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Vygotsky and Sociocultural Theory - Handbook of psychology volume 7 educational psychology

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Vygotsky and Sociocultural Theory


of dealing with some of the massive practical problems con-

fronting the USSR—above all the psychology of education

and remediation” (Wertsch, 1985a, p. 11). This was a huge

undertaking in an underdeveloped, poor country that had

borne the brunt of World War I in terms of loss of life and

economic devastation, and then had gone through a pro-

found social revolution and a prolonged civil war. The extra-

ordinary challenge of developing literacy in a society where

the population over the age of 9 years was largely illiterate

made it difficult to use traditional approaches. 

In their travels throughout the Soviet Union, Vygotsky and

his collaborators were able to assess the population’s needs

and to set up laboratories and special education programs for

children who had suffered trauma. This work contributed to

Vygotsky’s recognition of the crisis in psychology and led

him to develop a new methodological approach for psycho-

logical research that included formative experiments rather

than just laboratory experiments. “The central problems of

human existence as it is experienced in school, at work, or in

the clinic all served as the contexts within which Vygotsky

struggled to formulate a new kind of psychology” (Luria,

1979, pp. 52–53).

Vygotsky’s Methodological Approach

Elsewhere, we have written more extensively on Vygotsky’s

theoretical foundations and methodological approach (John-

Steiner & Souberman, 1978; Mahn, 1999); here, we limit

ourselves to examining the theoretical foundations for his

functional systems analysis. An integral component of func-

tional systems analysis is genetic analysis—the study of

phenomena in their origins, their development, and eventual

disintegration. Although Vygotsky’s use of genetic analysis

is perhaps better known, functional systems analysis consti-

tutes the core of his scientific analysis and remains one of his

most significant contributions to the study of the mind.

Use of Dialectics

Although Vygotsky’s focus was on the development of the

mind, of human consciousness, he situated that study in the

historical development of society and in concrete contexts

for human development. Vygotsky drew heavily from Marx

and Engels’s application of dialectical materialism to the study

of human social development (historical materialism). He

examined the origins and evolution of phenomena, such as

higher mental functions, as dynamic, contextual, and complex

entities in a constant state of change. His dialectical approach

had the following as central tenets: (a) that phenomena should

be examined as a part of a developmental process starting with

their origins; (b) that change occurs through qualitative

transformations, not in a linear, evolutionary progression; and

(c) that these transformations take place through the unifica-

tion of contradictory, distinct processes. He used dialectics to

examine the processes that brought the mind into existence

and to study its historical development. “To study something

historically means to study it in the process of change; that

is the dialectical method’s basic demand” (Vygotsky, 1978,

pp. 64–65). Vygotsky saw change in mental functioning not

as the result of a linear process, but rather as the result of quan-

titative changes leading to qualitative transformations. In these

transformations, formerly distinct processes became unified.

Vygotsky grounded this approach in the material world, start-

ing his analysis with the changes that occurred when humans

began to control and use nature to meet their needs.

The Search for Method

This approach revealed the need for psychology to develop a

new methodology that surmounted the weaknesses of both be-

haviorism and subjective psychology. Vygotsky (1978) wrote,

“The search for method becomes one of the most important

problems of the entire enterprise of understanding the uniquely

human forms of psychological activity. In this case, the method

is simultaneously prerequisite and product, the tool and the re-

sult of the study” (p. 65). In one of his first major works, “The

Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology: A Method-

ological Investigation,” Vygotsky (1997b) subjected the domi-

nant theories of his time to a critical analysis starting with the

methodology that they inherited from the natural sciences.

This methodology based on formal logic posits a static

universe in which immutable laws determine categories

with impenetrable boundaries. It dichotomizes reality and

creates binary contradictions: mind versus matter, nature ver-

sus culture, individual versus social, internal versus external,

process versus product. Reductionist approaches “depend on

the separation of natural processes into isolable parts for in-

dividual study. They have provided a rich repertoire of infor-

mation about the world, but they systematically ignore the

aspects of reality that involve relations between the separated

processes” (Bidell, 1988, p. 330). Rather than isolating phe-

nomena, Vygotsky approached the study of the mind by ex-

amining its origins and development and then exploring its

interconnections with biological, emotional, cultural, and

social systems. Luria (1979) clearly articulated the dialecti-

cal approach that Vygotsky used to study the relationship

between the higher mental and elementary functions: 

Influenced by Marx, Vygotsky concluded that the origins of higher

forms of conscious behavior were to be found in the individual’s


Sociocultural Contexts for Teaching and Learning

social relations with the external world. But man is not only a

product of his environment, he is also an active agent in creating

that environment. The chasm between natural scientific explana-

tions of elementary processes and mentalist descriptions of com-

plex processes could not be bridged until we could discover the

way natural processes such as physical maturation and sensory

mechanisms become intertwined with culturally determined

processes to produce the psychological functions of adults. We

needed, as it were, to step outside the organism to discover

the sources of specifically human forms of psychological activity.

