Cultural Studies of Science Education

, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp 471–491

From relational ontology to transformative activist stance on development and learning: expanding Vygotsky’s (CHAT) project

Authors

    • The Graduate CenterThe City University of New York
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s11422-008-9111-3

Cite this article as:
Stetsenko, A. Cult Stud of Sci Educ (2008) 3: 471. doi:10.1007/s11422-008-9111-3

Abstract

This paper offers steps towards overcoming current fragmentation within sociocultural approaches by expansively reconstructing a broad dialectical view on human development and learning (drawing on Vygotsky’s project) underwritten by ideology of social justice. The common foundation for sociocultural approaches is developed by dialectically supplanting relational ontology with the notion that collaborative purposeful transformation of the world is the core of human nature and the principled grounding for learning and development. An activist transformative stance suggests that people come to know themselves and their world as well as ultimately come to be human in and through (not in addition to) the processes of collaboratively transforming the world in view of their goals. This means that all human activities (including psychological processes and the self) are instantiations of contributions to collaborative transformative practices that are contingent on both the past and the vision for the future and therefore are profoundly imbued with ideology, ethics, and values. And because acting, being, and knowing are seen from a transformative activist stance as all rooted in, derivative of, and instrumental within a collaborative historical becoming, this stance cuts across and bridges the gaps (a) between individual and social and (b) among ontological, epistemological, and moral–ethical (ideological) dimensions of activity.

Keywords

VygotskyFreireActivity theoryTransformative practiceSocioculturalCritical pedagogy

Executive summary

O propósito geral deste artigo é melhor integrar perspectivas socioculturais recentes nas ciências sociais e educação que, embora importantes, permanecem desconectadas. Essa integração é de extrema importância para que tais perspectivas possam competir com abordagens alternativas embasadas em reducionismo biológico e que vem ganhando destaque por seus audaciosos pressupostos sobre a natureza humana (baseado em noções como determinismo genético, módulos cognitivos inatos, procriarão e a metáfora do cérebro-como-mente). Para integrar as perspectivas socioculturais é necessário que seja articulada uma posição comum, unida pelo menos no nível meta-teórico e ligada a questões gerais sobre natureza humana, desenvolvimento e aprendizado.

Este artigo oferece, portanto, caminhos para superar a atual fragmentação das abordagens socioculturais ao reconstruir expansivamente uma ampla visão dialética sobre desenvolvimento e aprendizagem humanos sustentada por uma ideologia de empoderamento e justiça social - a tarefa que o projeto revolucionário de Vygotsky começou mas não concluiu e cuja semelhança com a pedagogia crítica de Freire é impressionante. A base comum às abordagens socioculturais é desenvolvida a partir da expansão dialética da noção de ontologia relacional (presente nas principais abordagens teóricas do século 20, incluindo as de Piaget, Vygotsky e Dewey e buscada agora ativamente em várias disciplinas) que enfoca a natureza transacional do desenvolvimento e aprendizagem. A expansão dialética aqui proposta consiste em suplantar-se dialeticamente a noção de relacionalidade com a noção de que a transformação intencional colaborativa do mundo é o cerne da natureza humana e o princípio de base para o desenvolvimento e a aprendizagem. De acordo com esta posição ativista transformadora, as pessoas se conhecem e ao mundo e, em última instância, tornam-se humanas no e através do processo de colaborativamente transformar o mundo em vista de suas metas e propósitos. Isso significa que todas as atividades humanas (incluindo os processos psicológicos e o self) são formas de contribuição às práticas transformadoras colaborativas, contingentes tanto em relação ao passado quanto às visões do futuro. São, portanto, profundamente imbuídas de ideologia, ética e valores. Esta concepção abre novos caminhos para superar a limitação tanto da visão individualista das tradições positivista e humanista que postulam a primazia do indivíduo como entidade suprema cuja existência antecede práticas sociais; quanto do reducionismo social de explicações coletivistas unidirecionais que tendem a excluir processos individuais e subjetividade humana. A abordagem aqui proposta convida-nos a vislumbrar uma ciência humana unificada que contemple de um lado os processos de agir, ser/tornar-se e conhecer e de outro os valores e o compromisso de transformação. Também afirma que sociedade e educação podem ser diferentes, exigindo o discernimento de porque as coisas são como são em um dado momento histórico, ao dirigirmos o olhar a como elas se tornaram assim e, simultaneamente, considerarmos como as coisas devem ser. É porque agir, ser e conhecer são vistos, a partir da posição ativista transformadora, como sendo enraizados, derivados e instrumentais nas práticas sociais intencionais do tornar-se histórico colaborativo, que esta posição intersecta e preenche as lacunas entre (a) os planos individual e social da atividade humana e (b) as dimensões ontológica, epistemológica e ético-moral (ideológica) desse processo.

Introduction

Research in psychology and education today is going through a paradoxical phase, perhaps to such an extent that the cliché ‘the best of times, the worst of times’ cannot be avoided when trying to describe it. On the one hand, we are witnessing much foment and enthusiasm as novel ideas, exciting discoveries, and innovative methodologies are emerging and flourish across a variety of approaches that explore the effects of culture and society on human development. These new and innovative approaches are often underwritten by a common commitment to social justice and equity (these approaches will be termed sociocultural herein for lack of a better unifying term). On the other hand, it is impossible not to notice a rising tide, indeed a tsunami, of starkly mechanistic views that reduce human development (more boldly now than at any other time in recent history) to processes in the brain rigidly constrained by genetic blueprints passed on to contemporary humans from the dawn of the evolution. The sad irony is that these latter views represent a strikingly united front in sharp ascendance—drawing together resurrected tenets of sociobiology, innatist linguistics, narrowly conceived neuroscience, orthodox modular cognitivism, with the test-and-control, knowledge transmission based educational models following suit—while the alternative sociocultural approaches remain starkly disconnected, without much dialogue nor coordination among them. Indeed, no consensus of a sort now propagated by the ‘new’ reductionist synthesis is apparent in sociocultural approaches that are scattered across areas as diverse as critical pedagogy, social theory, adult learning, disability studies, critical race theory, constructivist education, science studies, human–computer interaction, feminist studies, literary criticism, cultural anthropology, and developmental psychology, among others.

The broad rationale for this paper is the need for a better integration, or at least a co-ordination, of sociocultural perspectives across these areas in social sciences and education. This is necessary if a sociocultural perspective is to compete with the alternative neurologically-reductionist (often with sociobiological undertones) approach that is now claiming a bold vision on human nature (a vision that purportedly resolves all its complexities with the help of notions such as genetic endowment, innate cognitive modules, procreation, and mind-as-brain metaphor). Such an integration requires that a common position, united at least at the meta-theoretical level, on the broad questions of human nature, development, and learning is worked out. The goal of such an integration is by no means merely academic. Broad theories and visions of human nature and development are not inconsequential abstract constructions; quite on the contrary, they are always intimately related, in a bi-directional way, to ideologies and policies of research and practice and have immediate practical ramifications in real life, worldly contexts, and everyday matters (with the split itself between theory, ideology, and practice being a remnant of the old-fashioned positivist concept of knowledge). The reign of positivist views on human nature as predetermined, fixed, and largely contingent on brain mechanisms on the one hand, and the failure by sociocultural theories to provide an alternative broad vision that could unhinge ideas of development and learning (and the plethora of associated concepts such as mind, knowledge, and intelligence) from ideology of control and testing that has underwritten them for far too long on the other, is a serious obstacle that needs to be dealt with to achieve changes in present policies and practices.

