Cultural-historical psychology is the theory that the development of higher cognitive functions is influenced by and is inseparable from the beliefs, values, and tools of the social, cultural, and historical setting. It is based on “signification” —the use of words (signs) and symbols to create meaning and to understand and explain behavior and experience—and which constitutes human consciousness. Cultural-historical psychology places special emphasis on the role of social interaction in cognitive development. In the latter part of the twentieth century, cultural-historical psychology's theories of cognitive development began to attract the attention of Western psychologists and educators.
Cultural-historical psychology was developed by post-revolutionary Soviet psychologists, especially Lev Semyonich Vygotsky (1896–1934), in an attempt to establish a new, universal, and scientifically based psychology. It is referred to as a metapsychology or metatheory, because it encompasses more than psychology. To construct his theory, Lev Vygotsky combined Marxist ideas about the influence of tool use on human cognition and anthropological views of the role of culture on human development. Cultural signs and symbols, including spoken, written, and mathematical languages, are viewed as both the tools for cognitive development and higher cognitive functioning and the vehicles of “meaning” that reflect socio-cultural patterns.
In the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and his successor Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) first attempted to trace the evolutionary development of higher cognitive functions in humans. However, it soon became clear that cognitive development was more than a natural adaptation of human biology—it was also dependent on sociocultural factors. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the French social psychologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) argued that human cognitive functions developed as a result of human society and culture. However, the resultant French school of sociology ignored the influences of particular social systems, cultures, and practices.
Russian psychology at the start of the twentieth century was based on the work of Ivan Pavlov (1849– 1936), which viewed human behavior as reflexive and reactive. Vygotsky, however, was an intellectual and a humanist. He viewed human behavior as resulting from human consciousness and culture and social interactions as the cornerstones of cognitive development, in sharp contrast to other contemporary theories of development. For Vygotsky, cognition, perception, emotion, memory, and personality—as well as psychopathologies—were constructed by individuals in the course of their social interactions. Vygotsky further argued for a synthesis of information from various disciplines to help integrate knowledge of cognitive development into educational psychology. He applied his own research methodologies to studies of children (pedology) and special education (defectology). Together with Luria and Leontiev, Vigotsky championed an international scientific psychology that based the study of mind and behavior within the cultural and material conditions of the individual.
Vogotsky died before realizing his unified vision of psychological science. Beginning in 1936, with the increasing repressiveness of the Soviet regime, and continuing for the next 20 years, Vigotsky's writings were banned in the Soviet Union, because they incorporated the work of Western scientists from various fields. It was not until the 1990s that the bulk of Vigotsky's work was translated into English. Luria and Leontiev fared better. Luria became one of the founders of modern neuropsychology. His writings were consistently available in the West, and his neuropsychological cultural-historical theories are employed in rehabilitation programs around the world. Leontiev, for his part, founded what became known in the West as “activity theory.”
Like the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980), Vygotsky recognized that infants were born with the basic abilities necessary for intellectual development. However, whereas Piaget focused on motor reflexes and sensory abilities, Vygotsky was concerned with what he referred to as the “elementary mental functions” of attention, sensation, perception, and memory. Whereas Piaget believed that cognitive development must precede learning, Vygotsky believed that learning is the essential process of cognitive development and psychological functioning and that social learning usually precedes cognitive development. He argued that a young child's speech during activities is internalized and transformed into inner speech that is crucial for cognitive development. His “zone of proximal development” (ZPD), or emerging cognitive functions, are illustrated by the cognitive tasks that “learners” accomplish with the assistance of a “more knowledgeable other” (MKO; an adult educator in Vygotsky's system, but also peers in modern recapitulations) and are subsequently accomplished by the learners on their own. Eventually, through interactions within a child's socio-cultural environment, elementary mental functions develop into the more sophisticated and effective mental processes and strategies that Vigotsky referred to as the higher mental functions of “voluntary attention, categorical perception, conceptual thinking, and logical memory.” These emerge only after the development of conscious awareness and partial control over thought processes. Therefore, according to Vigotsky, education should focus on the development of awareness and the control of thinking in order to develop “self-regulated learners.” This process is directed by the MKO and is dependent on interactions between the MKO and the learner, but it is through the learner's activities that higher cognitive functions are internalized.
For Vygotsky, cognitive functions, even those developed by the individual alone, are affected by the beliefs, values, and “tools of intellectual adaptation” (signs and symbols, including language) of the culture in which the individual develops. Therefore, cognitive functioning is socio-culturally determined. For example, in all young children, memory is limited by biological development, culture determines the form of memory strategies that are utilized—note-taking in literate societies, knots in a string, pebbles in one's pocket, or repeated recitation of ancestors’ names in preliterate societies.
Although Vygotsky's grand psychological synthesis was far from complete at the time of his early death, what subsequently was referred to in the West as cultural-historical psychology has been adapted and transformed by modern psychological theorists. Vygotsky's ideas foreshadowed later theories that the development of self-regulated (voluntary) learning is a necessary prerequisite for directing and controlling one's own thinking and learning. Vygotsky also anticipated twenty-first-century psychological research in stressing the importance of the study of childhood cognitive development. The emphasis of Vygotsky and his colleagues on the significance of social interactions and material factors for learning and higher cognitive development has contributed to modern learning theories and especially social development theory. Cultural-historical psychology continues to influence fields of various fields of psychology, including cultural, child, and educational psychologies, as well as neuropsychology, psycholinguistics, and especially developmental education.
See also Piaget, Jean.
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