Vygotsky's Sociohistorical Psychology and its Contemporary Applications
By Carl Ratner
New York: Plenum Press, 320 pp
Reviewed by Dave Riley
Psychological theories are eminently political. Psychological doctrine percolates into popular awareness and influences us greatly. What we think about ourselves, our expectations, how we treat others, how we comprehend the causes of personal problems, what kinds of solutions we believe are possible and the public policies we endorse are mixed up with our belief in how we and others think.
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars", wrote Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, "But in ourselves, that we are underlings". Performed in modern dress, the same stuff struts and frets today. Either the problem in ourselves is encoded in our genes — and we are stuck with it — or we each, individually, just haven't found the right script yet. It must be in us rather than outside us that our problems lie.
The sociohistorical psychology developed by Lev Vygotsky changes that around completely. Indeed, it turns modern psychology on its head.
Vygotsky was infused with the energy of the Russian Revolution of 1917. He wanted a psychology that was relevant to the times and that would give some substance to the task of building a new society. Instead of reducing psychology to individual activity, he placed it squarely within human management and social process.
Vygotsky saw language and mental powers as neither learned, in the ordinary way, nor emerging in set genetically determined stages, but as social and mediated in character. Language itself was an instrument that internalised culture for the processes of thought. For him, language was both a result of historical forces that gave it shape, and a tool that shaped thought itself.
Vygotsky's work was so ahead of its time in the 1920s and '30s that one of his contemporaries described him as "a visitor from the future". His work aroused great suspicion among Stalinist ideologues, and his major text, Thought and Language, which was published posthumously in 1934, was banned and suppressed a few years later.
His work and theories, which could no longer be mentioned publicly, were treasured by his pupils and colleagues. It was only during the late '50s that his associate A.R. Luria managed to get some of his works republished. In the past 20 years much research has finally caught up with Vygotsky's ideas so that now, at least in the United States, there is a resurgence of interest in his Marxist-based theories of mental phenomena.
For political activists, this is extremely relevant. There tends to be an unholy division between what is viewed as the public domain and what is seen as the personal and private psyche. The many attempts to enlist any number of psychological doctrines into a theory of liberation all seem to flounder in a crude simplicity more hopeful than scientific. This is not the case with sociohistorical psychology.
Vygotsky's ideas are so different from what we normally perceive to be psychology that they don't lend themselves to a quick summary.
Other theories suffer from the shortcoming that they start from the individual consciousness. However, living in a society is the nucleus and foundation of all mental development and all human culture. The simplest facts of thought from which we start out already possess a collective character. Each word, each conception and each thought which we experience in ourselves and which we accept as "given" has been inspired by community life. Even our emotions are cultural artefacts.
Carl Ratner's study of Vygotsky's psychology attempts to consolidate it by drawing on recent research so that its contemporary relevance sparkles. The mental processes of the western individual are falsely universalised without evidence (90% of all psychological research is monocultural). Ratner
therefore relies heavily on cultural anthropology to retrieve data that suggest immense variation in the nature and process of human thinking.
As you read this book, what you assume to be eternal about humans takes a battering. What seems steadfast and true is but a cultural variation — a mere moment in history transitory to some other mental life already forming in the society around. Adolescence, human sexuality, aggression and other emotions are not natural entities that rage within and dominate us but social constructions with, at most, a biological spark.
Such ideas rationalise social change as the motor of personal transcendence. While other schools of psychology may allow some causal interplay between society and the individual, none view the individual as what Wilhelm Reich called "congealed sociology". Ratner, while willing to utilise the insights of other psychologies, is keen to debunk their major assumptions. In the polemic, the major thrust of Vygotsky's ideas seems all the more startling and original.
Vygotsky died of tuberculosis at the age of 38 after spending a mere 10 years researching psychological matters. As an indication of the renewed interest in him, Plenum is publishing his collected works in six volumes. Already two are available in new translations from the Russian editions. However these, like Ratner's outline, are unlikely to be in the self-
improvement section of your local bookshop.