Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Reading :: The Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky

The Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky
Edited by Harry Daniels, Michael Cole, and James V. Wertsch

In my ongoing quest to revisit the roots of activity theory, I picked up this thick collection to gain insight into the psychologist who is commonly seen as the origin point of AT.

As Rene van der Veer reminds us in the first chapter, "Vygotsky in Context," Vygotsky was very nearly forgotten (p.39). Van der Veer nicely contextualizes Vygotsky in this chapter, describing how the great scholar was influenced by Marxist thought and how he sometimes had to navigate around Soviet orthodoxy; see Van der Veer and Valsiner's Understanding Vygotsky: A Quest for Synthesis for a more in-depth exploration of these influences.

David Bakhurst's chapter, "Vygotsky's Demons," examines Vygotsky's philosophical influences and legacy. Bakhurst provides an overview of Vygotsky's tenets in dialogue with philosophy, and intriguingly argues that "the growing appreciation of the significance of the semiotic that marks Vygotsky's later work should have led him to dialogism, for if consciousness is a semiotic phenomenon, and if meaning is a cultural product, then the very content of consciousness is fixed in social space (just as the meaning of an author's words is not determined by her say-so)" (p.63). Bakhurst reasons that "A psychology that grasps this insight will attend more to the negotation of meaning in public contexts and focus less on events in individual minds"; yet Vygotsky "could never shake free of the idea that the individual is the primary unit of psychological analysis" (p.63).

Bakhurst also notes that
unlike doctrinaire Marxists, he did not think that progress was guaranteed by the laws of history; but he believed in it nonetheless. Because he saw enculturation as the source of mind, he naturally held that an individual's potential is constrained by the level of sophistication of the mediational means offered by his or her culture. This prompted him to draw parallels between the child's elementary mental functioning and the forms of representation and reasoning typical of so-called primitive societies. (p.71)
Perhaps contra Bakhurst, Holland and Lachicotte argue in their chapter that Vygotsky and Luria developed a dialogic understanding of self: "one's behaviors elicit reactions from others, so that, over time, on develops an inner sense of the collective meanings and social judgments that may meet one's behavior" (p.106).

In James Wertsch's chapter, "Mediation," he argues that Vygotsky used the term in two different ways. In explicit mediation, an individual "overtly and intentionally introduce[s] a 'stimulus means' into an ongoing stream of activity," and the stimulus means "tends to be obvious and nontransitory" (p.180). Implicit mediation, in contrast, "is part of an already ongoing communicative stream that is brought into contact with other forms of action" (pp.180-181); these signs are not deliberately introduced, nor do they originally emerge to organize the activity (p.181). Implicit mediation includes inner speech; it is ephemeral and ongoing (p.183).

Cole and Gajdamaschko's chapter "Vygotsky and Culture" explores his ideas of culture—a somewhat difficult task, since he used the term in at least three different ways. But the authors argue that his "orientation to culture as a historical phenomenon is central to the comparative aspect of Vygotsky's theory" (p.199). He also believed that "there was an intimate link between culture and mind" (p.199). Indeed, Vygotsky and Luria argued that "what is crucial in human development, and distinct from the development of other creatures is not the existence of tool use or communication considered in isolation, but their fusion such that what are ordinarily considered separately as tools, signs, and symbols are unified" (p.200). Vygotsky and his contemporaries mistakenly believed that tool use was uniquely human (p.203; I personally blame Engels).

Cole and Gajdamaschko note Leontiev's break with Vygotsky in which he shifted the unit of analysis to activity rather than mediation. This shift was seen as a repudiation of Vygotsky, but the authors argue that it was "an effort to place mediation in its cultural context" (p.206).

Skipping a bit, we get to Yrjo Engestrom's chapter, "Putting Vygotsky to Work: The Change Laboratory as an Application of Double Stimulation." Engestrom is characteristically interested in application that is firmly grounded in Vygotskian theory, so he emphasizes his Change Laboratory approach as using double stimulation, which is "aimed at eliciting new, expansive forms of agency in subjects. In other words, double stimulation is focused on making subjects masters of their own lives" (p.363). In double stimulation, the experimental situation cannot be rigidly controlled; double stimulation can trigger, but not produce the individual's construction of new psychological phenomena (p.365). Vygotsky goes on to tease out the implications of double stimulation as a learning tool.

Overall, this collection provided a solid overview of Vygotsky's thought from a variety of vantage points. Paired with Vygotsky's original works and some other commentary, this collection provides valuable insights. If you're interested in Vygotsky or the elements of activity theory, check it out.

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