Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Reading :: Voices of the Mind

Voices of the Mind: A Sociocultural Approach to Mediated Action
By James V. Wertsch

I was surprised to discover that I apparently haven't reviewed this classic from 1991. Drawing on Vygotsky and Bakhtin, Wertsch seeks to explain and develop the notion of mediation. Longtime readers of this blog will already understand the basics of mediation. See Vygotsky's economical introduction for some background—including the background for a distinction I'll foreground in this review: physical vs. psychological tools.

As Wertsch argues:

The third general theme that runs throughout Vygotsky's formulation of a sociocultural approach is the claim that higher mental functioning and human action in general are mediated by tools (or "technical tools") and signs (or "psychological tools"). Here again the influence of Marx and Engels is evident, especially in Vygotsky's discussion of the use of tools in the emergence of labor activity. But Vygotsky's main contribution resulted from his focus on psychological as opposed to technical tools. His lifelong interest in the complex processes of human semiotic action allowed him to bring great sophistication to the task of outlining the role of sign systems, such as human language, in intermental and intramental functioning. (pp.28-29)

Vygotsky was, as Wertsch points out, quite focused on speech in its relationship to thinking. This "ethnocentric bias" "is not so much one that invalidates the research as it is one that limits the applicability of constructs to certain groups and settings. It reflects a pattern of privileging that distinguishes the performance of people functioning in various cultural, historical, and institutional settings" (pp.31-32). Yet one lasting contribution is the insight that "the inclusion of signs in action fundamentally transforms the action. The incorporation of mediational means does not simply facilitate action that could have occurred without them; instead, as Vygotsky (1981a) noted, 'by being included in the process of behavior, the psychological tool alters the entire flow and structure of mental functions...'" (p.32). Signs change the flow of behavior. 

The focus on speech was one limitation of Vygotsky's thinking; another was his focus on "small group interaction, especially the interaction of the adult-child dyad" (p.46). For that reason, Vygotsky largely treated concept development as an individual process—but around 1934, Vygotsky began considering concept development "from the perspective of how it emerges in institutionally situated activity" (p.47). Wertsch thinks that if Vygotsky had survived past 1934, he would have extended his ideas further into the intermental realm, something that Wertsch advocates: "extending Vygotsky's ideas to bring the sociocultural situatedness of mediated action on the intermental plane to the fore" (p.48). Here, Wertsch believes that Bakhtin's ideas are relevant, since Bakhtin examines the relationship of utterances, meanings, and social languages, and thus the relationship between individual (intramental) and group (intermental) meanings.

After covering the basics of Bakhtin, Wertsch returns to Vygotsky's analogy between tools and semiotic mediation (Ch.5). Vygotsky had noted the limitations of this analogy, but Wertsch boldly states that in his view, "he did not push this analogy far enough": we should think of these diverse semiotic mediators as a "tool kit" (p.93). Thinking along these lines will push us to ask why someone uses one tool and not another in a given situation (p.94). Wertch again brings in Bakhtin here, noting how different semiotic mediators may come from different social languages.

Later, Wertsch criticizes Leontiev for losing sight of semiotic mediation: "In contrast, looking at action in isolation, without concern for the mediational means employed, loses sight of one of my most fundamental points and what is perhaps the most central contribution Vygotsky, Bakhtin, and many of their colleagues made to the study of mind: mediated action is an irreducible unit of analysis, and the person(s)-acting-with-mediational-means is the irreducible agent involved. ... Shchedrovitskii (1981) has argued that A.N. Leontiev's account of activity and action is flawed by the fact that Leontiev lost sight of some of Vygotsky's insights about semiotic mediation" (p.120). 

And I'll leave it there, although the book has much more to recommend it. If you're interested in mediation, Vygotsky, and/or Bakhtin, definitely pick up this highly readable classic.

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