Vygotsky and Context. Where did the Connection Come From

and What Difference Does it Make?

Michael Cole, Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition

U.C. San Diego

(Paper prepared for the biennial conferences of the International Society for

Theoretical Psychology, Istanbul, Turkey, June 22-27, 2003)


            The publication of English versions of a large portion of Lev Vygotsky’s writing, supplemented by a number of excellent scholarly examinations of both those writings and their relationship to antecedent and contemporaneous thinkers, have enormously expanded the horizons of our knowledge about the work of L.S. Vygotsky and immediate colleagues. Simultaneously, there has been a rather broad recognition of the pitfalls of inter-cultural appropriation of Vygotsky’s ideas which requires a critical approach to all claims of authenticity about adherence to presumed originals or fidelity in application of the ideas in contemporary scholarship on learning and development. 

My remarks today are intended to contribute to this ongoing re-appraisal. In particular, I want to examine the relationship between Russian cultural-historical psychology and the general conceptual world view referred to as contextualism. I begin by examining two uses of the term, context, which are in wide use among Anglo-American social scientists. I summarize two relevant texts, one an introductory textbook the other a collection of  essays directed to professionals published by American scholars who take it as given that Vygotsky and his followers are contextualists. I then turn to examine some of Vygotsky’s texts that might be used to support or contest such an interpretation. I will conclude with some tentative conclusions about how American developmental psychologists’ interpretations of  Vygotsky and contextualism. I will argue that while many such interpretations indicate at-best limited direct foundation in the texts of Vygotsky and his followers in Russia, the attribution of contextualist thinking to their work is not entirely unwarranted. However it requires a considerable degree of extrapolation and is open to error if it does not take seriously the relation of context to development, where significant divergences in world views appear too important to ignore. 


Context, a slippery concept

The concept of context is notoriously polysemic and is the source of seemingly endless confusion within Anglo-American psychology. However, we need to start somewhere. At the risk of inexcusable oversimplification, let me suggest that although contemporary notions of context vary enormously across disciplines and individual users, it is safe to say that in the last decade or so psychologists have come to distinguish between two general uses of the word. The first is roughly equivalent to the term, environment, and refers to a set of circumstances, separate from the individual child, with which the individual interacts and which are said to influence the child in various ways.

Used in this way one can refer to the “family context” or “the historical context” or the “social context” and make claims about how one or another (lets say) social context influences the child’s development.

            The second kind of definition views text and context as mutually constitutive. In the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, context is “the connected whole that gives coherence to its parts,” a definition which has strong affinities to the Latin term, contextere, or to weave together. When used in this way, the ability to segment child and the context is problematic, but an analytic distinction that depends upon a large, perhaps uncountably large, set of factors operating in bi-directionally over time in an active process of framing that can be unraveled in an instant.

            The failure to be clear about what meaning(s) of the term, context, are being deployed complicates great the problem of trying to decide whether, and in what sense, Vygotsky and his Russian followers might or might not be considered contextualists.        

            With this caution in mind, I will not turn to some recent American texts which provoked my interest in the question in the first place.


Vygotsky and “the contextualists”: American writings[1]

In her textbook,  Theories of Developmental Psychology, Patricia Miller introduces contextualism as a counterpart to theories that conceive of development “as an individual activity and the environment as simple an ‘influence on’ an individual’s development.”  It appears that she has in mind the “weaving together” conception of context when she comments concerning contextualist thinkers in developmental psychology that

Of this group, the most influential for present-day developmental psychologists is the approach of the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky and, more generally, the “contextualists.” In the Vygotskian-contextualist view, humans are embedded in a social matrix (context) and human behavior cannot be understood independently of this matrix. As Bashkar said, “To think of contexts as existing in addition to or apart from practices is like imagining alongside or beside faces.(Miller, 1993, p. 370).”


            For her direct sources of Vygotsky’s ideas, Miller draws upon Soviet editions containing parts of  Higher Psychological Functions in Mind, the selections from Mind in Society,  and the article on the instrumental method in psychology from Wertsch’s 1981 collection of essays on Soviet activity theory. As indirect sources she sites Brown, Bruner, Cole, Ratner, Valsiner and Van de Veer, Wertsch, and others. She takes five characteristics to be shared by Vygotsky and what she terms “present day contextualists”:


1.     Child-in-activity is the unit of analysis

2.     The Zone of Proximal Development

3.     The socio-cultural origins of mental functioning

4.     The mediation of intellectual development by tools provided by culture

5.     The use of a contextualist methodology


In examining these communalities, she begins each relevant section with a quotation from Vygotsky’s writing and then provides examples of how these ideas are replicated, elaborated or  modified by  (mostly American) scholars.