(p. 43)

Ethnographic Research Methods 

This stepping outside of the organism led sociocultural re-

searchers to use ethnographic methods when they found that

they could not adopt large-scale, cross-sectional methods to

their inquiries into the apprenticeships of thinking in

Guatemala (Rogoff, 1990) or the study of literacy in Liberia

(Cole, 1996; Scribner & Cole, 1981). John-Steiner and

Osterreich (1975) faced a similar dilemma in her work with

Navajo children when she found that traditional vocabulary

tests were inappropriate in assessing the language develop-

ment of these bilingual children. She needed to develop

culturally appropriate methods of observation and documen-

tation to identify the learning activities in which tradition-

ally raised Navajo children participated and to design new

methods (e.g., story retelling) for evaluating their language

learning. Her work among Native American populations

played an important role in the development of her theory of

cognitive pluralism (John-Steiner, 1991, 1995).

Cognitive Pluralism

Through her observations in Native American schools, John-

Steiner noted that Navajo and Pueblo children conveyed

knowledge not only through language, but also by dramatic

play, by drawing, and by reenacting their experiences, as well

as in spatial and kinesthetic ways. This caused a shift in her

approach to the nature of thought and theories of thinking. To

show the importance of varied semiotic means—sign-symbol

systems used for understanding reality and appropriating

knowledge—John-Steiner (1991, 1995) developed a pluralis-

tic rather than a monistic theory of semiotic mediation based

on her studies of these learners who were raised in culturally

diverse contexts. Likewise, in her studies of apprenticeships,

Rogoff (1990) found the importance of visual as well as ver-

bal semiotic means in participatory learning. Although

Vygotsky’s (1981) focus was more on language’s mediational

role, he also recognized other semiotic means: “various sys-

tems of counting; mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol

systems; works of art; writing; schemes, diagrams, maps and

mechanical drawings; all sorts of conventional signs and so

on” (p. 137).

The concept of cognitive pluralism provided John-

Steiner with a lens to examine the impact of external activ-

ities on the acquisition and representation of knowledge.

Ecology, history, culture, and family organization play roles

in the patterning of events and experience in the creation of

knowledge (John-Steiner, 1995). In a culture where linguis-

tic varieties of intelligence are dominant in the sharing of

knowledge and information, verbal intelligence is likely to

be widespread. In cultural contexts where visual symbols

predominate, as is the case in many Southwestern commu-

nities, internal representations of knowledge reflect visual

symbols and tools. John-Steiner’s interpretation of the mul-

tiplicity of ways in which we represent knowledge does not

have the strong biological base of Gardner’s (1983) theory

of multiple intelligences but shares the emphasis on the

diversity of knowledge acquisition and representation. Her Notebooks of the Mind further illustrates the concept of cog-

nitive pluralism by examining the varied ways in which

experienced thinkers make and represent meaning through

the use of words, drawings, musical notes, and scientific

diagrams in their planning notes (John-Steiner, 1985a). She

cites the work of Charles Darwin, who relied on tree dia-

grams in his notebooks to capture his developing evolution-

ary theories in a condensed visual form.

The Role of Culture

Cross-cultural studies such as Cole, Gay, Glick, and Sharp’s

work (1971) on adult memory illustrate the relevance of cog-

nitive pluralism and contribute to our understanding of the

impact of culture on cognition. In their work among the Kpelle

and the Vai in Liberia, Cole and his collaborators found that

categories organized in a narrative form were remembered

very well by native participants whereas their performance on

standard (Western) tasks compared poorly with that of North

American and European participants. In Cultural Psychology,

Cole (1996) proposed that the focus of difference among

distinct groups is located in the ways they organize the activity

of everyday life. Sociocultural researchers have increasingly

made such activity a focus for study as described by Wertsch


When action is given analytic priority, human beings are viewed

as coming into contact with, and creating, their surroundings as

well as themselves through the actions in which they engage.

