Andy Blunden. August 2008
for “Culture & Psychology,”

Social Movements, Science and History:
A Response to Eugene Matusov

Introductory Remarks

In his keynote article in the March 2008 edition of “Culture & Psychology,” Eugene Matusov claimed that Vygotsky scholarship had split into two camps, a cultural-historical camp and a sociocultural camp, identifying himself with the latter. The two camps differed over whether or not cultures ought to be conceived along a scale of historical progress, and whether educators should aim to facilitate individuals to progress up the historical scale, or whether on the contrary, to sustain cultures as they are on the basis of their equal worth. Eugene traced the origin of this split to a dialogue between researchers and the dominant social conditions in their respective countries, comparing those who worked in post-apartheid South Africa with those who worked in neo-liberal USA. In making his case, Eugene utilised the terminology of existentialism.

In response, I will argue that Eugene wrongly represents disagreements over the place of history in psychological research, offers an inadequate representation of the way in which socio-political conditions affect the development of science and wrongly enlists others in support of his own views about “preserving cultures.”

In responding to Eugene I will take his suggestion to disclose my own “ontological orientation,” identifying myself as a socialist, but more specifically, that I read Vygotsky as a Hegelian Marxist

What is important in this declaration is to inform the reader of the shared provenance of the concepts I use, so that the reader can understand their concrete scope, at least to the extent that they are familiar with the work of Hegel, Marx and Vygotsky. But secondly, although socialism is the project which inspires me, in submitting to a learned journal like “Culture & Psychology” my work is subsumed under a different project, namely, science. My work is therefore to be assessed and criticised according to the social practices proper to science. That is the appropriate way for differences between tendencies in science to be resolved.

Appropriation and Eclecticism

Any current of thinking will flourish by appropriating concepts from other currents, but it is important that new concepts are integrated into the host system of concepts and explained. Eugene does not do this. The first concept I wish to interrogate is “ontology.”

Since the Enlightenment, “ontology” has meant: “The science or study of being; that branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature or essence of being or existence.” (OED) For Hegel, “ontology” became critique of the concept of Being, and no-one in the philosophical tradition from Hegel to Marx to present day Vygotsky scholars has given it any other meaning. Eugene referred us to Sartre’s “Search for Method” (1960) for the meaning of his idea of an “ontological project,” but my translation of this work makes no mention of this concept. So far as I know the expression originally referred to Heidegger’s (1927) project to reform ontology.

Problems are created by Eugene’s invocation of an existentialist for the issue which is his main focus. The Existentialists had an individualist conception of the human condition, in which individuals are driven by a need to find meaning in their lives. This highly individualist conception of personality is quite incompatible with Vygotsky and Marx’s conception. Sartre was a great figure, but it is very confusing to mix his terminology with that of the cultural-historical tradition without a clear appropriation. Moreover, Eugene uses the word “ontological” in an ever-wider sense until it loses all meaning. Similarly, “othering.” Although reminiscent of George Herbert Mead’s (1934) theory of identity, this concept also originated with the French Existentialists (de Beauvoir 1972) and has been taken up by postcolonial theorists. Whereas the concept of mediation is crucial to cultural-historical psychology, these schools of thought emphasise binary oppositions. Differences between Vygotsky scholars cannot be resolved in the framework of Existentialism.

Likewise with Eugene’s use of Bakhtin’s concept of “dialogue” (1981); there is much in Bakhtin which can be appropriated by the Vygotsky tradition of thought, but Eugene uses “dialogue” to conceptualise, not interaction between two subjects, but the relation of individuals to the dominant ethos of their times, rendering the concept difficult to interpret, if not meaningless.

Controversy over the place of historicism in science will oblige us to look at the work of LÚvi-Strauss (see below), who was the first to politicise the use of history in science, but I will rely on concepts native to the tradition stretching from Hegel through Marx and Vygotsky.

Let us reframe Eugene’s claim that differences between currents of Vygotsky scholarship originate from ‘ontological projects’ in ‘dialogue’ with the ruling ethos of different countries, by affirming that social movements (in the broad sense of this expression) do legitimately intervene in the development of science and vice versa. Social practices develop according to their own concept of themselves, becoming more concrete through interaction with one another. Science in general and Vygotsky scholarship in particular has always responded to and informed emancipatory social movements, and it is reasonable to propose that cultural psychology could take different lines of development under the impact of social movements. However, rather than proposing a direct, unmediated relation between the scientist and the ruling ethos, I propose that this relation is mediated by social movements.