This paper offers steps towards overcoming the current fragmentation within sociocultural approaches in psychology, education, and a number of neighboring disciplines by revisiting (drawing on a number of perspectives) and expansively reconstructing a broad dialectical view on human nature and development underwritten by ideology of empowerment and social justice. The first step is to recognize the need for an integrated perspective in sociocultural approaches—or, to use a stronger expression, for a ‘grand’ synthesis in its own right—to counter the powerful alternative trend that is grounded in essentialistically understood human nature. The second step is to reveal and ascertain the common foundation that is tacitly present in today’s sociocultural theories of human development—namely, the theme of relational ontology of human development and, more specifically, that of human active engagement with the world as the process through which both learning and development take place (with Piaget, Dewey, and Vygotsky all standing in opposition to the narrowly mechanistic and reductionist views). On this broad foundation, the third step is to dialectically expand the notion of active engagement by supplanting it with the notion that collaborative purposeful transformation of the world is the core of human nature and the principled grounding for learning and development. In making this step, I revisit and re-conceptualize Vygotsky’s project that pioneered (but has not completed) this theoretical move. The strategy is to restore and build upon this project’s deeply seated transformative activist stance (overlooked in many of today’s interpretations of Vygotsky) pertaining to all aspects of human development—a stance that initially permeated this project as a result of it being forged during a time of unprecedented revolutionary changes that profoundly imbued it with ideas of activism, transformation, and social change.

According to this stance, the core of human nature and development has to do with people collaboratively transforming their world in view of their goals and purposes—a process through which people come to know themselves and their world as well ultimately come to be human. Importantly, although transformative social practices are profoundly and ineluctably social—afforded by and themselves affording employment of cultural tools including language and the associated cumulative growth of human culture, history, and society—this conceptualization does not eschew the role of individual human beings as agents of and contributors to social practices. Therefore, this conception overcomes the narrowness of both (a) the individualist views of positivist and humanist traditions that posit the primacy of an individual as some supreme entity existing prior to social practices and (b) the social reductionism ‘upwards’ of unidirectional collectivist accounts that tend to exclude individual processes and human subjectivity. In this conception, human subjectivity is neither a separate mental gadget for information processing nor a largely unconscious by-product of neuronal activity; instead, it is a process implicated in, produced by, and derivative (or made up) of the worldly, practical, purposeful activities of people who together transform their world and are transformed by it and in which each individual human being has an important role to play. Moreover, because meaningful activities not only build on experiences and present conditions in their subjective dimensions but also embed visions for the future, these activities are—even in their most mundane forms—endeavors of a critical activist nature. This approach therefore dismantles the rift between facts and values rendering all human activities, including research and science at large, ineluctably ideological and political. The notion of transformative practice is inexorably linked to ideals of social justice and emancipation as pursuits of common humanity that substitute for group particularism and the politics of difference inevitably associated with the emphasis on participation in local communities of practice. Arguably, such an emphasis is highly consistent with the challenges now facing researchers and practitioners of education given the rapidly globalizing world where communities are interrelated and the tasks facing them worldwide.

Today’s landscape and the need for an integrated approach

Today is a time of a critical ferment in psychology and education. Especially from the late 1970s through 1990s, a variety of new approaches emerged to challenge the essentialist, positivist conceptions that had for centuries prevailed in science to instead build upon alternative meta-level paradigms of, among others, phenomenology, poststructuralism, hermeneutics, American pragmatism, and (to a lesser extent) Marxism. The new theories developed under the banner of critical and cultural approaches offer novel ways to conceptualize and study culture, context, social interaction, and, perhaps above all, language and discourse. These new ideas and methodologies have been widely successful and in some fields (such as education) even came to win the battle for the first-methodology position (cf. Eisenhart 2001). Some branches within psychology, such as Vygotsky’s cultural-historical approach, have also been influenced and themselves became influential in advancing and shaping the new agenda for social sciences striving to shift away from the individualist and mentalist models.

However, these new directions of scholarship today remain starkly disconnected, with little integration and few, if any, attempts to offer an overarching theory of human development that would entail explanations of how people develop, learn, and come to know their world. Indeed, these approaches are divided by thick walls of ostensibly non-overlapping and seemingly irreconcilable theoretical groundings, conceptual traditions, methodologies, chosen target audiences, and affiliations (as well as, last but not least, exclusivist stances taken by many who prefer to keep to their own turf rather than opening up to dialogue with other perspectives). For example, some branches of critical and feminist theory claim Kurt Lewin as their major conceptual source while hardly ever referring to Vygotsky and, in an almost mirror reflection of this trend, most Vygotskian scholars disregard writings in critical and feminist theory (for a rare exception, see John-Steiner 1999). This is particularly ironic given how much overlap there is between Lewin’s and Vygotsky’s theoretical premises and how close the two scholars were both professionally and personally during their lifetime. No less ironic, again in view of a profound commonality in respective grounding assumptions, is the lack of co-ordination between critical pedagogy inspired by Freire and Vygotsky-based approaches in education. Freirian and Vygotskyan projects have so much in common that it is truly a mystery how their shared roots, ideas, and commitments could be left unexplored for so long. Other examples include lack of a dialogue (a) between constructivist pedagogies rooted in Piaget and Dewey (with not much coordination between these two either) on the one hand, and Vygotsky-inspired education, on the other (although exceptions to this trend have emerged recently), (b) between contextualist psychology and ecological tradition championed by Bronfenbrenner and Vygotskian scholarship (although on Bronfenbrenner’s roots in and kinship with Vygotsky, see Wertsch 2005; also present author’s personal communication with Bronfenbrenner on multiple occasions), and (c) among approaches that capitalize on the distributed, situated, embodied, dialogical, and dynamical nature of development. It is due to a lack of theorizing that cuts across these areas that a dialogue among them has been stifled, disadvantaging all potential interlocutors and weakening their overall message and import in a wider context of societal debates about research and education.

The lack of integration among sociocultural approaches can be attributed to, in large part, the recently cultivated general suspicion of grand theories (especially by the postmodernist movement) that are thought to represent totalizing discourses that dangerously flatten differences in points of view and positions, impose rigid standards of truth, and undermine the politics of diversity (as indeed they often do). As a result, many scholars of culture today are interested in addressing complexity and fluidity of identity and subjectivity by focusing on their permeable boundaries and fleeting expressions—their grounding in dispersed networks and multilayered sites—and are less interested in explicitly conceptualizing human development and nature, including the broadest question of what it means to be human.

