All Edge: Inside the New Workplace Networks

All Edge: Inside the New Workplace Networks

Available via Amazon

Work is changing. Speed and flexibility are more in demand than ever before thanks to an accelerating knowledge economy and sophisticated communication networks. These changes have forced a mass rethinking of the way we coordinate, collaborate, and communicate. Instead of projects coming to established teams, teams are increasingly converging around projects. These “all-edge adhocracies” are highly collaborative and mostly temporary, their edge coming from the ability to form links both inside and outside an organization. These nimble groups come together around a specific task, recruiting personnel, assigning roles, and establishing objectives. When the work is done they disband their members and take their skills to the next project.

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Reading :: Understanding the behaviour of design thinking in complex environments

Posted by: on Jun 28, 2016 | No Comments

Understanding the behaviour of design thinking in complex environments
By Stefanie Di Russo

I became aware of Stefanie Di Russo’s dissertation project through a Twitter conversation with some UX professionals. When the dissertation finally became available in early 2016, I downloaded it and read it when I had a chance—and now it’s the middle of 2016 and I’m finally able to review it.

The dissertation asks: how effective is Design Thinking for complex environments? As a design approach, DT has been portrayed as a way to approach wicked problems. Di Russo sought to (a) examine the history and development of DT, (b) conduct empirical work on DT in complex environments in order to generate new evidence; and (c) “explain the underlying mechanisms that enable emergent behaviors to occur in the design process, contributing knowledge and understanding on how to apply design thinking in complex environments.”

The result is really interesting.

Di Russo examines DT from the perspective of critical realism, which “accepts a view of reality that is stratified, generating knowledge through causal analysis”; generates knowledge “by stratifying levels of reality, to ‘dig’ through observable and unobservable events in order to uncover underlying causal mechanisms that influence and affect the object of phenomena”; and “uncover[s] causal mechanisms that allow for explanatory analysis.” This work is done through grounded theory methodology (p.6).

That work begins with the literature review, in which Di Russo traces key moments in design theory as well as the development of DT. This literature review itself is a significant accomplishment, laying out generations of design theory from the 1960s on—and exploring the disagreements and tensions in this field. Participatory design, service design, and human-centered design are briefly discussed as precursors to DT. DT is broken down into commonly discussed characteristics, along with cites to precursors for each characteristic (pp.39-40). Di Russo then synthesizes a typology of DT, striated into large-scale systems, systems and behavior, artifact and experience, and artifact (p.42).

Di Russo notes that DT’s definition has been ambiguous: “Ironically, when attempting to describe the designerly approach, the definition of design thinking becomes a wicked problem in itself, where answers seeking to describe the process, mindset and practice can only ‘satisfy’ rather than definitively resolve” (p.44). But “Design thinking and its core characteristics; multidisciplinary, iterative, rapid prototyping, human-centered, collaborative, visual and divergent thinking, are now seen as suitable for working with problems where the future is tangled and uncertain” (p.50).

But is it? Di Russo notes: “One of the fundamental weaknesses in the publicity that surrounds design thinking today is the lack of evidence supporting claims of its effectiveness” (p.55). Now that she has described DT’s characteristics through the literature review, she can undertake generating such evidence. Her main research question is: “What is the behavior of design thinking in complex environments?” (p.57).

In Chapter 3, Di Russo discusses her research framework, critical realism. I’ll briefly note that it is focused on relationships and (here) explored through grounded theory. Specifically, Di Russo conducted three case studies of DT in complex environments, including participant observation, semistructured interviews, and archival evidence. These data were then coded in Nvivo and clustered in Data were then explored through constant comparison and triangulated.

Each case study is addressed in a separate chapter: a service design agency doing pro bono work (Chapter 4); the Australian Taxation Office (Chapter 5); and a decentralized open source platform, OpenIDEO (Chapter 6). Di Russo conducts a cross-comparison analysis across the three cases (Chapter 7), finding commonalities: ambiguity and uncertainty; large stakeholder and community networks; and a focus on intangible solutions. Yet themes from Case 3 (the open source platform) were inconsistent with those of the other two cases. Using Case 3 as a benchmark, then, Di Russo compares Case 1 and 2, generating several other commonalities (illustrated throughout with data from the cases). She notes pros and cons of DT for these cases, and adds:

this chapter concludes that design thinking operating externally to the project ecosystem and remotely in an open-source online environment has significant negative effects on the design thinking process. Thus, design thinking may be not readily or successfully translated to a remote online environment in order to design in and for complex environments. (p.253)

Chapter 8 reviews the characteristics of DT and the evidence that Di Russo has collected to support them. She then focuses on the question of implementation: “Many of the most common design thinking models have no implementation phase included as part of the process” (p.269).

