Home Page
Developmental Psychology
Interpretive Research
Theoretical Framework
A Personal Perspective
Theoretical Framework
Research Projects


Cultural context framework


Silvia Scribner (1990/1997) identifies three key aspects of the sociocultural approach to human cognition:

1. cognition is culturally mediated by material and semantic artifacts such as tools and signs;

2. it is founded in purposive activity (“human action-in-the-world,” socially constituted systems of activity designed to satisfy human needs);

3. and it develops historically as changes at the sociocultural level impact psychological organization.


And Rogoff & Chavajay (1995) distinguish 3 phases in the history of the sociocultural framework.

The first, in the 1960s to 1970s, was one of cross-cultural research. Researchers took up the task of translating cognitive tasks for populations on other cultures, and discovered that the tasks travelled badly. It become apparent, to some at least, that the tasks were in some ways culture-bound, and also that the cognitive skills that reseachers had presumed were universal in their form were actually linked to the practices and institutions of formal schooling in Western society.

For example, research using Piagetian tasks appeared to demonstrate that many people don’t use formal operational thinking, and that even concrete operational capacities, such as conservation, show up much later that one might expect. Research on schooling and concrete operations gave mixed results, suggesting that perhaps experience in school provided familiarity with the types of task the researchers used.

Classification tasks led to a distinction between functional and taxonomic classification, with links to literacy, which appeared to foster the former.

Research with logical tasks found people from more traditional cultures unwilling to accept hypothetical--“unverifiable”--premisses, suggesing that syllogistic reasoning rested in a socialized language game, rather than individual cognitive capacity.

Memory tasks showed that schooling improves free recall, and that “cognitive tests [don’t] reveal a general ability across tasks unrelated to people’s experience” (R & C, 863).

The second phase was one of transition, as the theoretical underpinnings of cross-cultural research were rethought, and researchers moved away from artificial tasks and into real-life contexts.

The writing of Lev Vygotsky provided a new theoretical basis for the work. Thought and Language had been translated in 1962.  Mind in Society was published in 1978, translated by Cole and Scribner. Vygotsky’s work provided a language for talking of culture and cognition as dynamic processes that cannot be separated; of culture as localized in some sense; and of culture as no longer an independent variable. And of the “technologies” of writing, speech, and number.

Focus began to shift to types of literacy (e.g., Scribner & Cole, 1981), and away from propositions, isolated statements.

Work on numeracy--e.g., Lave’s (1977) work on tailors’ problems, work with Japanese abacus experts--found no ‘general’ skills. “The specifics of each practice (whether schooling, tailoring, or candy selling) are inseperable from the cognitive processes of the users of the system” (865).

Consensus began to grow that cognitive tests and tasks always have a social and institutional organization. This influences the participants’ interpretations of the problem (for instance, their view of the speed with which it should be solved, whether social interaction is viewed as helping or cheating, whether it is considered a technical or a social task), and the conversational forms used (the perceived status of the tester, inhibitions about calling attention to self, about not talking back). Research, that is to say, had begun to examine the assumptions underlying cognitive research.

The 1990s has seen a fourth phase of consolidation, as sociocultural theories of development have been posited. Rogoff and Chavajay see a “rather coherent family” whose members include Michael Cole, Silvia Scribner, Jean Lave, Jackeline Goodnow, Urie Bronfenbrenner, Pierre Dasen, Robert Serpell, and Patricia Greenfield.

And Rogoff and Chavajay offer an “abstract” of the sociocultural paradigm. It is one which maintains that “the intellectual development of children is inherently involved with their participation in sociocultural activities” (871). These cultural activities foster ‘transfer’ across genres, offering intellectual traditions and tools.

Sociocultural researchers, they propose, see the activity or the event as the best unit of analysis: people engaged, participating, with tools, in institutions, as a unitary whole.

They place process and development before structure, in both ontogenesis and history. They recognize distinct levels of organization, inseparable levels of analysis: individual, social (interpersonal), and cultural (community). And they acknowledge variation in the direction and course of development.

Appropriating Vygotsky

The translation of two books by Vygotsky (-1943) (Thought and Language, Mind in Society) offered the nascent sociocultural framework an alternative to the cognitive theorizing of the time. Now, much more of Vygotsky’s writing has been published in English, and it has become apparent that the early translations were only a very selective portion. What do we know about Vygotsky now? I will draw mainly from the work of Norris Minick (1985, 1987, 1989).

Minick suggests that the central notion around which Vygotsky’s work was built is the seemingly paradoxical formulation that what is most basic and universal to human beings is the historical, social, and cultural. The first translations drew from a narrow focus on cognition and semiotic mediation (especially thought and speech), but Vygotsky’s writings moved within a much larger framework, including motivation and affect, and the consequences for development of the child’s place in socially defined systems of activity or practice. What Vygotsky saw, Minick suggests, was not just the child “appropriating” new forms of discourse and thinking, but their progressively broader participation in an organized social system.