However, these ‘big’ questions do not and will not go away. When they remain under-theorized, the door is left open for essentialist premises to sneak right back into even the utmost critical and cultural conceptions of human development and, above all, into the practices of organizing social life including practices of education. Because no void remains unfilled, this is exactly what happens again and again when, for example, arguments are made that subjectivity is the product of cultural constructions, negotiations, and dialogues; yet the notion of the biological ‘real’ as a universal given, and the motif of nature as prior to social life is left intact. Powerful grand theories of what it means to be human and how development and learning are possible are ineluctably present at each and every step in theorizing all and any social issues, shaping even the most seemingly a-theoretical endeavors too, and being perhaps especially pronounced in education. For example, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy is, no doubt, a product of a vast array of socio-economical and political processes rather than of a particular worldview on human development; however, a worldview of this level is powerfully implicated in the fashioning and implementing of this policy. That most resources need to be allocated to rigorous testing rather than put to use to improve teaching and learning reflects a belief in learning to be contingent on a universal progression that unfolds at its own pace, with the notion of a fixed and predetermined human nature lingering just behind the surface of this belief. By way of another example, when explanations are habitually provided in mass media and professional discourse for why some groups of students under perform by evoking the common sentiment that ‘some are just not born with it,’ (‘it’ being talent or any other type of a presumably ‘natural,’ inborn propensity), a grand theory of a universal human nature constrained by innate mechanisms is again at work, pervading our common understandings and language. Similarly, when a prominent democratic politician claims to be ‘cursed with a gene of responsibility,’ this is meant as a metaphorical figure of speech; however, this statement communicates the same unfortunate message about genes being at the core of who we are. Such sentiments and ways of thinking are evidenced also by how little commentary by sociocultural scholars there is on the ‘cheerful march’ of evolutionary psychology and reductionist neuroscience, with this silence speaking volumes. Given the recent tidal wave of simplified reductionist notions about human nature and development, of grave implications for psychology and education, the goal of developing an alternative broad vision appears to be not only important but urgently needed. However, the broadly conceived dialectical conception of development and learning suggested in this paper is not offered as some final, a-historical, and timeless ‘truth’ (for such ‘truth’ does not exist). Instead, it is offered with a full understanding that all theories and concepts are culturally-bound and historically specific social constructions that ultimately depend on and make sense only within particular social practices and ideologies underpinning them.

Importantly for the purposes of this paper, the prevailing emphasis on local communities and group particularism combined with the politics of difference and identity choice on the one hand (or alternatively, a non-committed stance of some postmodernist approaches that profess neutrality as the only viable position) and the suspicion of ‘grand stories’ about human development on the other, is increasingly out of step with the rapid globalization processes that bring communities to be increasingly interrelated and turn local challenges into worldwide concerns.

Relational ontology: complementary contributions by Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky

Although there is not much in the way of an explicitly stated general consensus today among scholars of a sociocultural orientation, one theme does come across as particularly salient and potentially unifying across a wide range of approaches. This theme has to do with challenging the central essentialist premise about phenomena in the social world being ‘thing-like’ entities that exist separately from each other and the rest of the world (if not without some extraneous influence from other independently existing entities). In opposition to this view, many sociocultural theories are based on the notion that social and psychological phenomena are processes that exist in the realm of relations and interactions—that is, as embedded, situated, distributed, and co-constructed within contexts while also being intrinsically interwoven into these contexts. The most evident common achievement across sociocultural approaches of recent years has been the advancing and elaborating of this particular mode of thinking. Its core has to do with overcoming the Cartesian split between the object and the subject, the person and the world, the knower and the known—to offer instead a radically different relational ontology in which processes occur in the realm between individuals and their world1. In this broad meta-level approach, organisms and their environment are not seen as separate and self-contained (neither in their origination nor in their functioning) but are posited to have shared existence as aspects or facets of one and the same unified reality. Within this logic, for example, development and learning are not seen as products of solitary, self-contained individuals endowed with internal machinery of cognitive skills that only await the right conditions to unfold. Instead, they are seen as existing in the flux of individuals relating to their world, driven by relational processes and their unfolding logic, and therefore as not being constrained by rigidly imposed, pre-programmed scripts or rules.

Thus, the reductionist metaphor of separation (typical of the previous mechanistic worldview) is replaced with the metaphor of ‘in-between-uity,” that is, of mutual co-construction, co-evolution, continuous dialogue, belonging, participation and the like, all underscoring relatedness and interconnectedness, blending and meshing—the ‘coming together’ of individuals and their world that transcends their separation. With its broad message of the meta-level, this perspective has profound implications for practically all steps in conceptualizing and studying phenomena in the social world, including the self, identity, mind, knowledge, and intelligence, as well as human development at large.

Although still far from being the mainstay of thinking in psychology and education (with many new adherents often reinventing its basics), this relational ontology has become quite prominent across a number of approaches and research directions such as developmental psychology (e.g., Müller and Carpendale 2000), cultural anthropology (e.g., Holland et al. 2001), social psychology (Harre 2002), science studies (e.g., Latour 1987), literary studies (especially in Bakhtin’s tradition, e.g., Hicks 2000), studies of communication and cognition (e.g., Clark 1997), educational ethnography (e.g., Lave and Wenger 1991), and education (e.g., Barab and Roth 2006).

One way to capitalize on and strengthen the impact of relational ontology (as well as to overcome stark disconnections among theories grounded in it) is to realize that the three major frameworks on human development of the 20th century—those by Piaget, Dewey and Vygotsky—all embodied strong relational thinking that aimed precisely at overcoming the subject–object dualism by replacing it with an emphasis on development being in constant dialogue and relation with the world. For example, Piaget (1977/1995, p. 188) argued that “the substantialist language of whole and part ought to be replaced by a language based on relations between individuals or individuals in groups.” Piaget favored an interactive point of view, according to which “there are neither individuals as such nor society as such. There are just interindividual relations” (Piaget 1977/1995, p. 210). The relations between individuals are primary and “constantly modify individual consciousnesses themselves” (Piaget 1977/1995, p. 136). As noted by Kitchener (1996, p. 245), “Piaget …can be called a kind of transactionalist. Ultimately real are the basic transactions between individuals, or between individual and environment.”

Dewey too displayed a deeply and remarkably transactional mode of thinking, as is evident when he stated that all behavior, including most advanced knowing, should be treated as activities not of a person alone, but as processes of the full situation of organism–environment. Dewey’s central notion of experience was a specification of transaction, referring to the relations of a living organism and its environment. As Kestenbaum (1977, p. 1) remarked, “[f]or his entire career, Dewey in one way or another was brought back to this realization that subject and object, self and world, cannot be specified independently of each other. His conception of organic interaction, and later his conception of transaction, were attempts to capture the reciprocal implication of self and word in every experienced situation.”