Finally, Chapter 9 concludes in a very dissertationly way:

This dissertation is useful for design researchers, practitioners and students of design thinking for it solidifies a clear history and definition of design thinking, highlights potential behaviours unique to third and fourth order design practice, and guides knowledge on how to manage, research and apply design thinking in complex environments.

The dissertation is a solid piece of work, providing DT a more solid, systematic foundation than I’ve seen in other DT literature. And it methodically describes how to advance DT further. If you’re interested in DT or other design methodologies, check it out.

In Blog

Reading :: Vygotsky’s Psychology

Posted by: on Jun 21, 2016 | No Comments

Vygotsky’s Psychology: A Biography of Ideas
By Alex Kozulin

Another day, another Kozulin book on Russian psychology. This one is, as the title suggests, a biography of Vygotsky. Although I had read many of these details elsewhere, this biography did a nice job of pulling them together.

Kozulin begins, as is customary, with the birth and youth of his subject. Vygotsky was “born in 1896 to a middle-class Jewish family.” Kozulin uses the story to discuss pre-Revolutionary Russia, its censorship, and its pogroms against Jews (Vygotsky was Jewish). The year that Vygotsky graduated from high school, the minister of education declared that Jewish students would be selected for Moscow University, not by merit, but by lot; Vygotsky, who had the grades to get in by merit, was convinced that he would not be able to attend, but luck was with him and he was selected by the draw. “One may well wonder whether Vygotsky, like many other young Jewish intellectuals, embraced the new Soviet regime primarily because it promised to end all forms of ethnic discrimination” (p.14).

Young Vygotsky was an avid reader of Hegel, with his dialectical understanding of historical development (p.16), focus on mediation and concepts (pp.16-17), and examination of objectivization, in which “any process is crystallized in certain structures or objects” and can be seen as “moments of self-realization of the process” (p.17). But Vygotsky was also deeply affected by linguist Alexander Potebnya’s book Thought and Language (pp.18-19), which sketched out the relationships between the two: “(a) thought coincides with language, (b) language serves as an external envelope of thought, and (c) thought achieves its becoming in language” (p.19). Potebnya championed the third interpretation. (In Vygotsky’s own book of the same name, he did as well.)

Skipping a bit, we get to post-Revolutionary Russia, in which the young Vygotsky, teaching at Gomel, writes his textbook Educational Psychology. Kozulin says: “The textbook leaves one with an uneasy feeling that it is a ‘chimeric’ work. One part of it is hardly compatible with another, and the author seems to be speaking in a number of different voices” (p.67).

But in the next chapter, Kozulin turns to the paper Vygotsky delivered at the 1924 Second Psychoneurological Conference, the one that resulted in his move to Moscow. In this paper, Vygotsky argued that reflexology was not up to addressing more complex forms of behavior; he argued that thought, consciousness, and language should be the focus of psychological study, not introspectively, but empirically, by provoking observable manifestations of mental processes (pp.74-75). This argument made a deep impression on A.R. Luria, who arranged for Vygotsky to join the Institute of Pscyhology in Moscow (p.75).

The Institute, like so many Soviet institutions, was in crisis. As Kozulin explains, many were attempting to transform different sciences into “Marxist” sciences. “The recipe in most cases was very similar: some existing experimental methods were combined with a number of quotes from Marx, Engels or Lenin, and the resultant text was presented as an example of a new science” (p.79). The Institute’s new head, Konstantin Kornilov, followed this formula: He took Engels’ dialectical laws as the fundamental laws of the new Marxist philosophy, then “used psychological examples to underscore the validity of these laws” (p.79). This approach “resulted in the abandonment of the terminology of mental states and processes” (p.80).

In contrast, Vygotsky wanted to understand what was unique about human behavior, and he proposed doing this by examining “the historical character of human behavior and learning”; “the social nature of human experience”; and human behavior’s “twofold nature as a mental activity and as an external action” (pp.81-82). Vygotsky noted that human beings, unlike animals, adapt their environment to themselves, following a changing mental design (p.82; cf. Marx). Although Vygotsky did not cite Mead, their ideas were close (p.83).

Moving along. Vygotsky further explored the issues of a Marxist psychology in his unpublished 1927 book The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology. Among other things, Kozulin argues that if we look at Vygotsky’s writings as a whole, he did distinguish between (a) purposive tool mediation and (b) cultural cognition depending on intersubjective communication, investigable through changes in word meanings. “Practice then becomes divided into material production and human cultural production” (p.105). And “the fact that Vygotsky’s theoretical program was interpreted differently by various groups of his followers reflects the dissimilarities in their philosophies of practice.” One is Leontiev’s activity theory, which is “rooted in the classical Marxist interpretation of practice as material production” (p.105). A second reading “—which has been undertaken only recently—focuses on the role of language and other symbolic mediators,” mediators that can “become independent of the system” and “create their own symbolic construction of reality” (p.105). More about this later.