For example, in his 1932 critique of Piaget, Vygotsky points out the former’s failure to incorporate concrete, practical activity into his account of development, and the way Piaget conceptualizes it as, at best, in abstraction from social practices. He argues that Piaget’s distinction between thinking that is ‘autistic’ (merely satisfying needs) and that which is ‘realistic’ (adapted) is ill-conceived, for the latter is connected specifically with the institutions of Western science and philosophy. Truth for the sake of truth itself is the slogan of a particular culture’s institutions.

So Vygotsky studies not “adults and children” but “teachers and pupils”-- not abstract individuals but people in concrete circumstances. He studies not “higher mental functions” but “scientific thinking,” In both cases, of course, this is the result not of a choice between two alternative objects of study, but of the belief that the first term does not in fact exist.

Minick distinguishes between Vygotsky’s early work (1924-25), his first steps towards systematic theory (1926-32), his formulations of a theory of mind in social practice (1932-34), and his 1934 work on speech and language.

1924-25. The early work

During this period Vygotsky’s work had a strong emphasis on social interaction and cognition. Vygotsky wrote on three main topics: the psychology of art (on the cognitive process involved in reading literary works); on the psychology and education of the deaf, blind, and retarded; and a number of conceptual papers (published in the Collected Works, Vol. I).

1. Humans create with their bodies, but then separate from their bodies, tools and technologies that mediate human physical and mental activity. Mediated action, rather than mental structure, is the object of analysis: characteristics of mind that exist only within a concrete activity, not some mental capacity that ‘gives rise’ to the production or reception of, say, art. Peculiar forms of mentation, in the process. Vygotsky explored the notion that there are distinct characteristics of thinking in math, physical science, etc. In other words, contextual specificity to thought. And that there are interconnections of the different mental ‘functions’: emotion, thought, etc.

2. Handicaps not only change the child’s relation to the world, but first of all impact the child's relationships with other people. The task is to restore the child’s position in the social system. This can be done with new technologies, and with an appropriate educational system.

For example, the manner in which speech leads to consciousness and to self-consciousness rests on the way that speech is an integral part of the child’s social relations. “Consciousness is a problem of the structure of behavior” (83); mind is inseparable from action. It is the child’s inclusion in socially defined systems of activity that leads to development. Vygotsky here had a critique of both behaviorism and idealist mentalism; these are two halves of a single dualism.


1926-32: First steps towards systematic theory

In Minick’s view it was at this time that Vygotsky began to build a systematic theory of human functioning, with the notion that signs mediate human cognition. Associations, he observed, can be reorganized by adding an artificial/cultural sign. For example, we tie a knot in a handkerchief to remind us to do something. Humans construct signs--and so we can control our own mental functions. The resulting mental operations are more advanced; Vygotsky as this point called then “higher.” They have their origin in speech and other sign-means; that’s to say, their origin is social. The internalization of mediational means gives rises to intramental functions.

Some of the terminology here will signal the fact that, as Minick points out, Vygotsky developed these notions within a rather simplistic behaviorist framework. This work showed both continuity and discontinutity with that preceding it: continuity in so far as the basic analytic object remains action. Discontinuity in so far as the linguistics and semiotics Vygotsky had previously been drawing on cannot fit within the purvue of behaviorism; this work showed a tendency to isolate cognition from other functions; and to reduce the social factors to tools, ignoring institutions and social practices.

A break came in 1930, when Vygotsky came to appreciate that signs are not the same as stimuli. What develops is not an isolated function (memory, for instance) but a new psychological system, in which the functions remain interconnected. But still, the larger social order had been dropped.


1932-34 Toward a theory of mind in social practice

In the two years before his death from tuberculosis Vygotsky moved beyond social interaction and sign systems, exploring not psychological systems alone, but the interrelation of social situations and psychological structure, in particular the way practical activity liberates both thought and word-meaning.

He began to explore the problem of interests, the issue of motivation--for example, the way that new interests emerge in teenagers. Following Marx, Vygotsky proposed that needs are transformed; that biological maturation occurs alongside social maturation. With history our needs have shifted: needs for weapons, plows, land, jobs...

Minick takes us back to Vygotsky’s 1932 critique of Piaget. Vygotsky argued that the child’s concrete needs and interests must be considered, and the relations with the world that these define. Thinking doesn’t operate for ‘pure truth,’ divorced from the earth. Conceived otherwise, it is a “dance of staples.”

Vygotsky lectured in Leningrad. He emphasized the importance of considering the social situation of development. This--the system of relationships that involve the child--is specific to each developmental stage, and defines with strict lawfulness the entire nature of a child’s life (18). The social situation is a function of a child’s motivation, affect, cognition, physical development, and so on. It defines forms of social existence, but these are not defined objectively, in abstraction.

