In my recent readings on Soviet psychology, I kept seeing references to this 1989 book by historian David Joravsky, so I finally picked it up. It’s 474 pages, not including footnotes. Fortunately, Joravsky has a wry and cynical writing style that keeps things interesting.
At the time of writing, the USSR was in its death throes (it collapsed just two years later), and Soviet writers were still portraying Soviet psychology as outstripping the West. Joravsky, in contrast, doesn’t pull his punches. In the Preface, he levels the charge that in the early 1930s, Soviet orthodoxy forced diverse psychologists to “fuse into one, new, distinctively Soviet, truly Marxist psychology, which could be concretely described only in a negative way: it would not be like any of the existing schools, which were hopelessly ‘bougeouis’.” And
Soviet psychologists shrank to fit within that framework, leaving grand theory to official ideologists and concentrating on empirical studies that might not be objectionable to the officials. Vygotsky’s disciples retreated to the mental effects of brain damage and to child development studies rather like Piaget’s, though constrained to deny the similarity. Their claim of a unique ‘historico-cultural’ approach was and remains an empty slogan. They could not give it substance without entering minefields of invidious comparisons between group mentalities, such as ‘primitive’ v. ‘civilized,’ or ‘lesser’ nationalities v. ‘great’ ones. (p.xvi)
Further, he notes that when the Bolsheviks “forcibly advanced workers and peasants into positions of authority … issues of intellectual substance were entangled with lines of authority and opposition, within a political culture that tended more and more toward the equation of intellectual rectitude with place in the hierarchy of power” (p.xviii).
With that marker set, let’s venture into the book itself. Joravsky begins with a general discussion of psychological science and ideologies (Ch.1) and social science and ideologies (Ch.2) before getting into the history of psychology in Russia, which begins pre-Revolution with Sechenov (Ch.3). Rather than reviewing the entire discussion, I’ll focus on points related to the history of activity theory.
For instance, Joravsky discusses how Chelpanov, who organized a graduate program in psychology at Moscow University, was later characterized by Stalinists as an “idealist”—a misleading label, since Chelpanov was eclectic and tolerated diverse ontologies and approaches (pp.108-109). His graduate student Kornilov, the son of a provincial bookkeeper who became a village teacher before entering his undergraduate studies (1905) and graduate studies (1910; see p.113), would in 1923 depose him as director of the Institute of Experimental Psychology (p.224). (Note: Kornilov was the same age as Stalin and Trotsky; p.222.)
In the early 1920s, Chelpanov’s eclecticism was tolerated—in fact, Freud and Piaget were translated and discussed frequently throughout the early 1920s, with authors (such as Luria) exploring how to harmonize them with Marxism (p.217). But by the late 1920s, “genuine discussion of Freudianism was swamped by one-sided denunciations,” and by the mid-1930s, other Western psychologists (such as Piaget) got the same treatment (p.217).
The 1923 congress of psychoneurologists was a pivotal point. At this congress, Kornilov appealed for a Marxist psychology; Chelpanov objected in print. In the fallout, Chelpanov was dismissed from the directorship, replaced by Kornilov (p.224). Recounting the second congress in 1924, Red Virgin Soil praised “venerable scientists such as Bechterev, who were pictured as trying sincerely to accommodate their theories with Marxism, and … young scientists on the way to dialectical materialism, even if they were hesitating to make the decisive commitment. L.S. Vygotsky was offered as the prime example of that young, interested but hesitant type” (p.225). Chelpanov was meanwhile “pictured as the chief ‘idealist’ opponent of Marxism in psychology” (p.225).
Ironically, Kornilov, like Chelpanov, was an eclecticist (p.229). Vygotsky regarded Kornilov’s dream of a synthetic Marxist psychology as being “at odds with messy history” (p.229).