In Chapter 4, Kozulin recounts the expansion of the Vygotsky Circle, first the three (Vygotsky, Luria, Leontiev), then eight (adding Bozhovich, Levina, Morozova, Slavina, and Zaprozhets) (pp.110-111). “All of the members accepted Vygotsky’s theoretical leadership and each was free to use Vygotsky’s ideas in his or her own research” (p.111). Similarly, Vygotsky based some of his works on the studies of others in his Circle (p.111).

Kozulin summarizes Vygotsky’s theory in this way:

Vygotsky’s theory was based on a number of interlocking concepts, such as the notion of higher mental processes, the notion of mediated activity, and the notion of psychological tools. Human higher mental processes, according to Vygotsky, are functions of mediated activity. (p.112)

Kozulin then examines the “constitutent elements of this theoretical ‘formula'” (p.112):

  • “Higher mental processes”: These are mediated, not simply continuations of lower functions. (p.112)
  • “From action to thought”: “the higher mental process is a function of socially meaningful activity,” illustrated by the infant’s attempt to grasp something, which eventually turns into pointing. (pp.113-114)
  • “Mediation”: Mediation can be through tools, symbols, or the behavior of another. Vygotsky’s mediation links “Vygotsky’s theory of higher mental functions with the Marxist theory of material praxis.” (p.115)
  • “Internalization”: “What first appears as an external sign-mediator or an interpersonal communication later becomes an internal psychological process” (p.116). 
  • “‘Primitive’ processes”: Some intermediate processes can be detected “between” natural functions and higher mental processes. (p.117). 
Kozulin then goes into the problem of mediation. He notes that in Hegel, and later in Marx, work is seen as “a source of universal mediation”; the concept “eventually became a central category in Marxist philosophical anthropology. Work is what creates a universal system of ‘communication’ based on the exchange of commodities” (p.120). Kozulin warns: 

But whoever accepts material production as a paradigmatic form of human activity must also accept the consequences of such a paradigm. Specifically, it may lead to the identification of human existence as “reified.” The phenomenon of reification points to such a mode of human activity when products of this activity are perceived as independent natural “things” rather than as the result of human effort. Moreover, human activity itself becomes reified and perceived as a commodity. The issue of Marxist social theory in general and reification in particular is raised here because Vygotsky’s emphasis on tools as mediators creates a possibility for interpreting material production as an explanatory principle of his theory. This very position has ben adopted by some modern students …

 Moreover, Vygotsky’s followers, particularly Leontiev, did develop a theory of psychological activity based on the paradigm of material production as it is interpreted in traditional Marxism. In Leontiev’s psychological theory human motives and objects of activity are determined by the division of labor in society, while more concrete actions are related to practical goals. What is problematic in Leontiev’s attempt to link the study of psychological activity with Marxist social theory was his reluctance to elaborate on the applicability of the material production paradigm and to face up to the phenomenon of reification. (pp.120-121)

Kozulin notes that Vygotsky’s “claim that human mental functions are social in origin and in content,” although seemingly grounded in Marxist theory, only had one actual precedent: Durkheim (p.122). Later, after Luria’s cross-cultural psychology study of the Uzbeks, Luria and Vygotsky were accused of being a follower of Durkheim, who was regarded as too bourgeois (p.132). Kozulin notes that the political failure of the Uzbek study meant that Vygotsky and his followers were curtailed from using “primitive” people as proxies for understanding changes based in historical changes in social and cultural organization of societies (p.132; Kozulin does not mention that this notion of historical stages of development has been abandoned by current anthropology).

Chapter 5 discusses Vygotsky’s Thought and Language, referenced earlier. Like Potebnya, Vygotsky argued that intellect and speech had different genetic roots, developing along different lines, but “at a certain moment these two developmental lines become intertwined, whereupon thought becomes verbal, and speech intellectual. This moment signifies a switch from a natural track of development to a cultural one” (p.153). Egocentric speech develops into (a) inner speech-for-oneself and (b) communicative speech-for-others (p.174).

Along these lines, Kozulin notes that although there is no evidence that Vygotsky and Bakhtin influenced each other, “their positions in the realm of twentieth-century thought bear intriguing signs of similarity”: overlap in their sources; overlap in their personal networks (Vygotsky’s cousin David and Bakhtin belonged to the same intellectual circle in Leningrad); and their rediscovery in the West at about the same time (p.180). Yet Vygotsky believed that monological thought was superior to dialogical (p.184).