The “central line of development” changes from one age to the next. In infancy it is defined by dependence on others, but the motor skills that are achieved around one year of age permit independent action. And speech changes things again.

Minick provides two illustrations of Vygotsky’s thinking at this time. First is the 1933 paper on play. Vygotsky argues that the young child is cognitively bound to the immediate perceptual field, so that even word meanings are at first fused with the perceived object. Play makes possible the capacity to separate “meaning” and “object.” It emerges from the child’s desire to participate more fully in the adult social system, as attempts to take the adult’s role, and here the child uses one object to represent another.

It was Vygotsky’s view that what makes this possible is play activity itself, not a mental capacity for symbolization. He focused on the role of objects in this activity. When a stick becomes a horse, the stick is a “pivot,” used to separate horse-object from horse-meaning. A pivot is an object used to function as another object in the play situation.

In the first phase, phase A, of play, thought and thing are fused. For example no distinction is made between the object horse and the word “horse.”

In phase B, the transitional phase, meaning is torn from things, but not torn from real actions with real objects. Thought is now attached to the pivot, rather than the original object. The pivot is a functional substitute, not a symbolic substitute (so it must have the right characteristics: the stick can be ‘ridden’ like a horse). The activity of the play supports this substitution.

In phase C, thought (word-meaning) and thing (object) are differentiated. Thinking has become removed from the original situation, and from the object.

The second illustration Minick offers is Vygotsky’s 1932 paper on the psychology of acting....

We seek “not eternal and unchanging laws of nature” but “historical laws of various forms and systems” (22). (Though, Minick points out, Vygotsky’s own discussion of children’s play lacks this cultural specificity.)


1934 Work on speech and thought

This phase of Vygotsky’s work, which included the book Thinking and Speech (a better translation than the usual “Thought and Language”), should, Minick proposes, be understood against the 1932-34 work, not, as is typically done, in terms of the 1926-30 work on signs.

Minick emphasizes two points. First, Vygotsky’s discussion of “scientific concepts” here was a response to Piaget. (Ch. 2 of the Collected Works reprints the 1932 critique.) Vygotsky, involved in a large study of schooling, proposed that it is school that is responsible for the transition from syncretic to logical thought.

Second, key concepts are applied to broad issues. For example, the “zone of proximal development” is not just an aspect of child-adult interaction. Play creates a ZPD. And this concept is just one expression of a larger concern. For another, Vygotsky is concerned with units of analysis.  For example, “word-meaning” is both a unit of thought, and a unit of social interaction.  “Experience” is also both individual and social.

Minick concludes this overview of Vygotsky’s work:

Vygotsky’s is not a theory of social interaction, semiotic mediation, and cognitive development. it is a theory of the development of mind in social practice.

Much work in the U.S. is “metaphysical” abstraction, with no attention to society.

The connections between Vygotsky and colleagues’ later work-Soviet activity theory, for example--is obscured.

Some Key Notions in Cultural Psychology:




                        in practice, in action


                        on the street v. formal


                        contrasted with schooling

                        cognitive apprenticeship: as schooling (Brown...)

                        apprenticeship in thinking (Rogoff)

                        guided participation



                        community of practice


                        tools, cultural toolkit




                        legitimate peripheral participation (Lave & Wenger)

                        expanding (Engestrom)



Further Reading:

Vygotsky. (1962). Thought and language.

 Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The developmental of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Cole, M., Gay, J., Glick, J. A., & Sharp, D. W. (1971). The cultural context of learning and thinking. New York: Basic Books.

Cole, M. (1996). Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice: Mind, mathematics and culture in everyday life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Minick, N. J. (1985). L. S. Vygotsky and Soviet activity theory: New perspectives on the relationship between mind and society: Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.

Minick, N. (1987). The development of Vygotsky's thought: An introduction. In R. W. Rieber & A. S. Carton (Eds.), The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky. Volume 1. Problems of general psychology, (pp. 17-36). New York: Plenum.

Minick, N. (1989). Mind and activity in Vygotsky's work: an expanded frame of reference. Cultural Dynamics, .

Rogoff, B., & Lave, J. (Eds.). (1984). Everyday cognition: Its development in social context. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rogoff, B. (1991). Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shweder, R. A. (1989). Cultural psychology: What is it? In J. W. Stigler, R. A. Shweder, & G. Herdt (Eds.), Cultural psychology: The Chicago symposia on culture and human development, . New York: Cambridge University Press.

Shweder, R. A. (1991). Thinking through cultures: Expeditions in cultural psychology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Valsiner, J. (1987). Culture and the development of children's action: A cultural-historical theory of developmental psychology. Chichester: Wiley.



Home Page
Developmental Psychology
Interpretive Research