Meanwhile, the philosophical debate between mechanists and dialecticians raged through the 1920s. As Joravsky sums it up: “In the 1920s the ideological establishment turned against positivist versions of Marxism, in favor of a neo-Hegelian version, and then turned against it too” (p.230). The Deborinites (dialecticians) ignored both Kornilov and Vygotsky, and in fact “had nothing substantial to say about any school of psychology” (p.232). This gave psychologists some maneuvering room. Joravsky notes that in Vygotsky and Luria’s book outlining their historio-cultural approach to psychology, they “borrowed heavily and quite respectfully from such Western authorities as Piaget and Freud, showing that the Westerners’ discoveries blended nicely with a much smaller amount of findings by Soviet psychologists, and with a very light dusting of references to Marx and Engels” (p.233). The authors “still had an irenic attitude toward ‘bougeois’ psychologists,” and “to the furious Stalinists of the 1930s that evidence of professional legitimacy was evidence of pseudo-Marxism” (p.233).
Joravsky notes that Freud’s “claim of a unified vision was too obviously in competition” with that of the “Bolshevik ideological bureaucracy”—even though Marxist thinkers such as Vygotsky and Luria “tried to turn the competition into complementarity” (p.235).
But, contra Joravsky, note that in 1927 Vygotsky denigrated Luria’s use of Freud. This is one of the question marks in Joravsky’s book for me. The other is just a few pages later, when he attributes Freudianism: A Critical Sketch to Bakhtin (p.238)—it was published under Voloshinov’s name—and notes in a footnote that “Bakhtin published some of his work under that name” (p.505). Well, no: Voloshinov was a real person, a member of the Bakhtin Circle. Many have claimed that Bakhtin ghostwrote the books of Voloshinov and Medvedev, a claim that Bakhtin neither confirmed nor denied in the 1970s. (Bakhtin, Voloshinov, and Medvedev published four books in 1927-1929.)
Back to the history. Joravsky notes Luria’s winding journey, beginning in studies of personality and ending in the safe area of defectology (p.246), and points out how Luria’s autobiography erases his Jewishness (p.247)—an ethnic background that endangered his career due to Russian prejudices.
Luria’s autobiography is unquestionably accurate in noting that his research interests were shaped for fifty years by ‘the central themes that guided my initial efforts’ during the Civil War. He merely neglects to specify one of those ‘central themes’: political caution, a scientist’s effort to avoid ideological conflict, and a consequent retreat from field after field of research interests as ideological authorities extended their interest to and in them. (p.248)
Later Joravsky notes that Luria followed a lifelong pattern established in the 1930s:
He went on with his autonomous work in neuropsychology to the extent that he could do so in submissive cooperation with Stalinist authorities. He was closer than he imagined to the mentality of a peasant—not the illiterate type who sharply distinguished between his tsar and the tsar of a superior people; the type with enough understanding of superior people to tell what follows from their words. (p.369)
Joravsky also takes up Vygotsky. His account of Vygotsky’s early life (p.255) is vague and short—recall that this book was published in 1989, before many of the biographies reviewed on this blog. Vygotsky debuted on the broader psychological stage in 1924 at the Second Psychoneurological Congress (p.259 — recall that Chelpanov was replaced by Kornilov shortly after the first Congress in 1923). Here, Vygotsky used Marx’s passage on the spider and the architect to argue that psychological reductionism was not required by Marxism (p.259). As Joravsky notes, Luria and others were already using subjective methods, but Vygotsky showed them how to defend these methods and justify their disagreements with reflexology (p.261). Perhaps, Joravsky says, Kornilov deserves credit for recognizing Vygotsky’s rhetorical abilities (p.261). Vygotsky also had this advantage: “Vygotsky was the only one [of the psychologists with whom he worked] who had thoroughly absorbed Marxism” (p.261). Yet his talents also included prevarication:
Vygotsky went further than mere withholding of troublesome detail. He prevaricated on occasion. It is startling to compare his semi-private writing on ‘the psychological crisis’ with the rah-rah review of Soviet psychology that he published in a 1928 volume celebrating the social science during the first decade of Soviet power. (p.265)
Joravsky goes on to criticize Vygotsky’s work:
When he came to cognitive psychology, he did preliminary theorizing far more than experimental research. And when he came to preach ‘historico-cultural’ psychology, his theorizing was quite thin and derivative. He ostentatiously put the ‘historico-cultural’ slogan at the center of his program for psychology, yet he worked at the subject only belatedly and briefly. His first published venture was little more than a survey that he and Luria brought out in 1930, mostly reviewing theories of Western psychologists: Studies in the History of Behavior: Ape, Primitive, Child. Stalinists immediately attacked the scheme of behavioral evolution that it presented as ‘essentially bourgeois.’ Vygotsky’s defensive and aggressive responses—restricting his freewheeling thought, attacking ‘bourgeois’ elements in Piaget—belong to the Stalinist 1930s. The point here, respecting the 1920s, is that even then, in a relatively liberal atmosphere, Vygotsky resembled most other Soviet psychologists in his paradoxical combination of insistence that social psychology be the center of the discipline and his evasion of serious work at the center. Even this extraordinarily venturesome thinker tended to stand clear of an area charged with ideological and political passion, while solemnly calling on Soviet psychologists to make it their focus. (pp.266-267)
Indeed, Vygotsky was interested in developing Marxism as a general methodology and philosophy of science (p.361) and seemed most interested in “an awkward layering of metapsychology over an authoritarian pragmatism” (p.363).