Chapter 7 examines Vygotsky’s work with defectology and pedology. In fact, after Vygotsky’s death and the banning of pedology, Vygotsky’s theory “managed to survive in a subliminal form at the Institute of Defectology,” where some of Vygotsky’s Circle rode out the stormy 1930s and 1940s (p.207).

Chapter 8 examines what happened to Vygotsky’s ideas after his death. Kozulin notes that Leontiev and the Kharkovites refocused away from symbolic psychological tools and toward activities (centered on labor) (p.247). Consequently, symbolic psychological tools and culture were underrepresented in the 1930s-1960s (p.247). Kozulin specifically examines Leontiev’s activity theory, noting that the levels of activity involve “two different conceptual languages: one used on the level of activities and the other on the level of actions and operations” (p.251). The level of activities used categories of Marxist social philosophy; “the subject presumed by the use of these categories was the social-historical, and therefore psychologically rather abstractive subject.” But “actions and operations were studied with the psychological paradigm,” which was roughly Piagetan and did not link firmly to the social categories. As Kozulin notes, Rubinshtein noticed and critiqued this gap. Kozulin concludes: “One may suggest that what was missing from Leontiev’s model was precisely the stratum of culture—emphasized by Vygotsky, and neglected by his followers—that could provide a link between individual action and the social systems from which it derives its meaning” (p.251).

(One might also suggest that third-generation activity theory’s synthesis with Bakhtinian dialogism is an attempt to retrofit activity theory with this missing component of semiotic mediation.)

Leontiev was in a box here, Kozulin argues:

The Marxists were remarkably unsuccessful at depicting the positive, creative aspects of human action as conditioned by a social system. This lack of success had been explained as a reflection of the true condition prevalent in capitalist society, the condition of alienation. Unalienated, free action was reserved for future socialist life. But Leontiev could not use this line of defense because he was studying people in what was called a “state of accomplished socialism.” He chose to avoid the psychological discussion of these issues, delivering instead the standard ideological verbiage about the alienation of the human mind under capitalism vs. its free development under socialism. (p.252)

Critics also noted that “although Leontiev had declared that human psychology should be understood in terms of practical activity, he actually identified it as a system of social meanings. But in Marxist parlance, social meanings belong to the sphere of social consciousness,” rather than that of social practice on which Leontiev promised to build his theory” (p.252).

Nevertheless, activity theory prospered from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. Leontiev became (for a time) Vygotsky’s official interpreter, even claiming in a 1956 forward to a Vygotsky collection that “the emphasis on semiotic mediation was transitory for Vygotsky and that the activity theory furthered the development of what was authentic in the cultural-historical school” (p.253). But Leontiev’s theory began to be scrutinized in the late 1970s. Kozulin notes several possible reasons (omitting one good reason, which is that Leontiev died in 1979). One is that Vygotsky’s Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology was circulating in manuscript form and was finally published in 1982; it noted the same trap that AT had fallen into, which was that the same notion was being used as both an explanatory principle and a phenomenon to investigate (p.253). At a 1979 symposium on Vygotsky’s theoretical legacy, G.P. Schedrovitsky argued that “the activity theory substantially deviated from Vygotsky’s original program” and that “the principle of semiotic mediation is the cornerstone of cultural-historical theory” (p.254).

This book is 272 pages, not including footnotes. But as you can tell, it’s full of details that will be interesting to those who want to know more about Vygotsky and his legacy. I highly recommend it.

In Blog

Reading :: The German Ideology

Posted by: on Jun 14, 2016 | No Comments

German Ideology, Part 1 and Selections from Parts 2 and 3
By Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

As we were discussing Leontiev’s work on activity theory in my spring seminar, one of my graduate students said that his focus on labor sounded a lot like The German Ideology. I hadn’t read the book, so I picked it up. Am I glad I did? Sort of.

As the editor’s introduction states, this version is abridged. Much of The German Ideology consists of “detailed line by line polemics against the writings of some of their contemporaries” (p.1), which sounds about as edifying as reading through YouTube comments. Or Lenin. The editors courteously curated the text, leaving what I would consider to be the more interesting stuff.

In this book, Marx and Engels lay out the materialist method to history. They argue that men [sic] began to distinguish themselves from animals when they began to produce their means of subsistence (i.e., labor) (p.42). We are what/how we produce; the mode of production is “a definite form of activity, a definite mode of life” (p.42). And the relations of nations depend on their productive labor and its division (p.43). Marx and Engels review the stages in the development of division of labor (p.43; discussed in Capital and in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State).