Vygotsky is less often associated with the premises of relational ontology, with recent interpretations of his works often focusing on the importance of social context and interaction in human development, suggesting a model in which outside influences are seen as forces that shape development and learning. However, much of Vygotsky’s efforts can be read as an attempt to conceptualize human development in terms of an organism–environment nexus in which the two continuously determine each other so that neither one can be conceived independently. In fact, one of Vygotsky’s core achievements was that he substituted for the fixed, preformist views on development the notion that development exists in flux and constant change, with fluid and ever-changing, open-ended dynamical processes linking organisms and their environments. For example, Vygotsky (1997, p. 100) challenged the then accepted view that development could be understood as a set of static, predetermined steps when he wrote:

“Least of all does child development resemble a stereotypic process shielded from external influences; here [in child development], in a living adaptation to the outside milieu is the development and change of the child accomplished. In this process, ever newer forms arise, rather than the elements in the already preordained chain being simply stereotypically reproduced” (emphasis added).

Vygotsky’s affirmation of relational ontology is also evident in his statement that ‘relations to the environment stand at the beginning and at the end’ of development (Vygotsky 2004b, p. 194). And in yet another place, he asserts that his approach eventually resolves the argument between nativism and empiricism by showing that ‘everything in personality is built on a species-generic, innate basis and, at the same time, everything in it is supra-organic, contingent, that is, social (Vygotsky 2004b, p. 190; emphasis in the original). In formulating these views, Vygotsky directly, and even quite literally, intuits the recently advanced developmental system theory (DST) according to which any psychological process is “fully a product of biology and culture” (Lickliter and Honeycutt 2003, p. 469; emphasis in the original) and what counts as ‘biological’ falls entirely within the domain of what counts as ‘cultural’ and vice versa (cf. Ingold 2000).

From this brief analysis, it appears that Piaget, Dewey, and Vygotsky all converged on understanding development and human nature as being dynamical and fluid process taking place not just inside organisms and not just in the outside world, but at the intersection of the two, undergoing constant change and never following one preprogrammed path. As such, their views reflected much of the dynamism of the early 20th century, best described perhaps by Roman Jakobson (quoted in Knox 1993, p. 1) who, when reminiscing about that time, wrote: “[e]verywhere there appeared a new orientation towards organizing unities, structures, forms whereby not the multitude or sum of successive elements but the relationship between them determined the meaning of the whole.”

Moreover, having understood human development as inherently relational, all three scholars also moved to the next level of analysis and struggled to answer the question as to how can the mind, self, identity, knowledge, and learning be re-conceptualized a-new within this profoundly relational worldview? In making this move, their goal was not only to debunk the ‘sovereignty of the individual’—indeed a faulty and untenable assumption—but also to re-conceptualize (rather than eschew) psychological processes while unhinging them from the premises of mechanistic and elementarist worldview. It is at this level that these scholars again exhibit remarkable similarity, while also—at yet another level of analysis—revealing profound difference in their positions.

From relational ontology to emphasis on human action

Piagetian, Deweyan, and Vygotskian approaches represent the relational, dynamical, and contextualized modes of thinking about human development and learning. However, and no less importantly, all three theorists understand human action as being constitutive of the relation between persons and the world. The dynamics and developments of embodied human action, in its increasingly complex transformations, as taking place in the world and not just in the head, is considered in all three frameworks to be the origin of psychological phenomena. The latter appear to be instantiations, parts and parcels, of ongoing actions through which people relate to their world. What this specification entails is a radical break not only with elementarism and essentialism of the mechanical worldview but also with the spectator stance on development, which, although challenged, is not eliminated by relational ontology per se. According to the spectator stance, the world—though being profoundly relational—is also essentially passive, with phenomena and processes co-occurring and being together, with no agency posited at the fundamental level of existence. In other words, relation implicates the ontological centrality of co-being as something that comes about through ‘co-presence,’ but where existence is fundamentally inert and passive. In contrast, all three frameworks discussed herein have managed to overcome the “spectator stance” through the realization that the only access people have to reality is through active engagement with and participation in it, rather than simply ‘being’ in the world. For example, the mind for Piaget, Dewey, and Vygotsky is not a container that stores knowledge, nor a mirror reflection of reality; rather, the mind is a dynamic system formed and carried out in and as actions by individuals who, through these actions, realize their relations in and to the world. Active engagement with the world therefore represents the foundation and the core reality of development and learning, mind and knowledge—where relationality as co-being and co-existence is dialectically superseded by the more agentive stance of acting in or engaging the world. Note that the emphasis on acting does not and is not meant to eliminate the relationality of co-being; in fact, action is always and irrevocably relational for it entails and encompasses the subject and the object, the knower and the known, always crossing and essentially eliminating the boundaries between them. Therefore, relationality is not eliminated, but instead entailed, in activity that now becomes the supreme ontological principle, bringing organisms into relations with the world and with each other.

All action-centred theories implicate development, including cognitive growth, as occurring through an increasing elaboration of actions and posit learning as an active endeavour rather than a passive transmission of information. Here Vygotsky, Dewey, and Piaget converge in that they all imply that individuals learn by doing—through acting in and on their world. Importantly, activities are neither ancillary nor complementary to development and learning; instead, they are the very realm that these processes belong to and are carried out in. Moreover, activities are the very ‘matter’ development and learning are made of, with no ontological gap posited between people actively engaging their world on the one hand, and their knowing and learning on the other. This view places these three scholars in opposition to traditional views on mind as a passive container where knowledge is stored and on learning as a mere acquisition of information.

There are differences in how explicitly these ideas were expressed by the three scholars, with Dewey tackling it perhaps most directly and consistently throughout his career (with the exception of his latest works where he, inspired by post-Einsteinian physics—works by Heisenberg, Bohr, and Maxwell—appealed to transaction being spread across humans and the world rather than to the realm of individuals acting in the world; cf. Garrison 1995). Piaget advocated this idea with particular clarity when he described early stages of development and the emergence of practical intelligence as an elaboration of action structures, whereas when he described the later stages of ontogeny he focused on elaboration of cognitive schemas, more in keeping up with the Kantian tradition (which had a strong influence on his views). Vygotsky also placed action at the center of development, as is evident in his ‘general law’ of development, which stated that psychological functions emerge out ofsocial, collective activity (Vygotsky 2004a, p. 83) and never completely break away from this activity. Thus development is not the result of a broadly (and rather vaguely) understood transferral of mental processes from a social plane to an individual plane of consciousness (as is often implied in recent interpretations) but a result of activity transformations. This theme cuts across many of Vygotsky’s works, although he struggled to articulate it clearly and sometimes even appeared to waver between a radical new framework and a more traditional mentalist view (cf. Stetsenko 2004). This theme comes out particularly clearly if one considers a unified Vygotsky-Leontiev-Luria school of thought that merged cultural-historical theory with ideas of activity into one composite framework: cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT; for details, see Stetsenko 2005).

