Andy Blunden has been involved in activity theory circles for a long time. He has been a frequent contributor on xmca and has transcribed innumerable important works on Marxists.org (such as Vygotsky’s Thinking and Speaking) as well as posting his own work.
This deep familiarity has given Blunden a familiarity of activity theory that is hard to match. But that means that he sees its drawbacks as well as its advantages. In this book, he traces its development, then critiques it, then proposes some changes to activity theory to make it truly interdisciplinary. This proposal is intriguing, and to my mind persuasive—in part.
Blunden lays out the book and its proposal in the introduction. “This work is a friendly critique of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT),” he says in the first sentence (p.3). CHAT should be interdisciplinary: “It was the difficult conditions in the Stalinist USSR which restricted the scope of CHAT to psychology, and it is the aim of this work to resolve those features of CHAT which have prevented it from fulfilling its potential as an interdisciplinary approach to the human sciences in general” (p.3). To resolve those features, Blunden attempts an “immanent critique” (p.4), one that is conducted solely through the voice of the subject matter—that is, one that offers a critique solely on the terms of the subject matter being critiqued. Based on this critique, Blunden promises, he will offer a proposal for iterating CHAT. The proposal offers these changes:
First, replace the ambiguous term activity with the concept of project:
something projected … by the subject, rather than an object to which the subject is drawn; the subject may be an individual or many people who are united precisely in that they are pursuing the same project. A project is an on-going collection of actions and is both the aim of the actions and the process of attaining that object. A project is a concept, but every individual has a different concept of the project, these constituting the various shades of meaning and connotations to be found in representations of the project. (p.9)
Second, add the concept of collaboration:
The notion of collaboration is to give definite conceptual form to the notion of ‘joint’ when CHAT theorists talk about ‘joint activity’. Collaboration is always and essentially working together in a common project. (pp.9-10)
Collaboration includes two limiting cases: management and cooperation (p.10).
Together, project and collaboration (which are “mutually constitutive”) form “project collaboration as a new unit of analysis for activity. … Nothing is changed here; only the conception of the whole, that is, the context of action” (p.10).
So this is Blunden’s proposal for CHAT: replace the unit of analysis (activity) with a similar one, one that is grounded in the coincidental but not identical concepts of an ongoing shared project undertaken by different participants. It’s a relatively modest proposal, but one that redirects CHAT from a Stalinist concept of a shared objective world to a more intersubjectivist stance.
As Blunden reminds us in Chapter 2, CHAT’s gestation during the Stalinist period led it to suppress its “revolutionary Marxist character” (it was too revolutionary for the Stalinist milieu):
After 30 years in hiding, it escaped only to take root in the bastion of capitalism and anti-communism, where in order to survive it had to keep its Marxism under wraps. But in a double irony, the crisis which befell Marxism in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union left CHAT largely unscathed, because of the non-political shape it had adopted for the purposes of survival in the past. (p.21)
To get us to his proposal, Blunden must review this history. He reviews the intellectual foundations of CHAT in Goethe (Ch.3), Hegel (Ch.4-9), and Marx (Ch.10-12), then turns to the contributions of Vygotsky (Ch.14-18). From there, he reviews the development of activity theory in the USSR (Ch.19-24) and the development in the West under Engestrom and Cole (Ch.25-26). That’s a lot to cover—it’s a long book, and the above is just the history review, not the later part of the book where Blunden makes his proposal—so I’ll just hit the highlights here.
In Ch.7, Blunden reviews the Hegelian contrast between the abstract and the concrete. “By ‘abstract’ Hegel means undeveloped, lacking in connections with other things, thin in content, formal; as opposed to ‘concrete’, which means mature, developed, having many nuances and connections with other concepts, rich in content. He does not use the words abstract and concrete to indicate anything like the difference between mental and material” (p.62). (This passage helped me to better understand the notion of ascending from the abstract to the concrete.)
In Ch.11, Blunden notes that Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” was “surely the founding document of Activity Theory, even though it remained unknown until after the author’s death” (p.94). Later in the chapter, Blunden notes that according to Marx, “Social activity is possible only thanks to the use of artifacts of some kind (including words and images, but also land, etc.) with which people identify themselves and each other. Symbols and icons are invariably used in this way to constitute social groups; there is no ‘natural’ form of political association. All these symbols are meaningful because of their connection with certain concrete concepts, associated with certain modes of life. Just as Feuerbach demonstrated in relation to Christian imagery, all social formations represent themselves symbolically” (p.101).