Critically for my interest in cultural-historical theory: The production of life is seen as “a double relationship”: both natural and social (p.50; cf. Vygotsky). And “language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of practical intercourse with other men. … Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all” (p.51). Later in the book, they argue that “language is the immediate actuality of thought” (p.118).

The authors go on to claim that as long as there is a division of labor, there is a sphere of activity from which man cannot escape. But in a communist society, he can do what he wants—he can take on whatever occupation he likes whenever he likes (p.53). The authors do not go into how a person would develop expertise in these different areas, but they do declare later that “private property can be abolished only on condition of an all-round development of individuals” (p.117; cf. Vygotsky’s “The Socialist Alteration of Man“).

“Empirically,” the authors claim, this ideal communist society “is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples ‘all at once’ and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up in communism” (p.56; recall that this worldwide revolution was considered to be a must in the early days of the Soviet Union, and Stalin only got around to revising this doctrine in 1938, after it became clear that a worldwide revolution was unlikely).

The authors drive home the argument that history is material, progressing due to material results; circumstances make man (p.59). In a communist society, “the original and free development of individuals … is determined precisely by the connection of individuals” (p.118).

In all, reading through this book helped me to see deep connections with Vygotsky’s thought about language, but also Leontiev’s focus on labor making man. It wouldn’t be my first recommendation if you’re new to reading Marx and Engels, but it’s worth reading in a supplementary sense.

In Blog

Reading :: Psychology in Utopia

Posted by: on Jun 14, 2016 | No Comments

Psychology in Utopia: Toward a Social History of Soviet Psychology
By Alex Kozulin

You may remember Alex Kozulin as the editor of the 1986 Vygotsky’s Thought and Language 2ed. In his introduction of that book, Kozulin demonstrated an intimate knowledge of the Vygotsky Circle and its context. So when I realized he had written a 1984 book (also with MIT Press) on the history of Soviet psychology, I knew I had to pick it up.

Keep in mind that in 1984, when Kozulin published this book, the USSR was still going strong, as was the Cold War. Kozulin’s bio on the book jacket doesn’t make clear whether he was still a Soviet citizen at the time, but it notes that he had taught at Boston University and Ben-Gurion University.

In any case, the book provides a critical view of the development of Soviet psychology. It starts with a detailed timeline—to which I intend to return. Next is an introduction that lays out the problems of investigating Soviet psychology. “Anyone who has ever approached the study of Soviet psychology knows that the subject is inherently paradoxical,” he says, noting that although Soviet psychology is superficially similar to its Western counterpart, concepts

emerge from a social context that is almost utopian. The conceptual systems of Soviet authors turn out to be buried under layers of ideological verbiage. Published papers and official records must not be taken at face value but rather as rough material for subsequent distillation and decoding. The task of a scholar in Soviet research thus takes on an almost hermeneutical character. Like a historian studying a culture remote in time and space, the specialist in Soviet psychology must reconstruct the subject starting with fragments and adopting a mentality that has little in common with his or her own. (p.1)

Kozulin cautions us against two “equally misleading tendencies in the interpretation of Soviet research”: (1) explaining Soviet psychological doctrines as a result of conformance with Soviet ideology and (2) explaining it purely in terms of intellectual history (p.2). Rather, Kozulin advocates the “third way” of “a socially informed study of Soviet psychology that would distinguish between the actual conditions of its development and those secondary interpretations that are invented in order to present these conditions in ideologically coherent form” (p.2). And that is what this book attempts to achieve.

Kozulin adds that the “existing” Vygotsky publications in the West were “concocted” from his writings from different periods (p.3) and “analytic comments accompanying the translations have been prepared under the strong influence of Vygotsky’s students, Alexei Leontiev and Alexander Luria, who have offered a biased interpretation of Vygotsky’s theory, sometimes substituting their own ideas for those of their teacher” (p.4). (Recall that the 1962 version of Thought and Language was much shorter than the 1986 version that Kozulin would later oversee.)

With that introduction, Kozulin moves into the overview of “generations” of Soviet psychologists: the pre-Revolutionary psychologists, the ones that emerged immediately after the Revolution; the ones that emerged in the 1950s, post-Stalin; and those who emerged in the 1970s. I’m specifically interested in the second group, so I’ll concentrate on them here.

As Kozulin notes, “the first generation of post-Revolutionary scholars largely shared the utopian program of their time.” The Revolution was a “cosmic” and fundamentally transformative event. These scholars shared “a faith that rationalized and fair interpersonal relations would be a hallmark of the coming communist society,” one that would be characterized by “a new kind of person—the liberated proletarian, with new morals, culture, and rules of conduct” (p.15).