Re the attacks on Vygotsky and Luria’s 1930 book: in June 1931, the “Institute’s party cell” rebuked “‘the “apolitical culturist” … psychology of Vygotsky and Luria” as well as the reflexologies of Kornilov and Bekhterev (p.358). Vygotsky and Luria’s 1931-1932 study of Uzbekis was similarly received poorly, and for similar reasons: it was read as applying primitive or childish qualities to Soviet peoples (pp.364-367). Stalinism could not tolerate “anything like a serious cultural-historical approach to psychology”—although studies of children and disturbed adults were tolerable (p.367). By 1932, Vygotsky’s optimism was gone; he couldn’t even quote Trotsky and Kautsky, since those names were no longer to be uttered positively (p.364). Similarly, “Luria retreated from historico-cultural psychology to intense study of mental disorder in brain-damaged patients” (p.368); he also adopted the Stalinist style of writing after 1931 (p.369). Joravsky notes with astonishment that when Luria finally published the Uzbeki study, forty years later, “he retained the swagger of the Stalinist style” and “stolidly ignored the forty-year delay” (p.369—but I personally think that this retention is due to Luria simply publishing the manuscript without revision). Finally, Leontiev focused on child development and “avoided other possibilities of historico-cultural inquiry” (p.369).
By 1938, Vygotsky was dead, his nascent field of pedology had been denounced (see p.347), and Stalin had published “his celebrated essay on dialectical and historical materialism… [which was] too inane for any use but tub-thumping celebration of the great author” (p.326). “Developing almost entirely as a part of pedagogy, psychology became a purely descriptive science” (p.353).
Joravsky’s account goes on from there, but let’s call a halt. In terms of the cultural-historical school, Joravsky mainly notes Luria’s tactics for survival and Rubinshtein’s distaste for the school.
Overall, I did find this book to be rewarding, but flawed. Joravsky’s cynicism is healthy, but sometimes I think it leads him to undervalue or superficially evaluate the works of the cultural-historical school. And the two question marks, indicated above, undermine my faith in some of the other facts Joravsky recounts. I’ll use this book, but with some caution. If you’re interested in the history of Soviet psychology, I certainly recommend reading it.
This 1999 book approaches Vygotsky, founder of the cultural-historical school of Soviet psychology, from a historical and developmental perspective. That is, the author points out that Vygotsky’s papers were published out of order and, in the West, often out of context. Consequently, scholars have often not been able to see the development of Vygotsky’s thought. Instead, they have read Vygotsky more or less ahistorically: they have tended to read concepts (such as “psychological tool”) into his early work that he did not develop until later, and they have sometimes read his later works as being more continuous with his early thought than they actually were. One example is that of the structure of human labor activity: Veresov complains that people hold a “widespread opinion” that Vygotsky introduced this perspective, and that its origins can be found in Vygotsky’s earlier works, when they cannot. (Veresov singles out Kozulin and Nardi here, p.25.)
Indeed, Veresov takes early aim at the idea, spread by Leontiev and Luria, that Vygotsky was the founder of the activity approach. To the contrary, Veresov says, Vygotsky did not use this sense of the term “activity” (deyatelnost). But readers who have heard the Leontiev-Luria account are primed to interpret Vygotsky’s use of the term in this way (pp.26-27). Veresov also notes that, although Leontiev and Luria claim that Vygotsky began his psychological work in 1924, Vygotsky himself claimed that he began that work in 1917 (p.27; p.69)! Veresov also notes “some gross errors in English versions of Vygotsky’s early articles that have not been corrected until now” (p.42).