For example, to justify the child-in-activity as the unit of analysis Miller quotes Vygotsky’s statement that “The path from object to child and from child to object passes through another person (1978, p. 30) from which she takes the lesson that

“... looking at a child while ignoring his context distorts our concept of the nature of children. Focusing on a child alone tends to encourage us to look for causes of behavior within the child rather than in the context. In actuality, the same developmental process can lead to different outcomes, depending upon the circumstances (p. 375).

Perhaps I am mis-reading, but this statement reads to me very much as if Miller has slipped into thinking of context as separate from the child, even as she warns against such thinking. How, otherwise, could one speak of a developmental process remaining the same but the context changing?

Symptomatically, after presenting an example of joint remembering between a mother and her two year old child, which is used to show how mind is socially distributed, Miller asks, rhetorically, “What is context?” But instead of answering this question, she follows with the statement that “contexts have many levels, and provides a description of Bronfenbrenner’s nest dolls conception of the social ecology of childhood, which is very much in the context-as-environment tradition.

Even if we overlook this apparent sliding back and forth of presumptions about what is meant by the term, context, and assume the validity of speaking of “causes in the context outside the child,” it is unclear to me that Vygotsky pointing to adults as mediators of children’s experience justifies the idea that the child-in-activity (context?) indicates that the child-in-activity was a unit of analysis in Vygotsky’s theory of development. But at this point, Miller invokes Luria’s work in Central Asia to illustrate how (presumably higher) levels of context figured in the Vygotskian approach.

The remaining points of convergence are discussed in the same manner. She introduces each point by quoting a passage from Vygotsky’s work and then  uses a wide variety of non-Russian sources, some of which directly cite Vygotsky as their inspiration, some of which do not to illustrate the kinds of work that contextualists do and their connection to Vygotsky. By and large, I think that most of the scholars whose work she invokes would consider themselves contextualists. And, with the exception of  her identification of the Zone of Proximal Development as a shared conceptual tool, I believe that everyone cited would agree with her characterization of their work. But not all of those people would consider Vygotsky as the inspiration for their ideas.

            A second example of the assumption that Vygotsky is a contextualist is the book entitled Contexts of Learning edited by Ellice Forman, Norris Minnick (translator of the first volume of the collected works) and Addison Stone. In their introduction the editors state that their intention is to “offer examples of theoretical and empirical attempts to extend and enrich the evolving framework” of the work of  Vygotsky, Leont’ev, Luria and their colleagues and students, which they take to be a “recognizable piece” of contemporary research on the social and cultural foundations of development.

            The editors note the dramatic increase of translated materials that they hope will get English readers to realize the broad scope of Vygotsky’s approach, which includes not only emotions, motives, and personality (in addition to language and discourse which they see as the subject matter of most prior work using Vygotsky’s ideas) but also “both cultural and social-institutional levels of analysis.” The articles that follow all invoke one or more of the topics on Miller’s list said to be shared among contextualists and involve research in a variety of settings directed primarily at analysis of behavior in classrooms. But, again symptomatically, few of the authors directly invoke Vygotsky as the course of their ideas about context and when they do address the issue of context, it is the context-as-environment view, closely linked to the concept of embeddedness,  that predominates.


So, what about context in Vygotsky’s writings?

            I could add to these examples, but I believe they would not add to the picture that emerges from the two I have chosen. There are a number of Anglo-American developmental psychologists for whom the concept of context is a central theoretical tool who also take inspiration from some set of concepts that appear to have been motivated by their reading of Vygotsky. But the connections appear to rest on something other than direct textual evidence.

Which provokes the next question. What direct evidence is there that the concept to context was central to Vygotsky’s thinking?

             The first place we might be tempted to look is to the published texts, of which there are now a great deal more than there were 25 years ago when Vygotsky became to come into vogue. The task is not an easy one. The word, context, does not appear in the index of any of the 6 volumes in English of his collected works. But that is partly a shortcoming of the index. “Context” does appear in the text itself. I do not have access to the computer files from which the printed text was generated and I have not yet read all of the volumes with questions about context in mind.