These scholars generally opposed idealism in favor of materialism. But their interpretation of “materialism” tended to reduce psychology to reflexes and reactions. As Kozulin says, only one group resisted this trend: The Vygotsky Circle (p.18), which argued that higher mental functions could be studied materially, but not through low-level biological phenomena such as reflexes. Unfortunately for the Vygotskians, there was no clear-cut way to identify the Marxist ideal, nor the methods of study that could be considered legitimately Marxist. “Only one thing was certain: that scientific, Marxist psychology must have a single correct methodology” (p.19; compare Leontiev on this point). “The idea of one, and only one, correct methodology was a natural offspring of the intellectual atmosphere of this period” (p.19). Naturally, if there is only one way, but no clear-cut criteria for identifying it, no one can have absolute assurance that they are on the right path—and any school can accuse the others of being on the wrong path. And that is essentially what happened in Soviet psychology over time. “As a result of mutual ideological accusations almost all Soviet psychologists had been found guilty of dangerous deviations from the Party line and therefore became easy prey for Party functionaries (p.21).

So: “If in the 1920s the problem was to develop behavioral science within the framework of Marxist terminology, in the 1930s it was to derive the categories of consciousness and behavior directly from the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin” (p.21). During the Stalinist purges, “A low profile seemed the best strategy for survival” (p.22); two schools that followed this pattern were the Uznade school (discussed further in Ch.4) and the Kharkov school, made up of “former students and colleagues of Lev Vygotsky” and most prominently including Leontiev (p.22-23). The Kharkov school used Vygotsky’s concept of internalization, but disagreed with him about “the role of signs in the internalization process”:

Vygotsky’s emphasis on signs as means of mediation between objects of experience and mental functions was replaced by the thesis that physical action must mediate between a subject and the external world. The work of the Kharkov school established an experimental base for Leontiev’s theory of the psychology of activity, which was recognized in the 1960s as an official Soviet psychological doctrine. (p.23, my emphasis). 

Meanwhile, Rubinstein “ventured to derive psychological categories directly from the works of Marx and Lenin,” yielding not a methodology but a “highly professional … presentation of Marxist philosophical anthropology, which he tried to pass off as the theoretical foundation of behavioral science” (p.23). Kozulin notes that Rubinstein chose his moment carefully, launching an impressive career that was later derailed in the 1940s during an outburst of Russian chauvinism and anti-cosmopolitanism (which was operationalized as anti-Semitism). Consequently, Rubinstein “lost all of his administrative positions” and in his place “Leontiev was appointed chairman of the Department of Psychology at Moscow University” (pp.24-25).

The circular firing squad of Soviet psychology continued. Stalin published a 1951 paper on linguistics, and suddenly psychologists had to incorporate these ideas into their studies. During a 1952 All-Union meeting, prominent psychologists (including Leontiev and Luria) “all hastened to accuse each other of the serious ‘deviations’ from the prescribed scientific ideology” (p.26).

Fortunately, Stalin died in 1953 and Khrushchev “exposed the atrocities of the Stalin era” in 1956 (p.26); “once-forbidden names such as Vygotsky and Shpilrein now reappeared in the pages of books and articles” (p.27). From that point through the 1960s, Soviet psychology experienced a “renaissance” in which suppressed studies now came into public view and “almost every psychologist of the second generation published his magnum opus in these years” (p.27). For instance, Leontiev’s Problems of the Development of Mind was published in 1959 and won the Lenin Prize in 1963, and Luria published “dozens of books in neuropsychology” (p.27). Kozulin concludes:

After years of political pressure, forced confessions, and cross-allegations, psychologists of this generation, now in their sixties, at last occupied solid and unshakeable positions in the universities and research centers of Moscow, Leningrad, and Tbisili. One can only imagine how they felt about themselves after all these years. (p.27)

Since my major interest is activity theory, I’ll skip much of what Kozulin says about the subsequent two generations. But let me highlight one event:

One peculiarity of this period of Soviet psychology, stemming from the lack of theoretical work in the Stalin period, has been the rediscovery of many studies conducted in the 1920s. The work of Lev Vygotsky has been central to this movement. New light has been shed on the Kharkov school, which not only developed Vygotsky’s ideas, but also revised some of his principal theses. The revisionist version established by Alexei Leontiev and his colleagues was for a while considered a genuine continuation of Vygotsky’s program. In 1979, however, at a colloquium dedicated to the theoretical legacy of Vygotsky, Georgy Schedrovitsky pointed out a number of discrepancies between Vygotsky’s and Leontiev’s concepts of the cultural-historical development of the mind. In discussions and publications that followed, Vasili Davydoc and Vladimir Zinchenko offered their own versions of the controversy. (pp.32-33)

This disjuncture between Vygotksy and the Kharkov school is one of Kozulin’s major interests, showing up in his introduction to Thought and Language and in other articles.