The delineation of these similarities sets the stage for a better coordination between the many (now disconnected) perspectives on learning and development that are in fact united in their emphasis on the active character of learning and development, as well as in their opposition to maturationist, elementarist, and essentialist views. Individuals’ active engagement with the world as the ultimate ontological grounding for development and learning is a theoretical locus where theories on the effects of culture, social interaction, embodiment, and context already converge; and it is a place from which even more dialogue and coordination could be achieved. For example, the Gibsonian model that treats perception as a phase of activity of the whole organism through practical bodily engagements in response to environmental conitngencies (cf. Ingold 2000) is highly compatible with and falls under the umbrella of relational ontology of acting. The same applies to the recently developed theories that focus on enactment (e.g., Thompson and Varela 2001), dialogical communication (e.g., Hicks 2000 and others conitnuing Bakhtinian approach), some versions of social constructionism (e.g., Harre 2002), self-in-practice (Holland et al. 2001), and embodied cognition and dynamic systems approaches (e.g., Clark 1997). Given the variety of these approaches and the broad scope of issues they cover, their de facto unity at the level of this common core premise could serve as a meaningful ground for coordination and perhaps even the merging of these theories into one composite approach that would be a powerful antidote to the neurologically reductivist ‘united front’ that remains largely unchallenged.

Today’s approaches continue to build upon Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky’s (as well as Gibson’s 1966) insight that the relational ontology of action/activity is the grounding for development and learning, have made much progress by providing many useful specifications and methodological innovations. However, these contemporary approaches also stumble over a number of obstacles left unresolved in the early work of Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky, especially in terms of the status of human subjectivity (mind, self, and identity) within the ontology predicated on the centrality of human engagement with the world.

First, many of today’s approaches to development and learning as distributed, situated, contextualized, participatory, and culturally embedded skip discussion of these processes’ biological underpinnings and in so doing miss the important point that it is already at the level of these most basic foundations that development is profoundly relational, that is, necessarily dynamic, fluid, open-ended, and continuously brought into being a-new. This view (present in works by Piaget, Dewey, and Vygotsky) is supported by recent trends in evolutionary biology which, in challenging the extreme ‘genomania’ of evolutionary psychology (ironically, often championed by linguists and philosophers), posit that development represents a multitude of events that influence each other, set the stage for each other, and run off in improbable sequences with no “genetic program” rigidly dictating them. According to this perspective, such rigid understanding of genetic programs for development is not viable from a biological point of view; instead, to understand development one needs to focus on succession of organism–environment complexes that repeatedly reconstitute themselves through ongoing activity (e.g., Gottlieb 2003).

Second, because most sociocultural approaches emerged in direct and stark opposition to mainstream views on individual processes as self-contained ‘internal’ essences separate from activities out in the world, they tend to stay away from conceptualizing mind, subjectivity, internalization, or any other process habitually associated with the individualist and mentalist mainstream frameworks. The tacit assumption appears to be that individual processes, such as mind and self, cannot be accounted for within the relational approach and that relinquishing them is the price to pay for staying true to its premises. Accordingly, some of these approaches stop in their analysis of human development and learning at stating their relational character and do not proceed to the next level where the really difficult questions including the status of mind, self, identity, and knowledge just begin to arise. As a result, a de-personified supra-human realm of distributed semiotic processes (e.g., “discourse” or “biosphere”) takes the center stage, whereas human agency and self-determination appear to be fleeting and ephemeral epiphenomena (e.g., Gergen 2001 and works in Peircean tradition). In some of these accounts, humans and nonhumans are treated symmetrically (e.g., Latour 1987), defined relationally as arguments or ‘functors’ in the network, with action evenly distributed along a chain of humans and non-humans and effected by the unfolding logic of semiosis or other self-organizing systemic processes. Although appealing in its strong motif of relationality, approaches of this kind leave little space for theorizing intentionality, accountability, agency, responsibility, and, ultimately, development and learning.

Third, a number of approaches tend to collapse the individual dimension onto the social realm of everyday practices while under-theorizing the former, as in participatory learning and discursive theories where individual subjectivity is explained as being equivalent to, or a replica and sometimes a correlate of, the social-level process such as discourse, collaborative activity, or participation in shared practices of communities (e.g., Harre 2002). Such work, while making many important and helpful clarifications in line with a non-dualist approach to studying social and psychological processes, does not provide developmental explanations for how individual processes such as the mind or self might arise from participatory and social engagement with the world. Yet other approaches, such as those of embodied, situated, and distributed cognition and dynamic systems theory, do operate more directly with the notions of mind (as well as cognition, knowledge, self, and agency) while, for example, stressing the role of enactment, embodied action, or tools and artifacts as important constituents of these processes; however these approaches, for the most part, provide only meager descriptions of individual mind, often ultimately resorting to brain-level (such as connectionist models of cognition, e.g., Hutchins 1995) or information-processing level explanations. Thus, they essentially either relinquish the mind to reductionist views dominating mainstream psychology or sometimes directly resort to this level of explanation themselves.

Purposeful collaborative transformation as the grounding for development and learning

The relational ontology of human action does not and cannot provide all the solutions to the issues of development and learning, especially given a number of limitations in how action itself has been conceptualized in the three frameworks discussed herein, with many assumptions left unchallenged in today’s sociocultural approaches. Specifically, both Piaget and Dewey remained strongly wedded to Darwin’s doctrine in which adaptation was taken to be the central principle of development. Both regarded mind as a form of engagement with the world where humans interact with their environment as biological organisms, prompted to act by imbalances in these interactions. In particular, mind appeared as a contextual necessity that operates in response to contingencies in the immediate environment, in the here and now of problematic situations that initiate the process of inquiry. In this conceptualization, humans are viewed as responsive rather than deliberative, with the mind understood as an organ of adaptation to given circumstances. For Piaget and Dewey, humans develop, learn, and achieve knowledge—all in the spirit of adapting to existing conditions, to the here and now of their world—in order to ‘fit in’ better with this world. Mind and knowledge, therefore, are also profoundly saturated with the goals and processes of adaptation, rendering social and political issues that require stepping beyond adaptation impervious to research.

The truly original contribution of CHAT in fact begins there where the relational, transactionalist, situated cognition, constructivist, and dynamic systems theoretical approaches exhaust their explanatory potential. Though not completed by the CHAT founders and containing many ideas only implicitly, this contribution has to do with conceptualizing the very type of relations that link humans to their world and will be expansively articulated in the following section while adding a number of specifications and extensions.

Whereas both Dewey and Piaget (and many of their contemporary followers in the relational ontology approach) treated human beings as no different than other biological organisms—thus keeping up with the Darwinian notion that ‘nature makes no drastic leaps’—Vygotsky and his followers postulated precisely such a leap and turned to exploring its implications. In doing so, these scholars followed with the Marxist dialectical materialist view according to which “…[the] base for human thinking is precisely man changing nature and not nature alone as such, and the mind developed according to how human being learned to change nature” (Engels quoted in Vygotsky 1997, p. 56; italics in the original).

According to this view, the evolutionary origins of humans have to do with an emergence of a unique relation to the world realized not through adaptation but through the social practice of human labor—the sociocultural collaborative, transformative practice unfolding and expanding in history. Through this collaborative process (involving development and passing on, from generation to generation, the collective experiences reified in cultural tools, including language), people not only constantly transform and create their environment; they also create and constantly transform their very life, consequently changing themselves in fundamental ways while, in and through this process, becoming human and gaining self-knowledge and knowledge about the world. Therefore, human activity—material, practical, and always by necessity social, collaborative processes aimed at transforming the world—is taken in CHAT to be the basic form of human life (or relation to the world). Activity is at the origin and is formative of everything that is human in humans, including their psychological subjective processes and the knowledge produced by them.