LÚvi-Strauss on the use of History

Let us consider the question of the place of historicism in science and social movements. “Anti-historicism” originated in 1962 during the Algerian War as France stood on the precipice of civil war, and the eminent anthropologist Claude LÚvi-Strauss launched a fierce attack (1962) on the most prominent supporter of Algerian independence, Jean-Paul Sartre.

Whereas LÚvi-Strauss cultivated a reputation as a scientist who refused to involve himself in political controversy, in reality, he often used his scientific standing as a vehicle to promote his political sympathy for indigenous peoples whom he believed fared worse under modernising national governments than under colonialism. (Pace 1983)

LÚvi-Strauss’s argument was that Sartre promoted an historical narrative which from the standpoint of science had to be regarded as a foundation myth. According to this myth, the great French Revolution of 1789 had instituted libertÚ, egalitÚ and fraternitÚ, not simply on behalf of France, but on behalf of all mankind; continuing this drama the Russian Revolution had created a socialist state, and now the French intelligentsia were furthering the project of revolutionary politics, and had won over the leadership of the Algerian independence movement to a program of violent, Maoist revolution to be led by the peasantry. (Sartre 1960a, 1961) But while such a ‘myth’ made sense for the French intelligentsia, it made no sense at all, said LÚvi-Strauss, for the people of Algeria and by subsuming Algerians under a historical mythology essentially belonging to the French intelligentsia, Sartre was in effect continuing the colonisation of Algeria by other means.

Historical narratives, centuries-long tales of conquest and tribulation, are tools of nation-building; like scientific concepts, histories are constructs, extracting meaning from the infinitude of events, but for the nations they help to construct, inclusion and exclusion from such stories has implications as profound as the placing of borders or the writing of constitutions. LÚvi-Strauss did not claim that history is fictional and subjective, but that like any concept, is meaningful only in relation to some definite form of social practice.

Contradictorily, while France was tearing itself apart over whether or not Algeria was part of France, LÚvi-Strauss was attacking supporters of the FLN on behalf of a group that no-one was thinking of at all. (Le Sueur 2001) So on the one hand, his critique was a contemptible abstention on the major question of the day; on the other hand, it was the voice of the excluded. This contradiction in LÚvi-Strauss’s intervention has been reflected in its impact on social movements ever since.

Historicism and Social Movements

As it emerged in the nineteenth century, the workers’ movement saw itself as building a new and higher form of human society in which the exploitation of workers would be transcended. This was a different kind of history from the nation-building myths of the national bourgeoisie, but its vision of a socialist future served to consolidate the movement, inspire it and provided an axis for the construction of an ethos. Marx did not invent socialist historicism; he joined a movement which was already firmly committed to it and proclaimed so with the optimistic slogans and rising suns emblazoned on its gold braided banners.

Likewise, the national liberation movements, whose aim was the creation of new nations liberating themselves from old colonial masters, shared this vision of participating in the making of world history. The civil rights movement in the US, inspired by the victories of the national liberation movements adopted the same vision of liberating US Blacks from an internal colonialism. (King 1963) By the mid-’60s however, the Black Panthers were demanding the recognition of their own unique history as part of an emancipatory project which aimed at the emancipation of US Blacks from white society, rather than by joining it. (Newton 1980)

Initially, the women’s movement looked to history for an explanation for women’s oppression and a way out, but by the 1980s, the glitter of utopian visions faded along with any prospect of a future free of social conflict. It was no longer a question of consigning the existing state to the historical past, but achieving justice here and now. The intersection of emancipatory struggles along a multiplicity of axes, called into question unproblematic visions of historical progress, and the critique of historicism attracted attention, on both sides of its contradictory possibilities. (Nicholson 1990)

Like any anthropologist or psychologist, LÚvi-Strauss was not opposed to historicism; he claimed on the contrary that “it is history that serves as the point of departure in any quest for intelligibility.” The point is history for what? what problems are being addressed? with what social practices is historical enquiry connected? with whose identity is history entangled? In that sense, he is in line with the critical approaches of Hegel and Marx.

Further, LÚvi-Strauss accepted the validity of what he called “high-powered” history, that is, historical enquiry concerned with epochal cultural change; this kind of history was in fact his own professional concern.