In Ch.12, Blunden gets to Marx’s critique of political economy. Marx notes that, in Blunden’s words, “Abstraction is not just a process of thought reflecting upon activity, but a product of activity itself” (p.107). As Blunden says, this insight went relatively unnoticed until Ilyenkov picked it up and developed it within CHAT. Another, more well known insight supplied in Marx’s Capital was that “All interactions between people are mediated by artifacts” (p.111, Blunden’s italics). So those artifacts become vested with meaning and value. And value is not subjective, it is “embedded in real social relations sustained by the market. Value adheres to products, while at the same time, value expresses nothing more than the relation between the consumer and producer of the commodity” (p.112).
In Ch.13, Blunden asserts that “Marx was able to appropriate Hegel’s Spirit through the notion of activity” (p.113). He also notes that Marx, like Goethe, developed tools to support holistic analysis. Goethe uses the figure in which “‘the light of the Sun is reflected in every droplet of water'” (qtd. in Blunden p.115), a figure that Vygotsky later used when arguing that word meaning should be the unit of analysis.
Vygotsky, at long last, is discussed in Ch.14, which focuses on his critique of behavioralism. As Blunden notes, Vygotsky’s 1924 speech to the Congress of Psychoneurology—the speech that brought him to Luria’s attention, resulting in his job in Moscow—was an immanent critique of reflexology: “Without disturbing the universal claim that ‘everything is a reflex’, Vygotsky had turned the concepts and methods of reflexology against themselves and proved that reflexology, that is to say, the study of the physiology of the nervous system, must merge itself with the methods and concepts of subjective psychology, its opposite” (p.122). Moreover, he demonstrated that the characteristics of behaviorism are incompatible with emancipatory human science, which was Marx’s aim (p.127). Vygotsky pointed to alternatives to physiological behaviorism, including social behaviorism in the works of William James (p.128).
In Ch.15, Blunden elaborates on the “romantic science” of Vygotsky and Luria, which heavily involved collaboration “at three levels: amongst the research team, between researcher and experimental subject, and in relation to other researchers in the field. As we shall see, collaboration was not only central to their way of working, but also to the content of the theory of psychology that they developed” (pp.137-138). (I am skeptical of this point, given the fact that Luria repeatedly used subjects who were unable to decline their participation, who participated under what could be construed as implicit cultural threat, or who were too young to give informed consent. Similarly, Vygotsky primarily wrote about children in classrooms, who by definition had unequal power relations with teachers and researchers.)
In Ch.16, we read about Vygotsky’s thoughts about units. This was one of the most rewarding parts of the book for me: Blunden carefully discusses what Vygotsky meant when he proposed word meaning as a unit of analysis. First, Blunden separates “unit of analysis” from “microcosm.”
- Microcosm. Vygotsky says that word meaning is a “microcosm of human consciousness,” that is, a phenomenon that if studied to the end (just as Pavlov did for the salivary reflex) can “unlock the entire domain of human consciousness for analysis” (pp.144-145).
- Unit of analysis. Vygotsky says that word meaning is also a “unit of verbal thinking”—not a unit of analysis for consciousness in general (p.145). Blunden quotes Vygotsky: “Word meaning is nothing other than a generalization, that is, a concept” (quoted on p.145; Vygotsky’s italics). Blunden notes that here Vygotsky is in agreement with Hegel (p.145). Vygotsky’s “claim is that verbal thinking, the highest development of human consciousness cannot be understood through phonetics and semantics, the ‘elements’ of verbal thinking” (p.146), but instead is “a unique conjunction of two distinct psychological functions” (p.146; cf. my review of Thought and Language 2ed).