For example, the term, sense, does not appear in the index of Volume 1, although there is an extensive discussion of the relationship between sense and meaning (which appears under the heading of word meaning). I pick this example, because it is one of the few places I have found in Vygotsky’s writing where the concept of context plays an important explicit role.

Meaning is only one of these zones of the sense that the word acquires in the context of speech. In different contexts, a word’s sense changes. In contrast, meaning is a comparatively fixed and stable point, one that remains constant with all the changes of the word’s sense that are associated with its use in various contexts (1987, p. 276).


The actual meaning of the word is inconstant. In one operation, the word emerges with one meaning; in another, another is required. .... Isolated in the lexicon, the word has only one meaning. However, this meaning is nothing more than a potential that can be realized in living speech., and in living speech meaning is only a cornerstone in the edifice of sense (p. 276).

            The example of the way in which context conditions the relation of sense to meaning is a fable by Krylov.

The word “dance” with which the fable ends has a definite and constant meaning. This meaning is identical in all contexts. In the context of this fable, however, it acquires a much broader intellectual and affective sense. It simultaneously means “be merry” and “die.” This enrichment of the word through the sense it acquires in context is a basic law of the dynamics of meaning. The word absorbs intellectual and affective content from the entire context in which it is intertwined (p. 276).

Note two interesting features of this invocation of context. First, it appears to draw upon the interweaving, notion of context. Second, it takes speech, and not anything remotely associated with situation or setting as “that which” surrounds the term, which does not at all afford application of notions of embeddedness or levels of context. 

            A second textual reference which could provoke the idea that Vygotsky was a contextualist does not use the term context at all, but seems to be consistent with its use in American psychological discourse and especially relevant to questions of development; this is the concept of the “social situation of development” by which Vygotsky meant “ the relations between the personality of the child and his social environment at each age level”(1934/1998- Volume 5, p. 198).  According to Vygotsky,

“at the beginning of each age period, there develops a completely original, exclusive, single, and unique relation, specific to the given age, between the child and reality, mainly the social reality, that surrounds him. The social situation of development represents the initial moment for all dynamic changes that occur in development during the given period. It determines wholly and complete the forms and the path along which the social becomes individual (p.198, Vol. 5)

This statement might be taken be taken as a strong form of context as external influence on development had not Vygotsky also written with respect to the social situation of development that

One of the major impediments to the theoretical and practical study of child development is the incorrect solution of the problem of the environment and its role in the in the dynamics of age when the environment is considered as something outside with respect to the child, as a circumstances of development, as an aggregate of objective conditions existing without reference to the children and affecting him by the very fact of their existence (Vol. 5, p. 198).

For Vygotsky, the social situation of development is a relational construct in which characteristics of the child combine with the structure of social interactions to create the starting point for a new cycle of developmental changes which will result in a new, and higher, level of development (and a new, relevant, social situation of development).

            Finally, we could include as candidates for an interest in context the various reference in Vygotsky’s writings to historical change and the differences between primitive and modern modes of thinking (nicely summarized by van der Veer and Valsiner, 1991, Ch. 1). In these writings, it is cultural variations in mediational means, particularly means of symbolic representation and interaction, that are the crucial differentia among historical eras and levels of cultural attainment. In so far as more advanced, cultural means, mediate human behavior, the human thought processes that emerge from the fusion of universal/ natural and historically specific/cultural processes produce will be more advanced. 

Undoubtedly additional more-or-less direct statements concerning the relation of context to development could be found in Vygotsky’s writings and given the computer files containing the text they should be easy to find. But these examples appear to reveal Vygotsky as someone for whom the very dynamics of change at the ontogenetic level depend upon a relational, context-as- mutually constitutive conception of context. Even when writing about cultural-historical variation, it is the emergent consequences of incorporating more advanced cultural tools into social practice that give rise to change. 

Anglo-American uses of Vygotsky as a Contextualist

            Thus far I might correctly be accused of  the error that Vygotsky attributed to many of his Soviet contemporaries who quoted Marx -- an attempt to discover the nature of Vygotsky’s mind by patching together a lot of quotations. I will attempt to rescue myself in the time remaining.

            At least as I experienced it, the surge of interest in Vygotsky’s ideas in the 1980’s was not motivated by admiration of his acumen as a contextualist developmental thinker based on any direct extractions of quotations from the then-available texts by either Vygotsky or his compatriots. Rather, this interest represented the confluence of several tendencies in the field which led Anglo-American psychologists to inte