Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Reading :: The Cambridge Handbook of Cultural-Historical Psychology

The Cambridge Handbook of Cultural-Historical Psychology
Edited by Anton Yasnitsky,‎ RenĂ© van der Veer,‎ and Michel Ferrari

To be honest, I finished this book last summer, but I have been waiting for a substantial block of time to spend on it. My block of time today is no longer than usual, but I want to get this book off my Review shelf and back to my office shelf, so here goes.

In the Introduction, helpfully subtitled "What is this book and what is it about?", Anton Yasnitsky and Rene van der Veer lay out the book's intent: as an edited handbook, intended for higher education, focused on the cultural-historical psychology of the Vygotsky-Luria Circle as well as associated work by Vygotsky's predecessors, contemporaries, and later followers (p.1). They note that "cultural-historical psychology" was coined as a slur on Vygotsky's theory, but was picked up and appropriated by Vygotsky's followers (p.2). Nevertheless, Vygotsky-derived "cultural-historical psychology is firmly grounded in the belief shared by a great many researchers who postulated the necessity and possibility of an integrative psychological science of cultural-historical and bio-social development" (p.2), a belief "in the possibility of a holistic human science of mind, body, and consciousness in their inseparable unity and in cultural and historical development" (p.3).

The book is structured in six parts: theory; method; child; language and culture; brain; and cultural-historical applications beyond psychology. I won't thoroughly explore each, but I will pull out specific chapters for discussion.

Ronald Miller, "Introducing Vygotsky's cultural-historical psychology"
This chapter summarizes part of the argument Miller made in his book: the centrality of signs in Vygotsky's cultural-historical psychology. In this chapter, Miller discusses some of Vygotsky's thought, including his "law of sociogenesis" (that "every function in the cultural development of the child appears on the stage twice ... at first as social, then as psychological" — Vygotsky 1998, p.169, quoted in Miller p.26) and his law of "transition of a function from outside inward" in which "the social means becomes the means of individual behavior" (Vygotsky 1998, p.170, quoted in Miller p.26). These lead to Vygotsky's self-declared major discovery that "word meaning changes and develops" (Vygotsky 1987, p.245, quoted in Miller p.28)—a discovery that leads Vygotsky to identify the stage of adolescence in which abstract concepts are formed (p.28). After some valuable discussion that I won't summarize here, Miller notes that Vygotsky "puts paid to the view that practical activity and everyday experience provide a sound basis for understanding or explaining the psychological underpinnings of human action, let alone the view that conceptual understanding derives from or is an extension of everyday practical experience" (p.40). This argument is the core of Miller's brief against activity theory, which was developed by Leontiev in part to harmonize with the Stalinist ideological requirement of practicality (see Krementsov on this emphasis on practicality, and see Leont'ev and Zaporozhets for an early example of AT developing to address this emphasis).

Janette Friedrich, "Vygotsky's idea of psychological tools"
This chapter focuses on Vygotsky's use and development of the notion of psychological tools, which the author believes is an essential notion in Vygotsky's writings—although the phrase isn't used in Thought and Language, the concept itself is fundamental (p.48). The author also argues that the idea is shared in the writings of Vygotsky's contemporaries, Kurt Goldstein and Karl Buhler (p.48).

Vygotsky's view was that "all higher psychological functions—such as voluntary attention or logical memory—originate with the help of psychological tools, and thus constitute mediated psychological phenomena," and thus the unit of analysis must include not just stimulus and response but also mediator (p.48).

Such psychological tools differ from physical (work) tools in their directiveness: "this [psychological] tool is a means subjects have of influencing themselves, a means of self-regulation and self-control" (p.50). Psychological tools are signs, but they are not just signs. They have three other characteristics:
A psychological tool (1) is an artificial adaptation that (2) has a non-organic (that is, social) nature, and (3) is destined to control one's psychological behavior and that of others. (p.51)
Friedrich goes on to argue that to understand psychological tools, we must understand the difference between mediated activity and mediating activity that Vygotsky introduced in his book on higher mental functions, based on Hegel. "Work tools and psychological tools both fall under the more general concept of mediating activity" (p.53) in which nature acts on nature (p.54). But when we intervene directly in nature via an instrument, we are involved in mediated activity (p.54).

Friedrich goes on to examine psychological tools in the works of Goldstein, who conducted aphasia research and became interested in detours: strategies "that patients develop to do everyday tasks that their illness prevents them from performing normally" (p.56). She also examines the works of Buhler, specifically his 1934 "masterpiece, Theory of language, in which language is defined as a mediating instrument" (p.58). She argues that a dialogue among the three is possible. Friedrich concludes that "Vygotskian psychological tools do not exist over and above their use by an individual" (p.61).

