Re: [xmca] Elements and Units

Date: Mon Jan 29 2007 - 09:08:00 PST


I enjoy reading your posts.

I believe that word is the correct unit for analysis as long as that word
is a) situated within the context of a goal mediated joint activity and b)
clearly delineated before analysis. If it is delineated as a sign then
that is the word, if it is delineated as an utterance then that is the
word, etc. The bigger question is not what constitutes the unit of
analysis but rather what is the outcome of the analysis? For me the
outcome is having students graduating from High School who are capable of
navigating the adult systems and cultures. Therefore they need to know the
impact their "words" have within those systems and cultures. For someone
studying science the outcome of analysis is making sure that the students
correctly identify scientific concepts and start applying the proper "word"
to those concepts. Part of the reason I have stressed Valsiner in the past
is that his study of the process structure of semiotic mediation is the
only study i am aware of the focuses on the specifics of this analysis.

what do you think?

                      David Kellogg
                      <vaughndogblack who-is-at To: xcma <>
            > cc:
                      Sent by: Subject: [xmca] Elements and Units
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                      01/25/2007 12:32
                      Please respond
                      to "eXtended
                      Mind, Culture,

Hola, Cynthia!

  First, I have an apology. I read Spanish, but my friends tell me that
when I try to speak it I sound like I am speaking French with a Spanish

  Second, I have a warning. I work in primary education. My Vygotsky is a
primary school teacher. A lot of other people have other Vygotskies, who do
different things.

  Third, I have a question for YOU. When Vygotsky says that "word meaning"
is the unit of analysis, what does the word "word" mean?

  When people talk about what Vygotsky meant by "unit of analysis", they
usually go back to the little story that Vygotsky tells about the water
molecule. Hydrogen burns, and oxygen helps it burn, but water neither burns
nor helps things burn. So elements do not tell us much about what units
will do. We need units, not elements, if we want to analyze things.

  I don't like this story very much. First of all, it's not really
Vygotsky's. He got it from John Stuart Mill. Secondly, a water molecure
doesn't develop, or at least it doesn't develop in a revolutionary way,
from a molecule where there are two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom to a
molecule where there are two oxygen atoms and one hydrogen atom.

  I have a better one. As Wittgenstein points out, games have almost
nothing in common. There are board games and dice games and competitive
games and cooperative ones; there are games based on luck and those based
on skill, and then there are lots of activities that seem to be just based
on repetitive behavior (like jumprope or catch).

  Vygotsky pointed out that games have not one but TWO things in common.
They all have an imaginary situation of some kind (even if it is highly
implicit, like imagining that an action will continue indefinitely) and
they all have rules (even if they are very subtle, like "repeat, repeat,

  The reason we don't see this is that sometimes the imaginary situation is
dominant and explicit and the rules are secret (like when children play
"House" and Daddy has to eat while Mommy serves) and sometimes it is the
other way around (like when they play soccer and they pretend that they
can't touch the ball with their hands).

  In other words, games are a unit of analysis, and every game always
contains two kinds of elements: imaginary situations and rules. But
sometimes it is the imaginary situation which is derived from the rules,
and sometimes it is the rules which have to be derived from the imaginary
situation. (This is what happens when children play and they argue.)

  In Capital, Marx begins with a very abstract (but ubiquitous) unit of
analysis, namely the commodity. The commodity contains an inherent
contradiction, between use value and exchange value. This contradiction is
what causes it to develop, from a commodity that is mostly use value to one
that is mostly exchange value.

  As Capital develops, Marx shows how this very abstract analysis is
expressed in concrete historical relationships. In order to show this, it
is very important that the unit should be holistic, that is, that it should
contain BOTH sides of the contradiction, and that the change of proportion
(from "use value/exchange value" to "exchange value/use value") should be a
revolutionary one.

  Both Volosinov and Vygotsky faced similar problems. In 1926 Volosinov was
faced with a world populated by two types of linguists: those who ignored
the actual thought in language and concentrated only on the structural
oppositions (the abstract objectivists led by Saussure) and those who
ignored the structure of language and concentrated only on its expressive
thought (the idealist subjectivists, led by Vossler).