Cultural-Historical Activity Theory

Like Mike Cole and his colleagues at the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC), I describe myself as an adherent of CHAT, i.e., Cultural-Historical Activity Theory, an effort to indicate an embrace of the entire legacy of Russian founders of this scientific movement. So I agree with them when they say:

“Many scholars see a single principle of directionality in social history as well as individual biography. The concepts of evolution and development in both anthropology and psychology grow out of a common concern for understanding the origins of humankind as a means to understanding human nature.” (LCHC, 1983, p. 299)

One problem that plagues this discussion is the unthinking comparison of societies considered as totalities. Insofar as historical forms of life constitute self-sufficient wholes, as total responses to the conditions of their existence, they are incommensurate. But today, self-sufficient, self-enclosed societies exist only in the imagination; in every real case where different forms of life are brought into comparison with one another, it is through real interaction, which presupposes societies which are no longer self-contained wholes, but engaged in self-conscious “practical comparison” through trade, migration, tourism, etc. Even LÚvi-Strauss agreed that any two societies can be compared in respect some particular practice, be it the production of goods for exchange, the maintenance of peace or navigation of the oceans. And that is exactly what happens when cultures interact.

In international relations, it could reasonably be said that entire cultures interact; this is the domain in which relations have been dominated by “guns, germs and steel” (Diamond 1997) and the extermination of indigenous peoples by European colonisation. It would be madness to insist on a relativist position of equal worth in this context, but the superiority of western cultures in the use of “guns, germs and steel” is a kind of progress which may turn out to be nothing better than a fast track to the extermination of human life (LCHC, 1983). But it’s an academic question really, for we all live in modernity, and practical comparison happens, not on the frontier, but in the ghettoes and refugee centres of the metropolis.

Although in his early work, including the Phenomenology, Hegel (1807) lent credence to the idea of societies being treated as Gestalten, that is, whole formations of consciousness or cultures, this was confined to his early work. The Logic (1812), in particular, takes the Gestalt to be a concept, that is, a project or system of activity, as the ‘unit of analysis’ for the comprehension of social life, and social life as an integral totality is only a final outcome, not an existent reality.

Likewise Marx made no claim for the consideration of societies as Gestalten; Marx contrasted “the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science” (1859) with the relatively indeterminate “ideological forms in which men become conscious of this ...” It is not at all the case that societies are to be compared as totalities, but rather only in respect to quite definite forms of social practice.

So the question is never whether we should use history in our attempts to understand human nature and experience, but rather that we must avoid the na´ve use of history, blind to the fact that all forms of life are complexes of a multiplicity of social practices, only more or less integral to one another, and riven by conflict over class, gender, ethnicity, religion, etc. Only in rare historical moments does a nation rally the whole people together. The problems posed by the interaction between different historical forms of life can only be tackled by taking definite social practices (or projects, or concepts) as the unit of analysis for historical study, not entire, supposedly self-contained, totalised social forms of life. The latter is scientifically insupportable, but throughout his article Eugene talks of cultural difference in precisely that na´ve, totalised way. But this does not negate the fact that all human functions are the product of an historical genesis and can only be understood in the context of that history.

Science and Social Movements

What concepts can Vygotsky scholars best use to grasp societal phenomena in a way which links up with their psychological theory? The inherently inter-disciplinary concept of ‘activity’ (Davydov 1999), would be the first choice, but there is value in using instead the Hegelian Gestalt or ‘concept’ interpreted in a Marxist spirit as a self-conscious system of social practice or ‘project’. This allows for an immanent analysis of social relations using the system of social practice as the ‘unit of analysis’, inclusive of its consciousness, its institution in practical activity, and its artefacts. (c.f. Blunden 2007) But either way, the ‘project’ is something that the individual finds in her field of experience, something objective. The ‘ontological project’ of Existentialism, on the other hand, is the creation of an individual in their personal search for meaning.

My argument is that we can better understand the development of scientific differences within the Vygotsky community as mediated by social movements, which intervene in the development of science, rather than through the personal projects of individual scientists. This reduces the problem of the differences between Vygotsky scholarship in this or that country, not to a ‘dialogue’ between an individual scientist and Ronald Reagan or Dr. Verwoerd, but to the self-consciousness of social movements which certainly do react to the ethos of a society. Social movements are ‘activities’ in A N Leontyev’s sense, but rather than their outlines being defined arbitrarily from an observer point of view, they define themselves in the process of struggling to overcome the frustration of certain human needs; the Hegelian method of immanent critique allows us to mobilise this process of self-definition for the purpose of scientific analysis.

