RE: [xmca] Socio-Cultural Theory Interest Group Seminar Series

From: Valerie Farnsworth (
Date: Thu Sep 28 2006 - 08:47:13 PDT

Hello xmca,
I proposed previously that I would post a synopsis of the Socio-cultural Theory Interest Group (ScTIG) seminar series, which we have reconvened at the University of Manchester, UK. Below are some of the issues we discussed and a summary of what I heard discussed at this seminar (meaning they are my interpretation and re-telling of our seminar). I also list the two articles we read, which provoked the issues we discussed. I look forward to hearing responses to any of these issues, if they so intrigue. (And if not intriguing, some suggestions on what format people might prefer I use to engage a broader group in these discussions.) I apologize for not having the time to work on posting these articles online.

Ochs, E., Taylor, C., Rudolph, D., & Smith, R. (1992). Storytelling as a theory-building activity. Discourse Processes, 15(1), 37-72.
Holland, D., Lachicotte Jr., W., Skinner, D., & Cain, C. (2001). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press. (Chapter 1, On the Shoulders of Bakhtin and Vygotsky: The Woman Who Climbed up the House: A Practice Theory of Self and Identity)

1) Do Ochs et al. make a fair assessment/use of Vygotsky?

Where we ended up: Ochs et al article is about a process, while the ZPD is a concept and not addressed in this paper. We considered how this paper might be positioned differently now in relation to Bernstein and Hasan. For example, one way that the home storytelling is not like school storytelling was discussed in terms of the 'chili pepper' story. Using Bernstein and Hasan's interpretation of Vygotsky, the storytelling could be an event of 'semiotic mediation' if the parent had also taken the opportunity to teach the child about different types of chili peppers. Thus, a key difference between storytelling and learning at school is the learning of concepts, which is not central to the storytelling events that Ochs et al present. In these cases, the child is learning how to talk (ways of social interaction).

2) What are the differences between social constructionism and socio-culturalism (and socio-cultural historicism)?

Where we ended up: One primary difference is in terms of what the different theories place in the centre - for socio-cultural theory, cultural artifacts are placed in the centre and for social constructionist theories, language and social interaction are at the centre. However, we discussed how language also carries with it history and culture (especially in meaning-making). We also discussed how Holland et al. attempt to combine the two theories in order to explain why the woman climbed the wall (and avoided going through the kitchen based on cultural norms that prohibit a woman of her class to go through a kitchen owned by someone higher on the heirarchy) to reach an upstairs apartment where she was to meet with Skinner for an interview. Socio-cultural and sociohistoricism informs our understanding of how people identify themselves/act in relation to cultural norms, forms and artifacts while social constructionism can be used to better understand how people re-work or revise those acts/discourses.

3) Can sociocultural theory (or any social reasearch) explain why the woman climbed up the wall? Is this weakness in such theories a problem for educational research?

Where we ended up: We may need a theory that addresses personal history and (dare we say) personality to address individual differences. Activity Theory may also assist in this area, if we think of needs as related to Goals - so the woman's decision to climb the wall might be explained by a need to remain within 'safe' social relations with people in her community who would chastise her (or other possible other sanctions?) had she entered the kitchen. We briefly debated whether sociocultural theory has actually gotten rid of the internal and external distinction (ala Rogoff article on 3 planes of analysis?). The Cartesian dual, we recalled, was broken down by conceiving of the person as having both the internal and the external. Does this breakdown though help us explain why this woman did what other women in a similar position did not?

Our conversation stopped there and I hope people on this list will be inclined to add to it (or subtract from it, if anything I have said here is a complete misinterpretation of our conversation).

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