For these reasons, Veresov undertakes a historical-developmental account of Vygotsky’s thought, examining the original texts and their political and historical contexts. I’ll only hit the highlights here.
In 1926, Vygotsky published Pedagogical Psychology, an early book that “read like a hymn to conditioned reflexes” (p.78). At this point, Vygotsky advocated “a new science of the child” (Veresov’s words) and stated that “‘the revolution undertakes the re-education of the whole of mankind'” (Vygotsky’s words, p.80). As Veresov puts it, psychology, in the view of Vygotsky circa 1926, “was understood as potent social engineering, the science that is able to produce the revolution in a child’s consciousness” (p.80; cf. Bauer).
When Vygotsky joined Luria at Moscow University, he did not participate in Luria’s ongoing combined motor method experiments and was unconvinced by Luria’s 1925 article proposing a synthesis of Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxism (p.118). Veresov even questions whether the “troika” of Vygotsky, Luria, and Leontiev even existed—Vygotsky never mentions the troika even in his private letters, although he does mention the “pyaktera” (fivesome) of himself and his closest students (Zaporosets, Bozhovich, Slavina, Levina, Morozova). To Veresov, this suggests that Leontiev essentially retconned his research relationship with Vygotsky (p.118). Nevertheless, Veresov says, Luria and (to an extent) Leontiev “actively helped to build this theory” (p.119).
Only in 1926, Veresov says, did Vygotsky move from a focus on the word to signs in general (p.136).
In Chapter IV, Veresov turns to a watershed event, Vygotsky’s unpublished “Historical Sense of Psychological Crisis,” written in 1926 or 1927 when he (and his doctors) thought he was a terminal case. Veresov notes that the manuscript circulated for years and even claims that an early passage of Leontiev’s Activity, Consciousness, Personality was “literally taken from Vygotsky without any reference” (p.150, footnote 2)! In this work, Vygotsky argues that “The main contradictions in psychology are not contradictions of facts, but contradictions of different types of origins and analysis of facts, which are predetermined with the objective laws of scientific cognition and the history of science” (p.155, Veresov’s words and italics). Veresov sees Crisis as, to an extent, Vygotsky’s self-criticism as he let go of reflexology (p.163) and strove instead for a methodological monism—in Veresov’s reading, one of Vygotsky’s fundamental achievements (p.168).
Veresov notes that Cole and Scribner quote an “unpublished notebook” of Vygotsky’s in their 1978 article, and this quote is reproduced in Wertsch’s 1985 book. This “notebook” was Crisis, and Veresov is surprised that Wertsch quotes it in this fashion—Crisis was published in Vygotsky’s Collected Works in 1982. Importantly, it’s a misquote, eliding part of the passage and mistranslating a couple of words (pp.180-183).
Finally, Veresov argues that the principle of mediation was introduced as a solution to the dichotomy of subject and world. The dichotomy meant that subject and world had to be interpreted as two systems; mediation allowed Vygotsky to analyze them as one system (p.222). But, Veresov argues, this solution fails: “the idea of internalization as a mechanism of transformation of the internal social relations into internal higher psychical process did not correspond completely with the idea of ‘one system’ since it “presupposes the subject as an active participant of social relations” (p.231). That is, it presupposes consciousness (p.231).
Overall, this was a rewarding and thought-provoking book, and I’m still trying to digest it. Part of that digestion will involve rereading some of the subsequent books I’ve reviewed on this blog, to see if they have picked up on these assertions and to what extent they lend credence to them. If you’re similarly interested in the roots of the cultural-historical school, check it out.
Piotr Gal’perin was one of the young psychologists who joined Vygotsky, Luria, and Leontiev at the Kharkov School during its six-year existence. Afterwards, he went on to a long career in psychology, related to yet independent from the cultural-historical school. In this intellectual biography, published in 1996, Jacques Haenen struggles to tell this story despite the handicap of a wooden writing style.