Thus action provides the entry point into analysis. This con-

trasts on the one hand with approaches that treat the individual

Vygotsky’s Analysis of Elementary and Higher Mental Functions


primarily as a passive recipient of information from the environ-

ment, and on the other with approaches that focus on the indi-

vidual and treat the environment as secondary, serving merely as

a device to trigger certain developmental processes. (p. 8)

Sociocultural studies, such as those just mentioned, explore

the role played by culture in shaping both thinking and con-

text. They illustrate Vygotsky’s analyses of both the growth

and change of higher psychological processes through cultural

development and of the relationship between the elementary

and the higher mental functions.



We will term the first structures primitive; this is a natural psy-

chological whole that depends mainly on the biological features

of the mind. The second, arising in the process of cultural devel-

opment, we will term higher structures since they represent a ge-

netically more complex and higher form of behavior. (Vygotsky,

1997a, p. 83)

When Vygotsky developed his analysis of higher mental

functions, psychology was divided into two dominant and dis-

tinct camps: one that relied on stimulus-response to explain

human behavior and the other that relied on introspection as

an alternative to empirical research. Rather than trying to rec-

oncile these two disparate approaches, Vygotsky argued that a

whole new approach was necessary to study the mind—one

that critically examined psychology’s origins in the natural

sciences. In developing his new approach, Vygotsky focused

on the origins and the development of the higher mental

processes. He distinguished between mental functions that re-

side in biology—the reflexes of the animal kingdom (involun-

tary attention, mechanical memory, flight)—and those that

result from cultural development—voluntary attention, logi-

cal memory, formation of concepts.

Vygotsky studied prevailing psychological explanations

of the development of higher mental functions and found that

they addressed the origins, development, and purposes of the

elementary mental functions but not the roles of language,

human society, and culture in the genesis and development of

the higher mental functions. His analysis of Freud was par-

ticularly intriguing in this regard. While he accepted the sub-

conscious, Vygotsky also commented that “the subconscious

is not separated from consciousness by an impassable wall”

(quoted in Yaroshevsky, 1989, p. 169). Vygotsky (1997a)

felt that clinical studies that isolated features or functions

of human behavior resulted in “an enormous mosaic of

mental life . . . comprised of separate pieces of experience, a

grandiose atomistic picture of the dismembered human

mind” (p. 4). Vygotsky’s (1997a) critique of this picture

became the starting place for his research. 

He drew the distinction between the higher and lower

mental functions along four major criteria: origins, structure,

function, and their interrelationships: 

By origins, most lower mental functions are genetically inher-

ited, by structure they are unmediated, by functioning they are

involuntary, and with regard to their relation to other mental

functions they are isolated individual mental units. In contrast, a

higher mental function is socially acquired, mediated by social

meanings, voluntarily controlled and exists as a link in a broad

system of functions rather than as an individual unit. (Subbotsky,

2001, ¶ 4)

Functional Systems Analysis

To study higher mental functions, Vygotsky developed a

functional systems approach, which analyzed cognitive

change as both within and between individuals. In a previous

paper we defined functional systems as “dynamic psycholog-

ical systems in which diverse internal and external processes

are coordinated and integrated” (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996,

p. 194). A functional systems approach captures change and

provides a means for understanding and explaining qualita-

tive transformations in mental functions. In their analysis of

psychological processes as functional systems formed in the

course of development, Vygotsky and Luria examined the

ways biological, social, emotional, and educational experi-

ences of learners contribute to and function within dynamic

teaching/learning contexts.

Research Applications

In The Construction Zone, Newman, Griffin, and Cole (1989)

described their application of Vygotsky’s and Luria’s func-

tional systems analysis to education. They conceptualized

a functional system as including “biological, culturally vari-

able, and socially instantiated mechanisms in variable relations

to the invariant tasks that we investigate” (p. 72). Invari-

ant tasks here refers to specific memory and concept sorting

tasks used in clinical evaluations and experimental studies in

which participants are provided with mediating tools. This ap-

proach was also used in Vygotsky’s well-known block test,

which consisted of 22 wooden blocks of varying sizes, shapes,

and colors, with nonsense syllables on the bottom of the blocks

serving as guides to systematic sorting. These syllables are

mediating tools because they help the subjects to construct con-

sistent clusters of blocks. As children acquire increasingly

more sophisticated ways of sorting blocks, their progress


Sociocultural Contexts for Teaching and Learning

reveals changes and reorganizations in their functional systems

and not just the simple addition of new strategies.