At any given moment, the social situation in which the child finds themself [sic] constitutes a predicament, a predicament from which the child can only emancipate themself by making a development, that is to say, by a qualitative transformation of their own psychological structure and the structure of their relationship with those who are providing for their needs, a transformation that frees them from the constraints in which they were trapped. … (p.154)
This is the basic concept of the social situation of development: a predicament from which the child emancipates itself by making a development. Note that this concept is radically different from the conception of social advantage/disadvantage used in positivist social science, made up of a list of factors to be added up for and against development. Rather than a list of attributes, Vygotsky gives us the concept of the social situation. (pp.154-155)
In Ch.18, “The Significance of Vygotsky’s Legacy,” Blunden argues that “Vygotsky’s greatest methodological virtue was that he always posed very specific problems entailing quite specific functions of individual human beings; he never operated with abstract generalizations. His is a cultural psychology, but he used no abstractions to represent culture; we hear nothing of ‘social norms’, ‘social class’, or ‘the dominant ideology’; he just deals with two people using an artifact together” (p.164). This parsimony intrigues Blunden—and me as well. But it has drawbacks: “Without further qualification, the picture of society that Vygotsky leaves us with is that of a mass of dyads or small family groups, using a common resource of artifacts, but we have no way of conceptualizing how those dyads and groups interact with one another to form a social formation. Nor actually do we have any idea of the source of motivation for the actions individuals carry out, and this is the most serious problem” (p.164). With this insight, Blunden takes us to the discussion of activity theory.
In Ch.19, he begins the section on activity theory by arguing along with Davydov that activity should be an interdisciplinary area of study, not confined to psychology (by historical accident) (p.171). Beginning with AN Leontyev, Blunden discusses the basics of activity theory, including a discussion of Leontyev’s take on Engels’ origin story (p.175). After some discussion, Blunden concludes, “Human life is thus conceived as a system of needs and the means of their satisfaction. But it is striking that in this view, the human being is seen in continuity with the natural world, as just another organism pursuing the objects of its needs” (p.176).
Skipping to Ch.21: Here, Blunden discusses criticisms of Vygotsky’s concept of activity. Summarizing the earlier discussion, Blunden says that a unit of analysis
- is a conception of a singular, individual thing
- exhibits properties of a class of more developed phenomena
- is itself an existent phenomenon (p.190).
The core idea here makes abundant sense, but its use without a realistic sense of social life in any epoch undermines its value. All that is required here is to detach this key idea from the Stalinist fairy tale. (p.218)
(From a rhetorical perspective, I would argue that the fairy tale was what allowed AT to survive. Now its further survival hinges on how easily that fairy tale can be detached. And in another milieu, what other baggage will AT have to take on or shed? But that’s a Latourean analysis, not an AT one.)
Blunden further argues that Leontyev’s notion of the object is either tautological—”the object of activity is the outcome toward which it tends”—or “devoid of meaning,” just a reification of the activity itself (p.219). Blunden wraps up by noting that “what is needed is a psychology which recognizes the diversity of real relations to be found in bourgeois society here and now”; “So as a theory of psychology Leontyev’s activity theory still works, just so long as the content of ‘activity’ is not taken too seriously. But in that case, what does activity theory add to Vygotsky’s original formulation?” (p.221).
Chapter 22 tackles the question of groups. Blunden argues that identity is central to the formation of social subjects, yet the problem of identity seems to have escaped Leontyev’s attention; it is presumed rather than explained (p.223). Drawing on Lektorsky, Blunden argues that “identity is always contested, multiple, and conditional, but never individual” (p.225). Yet Leontyev’s only mode of identity is group membership (p.226).
Chapter 23 gets to Engestrom’s model, the famous triangle, which Blunden says “tackled a lot of the problems in Leontyev’s model”: specifically a “three-way relationship of mutual mediation” (p.229). Blunden notes that Engestrom presents the activity system as a “root model,” but not a unit of analysis—and Blunden adds that it really can’t be one, even though it is deployed as one (p.230). The triangle is a “handy pocket manual of social analysis,” but not a concept per se (p.232).
Skipping ahead a bit, let’s get to Blunden’s wrap-up of his immanent critique. He argues that one cannot include context (open-ended totality) in a unit of analysis—doing so wrecks the unit of analysis (p.251). And this brings us to Blunden’s proposal, mentioned in Chapter 1 and elaborated in Ch. 28-on.
