RE: Politics in cultural psychology

From: Eugene Matusov (
Date: Fri Feb 13 2004 - 13:51:26 PST

Dear Carol-

Thanks a LOT for your most useful comments (this and in past!).

Can you elaborate please on
> 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

I just put two very interesting articles on the Document Library by South
African and Peruvian scholars about so-called safe-talk phenomenon that I
saw a lot in South African schools in black townships.

Please share with us more about work you and your colleagues are doing in
SA. I wish our international colleagues on xmca share more articles about
what research is done in their countries.


> -----Original Message-----
> From: Carol Macdonald []
> Sent: Friday, February 13, 2004 12:54 PM
> To:
> Subject: Politics in cultural psychology
> Eugene-
> Ian Moll was a colleague of mine. I have also written and spoken about
> 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
> of Juan Pascuale-Leone, looking at executive functions in Zulu children.
> 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
> This threw up alarming differences as well, but at least I could link
> with school-based learning experiences. (I still couldn't publish this
> obviously.)
> But now we have a new educational dispensation, and cultural changes in
> certain types of schools are remarkable. Watch this space. (For a couple
> decades!)
> Carol
> *PS. The children couldn't do the epistemic and alethic modality tasks,
> their teachers (poorly educated and poorly trained) could. At that stage,
> 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.
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Eugene Matusov []
> Sent: Friday, February 13, 2004 7:15 PM
> To:
> 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
> 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,
> 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
> of cultural diversity have been used by white middle and upper classes in
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> I think it is interesting to explore this observation and my half-baked
> hypothesis.
> 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,
> my view, Russian scholars pay much more attention to the V-L controversy
> Mike knows very well - may be even more that he wants to know getting in
> 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?
> Eugene
> 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
> issue!
> > -----Original Message-----
> > From: Mike Cole []
> > Sent: Thursday, February 12, 2004 10:18 PM
> > To:
> > Subject: RE: Motives and goals: Leont'ev and Axel
> >
> > Sure, Eugene. By all means lets separate all three issues. I am
> > interested in #1. What are the substantive differences between
> > and their implications. I concede without flinching that MANY people,
> > Russian and non-Russian understand Vygotsky better than I do or ever
> >
> > I also admire the historical investigations of van der Veer and
> > 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
> personal
> > preferences, I would add Luria to the discussion, but you have classes
> > teach and I have some overdue work to get through to meet other
> > professional obligations. With limited time, lets choose our topics
> > mike

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