The first part of the book describes Gal’perin’s career. Like Vygotsky, Luria, and Rubinstein, Gal’perin was Jewish, and the Revolution opened doors that had been firmly shut during the Czar’s reign. When he joined the Kharkov School in 1930, Gal’perin studied the differences in too use between humans and animals as well as human tool-mediated activity (p.23). Gal’perin met Vygotsky, but the author notes that Vygotsky did not join the Academy: “his contribution to the psychological debates within the framework of the ‘school’ is difficult to reconstruct” (p.23); the school was influenced by Vygotsky, “but they differed in their views on the inner psychological content of human activity” (p.24). Kharkov was a safe harbor for many different psychological schools (p.24).
The author recounts some of Gal’perin’s memories of Vygotsky. One was a Stalinist public discussion of the kind meant to criticize scientific authorities for supposed anti-Marxism, silencing them. Vygotsky was compelled to speak during such a public discussion, but according to Gal’perin, “Vygotsky delivered the lecture and held the whole hall under his spell”; afterwards, the proceedings were postponed and then canceled, and Vygotsky escaped the destruction of his reputation (p.26). But, Haenen acknowledges, “it has been impossible to document the meeting”; even Gal’perin’s memory is too vague to be verified (p.26). It sounds too good to be true.
Yet, at least in his telling, Gal’perin was not as impressed with Vygotsky as his colleagues were (p.27). Gal’perin noted that “Vygotsky felt himself blocked in his cultural development” because he had trouble understanding visual representations or music; “With him, everything emerged in speech!” (p.28). Gal’perin believed that this state led Vygotsky to overrate speech (p.28). The Kharkov School “dismissed Vygotsky’s neglect of external practical activity” (p.26). (This claim seems like only a partial account of the Kharkov split that has been discussed more thoroughly by Kozulin and Van der Veer & Valsiner.) Like the other Kharkovites, Gal’perin in his dissertation “did not attribute the crucial role [of tool use in humans v. animals] to speech, but to specific content of practical activity” (p.32).
In 1936, the USSR issued its decree against pedology, ending the Kharkov School (p.39). Haenen claims that “For a long time, about twenty years, [Vygotsky’s] work was banned” (p.42; for a contrary view, see Fraser, J., & Yasnitsky, A. (2015). Deconstructing Vygotsky’s victimization narrative: A re-examination of the “Stalinist suppression” of Vygotskian theory. History of the Human Sciences, 28(2), 128–153). Gal’perin claims that the Kharkov School “suffered less under this ban, because from the start they had been opposed to Vygotsky and his interpretation of pedology,” specifically pedology as a synthetic science (p.42). Gal’perin believed that to be a master of a synthetic science, one must be a specialist of each component science; he argued in 1936 that a better approach was for different specialists to collectively approach the same problem (p.43).
In 1943, during World War II, the USSR established a rehabilitation framework and established several rehabilitation hospitals, two of which were headed by Luria and Leontiev (p.44). Gal’perin joined Leontiev’s hospital, becoming head of the medical section (p.45). There, a physician noted to Gal’perin that disabled veterans who could not perform arm movements could do so if the movement were object-bound—for instance, “a disabled man who could not lift his hand to his head upon request could comb his hair if necessary” (p.45). According to Leontiev, Gal’perin was “the first researcher in the Soviet Union to study the object-bound nature of activity experimentally” (p.45).
Also in 1943, Gal’perin worked in the psychology section at Moscow University. In 1966, the section became an independent faculty and Gal’perin was appointed professor. In 1971, Gal’perin became head of the department, where he served until retiring in 1984 (p.63).