In Ch.28, he proposes a new unit of activity: project collaboration (p.255). The rest of the chapter elaborates on the constituent elements, collaboration and project. (cf. my own All Edge, which discusses project collaboration but does not elaborate it theoretically to nearly the same degree). Here, artifacts are also projects; actions may belong to multiple projects (p.257). Collaboration in a project is active in contrast to object-oriented activity, which implies a passive response (p.257).
Blunden also discusses some limiting cases of collaboration: management (hierarchical cooperation) vs. division of labor, which itself can be subdivided into cooperation (divided labor, no mutual critique) and exchange of commodities (that is, a market) (pp.259-260).
In any case, the collaborative project is the unit of analysis for activity (p.260). (Here, Blunden is interested in bounding the context of the activity. For some parallel thinking on this problem, see my “Losing by Expanding.”) Such projects can nest in each other. To identify such a project, Blunden says, we must start not with societal needs but with people’s motivations (p.262).
In Ch.30, Blunden boldly argues that Leontyev’s activity theory is incompatible with Marx’s critique of political economy, since Leontyev insists that “each system of activity is objectively motivated by an object, which is a need of the whole society” and thus satisfies a definite social need (p.275).
Let’s skip to the last chapter. Blunden ends by essentially saying that he has settled the unit of analysis: “This work has now been done, and the meaning and significance of the idea of unit of analysis has been settled. … the proposal has to be responded to” (p.317). You have no choice, reader!
We always have a choice. But I am intrigued by this proposal—intrigued enough to spend three hours (!) writing this review. And as you may have noticed by my links to my own works, this book gets at some things that I have been trying to think through (although not nearly to the extent Blunden has). If you’re also thinking through activity theory and its implications, I urge you to pick up this book. Even if you are not convinced of Blunden’s critiques and proposal, you will find some valuable and thought-provoking work here.
In early August, I was thrilled to be involved with an interdisciplinary, international set of scholars who discussed writing research at Dartmouth University. The format included a weeklong discussion of six working papers followed by a three-day conference.
My working paper was entitled “What’s Wrong with CHAT?”—an extension of the presentation by the same name from CCCC 2016.
And since the working paper discussion involved three hours of response, I put together a second slide deck to guide that discussion, entitled “What’s wrong with ‘What’s Wrong with CHAT?’?”
If you didn’t make it to Dartmouth, no worries: I’ve linked to both presentations below.
Alex Kozulin cites this book a couple of times in his own writings on psychology in the Soviet Union. It was published in 1952 and is no longer in print, but fortunately Amazon had a used copy at a very reasonable price. I found it to be surprisingly insightful and relevant.
A few notes. Bauer studied under Jerome Bruner, who also wrote the Foreword. Writing at the height of the Cold War, Bauer examined the state of psychology in the USSR, which was at that point still under Stalin (who would die the year after this book was published). Once Stalin died, the leading psychologists in the USSR would find their voices, publishing their major books; but at the point Bauer was writing, Soviet psychological publications were essentially dormant. Bauer even notes in his preface that “The major psychological journals ceased publication in the period 1932-1934, and after these years, publication facilities for psychological research were very sparse until 1946” (p.xii).
Given this situation, it’s a bit of a shock to see how Bauer discusses the Vygotsky Circle—who are more or less seen as a marginal group with some odd, jury-rigged ideas. Back to that in a moment.
Bauer notes that at this point in the Cold War, Soviet leaders proclaimed that the social and political work in the USSR was scientific, in contrast to that of the rest of the world. At the same time—paradoxically, he says—”the Soviet leaders subject Soviet science to active and explicitly political interference to an extent unheard of in any other modern state.” As one consequence, “In range of activity, Soviet psychology has narrowed from an extremely broad discipline which studied animal and human, normal and abnormal, child and adult subjects to one which focuses most of its attention on the study of normal, healthy children” (p.4).
Intriguingly—and this is the core of Bauer’s analysis—
Viewed in the light of psychological theories of the twenties, man was a machine, an adaptive machine which did not initiate action but merely re-acted to stimuli from its environment. Concepts like “consciousness” and “will” were suspect; they smacked of subjectivism, voluntarism, idealism. After all, man and his behavior were determined by antecedent social and biological conditions. Man as depicted in present day Soviet psychology is not passive in the face of the environment. He takes the initiative away from the environment. Rather than being determined by his environment, he determines it. Furthermore, he shapes his own character by training and by “self-training.” Whereas the proper subject of psychological behavior in the twenties was objective behavior—the correlation of external stimuli with externally observable responses—today psychology is the study of consciousness, “the highest form of organized matter” and the instrument whereby man shapes himself in his environment. (p.5).