This new transformative relation to the world, precisely as a new form of life brings about the emergence of human beings, whereby it supersedes adaptation and natural selection, as well as the distinction between nature and culture, and establishes the centrality of human practice in its unity of history, society, and culture as a supreme ontological realm for development and learning. This conceptual turn is actually quite radical because the shift from adaptation to transformation is taken to signify the end of biological evolution and a transition to processes now taking place in the realm where forces of history, culture, and society reign. This turn by the CHAT scholars is of a truly dialectical sort because it posits that human development is both continuous with and radically different from the processes in the rest of the animate world. Human history and life entail a radical break with nature, while at the same time continuing it. Thus, with the transition to humans there is a drastic leap away from biological laws and regularities that govern in the animal world. In this leap, nature negates itself, turning into a radically new reality—the reality of cultural history of human civilization that proceeds in the form of a continuous flow of collaborative practices of people aimed at transforming their world.

Human development, from this perspective, can be conceptualized as a sociohistorical project and a collaborative achievement—that is, a continuously evolving process that represents a ‘work-in-progress’ by people as agents who together change their world and, in and through this process, come to know themselves, while ultimately becoming human. Consonant with this premise, human nature is not an immutable, pre-given evolutionary residue that rigidly defines development within the constraints of biological endowment and functioning. Instead, human nature is a process of overcoming and transcending its own limitations through collaborative, continuous practices aimed at purposefully changing the world. In other words, it is a process of historical becoming by humans not as merely creatures of nature but as agents of their own lives, agents whose nature is to purposefully transform their world. In taking this step, the conceptualization of human development moves beyond the dualistic designation of nature and culture and does so not by simply stating their bi-directional relation or hybridity2. Instead, the collaborative human practice is posited as the unified new ontological realm that takes over and dialectically supersedes (or supplants) both nature and culture, absorbing and negating them within its own unique, and radically new, transformative ontology.

It is the simultaneity, or in even stronger terms, the unity of human transformative practice on the one hand, and the process of becoming (and being human) and of knowing oneself and the world on the other, that is conveyed in this conception. Human beings come to be themselves and come to know their world and themselves in the process and as the process of collaboratively changing their world (while changing together with it)—in the midst of this process and as one of its facets—rather than outside of or merely in connection with it. This proposition is in line with the famous statement by Marx that “[t]he philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point however, is to change it” (Marx 1978, p. 145; emphasis in the original). However, this statement draws attention to and has been interpreted only in its epistemic dimension—as the maxim that humans know the world through changing it. The expansion suggested herein (in the spirit of Vygotsky’s project) goes beyond the epistemological level by stating that while there is indeed no gap between changing one’s world and knowing it (a point well understood by Piaget and Dewey), there is also no gap between changing one’s world, knowing it, and being (or becoming) oneself; all three dimensions simultaneously emerge from this process. There is, in other words, no knowledge and no human being that exist prior to and can be separated from transformative engagements with the world including, importantly, other people. In this perspective, the very distinction among acting, knowing, and becoming (including developing one’s identity) dissipates.

Participating in and contributing to sociocultural practices of collaboratively transforming the world appear then as processes of a dialecticalco-authoring of history and a collaborative historical becoming through which people establish their collective humanness while making unique contributions to sociocultural practices (cf. Vianna and Stetsenko 2006). Therefore, human individuals are simultaneously ineluctably social and individually unique. That is, positing such a continuous flow of collaborative transformative practices as the foundation of human life does not eschew the fact that each generation and each individual human continues past achievements while, at the same time, also contributing to these practices, transforming and altering them (sometimes radically and sometimes only on a small scale), under the challenges of unique sociohistorical conditions and in view of aspired goals and visions for the future.

Taking the transformative stance does not mean that human subjectivity needs to be abandoned. Rather than positing ‘the world without within’ as Dewey did (and as many of his followers today do), or explaining subjectivity through cognitive reorganization as Piaget (and adherents of his theory) attempted, the CHAT founders laid grounds for a viable alternative that offers a way to escape both extremes. In my formulation, this alternative consists of seeing collaborative practice as the foundational reality within which, out of which, and for which human subjectivity—knowing and being, mind and self—emerge and develop; once emergent, however, this subjective dimension becomes instrumental at mature stages of development (of both society and individuals) so that it plays an indispensable role in organizing, shaping, and otherwise regulating social life and practice. That is, human subjectivity is understood to emerge out of, within, and through collaborative transformative practices, representing just one form (or mode), though highly specialized, in which these practices exist. This grounding allows for human subjectivity to be conceived without any mentalist connotations exemplified in the traditional view of subjectivity as being a separate, ephemeral, mental realm withdrawn from human practices. Instead, subjectivity (mind and knowledge, self and agency) is seen as a this-worldly (object-related, in the CHAT parlance) practical instantiation of a historically emerging human ability to collaboratively use cultural tools, including language—itself a this-worldly, practical process and a collaborative achievement of people. With language and other tools, people come to be able to construct the future field of action (in line with their goals) as an observable, given situation and become driven by goals and purposes. In this conception, the pathway is opened to conceptualize psychological (‘mental’) processes not as a separate reality on its own or a by-product of brain processes, but as one of the many forms in which human engagement with their world takes place. Thus, psychological processes become essentially unhinged from the mentalist and reductionist premises of traditional psychology. Importantly, this approach not only states that human mind is a form of transformative engagement with the world but also provides an account of how psychological processes gradually emerge (both in evolution, history, and ontogeny) through the mechanisms of semiotic mediation (primarily, by means of speech), out of the material practice while never completely breaking away from it. Much of the CHAT scholarship was devoted to exploration into how psychological dimensions of sociocultural practical activity (=human subjectivity) can be understood relationally and dynamically, without succumbing to mentalist and individualist assumptions (for details, see Arievitch and Stetsenko 2000).

Moreover, the process of transforming the world by humans is taken by the CHAT founders (in line with the Marxist conception) as always directional—meaningful and purposeful—that is, defined by goals and requiring an authentic subject position. Activity entailing an authentic subject position—the directionality of one’s pursuits, the way one strives to be and envisions one’s world to be—is put forward as the ultimate anchoring for development and learning. This notion potentially overcomes both the narrowness of relational ontology (in which human beings are essentially passive) and uncommitted action (with its mere instrumentality of reacting to environmental demands). Because they are transformative, even the most mundane human psychological processes (such as perception) are impossible without a goal, a vision for the future that colors today’s practices and imbues them with directionality and values. Given that transformative engagements with the world are taken as ontologically and epistemically supreme, and because transformation can only be achieved from a certain position and with certain goals in view, the ethical/moral dimensions become central both ontologically and epistemologically, with the gap between these three dimensions of social practices being eliminated.