Just as Vygotsky and his colleagues, as well as scholars in South Africa, were engaged in nation-building projects imbued with the ethos of emancipatory social movements, Vygotsky scholars in the US and other Western countries grew up and approached their scientific work amidst powerful social movements. But these were not nation-building movements, liberating a majority population from the domination of foreign support; rather they were movements that critiqued existing society and its ideological forms, attacking the exclusion of large segments of the population from the benefits of modernity and their marginalisation in the dominant national narrative. For these movements, an uncritical, na´ve conception of history was unacceptable. It is said that “history is written by the winners,” so the kind of ‘cultural evolutionism’ which sorts cultures into a hierarchy from primitive to modern, became identified with the claim that there is one history of the world, a history written by upper class, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant men. By explicitly denying the legitimacy of multiple narratives active in any given society, other subjects are either excluded or wrongly subsumed within the dominant narrative.

One cannot underestimate the traumatic and lasting impact of the civil rights and women’s movements on social life in the US and elsewhere; everything has been turned upside down. People died, families were torn apart, institutions transformed, lives ruined in these battles, and more importantly, no armistice has ever been declared. A sensitivity to cultural difference which may appear to an outsider as facile “political correctness,” in countries where these movements exist, is highly political. Na´ve use of history reinforces dominant social hierarchies.

My disagreement with Eugene here is that the sensitivity to cultural difference which is manifested in the work of American socio-cultural-historical psychologists is not a direct or individual response to social conditions in the US and certainly not part of a dialogue with Ronald Reagan, but an expression of powerful, emancipatory social movements which mediate between social conditions and ideological formations.

Further, there is nothing ‘unscientific’ about the impact of social movements on the institutions of science. The current debate about climate change is an example of positive interaction between a science and a social movement, but science has always been responsive to the needs of social life and in fact, the problems of social life constitute the driving force of science. (see Bukharin et al 1931) But problems of social life are only ever manifested in the form of social movements of some kind.

Cultural Diversity and Coping with Difference

Finally, although Eugene has a strong commitment to cultural diversity and represents his own approach, others may see things differently.

Eugene counts himself among sociocultural psychologists who: (1) aim to actively sustain cultural differences, (2) see changing institutions as an alternative to preparing clients for admission to these institutions, (3) would be shocked to learn that postmodern capitalism has won the competition for cultural resources and (4) believe that the acquisition of the techniques of the dominant cultural group would perpetuate rather than overcome cultural disadvantage. Few Vygotsky scholars would support such claims. In Europe and the settler nations, cultural diversity is an irreversible fact; it does not need to be sustained or preserved.

There are three models of multiculturalism which can be illustrated with the grades of subject-object relation in Hegel’s Logic: (1) “Mechanism” which maintains an ethnic mosaic, (2) “Chemism” which sees culturally diverse societies as a melting pot of cultural affinity and exchange, and (3) “Teleology,” a diverse but living culture in which the various groups appropriate elements of each other’s projects to further shared ends. Cultural psychologists generally support the third model. This does mean that institutions have to change so as to meet the needs of all (not just disadvantaged) groups, but not so as to allow cultural minorities to stay as they are. Rather it is to make it possible for them to acquire those cultural elements and forms of practice that they want to acquire, which usually means those skills necessary for economic, social and political participation in the society at large. Cultural psychologists therefore do not promote social fragmentation or encourage excluded groups to remain excluded, but foster communication across cultural boundaries. When Eugene says:

“the sociocultural paradigm [insists] on the long overdue societal rehabilitation of and respect for cultural practices of non-mainstream others.” (2008)

and then refers to ‘cultural preservation’, he is missing the point. If you were to presume that culturally disadvantaged groups are locked into an integral way of life, unchanged for millennia, then of course, all you can offer is respect and ‘preservation’. But the cultural practices in question are complex, entailing many different systems of social practice, and the interacting groups are contemporaries, often with a history of interaction over centuries. Cross-cultural misunderstandings can derail the efforts of marginalised groups to acquire the elements of the dominant culture that they need for economic and political survival. Such misunderstanding can only be resolved by careful study of the cultural differences which do presuppose mutual respect, but the aim should not be ‘preservation’.

It is simply not possible to open mainstream institutions to everyone by talking of some cultural groups as if they were throw-backs to another time, living in a hermitically sealed universe, by subsuming them into a single, global narrative of cultural evolution. We do need to talk these issues through, but it is not a question of being “anti-historical,” but rather of avoiding the na´ve use of history and insensitivity to cultural differences. Although the differences do originate in the differing experience of social movements, the differences can only be resolved through scientific discourse.


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