Bauer claims that “developments in psychology have reflected the resolution of the conflict between two doctrinal trends in Marxism” (p.5).
What are these trends? Later in the book, Bauer explains that
The development of Stalinism involved essentially the conflict between two alternate sets of assumptions embedded in Marxism, one focused on the understanding of causal relationships, the other focused on the achievement for some purpose. The first corresponds to what has become known as “mechanistic Marxism,” the latter as “dialectical Marxism.” Seeing these positions in direct opposition to one another is an unwarrantedly abstract and schematic distinction. These systems of thought were not the exclusive property of any individual or group of individuals; they were alternate assumptions which any person might use in a given situation. (p.14)
Both aspects were latent in the works of Marx and Engels. The first gives Marxism-Leninism its teleological aspects—and convinced the Mensheviks that they could work incrementally, since Socialism was always and inevitably fated to take over the world. The second was picked up by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who believed that man must ultimately make his own history (p.17).
Bauer says that “extreme mechanistic Marxism” has these postulates:
(1) Man is a product of his inheritance and his environment; therefore society is responsible for man’s character and behavior, rather than man’s being responsible for society. (2) All social events are determinately related; therefore the trend of future events can be predicted. (3) Essentially, the course of events is determined by abstract forces external to man himself, and there is little that he could or should do to direct them. (4) Since all oppressive and repressive institutions are a function of conflict in class society, a classless society will speedily do away with repression. (5) Class society is a result of a particular form of economic relations, and a change in the economic base of society will eliminate class divisions, which in turn will result in the withering away of the state and bring about ideal social conditions. (6) Man is inherently rational and inherently good; and once he is freed from the institutions of a class society, he will revert spontaneously to rationality and goodness. In addition to these premises, mechanistic Marxism posits the desirability of a freely developed and fully expressed personality, of freeing man from excessive burdens and of respecting his dignity. (pp.18-19)
“However, as the history of the Soviet Union unfolded, it became evident that these postulates were untenable in various areas of society,” Bauer adds (p.19). The USSR (nominally) achieved a classless society, but problems persisted, the State did not wither away, and the predicted worldwide Revolution did not come. The early 1920s saw a crisis in economic planning, leading Stalinists to claim that “mechanists had no place for chance (accident) in their thinking” (p.23). The Stalinist victory led to many changes. “It made official the view that man is the master of his own fate” (p.24); the dialectical view became seen as the correct one; dialectical, not mechanistic materialism became “the accepted methodology of science” (p.24). At the same time, the crisis meant that the State had to ask more of its individual citizens (p.24).
In philosophy, Bukharin and his followers took the mechanistic view, while Deborin and his followers took the dialectical. The latter were supported in 1925 by the Russian publication of Engels’ Dialectics of Nature as well as parts of Lenin’s notebooks (p.25). By 1929, the dialecticians had won, imposing the dialectical view in science (p.26).
Interestingly, the dialectical view insistent that contradictions were not external but internal to a given system (see Ilyenkov); “the dynamics of the system were derived from forces within it and not from forces impinging on it” (pp.27-28). (Note: Depending on how you read Engestrom, he either disregards or supplements this claim with his modeling of quaternary contradictions in activity networks.) The dialectical view also led to studying systems—and that led to studying what was qualitatively different in man vs animals, since the laws of the human system could be qualitatively different from the laws of animal systems (p.29). It also led to the rediscovery and relegitimization of the human psyche (p.29). And it introduced the notion of levels of development as opposed to a continuous process (p.30).
This shift had other far-reaching consequences. For instance, the notion that the State would wither away is a quintessentially mechanistic one (p.35); it led educators to claim that education should be based on spontaneous processes within beneficial environments—there would be a “withering away” of school. This notion dominated until 1931! (p.44). But by that point, efforts began to restore the teacher to his/her traditional position. The notion of carrying out education by focusing on the environment was finally killed in 1936—by the infamous pedology ban (p.45).