In this sense, Vygotsky’s project invites a vision for a unified human science that brings together the question of acting, being/becoming, and knowing on the one hand, and the question of values and commitment to transformation on the other. That is, it brings together the questions of what is, how it came to be, how it ought to be, and how all of this can be known—with each question foregrounding the other questions (i.e., being answerable only in light of the others, and with the question of ‘ought’ taking the center stage). It is the stance that affirms that society, especially education, could be different, therefore demanding that we discern why things are as they are at a given point in history by looking at how they came to be, while also trying to consider how things could be otherwise and how they ought to be. In other words, the true hallmark of Vygotsky’s project is that it was predicated on two seemingly disconnected threads—the ideological/ethical commitment to social change and the historical materialist commitment to studying phenomena in their historical unfolding.

Necessary to the expansion of Vygotsky’s project, in my view, is the revelation of how intimately these two threads are related. Namely, they can be revealed as interrelated because seeing society as in need of a change and also amenable to change (both being necessary components of a commitment to social transformation) presupposes understanding that social institutions are malleable, historically contingent, and fluid and therefore require a historically based understanding. And vice versa, understanding that the world and human development are socially and historically contingent grounds the belief that change is possible and therefore that the world with its social institutions is amenable to intervention through a purposefully organized social transformation.

Therefore, human science of this sort eschews neither systematic exploration and search for regularities and relations in the world (i.e., a study of human development as a historical becoming)—with this exploration always being contingent on ideological, ethical positioning—nor the questions of ideology, ethics, and values, with these questions being intimately related to understanding the process of human historical becoming in anthropogenesis, history of civilization, and ontogeny (where the inevitable and unavoidable contingency of human being/becoming and knowing on goal-directed, ethically committed action is made apparent). It is because acting, being, and knowing (including knowing through research) are all seen, from a transformative activist stance, as rooted in, derivative of, and instrumental within purposeful social practices of a collaborative historical becoming, that a simultaneously ontologically, epistemologically, and politically-ethically grounded position is possible.

This position can be described as an activist (or transformative) stance on ontology and epistemology that brings with it a message about the all-out importance of the authentic subject position and commitment to a certain vision for specific sociocultural arrangements as the starting point of any activity (including activity of theorizing and research). In this emphasis, the similarity of this perspective with the standpoint epistemology (e.g., Harding 2004) is brought to the fore, although the perspective suggested herein (a) goes beyond the epistemological and instead embraces the unity of epistemological and ontological—where knowing, being/becoming, and acting are taken to be contingent on the ethical and the political and (b) simultaneously conveys the importance not only of the position from which the arguments are made (as in standpoint epistemology), but also the position towards which activity is directed (hence the activism that stands for commitment and active striving towards particular goals for transforming the world).

On this expansive reading, Vygotsky’s project appears as a key precursor to Freire’s writings and other works in critical pedagogy. Namely, in critical pedagogy, just as in Vygotsky’s works, the notion that people produce history and culture and are reciprocally produced by them, is understood as a defining ontological feature of human development. Coextensive with this claim, the Freirian notion of vocation (ethical commitment, ideology) as a struggle for freedom, is taken to ground humanization (i.e., both development and learning, as well as human ontological capacities and human nature itself). Not only are practical reason and knowledge integral to the actions that create culture and history (as was well understood by Dewey too) but so are the ethical and political dimensions (vocation and struggle for freedom), forming the very core of knowledge and action, the latter being in sharp contrast with Dewey’s position of ideological neutrality (cf. Stetsenko and Arievitch 2004)3. However, Freire provided a much less detailed account of anthropogenesis and ontogenesis than did the CHAT writers (especially Leontiev) and left the notion of human nature under-theorized. As a result, today’s interpretations of Freire’s position still often equivocate between the notion of ‘primordial nature’ (independent of a struggle for freedom) and the notion of vocation as the core of human development (for a recent example, see Glass 2001, which provides an excellent exposition of Freire’s theory).

The important implication of this comparison is the following. Whereas Dewey opted for a naturalism that relied on developmentally and evolutionary guided approach but eschewed values and commitment from ontological and epistemological realms, and today’s critical pedagogy in Freireian tradition advances humanist, values-based views but relatively disregards systematic exploration into anthropogenesis and ontogeny, expanded Vygotsky’ project offers grounds to work out a position that allows for reconciling and effectively combining the two positions. In this project, the centrality of a value-laden ideological/ethical commitment as a ‘natural’ grounding for development (where human nature is understood as a historical becoming) in both ontology and epistemology is arrived at by way of a systematic historical, developmental investigation. However, the reverse is also true in that this ‘naturalistic’ investigation is grounded in ideological commitment to the revolutionary project of changing society in an aspired direction of social justice and equality.

Finally, in Vygotsky’s approach, the processes of teaching/learning clearly have to be and are placed center stage. This is so because these processes constitute precisely the pathway (as Vygotsky insisted all along) individuals follow to acquire the cultural tools that allow for participation in and contribution to specifically human (and historically and culturally contingent) practices and thus, no less than the pathway to becoming human. In this view, education is not about acquiring knowledge for the sake of knowing, but an active project of becoming human, a process that drives development and makes it possible (very much in line with the critical pedagogy’s stance). Learning then appears as the pathway to creating one’s identity by finding one’s place among other people and, ultimately, finding a way to contribute to the continuous flow of sociocultural practices. That is, learning appears as a project of constantly striving to join in with historically evolving, transformative practices of humanity and, through this, of becoming oneself—a unique human being who represents a distinctive and irreplaceable instantiation of humanness and a unique contribution to it. This is a view that celebrates the unity of knowing, being/becoming, and doing (as well as the unity of learning and identity)—all merged on the grounds of a transformative stance and its central motif of contributing to and changing the world.

Note that this conceptualization gives full credit to the historicized, profoundly social and relation character of learning. In this, there is a clear overlap with the recently influential participatory learning and communities of practice theories. In a thrust similar to these theories, the perspective suggested herein also considers it imperative to develop an alternative to today’s mainstream view that naturalizes learning as taking place within an isolated individual. However, unlike these theories, the suggested perspective puts more emphasis not on participation in practices but on contribution to them—a more active, self-conscious, and directional process—and not just to the practices of local communities but to the unfolding social practices of humanity as a whole.

By shifting the emphasis from participation to contribution, this conceptualization avoids unnecessarily stark opposition between knowledge and transformation, deference to the past (history and tradition) and the need for critique of the past as the baseline from which to challenge and transform this past. Instead, knowing the past (and present) is seen as the prerequisite to and even an initial form of transforming it in a struggle for new social arrangements. Equally important is that the impetus to transform the world or any of its aspects (including scholarly concepts) is the condition sin qua non for understanding them. In this conceptualization then, there is a place both for transformatively engaging the world to contribute to building a new one and for continuing past practices (including transmitting knowledge, though never in a passive and value-free manner, that is, not as a disengaged reproduction of facts), on the condition that knowledge itself is also understood as non-contemplative and always practically relevant, activist, and transformative. Thus, the emphasis is placed on the dialectical linkage between understanding and critiquing/transforming as two layers of the same process through which people engage with their world.

