Ian Moll was a colleague of mine. I have also written and spoken about the
problems with the notion of "culture" in the South African psychological
context. Politically aware (local) psychologists felt driven to look for
psychological universals. So, for example, there was work done in the genre
of Juan Pascuale-Leone, looking at executive functions in Zulu children. I,
because of the political beliefs I hold, didn't publish some neoPiagetian
(Pieraut-Lebonniec) research on modal reasoning (epistemic and alethic).
The cross-cultural differences between Grades 1,3,&5 children were
apparently* so damaging, that the data was never published, and my
colleagues advised me to work on school-type tasks, using a genetic method.
This threw up alarming differences as well, but at least I could link these
with school-based learning experiences. (I still couldn't publish this work,
But now we have a new educational dispensation, and cultural changes in
certain types of schools are remarkable. Watch this space. (For a couple of
*PS. The children couldn't do the epistemic and alethic modality tasks, but
their teachers (poorly educated and poorly trained) could. At that stage, I
didn't have the chance to track the developmental path of this competence,
but we know that even by Grade 9 the children still struggled.
From: Eugene Matusov [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Friday, February 13, 2004 7:15 PM
Subject: Leont'ev-Vygotsky controversy
Dear Mike and everybody-
One "meta-comment". I'd also keep in mind the third, #3, issue as a very
interesting case of a dialogic relation between two national sciences: US
and Russian. I think we should use CHAT to approach that issue. For me, #3
is the key to #1 (and #4). Let me elaborate on that...
I remember reading in 1995 two articles in two journals on basically the
same issue of Vygotsky's notion of internalization and educational
inequalities addressed so differently by a South African scholar Jan Mole
and a US scholar Peter Smagorinsky (hi, Peter!). Reading these articles, I
was amazed how much through the authors' conceptualizing and talking about
Vygotsky, different national issues emerged: how to liquidate the oppressive
consequences of the apartheid in South Africa versus how to diversify the
educational system to make it sensitive to needs of diverse cultural and
social groups in US. In Jan's article, Vygotsky was used to undermine the
notion of cultural diversity by focusing on Vygotsky's emphasis on the
universal nature of historical processes; while in Peter's article, Vygotsky
was used to embrace the notion of cultural diversity by focusing on
Vygotsky's emphasis on cultural tools. Taken out of the national (local)
historical contexts, Jan and Peter strongly contradict each other about
Vygotsky: Jan pushed forward historical universalism so strong in Vygotsky
while Peter utilized cultural contextualism that can be traced in Vygotsky
as well. However, taking into account the national (local) historical
contexts, the picture becomes much more complex. The cultural diversity
argument was used by leaders of white minority in South Africa for
justification of apartheid and racial oppression. The meritocracy and denial
of cultural diversity have been used by white middle and upper classes in US
to deny equity of education (and not only education) minority and other
social and cultural groups. Knowing these national (local) historical
contexts, I saw a deeper consistency in Jan's and Peter's articles that to
some degree transcends the issue of whether Vygotsky was a historical
universalist or a cultural contextualist.
With regard to Vygotsky (and Leotn'ev and Luria for that matter), we need to
reconstruct their local historical contexts and pay attention to ours as
well in order to fully explore differences and similarities in their/our
conceptual frameworks. Using Sartre's terminology, we need to take into
account "existential projects" that the targeted scholars under our
investigation and we have been involved.
My 2 cents gut feeling about the Vygotsky-Leont'ev controversy is that
Vygotsky's emphasis on sign, semiotics, and culture somehow afforded more
independence and opposition to Stalinist totalitarianism than Leont'ev's
focus on tool, activity, and society. My reasoning can be circular but there
is historical evidence that Stalinist regime did not tolerate scholars
focusing on semiotics and culture but it did tolerate scholars with
instrumental and managerial orientation. (Institutions, corporations, and
states may love Activity Theory helping them to solve inefficiencies and
unproductive contradictions and thus help to project more power but they may
be threatened by semiotic and cultural analysis that can undermine their
power. Do not take me wrong, AT can be dangerous for the powerful as well
but it can be domesticated while semiotics/cultural analysis are too wild).
I think it is interesting to explore this observation and my half-baked
If my hypothesis is correct, it becomes clear why the V-L controversy is
such a big deal in Russia and bewilderment in US. Since scholars in US are
not threatened by a totalitarianism - it is not their problem, not their
project, - this difference between V and L seems to be a minutia. But
totalitarianism is still a big practice and threat in Russia that is why, in
my view, Russian scholars pay much more attention to the V-L controversy (as
Mike knows very well - may be even more that he wants to know getting in the
middle of some Russian fights ;-). This can be very vulgar socioligm and
historism - but hey, we have to start with something...
What do you think?
PS I know almost nothing about Vygotsky-Luria conceptual disagreements (or
rumors about them) beyond the fact/rumor that they existed and I would
appreciate Mike or anybody else elaborating on them. Please discuss #4
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Mike Cole [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
> Sent: Thursday, February 12, 2004 10:18 PM
> To: email@example.com
> Subject: RE: Motives and goals: Leont'ev and Axel
> Sure, Eugene. By all means lets separate all three issues. I am primarily
> interested in #1. What are the substantive differences between approaches
> and their implications. I concede without flinching that MANY people,
> Russian and non-Russian understand Vygotsky better than I do or ever will.
> I also admire the historical investigations of van der Veer and Valsiner.
> I wish I had had access to such information when I was actively working
> on such issues.
> We might add a fourth issue, since you raise it via your citation of
> Jim Wertsch's recent work.
> #4: Is there such a thing as direct remembering which does not deal with
> conflicting data?
> But if we were voting, I would stick to question #1. What differences in
> theory have implications for current theory and practice? Given my
> preferences, I would add Luria to the discussion, but you have classes to
> teach and I have some overdue work to get through to meet other
> professional obligations. With limited time, lets choose our topics well.
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