This is key: The pedologists, in Bauer’s account, were founded on mechanistic Marxism’s claim that environment determines behavior. Thus they tended to deny consciousness as an idealistic notion (as noted in other books I’ve reviewed) and focus on improving school environments. This outlook was colorable in the early 1920s, when problems in education could be laid at the feet of the capitalist status quo ante. But by the 1930s, this viewpoint was politically unwise. The Soviets had run the schools for a decade and a half, so if educational problems were the result of the environment, the Soviets had to own that problem!
Bauer briefly reviews the behaviorally oriented work of the 1920s, including the replacement of Chelpanov by Kornilov, noting Luria’s early work as an innovative bright spot (p.58). But mechanism dominates; the notion of the unconscious falls into disfavor by 1925 due to charges of idealism, and the very notion of consciousness also becomes unpopular.
“The only clear reversal of trend during this period was the work of L.S. Vygotskii and his associates, mainly Luria and Leonti’ev,” he adds (p.73). Bauer is clearly bemused by this work and the “curiously oblique approach they took to consciousness and man’s control over his own behavior. Consciousness, said Vygotskii, is ‘the capacity of the organism to be its own stimulus.’ Their general approach to the problem of the control of man’s behavior is that man does this by learning certain instrumental techniques—such as mnemonic devices to improve memory—and that he uses these devices as external stimuli to direct his own behavior. … Thus, even the most deviant trend of the period accorded to consciousness only a mediated role in the control of man’s behavior” (p.74).
Most other pedologists, Bauer says, fixated on the idea that environment determines development and intelligence (p.84). Their conception of man’s nature was passive (p.86), a view that suggested that the individual wanted to simply maintain equilibrium with the environment (p.89). This view, as noted above, became politically radioactive in the mid-1930s. With the victory of the dialecticians, the mechanistic model was accused of being capitalist (p.98) and psychology turned to the task of educating the new Soviet man, one who would assert his own agency in service of the State. “Of the reigning premises of the twenties only that of the plasticity of man’s organism remained” (p.102).
In Chapter 8, Bauer takes a closer look at the Pedology Decree. He notes that even though Vygotsky bucked the mechanistic trend by studying consciousness, his theory was not in step with the new program to train the new Soviet man: Not only did Vygotsky give too little weight on training, “He maintained that learning proceeded from the unconscious to the conscious; that is, general principles could be understood only after one had learned how to do something” (p.117).
By 1935, Stalin proclaimed that “cadres decide everything,” that is, Soviet society now demanded trained people rather than just material, mechanical, and organizational changes (p.123). Changes were introduced to stabilize social relationships, increase social controls, and make workers more effective at serving the needs of the State (p.123).
Consequently, “‘Conscious, purposive action’ has become not only the norm of conduct of the Soviet citizen, but the central focus of psychology, and the principle of ‘conscious understanding’ is the fundamental tenet of Soviet pedagogy” (p.132). And “The Soviet conception of consciousness is above all tied to action” (something that should sound familiar to activity theorists) (p.132). Soviet psychologists, Bauer says, claim “that conscious goals play an essential role in voluntary action, but these goals are themselves determined by previous experience. The stimuli of the immediate situation are mediated through the conscious goal determined by previous events” (p.133). Thus man is responsible for his own immediate behavior; he is nonetheless rightfully subjugated to the demands of society; and he can consciously achieve freedom through voluntary service to the state (pp.133-134). “Consciousness is the concept whereby the Soviet citizen is, in fact, liberated from determinism and tied to the service of the state. It is also the pivotal concept of modern Soviet psychology” (p.134).
Bauer goes on to discuss some tenets of modern (circa 1953) Soviet psychology. Among them:
- operations are automatized actions
- consciousness allows man to focus on goals beyond the immediate situation
- the study of psychic functions is always related to man’s motives and goals
- consciousness must always be studied in concrete action (p.136)
It is no coincidence that the 1936 decree against pedology occurred in the same year as the inauguration of the new Soviet constitution and the declaration that socialism had been achieved. … If a person is imperfect, then the responsibility lies in his earlier environment—or in him personally. (p.147)
Let’s stop there. Bauer’s book is a fascinating time capsule, the view of Soviet psychology from the US in the last years of the Stalin era. It arguably misunderstands some things about Vygotsky’s work, but then again, it portrays the political and rhetorical situation of Soviet psychology in clear, insightful, and illuminating ways. Most importantly, it provides a big-picture view of the shifts in Soviet warrants, shifts that had large implications for the shaping and legitimacy of different strands of Soviet psychology.