In Chapter 2, Kozulin discusses Pavlov and Bekhterev. I’ll just note one thing here. According to Kozulin, Soviet “Pavlovianization” was due in part to Russian chauvinism and xenophobia. Pavlov was “100 percent Russian”—which is to say, not Jewish (p.49).

Chapter 3 discusses Bernstein’s work. Bernstein rejected the Pavlovian doctrine in favor of “a study of feedback mechanisms in the physiology of body movements. This was cybernetics a decade before Norbert Weiner coined the term” (p.62). Leontiev considered building on Bernstein’s work in his discussion of levels of activity, but eventually abandoned the idea and reduced his references to Bernstein’s work (p.70).

Chapter 4 discusses the problem of the unconscious. Kozulin notes a “growing rivalry” in the 1960s between “Leontiev’s theory of activity and Uznadzean set theory”; but “during the 1960s and 1970s Leontiev’s theory became virtually the official Soviet psychological doctrine, and all other trends were pressured to admit it as a general theoretical framework” (p.99).

Chapter 5 focuses on the “continuing dialogue” about Lev Vygotsky. Kozulin notes that “Vygotsky had seemingly left behind a cohort of devoted disciples” who took risks to develop his theories when his name was “‘blacklisted'”. “After Vygotsky had been scientifically rehabilitated,” Kozulin notes archly, “they praised him publicly but were still unable or unwilling to publish his manuscripts. In the meantime their own books based on his writings came off press one after another” (p.102).

Kozulin goes into the details of Vygotsky’s theory and history (details that are covered in other reviews on this blog). But he notes that Vygotsky and his students largely steered clear from the accusations that characterized other schools of psychology in that era (p.106).

After Vygotsky’s death in 1934, the 1936 pedology decree condemned the work of pedologists; since Vygotsky had tried to develop pedology as a field, Kozulin states, “the disciples who wanted to develop Vygotsky’s theory had to do so without naming their leader” (p.110). So, Kozulin says, Leontiev completed his Problems of the Development of Mind in 1940 (and publsihed in 1947) (p.110). It was clearly an extension of Vygotsky’s work, but it did not mention Vygotsky at all. Was that because Leontiev wanted to see his book published and he thought Vygotsky’s name would keep that from happening? Or was he reframing cultural-historical theory as his own, not giving credit to Vygotsky for the early work? “It is impossible” to determine, Kozulin says (p.111).

In any case, Leontiev and the other members of the Kharkov school “developed Vygotsky’s theory but also abandoned some of his essential ideas” (p.111). Kozulin quotes Zinchenko from 1939, claiming that Vygotsky’s mistake was in reducing the mind’s sociohistorical determination to “‘the influence of human culture on the individual’,” not accounting for “‘material interaction between the human subject and reality'” (quoted on p.111). So

Vygotsky’s thesis of the psychological tool as a mediating point between objects of action and mental functions was replaced by the thesis that material activity mediates between the subject and the external world. In 1956 Leontiev reiterated this thesis, simultaneously asserting that Vygotsky’s emphasis on signs as psychological tools was transitory and that his theory of activity was therefore the authentic development of Vygotsky’s ideas. (p.111).

To challenge this viewpoint, Kozulin turns to Vygotsky’s unpublished book The Cultural and Historical Crisis in Psychology. Based on this work, he asserts that human praxis is the stone that the builders rejected and that should become the chief cornerstone (p.115). That is, when a concept (such as Pavlov’s reflexes) becomes an explanatory principle, “a vicious cycle of object and principle immediately emerges: Reflexes as the objects of study turn out to be explained by reflexes as conceptual units. Vygotsky sought to break the circle by adopting the concept of praxis as an explanatory principle ‘external’ to the psychological functions under investigation” (p.115).

We see this vicious circle at work in Leontiev’s activity theory, Kozulin asserts. “Unwilling to use the categories of culture or praxis as explanatory principles, Leontiev and his colleagues doomed themselves to the vicious circle in which material activity as an object is explained through material activity as an explanatory principle” (p.118). But “Vygotsky, in contrast, suggested focusing on the system of symbolic interaction as the meeting place of society and individual and investigating the symbolic aspects of human praxis. Thus his interest in culture as a mediating point between individual and world can by no means be treated as transient” (p.118).