  Volosinov understood that there could be no question of "uniting" these
two false positions. For one thing, Volosinov knew that they were
inherently tautological. It is not possible to "explain" the structure of
language using the structure of language, as Saussure did. Nor is it
possible to "explain" the thought of language by using the language of
thought, as the romantics wanted to.

  Volosinov understood that the utterance, which was HIS unit of analysis,
contains both thought and structure. But for that very reason, as Kozulin
points out, the utterance cannot be both the unit of analysis and the
explanatory principle.

  If the utterance contains both thought and structure, then we cannot say
that the utterance is caused by thought, or that the utterance is caused by
structure, because both of those statements would contains tautologies.
There must be some other explanatory principle, some other thing out of
which both thought and structure co-evolve.

  Vygotsky's problem is almost identical, as well as contemporaneous. In
1926, when Vygotsky got up at a conference in Moscow to talk about
"Consciousness as a Problem in the Psychology of Behavior", there were two
types of psychologists in the room: those, like Chelpanov, who believed in
consciousness without behavior, to be explored using introspection without
observation, and those, like Pavlov, who believed in behavior without
consciousness, to be explored by observation without introspection.

  (In fact, there was a third kind of psychologist in the room; Kornilov,
who believed in "uniting" the two erroneous positions. But Kornilov
believed in a psychology without Chelpanov or Pavlov, and that is why
Vygotsky was able to work with him for a time.)

  Vygotsky's solution is quite similar to Volosinov's too. He understood
that there could be no question of uniting the weaknesses of both
positions; a synthesis could only be achieved by the Marxist method of
double negation. He had to find a unit of analysis that included both
consciousness and behavior, united in an inherently unstable opposition
that could develop, from behavior/consciousness to consciousness/behavior.

  The unit he discovered is, amazingly, the same as that of Volosinov. It
is the utterance. I know, I know, he says that it is "word meaning." But
what does "word meaning" mean to a one-year-old child?

  One-year-old children know a lot about language: they know it has rhythm,
and they know it has intonation. But there is lot that they don't know:
they don't (yet) know that it has vocabulary and they don't yet know that
it has grammar.

  This seems like a contradiction. If they can hear the rhythm of speech
and silence, then surely they know about words. If they can hear the
difference between UP and DOWN intonation, then they probably know
something about sentences, and even questions.

  But in fact there is no contradiction. Or rather, there IS a
contradiction, but it is precisely the kind of contradiction that we want,
a contradiction WITHIN the unit of analysis that will allow it to develop.

  The child knows the external aspect of words (that is, words as sounds).
But the child does not yet know their internal structure (that is, words as
discrete, analyzed meanings). The child knows the sentence as iconic, or
even indexical meaning, but not as a string of symbolic meanings.

  The child will learn, and develop. Someday the child will learn to use
e-mail, for example, and be able to read foreign languages which he or she
cannot pronounce correctly. The fact that you can read these words is proof
that it is possible for the child to invert "sound/meaning" to

  But Vygotsky, like Volosinov, understood completely that since, in
utterance-meaning, there is both consciousness AND behavior, we cannot
simply use utterance-meaning to explain consciousness or behavior. Because
if we do that, we get a tautology, or rather two of them: something that
contains consciousness already is what causes consciousness; something that
contains behavior already is what causes behavior.

  So Vygotsky, like Volosinov, looked for something else to use as his
explanatory principle. You are not going to be surprised when I tell you
that what Vygotsky and Volosinov was exactly the same explanatory
principle: verbal and non-verbal human interaction; not abstract
interaction, but real dialogue between real flesh and blood humans and
their immediate environment. Verbal and non-verbal interaction structures
thought, and verbal and non-verbal interaction brings consciousness out of

  But if verbal and non-verbal interaction is the explanatory principle,
then "word" is not quite the right word, is it?

  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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