If you’re interested in Soviet psychology, Vygotsky, activity theory, or just the Soviet Union, of course you should get this book—if you can find a copy.
The Bloomsbury Library of Educational Thought has a series on different influential thinkers. This one is written by Rene van der Veer, who is certainly qualified. If you’re interested in a slim Vygotsky bio, this book might fit the bill; if you’ve been reading works by and about Vygotsky, as I have, the book will not be a game-changer, but it will fill in some gaps.
For instance, I discovered that
- Vygotsky wrote most of his unpublished book on the crisis in psychology during a hospital stay in 1926 (p.23).
- According to van der Veer, Vygotsky’s likely fate if he had survived tuberculosis would have been the Gulag. “The disease killed him; otherwise he might have been murdered” (p.29).
- His textbook Educational Psychology was written at Gomel, but published in 1926, years after he had moved to Moscow University (p.43).
- Vygotsky was strenuously anti-racist—but he was demonstrably ethnocentric (p.57). He assumed that cultural differences were developmental differences (p.100). Nevertheless, he insisted that intelligence tests be based on the subject’s own cultural tools, a principle that underpinned the Uzbek expedition (p.98).
- Vygotsky is known for the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), but he claimed not to have invented it; unfortunately, he did not make its origin clear (p.79).
- The ZPD might have been posited to explain the “leveling effect,” which we now believe to be an artifact rather than an actual phenomenon (p.86).
The link above goes to a current printing of the book, but I’m reviewing a 1960 copy. If you prefer to read on screen, you can get the same edition I read as a free PDF on marxists.org.
Luria, of course, was a member of Vygotsky’s circle—but he pursued ingenious research even before Vygotsky. As a student at the Institute of Psychology in Moscow, he had access to a “dynamoscope,” a device that measured pressure when the subject squeezed a pneumatic bulb, then recorded cyclograms on a photographic plate. (These experiments are discussed in Luria’s biography.) What could one do with such a device in an institute dominated by Kornilov’s reactology?
Quite a lot, it turns out. Luria wrote three books in the 1920s; this book was not published in the Soviet Union (it was published for the first time in Russian in 2002), but it was published in the US in 1932 and served as Luria’s dissertation in 1937.
The book was written before (or at least based on Luria’s work before) he met Vygotsky in 1924, leading to his engagement in cultural-historical research. But the work here has some clear continuity in the work of the Vygotsky Circle as well as Luria’s later works. It’s also rather troubling from an ethical point of view, but that’s par for the course in Luria’s earlier works.
First, let’s discuss the basis for this book: the combined motor method (Ch.1). As mentioned, Luria had access to a dynamoscope. He had also studied the works of Freud and Jung, and was interested in word associations. And he was interested in how human behavior was organized and disorganized:
The chief problem of this investigation is to explain the laws of the disorganisation of human behaviour, the conditions under which they arise, and the way in which they are overcome. Therefore, we should study the structure of the disappearance and origin of this behaviour in those reactions entering into its real composition. (p.19)
How to put these together? Luria noted that strong affect often involved motor responses. (Think about, for instance, when people tremble in fear or anger.)
Certainly, the affect causes great fluctuations in the motor activity; if the affect is not accidentally related to the section of the human behaviour we are studying, if we consider the given disorganisation of behaviour to consist in the particularities of the systems of behaviour under investigation, then the disturbance will be involuntarily and definitely expressed in the sections of activity which we will record. We shall study the involuntary destruction of the voluntary movements; we consider this a more adequate path to a better understanding of the disorganisation of behaviour. (p.20)
So if “we desire to trace the structure of the internal changes which are inaccessible to direct observations, we can follow their reflection in the voluntary motor functions” (p.22). Luria’s combined motor method involved having a subject create word associations while squeezing the bulb, therefore combining central and motor activities—allowing the concealed function to be reflected in the unconscious one (p.23).