Ekaterina Zavershneva, "The problem of consciousness in Vygotsky's cultural-historical psychology"
Zavershneva has been examining Vygotsky's notebooks. Here, she discusses how Vygotsky understood consciousness, arguing that "we may even assume that [Vygotsky's cultural-historical theory] is the most notable contribution to general psychological theory to date" (p.65). Yet Vygotsky, she says, offered three distinct models of consciousness (p.66):

  1. as a reflex of reflexes (1924-1926) (pp.66-68)
  2. as a system of secondary connections between higher psychological functions (1927-1931) (pp.69-74)
  3. as a dynamic semantic system (1932-1934) (pp.74-78)
She argues that understanding the first two models is important for truly understanding the third (p.66). Nevertheless, here, I'll skip to the second model: the system of secondary connections between higher psychological functions. Zavershneva notes that from 1927-1930, "Vygotsky was studying isolated psychological functions, but not consciousness per se and as a whole" (p.69). "The earliest variant of the idea of a mediated action" and of word meaning is in Vygotsky's papers of 1926 (p.69). But "By the end of the 1920s, Vygotsky gradually came to the conclusion that 'psychological tools' cannot be 'built into' any single 'higher psychological function' because a person is an integral being and in every act of human behavior all psychological processes are manifested" (p.70). This led Vygotsky to attempt to explain consciousness holistically, so he introduced the principle of a system to his psychology in his 1930 paper "On psychological systems" (p.71). From this point on, Vygotsky "repeatedly criticized his previously held views as incomplete and even erroneous" (p.74). "The idea of the sign as the mediator between nature and culture was still used as a heuristically useful abstraction, but it gradually shifted to the notion of the 'system of psychological functions'" (p.74). 

This led to the third model, in which Vygotsky "introduced a theoretical innovation—the notion of consciousness as a dynamic semantic system" —but could not theoretically develop it due to his untimely death in 1934 (p.74). Zavershneva traces Vygotsky's development of this innovation from word meaning to sense to perezhivanie ("intellectual and emotional life experience")—but notes that this "theorizing remained at the level of mere speculation, and Vygotsky's theory of consciousness was not developed any further than a sketch of a promising future theory" (p.78). 

In the latter half of the chapter, Zavershneva discusses Vygotsky's later work on types of concepts, noting a possible interplay with Lewin's work via two former Lewin students who moved to Moscow and worked under Vygotsky (p.84). In a footnote, she argues that "the members of the Vygotsky Circle frequently used the conceptual apparatus of Kurt Lewin's theory and, thus, by doing this they merged Vygotskian theory with Lewin's topological and vector psychology" (p.85). 

In summary, Zavershneva notes that Vygotsky's three models are united by the leading role of speech; systematic and semantic organization; and the origin of consciousness in the acquisition of social norms of behavior (p.92). But as Galperin argued in 1935, this intellectual system remains incomplete: "it did not have a theory of motivation, affect, and volition" or "a well-developed theory to explain the interrelations of the personality with the environment" (p.92). 

Aaro Toomela. "Methodology of cultural-historical psychology"
Toomela has published several pieces critical of activity theory, and this piece is no exception, although AT is not directly in Toomela's sights throughout most of this piece. He argues that in cultural-historical psychology, "science is always about facts and about the way the facts are interpreted" (p.102). 
In sum, in Vygotskian cultural-historical psychology scientific activity is understood as study of the world that is based simultaneously on method and methodology. Method is the procedure of study, the technical aspects performed. ... Methodology, in turn, is the study of the method of scientific cognition that determines why the study is conducted, what is the place of science and its nature; it is a philosophy of scientific cognition. (p.106)
After some discussion of Vygotskian method and methodology, Toomela critiques activity theory, arguing in a footnote that AT "cannot be theoretically defended" and pointing to his previous articles (p.117). He notes that in a previous exchange, Engestrom ignored his methodological arguments and instead noted how broadly cited AT is; Toomela claims that this indicates that "a reason why Activity Theory is doing so well might be that its methodological foundation is underdeveloped. Activity Theory is based on a psychologically implausible theory that environment somehow directly determines the development of mind" (p.117). Toomela complains that "the quality of the theory is not in the arguments, it is in the number of citations" (p.117).

Jaan Valsiner and Rene van der Veer. "Encountering the border: Vygotsky's zona blizhaishego razvita and its implications for theories of development
The zone of proximal development (ZPD in English, ZBR in Russian) is a frequently cited notion that Vygotsky used in the early 1930s. Here, the authors discuss its origin in Bergson (p.153) and Vygotsky's uptake of the concept as he moved into the study of pedology (p.155). They note that Vygotsky was interested in crisis periods in child development: Vygotsky identified crisis periods at ages 0, 1, 3, 7, 13, and 17 (p.156), and "it is during these periods that the emergence of higher levels of psychological organization take place" (p.156). Each crisis has an involution process, then a culmination point "that is the locus at which the dialectical synthesis is accomplished" (p.156). Implicated in this process is the ZBR, which cannot be studied directly in the present; "it refers to the hidden processes of the present that may become explicated in reality only as the present becomes the (nearest) past, while the (nearest) future becomes the present" (p.161).