In the second half of the book, Haenen describes the main sources of Gal’perin’s research program. This section includes a passage on the Vygotsky-Leontiev split, which Haenen dates to a talk on psychological systems that Vygotsky delivered to his circle in 1930 (p.75):
It may be argued that the first phase of the development of Vygotsky’s cultural-historical theory was characterized as a joint enterprise of Vygotsky, Leont’ev, and Luria. Insofar as these three men are called the ‘troika’ of Soviet psychology, this refers to the years from 1924 until 1930. In 1930, Vygotsky summarized their joint research and proposed the new concept of psychological systems to further develop the findings of that first phase. After 1930, Luria remained in close contact with Vygotsky, followed Vygotsky’s line, and became the founder of Soviet neuropsychology. Leont’ev, although he stayed in contact with Vygotsky, developed his own perspective in Soviet psychology. (p.76)
Haenen traces the split from Gal’perin’s perspective. According to Gal’perin, Leontiev noted a “certain hiatus” in Vygotsky’s account of idea transmission from adult to child: “Vygotsky did not specify what kind of activity is required from the child to assimilate and reproduce the assigned model of some kind of social experience” (p.78). When Leontiev moved to Kharkov in 1930, he “made the concept of activity the focus of his research” (p.78), and “in 1935, Leont’ev summarized his criticism of Vygotsky in a lecture” (p.79). (For context: Vygotsky died in 1934 and the Pedology Decree was issued in 1936.) Leontiev complained that “it is impossible to find the cause of the development of meaning within social interaction itself” and dedicated himself to discovering “what lies behind social interaction” (p.79).
Leontiev concluded that “the origin of consciousness had to be found in external activity” (p.80). But Gal’perin noted that “Leont’ev had developed his concept of activity in the direction of an all-embracing psychological doctrine,” and Haenen recalls Kozulin’s complaint about the circular nature of this argument (p.81).
Gal’perin believed that the essence of activity is meaningfulness, or “personalized activity” (p.94) and that one basic function of mind is to orient a person’s future actions—that is, he viewed mind as an orienting activity (p.96).
Forgive me for giving the rest of Gal’perin’s thought short shrift. I’m mostly interested in how he fits into the history of activity theory, and the rest of the book describes either things that fit comfortably into the main branch of AT or details that aren’t directly relevant.
Is the book a good read for those who, like me, are interested in the development of activity theory? I would have said no at the beginning of this review, but in looking over the details, I must concede that it has been useful indeed. It’s helped me to fill out some details specifically in the Vygotsky-Leontiev split. If you’re similarly interested in this history, I commend the book to you.
This 1990 book was published by Progress Publishers, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union—but it still has the whiff of an earlier era, with the familiar Soviet declarations of progress. Here’s an example from early in the book:
The Great October Revolution which triumphed in Russia in 1917, liberated and revealed the energy of the masses and directed it towards building a new society without precedent in history. Profound changes took place in the field of scientific knowledge in the first few years after the revolution. These should not be reduced to the fact that science, which for the first time in history was directed towards the service of the people, began to accumulate a new kind of material and gravitated towards the building of socialism: the very foundation of scientific knowledge changed over to Marxist-Leninist teaching. Soviet scientists assimilated this teaching and it became an integral part of all scientific theories developed in the USSR. (p.7)
By 1990, it was possible to look back on the Stalin years and engage in some light criticism. That criticism does come out in this volume. For instance, the author notes that Soviet psychologists of the 1920s and 1930s had good intentions, but some of their work was incorrect in retrospect (p.10). Indeed, “Sometimes, when a scientist was criticised (and quite rightly) for some specific theoretical blunders, his entire scientific work, even though free of any error, was withdrawn from circulation. This was the fate of works of many outstanding Soviet psychologists, among them Pavel Blonsky, Mikhail Basov, Lev Vygotsky” (p.11).
It is of course Vygotsky—and others of the cultural-historical strand of Soviet psychology—with whom I am most concerned. This Soviet history of psychology contextualizes them within the broad Soviet tradition. And although much of that history is uninteresting for my purposes, parts are valuable.
For instance, the author discusses Chelpanov’s work (still vilifying this work in 1990) (p.116) and his 1923 replacement by Kornilov (characterized as well-meaning but without sufficient understanding of Marx, p.127). Kornilov, the author says, didn’t adequately understand dialectical negation (p.134).
The author also notes that behaviorism didn’t last long in the Soviet Union because it was connected to mechanism in philosophy. Beginning in 1924, “mechanism became a prime danger” to dialectical materialism (p.141; for a better discussion of the controversy between mechanism and dialectics, see Bauer). Such trends are discussed in the book (another example is the short-lived flirtation with Freudianism), but without the other reading I have done into Soviet psychology, I don’t think I would have understood what was going on.