Kozulin asserts that “Vygotsky’s theory of psychological tools developed in three stages”:

  1. Usage of signs as external means to master the individual’s psychological functions.
  2. Means as tools for developing speech and intelligence.
  3. Inner speech; the relations between meaning and senses of words (pp.118-119)
But Vygotsky’s students underplayed the aspect of inner speech (p.119). 
The book has more chapters, but they are not immediately applicable to this discussion on the development of activity theory so I’ll leave them out.
In any case, the book is excellent. Kozulin writes lucidly and in great detail. I’m not sure how widely shared his assessment of Vygotsky’s disciples is, nor his critique of their adaptation of his work, but I appreciated his careful plotting of the argument. If you’re interested in the development of activity theory, Vygotskian thought, or just Soviet psychology in general, I recommend this book highly.
In Blog

Reading :: The Working Brain

Posted by: on Jun 7, 2016 | No Comments

The Working Brain: An Introduction To Neuropsychology
By A.R. Luria

I have no scholarly interest in neuropsychology, but a great deal of interest in cultural-historical psychology, so I picked up this book to see whether it would be helpful for understanding the latter. Luria was, of course, a member of the Vygotsky Circle and his early work was very much in the Vygotsky mode of carrying on small interventions in mediation; later, he earned his medical degree and moved on to neuropsychology. But in various places, Luria has argued that his later work was a continuation of Vygotsky’s insights.

This book certainly seems to bear out that argument. Published in English in 1973, it provides an introduction to neuropsychology, but the Vygotskian concepts and vocabulary are clearly there, and Luria credits Vygotsky liberally (as well as Vygotsky’s “pupils” Leontev, Zaporozhets, Galperin, and Elkonin) (p.30).

Luria first covers some basic concepts, many of which are familiar to those who have read AT works, such as functional systems (pp.27-30), internalization and mediation (pp.30-31). After giving examples of mediators—tying a knot in a handkerchief, using a multiplication table—he argues that

external aids or historically formed devices are essential elements in the establishment of functional connections between individual parts of the brain, and that by their aid, areas of the brain which previously were independent become the components of a single functional system. This can be expressed more vividly by saying that historically formed measures for the organization of human behavior tie new knots in the activity of main’s brain and it is the presence of these functional knots, or as some people call them, ‘new functional organs’ (Leontiev, 1959), that is one of the most important features distinguishing the functional organization of the human brain from an animal’s brain. (p.31).

And he cites Vygotsky in claiming that “all types of human conscious activity are always formed with the support of external auxiliary tools or aids” (p.31).

He adds that higher mental processes are not statically localized; they move around during development and training (p.31). That’s because it eventually becomes automatic. His example is writing, which begins with the memorization of letters’ graphic forms, then eventually becomes a “kinetic melody” (see also The Man with a Shattered World).

So these functional systems develop over time. But—as Luria demonstrated graphically in The Man with a Shattered World—a brain lesion could unravel an entire functional system; the loss of the system itself (say, the ability to write) doesn’t tell us where the lesion is, because the higher mental function isn’t localized in a single part of the brain (p.35). Fortunately, this means that the functional system can be reconfigured—one can regain some ability by drawing on strategies that use different, uninjured parts of the brain.

Luria distinguishes action from operations: “Every action consists of a chain of consecutive movements” and “in the formation of a motor skill, this chain of isolated impulses is reduced and the complex movements begin to be performed as a single ‘kinetic melody'” (p.36).

Moving on. Luria, in perhaps his most Soviet statement, claims that right-handedness is “associated with work, and … evidently relates to a very early stage in man’s history” (p.77); it has resulted in the left hemisphere of the brain becoming dominant (p.77).

I found Luria’s focus on words and speech to be useful, particularly for tying his work to Vygotsky’s. Luria echoes (and cites) Vygotsky in declaring that “higher mental processes are formed and take place on the basis of speech activity, which is expanded in the early stages of development, but later becomes increasingly contracted” (pp.93-94). Later, he obliquely addresses Vygotsky’s focus on word meaning as a unit of analysis, saying that “we now conceive a word as a complex multi-dimensional matrix of different cues and connections (acoustic, morphological, lexical and semantic) and we know that in different states one of these connections is predominant” (p.306). And “Speech, based on the word, the basic unit of language, and on the sentence (or syntagmata, or combination of words)” becomes “a method of analysis and generalization of incoming information“, then “a method of formulating decisions and drawing conclusions” (p.307). Later, he adds, “In the 1930s, the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky first demonstrated that the process of analysis and generalization, which is the basis of the intellectual act, depends on the logical structure of speech, and that word-meaning, the basis of ideas, develops in childhood” (p.325).

There’s much more to this book, particularly in terms of brain structure and functions, but I’ll leave that for others. For me, the most important and interesting part of the book was in seeing how Luria takes up Vygotsky’s concepts and approach, grounding his neuropsychological work in great part in the cultural-historical school. If you’re interested in that aspect, you ought to consider reading this book.