The authors argue that in its recent uptake, the ZBR/ZPD has lost its original context and has become ontologized—it "is assumed to exist as an entity among other psychological functions," not as a "dynamic process of emergence" but as "a static depiction of some process of teaching and learning" (p.167). It's not the help that is important in the ZBR, they say, it is the horizon (p.167).

Galina Zuckerman. “Developmental Education”
The author discusses education and human development from a Vygotskian perspective, noting two laws of human development that Vygotsky formulated: “The law of the transition from natural to cultural forms of behavior that are mediated by tools, signs, and symbols” and “The law of transition from cooperative, interpsychological to individual, intrapsychological forms of behavior” (p.178).

Under the first law, the author discusses the self-development involved in mediation. The gap between the wish and the action, she says, yields the fruit of civilization (p.179).

Anke Werani. “A review of inner speech in cultural-historical tradition”
Werani examines inner speech in the Vygotskian tradition (p.273), noting that understanding involves words, thoughts, and motivations (p.280). The really valuable thing in this chapter is the table on p.282, which summarizes the functions of inner speech explored by Vygotsky, Luria, Halperin, Ananev, Sokolov, and Achutina (p.282); the author discusses this Soviet tradition of inner speech research as well as its uptake in the West .

Eugene Subbotsky. “Luria and Vygotsky: Challenges to current developmental research”
Here, Subbotsky reviews Vygotsky’s distinction between lower and higher mental functions (LMFs and HMFs). In Vygotsky’s account, LMFs are innate, non mediated, involuntary, and isolated, while HMFs are socially organized, mediated by the social world, voluntarily controlled, and linked (p.297). Vygotsky opposed this view to that of Gestalt, which relies on universally structured laws of perception; Vygotsky objected: how did these develop? (p.297).

From here, Subbotsky moves to recent work on executive function (EF), which is “a complex cognitive construct” consisting of “working memory, inhibitory control, and attention flexibility” (p.300). Yet in contemporary work, EF is studied as exclusively cognitive, not related to social and cultural contexts (p.300). He argues that such contexts are extremely important to development and developmental disorders, and calls for alternative approaches to EF; he nominates Vygotsky’s approach to the development of conscious action (p.301). Subbotsky moves from Vygotsky to Luria, whose foundational EF work was based on Vygotsky’s (p.304). As a side note, Subbotsky claims that Vygotsky-Luria HMFs were “the first primitive version of what late became known as ‘mental models’” (p.308).

Aaro Toomela. “There can be no cultural-historical psychology without neuropsychology. And vice versa.”
Toomela’s second chapter uses the sort of title Toomela enjoys using — a declarative sentence that draws a clear line in the sand. Here, Toomela argues that the Vygotsky-Luria approach to cultural-historical psychology “is pregnant with promises for many new discoveries that may lead to fundamental changes in our understanding of the human mind” (p.315).

Toomela bases this chapter on his own readings of the authors’ works and acknowledges that this reading is different from others (p.316)—by which he means not just Vygotskian scholars, but more directly, scholars in neuropsychology (e.g., p.328). The conventional interpretation, he says, is wrong: “Vygotsky (and Luria) consistently followed not the linear cause -> effect but the differentiated-holistic structural-systemic way of scientific thinking” (p.335).

Vygotsky and Luria argued that semiotically mediated thinking develops hierarchically and therefore “there can be more or less developed cultures depending on the hierarchical forms of word-meaning-structure of development that are available in a particular culture” (p.338). However, contemporary cultural-historical psychologists such as Cole and Wertsch disagree and label this thinking as ethnocentric. Toomela rejects this recent view for at least two reasons. The first is that the recent activity theory-flavored approaches are founded on non-Vygotskian “linear environment->individual relationship thinking” (p.338). The second is that “the conclusions of the activity theory are based on superficial similarities between tasks and task performances. Activity theory rejects a priori the possibility that mental structures underlying external task performance may be different” (p.338). (I guess I have been out of this loop for the past 20 years, since this assertion seems new to me.)

And I think this is where I’ll leave the review. This handbook covers an extraordinary range of viewpoints and draws on a broad set of disciplines to expand our understanding of cultural-historical psychology. Should you read it? If you’re interested in Vygotskian theory, or activity theory as an outgrowth of it — of course.