rare nod to the historical contingencies that shape theory. And now Stetsenko calls us to take up this activist stance handed down from Vygotsky. In the remainder of the book, she links the stance to other activist lines of thought and contrasts it to "canonical Marxism" (e.g., p.183).
After the section on the history of Vygotskian thought, Stetsenko links the Vygotskian tradition to Marxism more broadly and to activism. She urges us to interpret Marx dialectically, not mechanically (p.194) and finally addresses mechanism explicitly in Marx, only to explain it away (p.250). She also embraces Bakhtin, especially the aspects of open-endedness and unfinalizability that Bakhtin wrote about in his private notebooks.
In the last chapter, she discusses the implications for education. One implication is to place identity at the forefront (p.339). Doing so provides a contact point with Leontiev's work: after Stalin's death, Leontiev published on consciousness and personality. These were safe subjects in the USSR at the time (after being quite unsafe in the mid-1930s). She concludes with an agenda to radicalize activity theory (p.367), a theory that arguably survived in the Soviet Union by being apolitical.
So what did I think of the book? I've aired some of the disagreements I have with the author. Perhaps it's because she has attempted such a broad sweep, but it seems like the author has divided her sources into positive and negative valences, then construed every source of positive valence as supporting TAS. The cultural-historical developments of the theory—and especially the historically developing contradictions and tensions—seem to be minimized or unacknowledged. When such tensions exist in the theory—such as the tension between telos and dialectics in Marx and Engels, or the tension between semiotic mediation and activity in Vygotsky and Leontiev—Stetsenko tends to minimize them or explain them away. When such tensions and limitations exist in competing theories, they are grounds for dismissing those competitors. This approach allows the author to prosecute her case, but at the cost of dramatically simplifying the theory's development and limiting our understanding of how it came to be—its potential and its limitations.
For all that, I think I have not sufficiently emphasized the value of Stetsenko's project. Activity theory has strong potential for broader applications, but its traditionally apolitical stance has arguably limited its uptake. In this book, Stetsenko thinks through how an activist activity theory—not an interventionist one, as Engestrom has developed, but an activist one that is oriented to politics and agency—might look. That's a worthwhile project, and it makes the book worth reading and rereading.