In his research with patients with frontal lobe injuries,

Luria (1973) found that their injuries limited their use of

external devices so that they needed assistance in using semi-

otic means. He found that patients improved when clinicians

provided new tools and mechanisms to solve memory and

sorting tasks. Wertsch (1991) described the semiotic media- tion between individuals and cultural or mediational tools:

The incorporation of mediational means does not simply facili-

tate actions that could have occurred without them; instead as

Vygotsky (1981, p. 137) noted, “by being included in the process

of behavior, the psychological tool alters the entire flow and

structure of mental functions. It does this by determining the

structure of a new instrumental act, just as a technical tool alters

the process of a natural adaptation by determining the form of

labor operations.” (pp. 32–33)

Elsewhere, Wertsch (1985a) described multiplication as an

example of mediation because of the ways in which semiotic

rules provide a system, spatially arranged, to assist the indi-

vidual who is engaged in mediated action. 

Cultural Tools

Sociocultural researchers examine the use of mediational

tools such as talk or charts in the evolution of cognitive con-

structs. These external tools reflect the crystallized experi-

ences of learners from previous generations: 

Sociocultural theory . . . can be characterized by its central claim

that children’s minds develop as a result of constant interactions

with the social world—the world of people who do things for

and with each other, who learn from each other and use the ex-

periences of previous generations to successfully meet the de-

mands of life. These experiences are crystallized in “cultural

tools” and children have to master these tools in order to develop

specifically human ways of doing things and thus become com-

petent members of a human community. These tools can be ma-

terial objects (e.g., an item of kitchenware for one specifically

human way of eating and cooking), or patterns of behavior

specifically organized in space and time (for example, children’s

bedtime rituals). Most often however, such tools are combina-

tions of elements of different order, and human language is the

multi-level tool, par excellence, combining culturally evolved

arrangements of meanings, sounds, melody, rules of communi-

cation, and so forth. (Stetsenko & Arievitch, 2002)

These symbolic tools and artifacts reveal information about

the ways in which humans think, reason, and form concepts. 

Vygotskian approaches that focus on symbolic representa-

tion and mastery of mathematical concepts are becoming

more popular in mathematics education. In their research of

high school mathematics, Tchoshanov and Fuentes (2001)

explored the role of multiple representations and symbolic

artifacts (numerical, visual, computer graphic symbols, and

discourse). These multiple semiotic means constitute a func-

tional system that, if used flexibly by different learners,

effectively contributes to the development of abstract mathe-

matical thinking.

In studies of literacy, a functional systems analysis high-

lights the integration of the semantic, syntactic, and prag-

matic systems in reading and focuses on ways learners from

diverse backgrounds use their past learning strategies to

acquire new knowledge. In a study of Hmong women,

Collignon (1994) illustrates a synthesis between traditional

sewing practices and English as a Second Language (ESL)

instruction. The method by which sewing was taught to

young Hmong women became their preferred method for

learning English as a second language. Here, developmental

change goes beyond the addition of a new skill as represented

in many traditional learning theories; it implies synthesis and

transformation through the weaving together of individual

and social processes. 



One of Vygotsky’s major contributions to educational

psychology—his analysis of the interweaving of individual

and social processes—is also a major theme of a recent vol-

ume that reports on a 2-year project evaluating new develop-

ments in the science of learning (NRC, 1999). Two central

aspects of learning presented in the findings of this project

coincide with essential concepts of Vygotsky’s analysis. First

is the role of social interaction and culture in teaching/learn-

ing: “Work in social psychology, cognitive psychology, and

anthropology is making clear that all learning takes place in

settings that have particular sets of cultural and social norms

and expectations and that these settings influence learning

and transfer in powerful ways” (NRC, 1999, p. 4). The sec-

ond aspect is the functional systems approach: “Neuro-

science is beginning to provide evidence for many principles

of learning that have emerged from laboratory research, and

it is showing how learning changes the physical structure of

the brain and, with it, the functional organization of the

brain” (NRC, 1999, p. 4). The analysis presented in this vol-

ume also supports Vygotsky’s position that learning leads


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