Back to the Vygotsky Circle. The author discusses Kornilov’s reactological views in detail, noting in a footnote that Luria, Leontiev, and “some other psychologists who worked at the Institute, held radically different views on a number of issues” (p.178). Presumably one of the unnamed psychologists was Lev Vygotsky, whose unpublished 1927 book (named here as The Historical Meaning of a Psychological Crisis) is later praised by the author as “a profound analysis of the history of the current stage of psychology” (p.185). The author goes on to discuss a bit of Vygotsky’s work, including his time codirecting the Krupskaya Academy of Communist Education with Luria (p.195). “A considerable volume of investigations made in the Academy by psychologists was united under a common theme: the study of a child’s cultural development level based on Vygotsky’s theory of the development of higher mental functions” (p.195). Some of this work was based on Luria’s “conjugate motor methodology” (p.195, 200).
Moving on, the author notes that Soviet psychology developed to address three spheres: education; the organization of labor; and health and medicine. The educational sphere is where much of the cultural-historical group went. (The author confusingly lumps M.M. Bakhtin into this area, p.220—perhaps because of Voloshinov’s critique of Freudianism?) The health and medicine sphere is the one where the author places Luria (p.221). The author goes on to treat these spheres in different chapters.
In the educational sphere, the author discusses and briefly critiques Vygotsky and associates. Specifically, the Vygotskian “system of views, developed in the late 1920s, was initially influenced by diverse and essential particularities typical of the development of psychology at that time which provided the basis for its severe criticism during the 1930s” (p.273). Some of these criticisms the author deems unjustified, such as the criticism that Vygotsky’s views mirrored Durkheim’s (p.273) and those of other bourgeois scientists (p.274). Specifically, the author notes that Vygotsky relied on the ideas of Marx and Engels, especially Engels’ “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” (p.274). The author quotes Vygotsky from Development of Higher Mental Functions on this point (p.275), and later argues that
Vygotsky based himself on Engels’s ideas on the role of labour in man’s adaptation to nature and transformation of natural forces by means of implements in the process of production. He advanced the idea that labour, man’s work with instruments are conducive to modification of his behaviour, to his distinction from animals, consisting in the mediated character of his identity. (p.374)
Elsewhere, the author notes that Vygotsky’s Thinking and Speech was “of signal importance,” but was “subjected to unjustified criticism” due to its association with pedology; in the 1950s “his psychological doctrine was reinstated and today it occupies its legitimate place in world psychological science” (p.334; see also p.366).
In the labor sphere, I’ll just note this vintage Soviet move: “Psychologists of labour failed to notice what was immediately discerned by Lenin…” (p.287).
Later, the author discusses Leontiev’s activity theory, noting that although AT is traditionally considered as being rooted in Vygotsky, some believe that it is also connected with Leontiev’s colleague at the Institute of Psychology, Blonsky, as well as with Rubinstein (p.346).
Toward the end of the book, the author summarizes “four fundamental methodological principles” of contemporary Soviet psychology: determinism, activity, development/historicism, and systems (pp.370-373). He elaborates each briefly.
I found this book to be useful in spots—particularly in the history of the Vygotsky Circle and in how Vygotsky was rehabilitated at the end of the USSR’s life. But it’s written in the Soviet hagiographic style, it’s not particularly well organized, and in trying to cover the entire sweep of Soviet psychology, it ends up covering the specifics inadequately. If you have a specific interest in Soviet psychology, check it out.
I’ve seen Bijker’s work cited frequently in the science, technology, and society (STS) literature, so when I saw this 1995 book at the used bookstore, I scooped it up. Bijker uses three case studies—the development of the bicycle, the invention of Bakelite, and the marketing of fluorescent lights—to develop his theory of sociotechnical change. This theory draws heavily from others in STS, including Latour, Woolgar, Callon, Star, and Bowker.
Unfortunately, the book itself did not leave much of an impression on me. Bijker does an able job of developing the three cases, but the theory he develops does not seem markedly different from other readings in STS—it seems more like a summation of STS theory. Perhaps I missed a crucial theoretical distinction that others didn’t? Or perhaps the book seems middle-of-the-road now only because it influenced STS so strongly? But looking at STS books from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, I don’t think that’s the case.
In any case, the book is a relatively quick read and I learned a lot of things about the three cases themselves. If you are interested in one of these three things, or in a mid-1990s look at STS theory, pick it up.