Need an example? Suppose you have someone who is accused of murder. He has been brought in by the police, but he hasn’t yet been told what he has been charged with. At this point, one might subject him to the experiment, reading a set of words that is mostly random, but including a few words related to the murder scene. Does the subject unconsciously squeeze the bulb more tightly when he hears those particular words? Yes, it turns out that he does (pp.29-30). Luria had essentially created a lie detector.
From our viewpoint in the US of the early 21st century, this experiment has severe ethical problems and would be impossible to conduct or publish. For one thing, when someone is arrested, they must (now) be told why they are being arrested. But in the Russia of the early 20th century, such considerations were not important. So I found this book to be alternately fascinating and horrifying. Luria’s research subjects, who largely had no choice about their participation, included different groups who were experiencing high levels of affect:
- people accused of murder (see above)
- students who were about to discover whether they had been politically purged from the university
- people who had been given complexes during hypnotism
Whereas the first two groups were experiencing stress already, the third group were artificially introduced to stress. The experimenter would hypnotize a subject, provide a scenario in which the subject acted in a shameful way, then bring the subject out of hypnosis and ask questions while having the subject squeeze the bulb. Here’s one scenario:
The following situation is suggested (Situation B) : “You are sitting in your room and are studying. A child of your neighbour’s, a boy of about six, comes into your room. He shouts and disturbs your studies. You ask him to stop; he does not listen to you. . . .You get angry, and forgetting yourself, take a stick and beat the boy, first on his back and then on his head. There are some wounds on his head and he cries. You feel very much ashamed and you do not understand how such a thing could have happened to you, how you could beat up a child, and you try to forget it.” (p.144)
Luria matter-of-factly reports that this scenario sometimes failed to produce an internal conflict:
The situation is suggested to the subject. She reacts very vividly to the suggestion, shown by her facial expression. The suggestion is followed by these questions:
Experimenter: Why did you beat him?
Subject: He was bothering me.
Experimenter: Is it right to beat a child?
Subject: But if he annoys me.
At once it is seen that we succeeded in suggesting to the subject a certain situation. However, that situation did not appear to be conflicting. (p.144)
My reaction was that not only has Luria built a lie detector, he has built a sociopath detector. But Luria simply notes that some subjects don’t have an internal conflict; let’s move on to the others who do. He eagerly reports the more normal results, in which people indicate shame and horror over what they have been induced to think.
Moving on. In the third part of the book, Luria synthesizes his results.
One may think, however, that morphological conditions the connection of different motor systems with dissimilar parts of the nerve apparatus do not play a decided role here. During the affect, as a matter of fact, the gait may be changed as well as the movement of the hands in lighting a cigarette, and it can be shown that only the great differentiation of the motor systems of the hand or of the face is the cause of their unusual expressiveness.
We take a different point of view; we believe that the degree of expressiveness of that or another system depends not so much on its anatomical position as upon its inclusion in one or another complicated psychological structure. Therefore one and the same motor system can be either expressive or unexpressive, depending upon what function it is fulfilling at the given moment and to what psychological structure it belongs. (p.172)
Here, Luria seems to gesture to the notion of functional systems that he would later develop.
At the end of the book, Luria cites his book with Vygotsky as well as work by others in the Vygotsky Circle (recall that this book was based on pre-Vygotsky experiments but published over a decade later). On the last page, he connects the book with the overall agenda of cultural-historical psychology:
The behaviour of the human adult is primarily a product of complex growth, which cannot be comprehended as an accumulation of experiences. Human psychology differs from the zoological point of view in that it sees specific laws absent in the phenomena of nature and characteristic of history. The development of the human as a historical subject occurs as the elaboration of special forms of historical, cultural behaviour. This development evokes new specific mechanisms, the peaks of historical evolution. Speech and the use of signs, the permutation of activity by the use of cultural means make the human a new biological series in history. These new functions do not remain isolated in the psychological processes, but permeate the whole activity and structure of behaviour so that we find them literally in every movement of the fingers. (p.428)
Overall, a fascinating, sometimes disturbing, but historically illuminating book.