There are a number of implications for educational theories and practices that follow from a transformative activist stance and the following Table summarily presents these implications, while placing the notion of contribution at the fore (in comparison to the acquisition and participation models) (Table 1).
Table 1

Transformative stance perspective: implications for the notion of learning

 

Acquisition

Participation

Contribution

Key definition of learning

Information processing; obtaining knowledge; individual process ‘in the head’

Participation, i.e. becoming a member of community; the permanence of having gives way to the constant flux of doing

Contributing to collaborative practices of humanity: continuing, while simultaneously transforming them

Key words

Knowledge, concepts, meaning, fact, contents; acquisition, internalization, transmission, attainment, accumulation

Apprenticeship, situatedness, contextuality, cultural embeddedness, discourse, communication, social constructivism, cooperation

Contribution, transformation, history as collaborative practices, cultural tools; vision and directionality; activism and commitment

Stress on

The individual mind and what goes into it; test and control of acquisition outcomes

The evolving bonds between the individual and others; the dialectic nature of learning interaction: The whole and the parts affect and inform each other

Dialectics of continuity and transformation, tradition and innovation;

Knowledge for and as action; learning-for-change

Ideal

Individualized learning

Mutuality and community building

Contribution through self-development and community development

Role of teacher

Delivering, conveying, inculcating, clarifying

Facilitator, mentor; Expert participant, preserver of practice/discourse

Activist open to collaboration and dialogue; agent of a collaborative change

Nature of knowing

Having, possessing facts and skills

Belonging, participating, communicating

Collaboratively transforming the past in view of present conditions and future goals

Time line

Carrying out past experiences into the present; future is irrelevant

Focus on the presently evolving patterns of participation; the past is irrelevant and no future

Interface of the past, the present, and the future; the past and present are known through positioning vis-à-vis the future

Agency

No agency for social change

Collaborative agency

Co-evolving individual and collaborative agency

Who develops?

Individual learner

Community

Learners-through-humanity and humanity-through-learners

Where is mind

In the head

In patterns of participation

In continuous flow of transformative action

Key goals of learning

Knowledge of facts and skills

Ability to communicate in the language of community and act according to its norms

Knowing the past in order to be able to transform it; emphasis on the vision for the future from which the past can be known

Note: Descriptions of acquisition and participation models are partly based on Sfard (1998) and Collis and Moonen (2001)

Conclusions

In this paper, a number of steps in the direction of a dialectical conception of development and learning have been outlined. This sketch, generally following the major premises of Vygotsky’s project that initiated but did not complete the formation of a dialectical conception of development, is presented against the background of today’s social scientific landscape which is marked by an ascent and consolidation of reductivist views on the one hand and a glaring lack of coordination among sociocultural approaches on the other. The transformative stance on human development and learning—dialectically superseding ontology of relations and actions while not abolishing them—is suggested as a foundation to conceptualize these processes in a way that does not exclude the dimensions of human subjectivity and individual uniqueness. These individual (but never ‘de-socialized’) dimensions are revealed, from a transformative stance, as having to do with the processes of individuals uniquely contributing to sociocultural practices of humanity and therefore, as profoundly social and transactional, yet entailing ideological notions of determination, deliberation, activism, and commitment.

The idea about people transforming their world is often mentioned by today’s scholars working in the CHAT tradition4. However, its foundational meaning and profound implications are not sufficiently discussed and often even avoided due to, among several reasons, the unwarranted beliefs that it (a) entails strictly and narrowly economic interpretation of history and human development which is incomplete and unsatisfying, and (b) is associated with the perils of instrumental control over nature that can only result in its destruction. This latter belief is especially pronounced today as ecological crises reach epic proportions. However, the likely solution to this global challenge is not a retreat from transformative activity (which would mean the end of human civilization) but a radical change in its purposes and goals including the shift away from narrowly economic interests, unfair international policies, mindless consumption, and pernicious instrumentalism. The presently achieved humongous technological power (including the power to destroy all life on this planet) must now be matched with the new politics of global-social responsibility that requires, among other things, a dialectical conception of human development and learning. Such a conception, continuing Vygotsky’s revolutionary project and expanded by notions from cultural studies, dynamic systems theory, and especially critical pedagogy (with much work in this direction remaining to be done) can be used as a powerful tool for a synergistically coordinated development of communities through self-development and of self-development through community growth and transformation.

As suggested throughout this paper, a dialectical conception of development and learning based on a transformative stance appears to be in synch with the growing demands that globalization imposes on education and other practices of social life. Local communities can no longer be thought of as separate entities with clear borders and boundaries. Instead, communities belong together and co-evolve with all other communities on the global scale, sharing one common fate and history. This requires that a unifying dialectical conception of human development and learning is worked out to substitute for a mosaic of approaches geared toward group-based interests. The elaborating of such a conception (itself a continuing project in which efforts of many sociocultural scholars need to be merged) is by no means merely academically relevant; instead, it is but part and parcel of a committed pursuit for social justice—predicated on and ascertaining our common humanity—especially on the global scale, through the active transformation of existing social institutions, politics, and ways of life.

Footnotes
1

Compatible accounts of relational worldview can be found in Overton (1997) and of transactional worldview in Altman and Rogoff (1987), among others.

 
2

This view can be found in the popular version of the bio-socio-cultural co-determinism according to which biology, society, and culture (nature and nurture) are somehow intertwined in their effects on human development. This latter approach insists on blending biology and culture into a composite (often referred to as a hybrid-type) process—a progressive step if compared to the narrowly one-sided perspectives that pit biology against culture as two independent forces and then attempt to calculate their relative impact on humans (e.g., by suggesting that variations in such processes as intelligence are due to both the genetic inheritance and environmental influences). However, even these progressive co-constructivist approaches do not undertake a sufficient revision of the old notions of nature and culture. Namely, nature continues to be regarded as a static pool of genetic inheritance internal to organisms, and culture continues to be regarded as an equally static pool of cultural artifacts external to organisms; as such, these approaches do not resolutely break with the two-factorial models that have been in circulation since the 19th century in that they do not take the notion of activity as a primary ontological realm.

 
3

Dewey’s theory, though linked to and formative of a liberal view of participatory democracy, is not associated with a program of actions or a social activist project with a clear ideological and political direction. By grounding knowledge and action in the present, Dewey rejected the notion of ‘grand’ social projects and instead took the position that philosophy and psychology can neither give the direction to events as they unfold nor judge the meaning of events afterward (cf. Diggins 1994).

 
4

References to Marxist ideas, including those about people actively transforming their world, were almost a routine in Soviet psychology during the 1970s through late 1980s, too often serving as an obligatory preamble to research based in a de facto contrary logic and paradigm. In Western psychology, Newman and Holzman (1993) pioneered a revival of interest in Vygotsky’s roots in Marx; their interpretation of transformative practice, however, differs from the one suggested herein in that Newman and Holzman saw it as a method that excluded “foundations, theses, premises, generalizations or abstractions” (cf. Holzman 2006, p. 111).

 

Acknowledgement

I am grateful to my colleague, Dr. Eduardo Vianna, for translating the executive summary into Portugese and to Dr. Eduardo Mortimer for editing it.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008