What Is Sociocultural Theory?

Definition and Information

Sociocultural theory stress the important of culture
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Sociocultural theory is an emerging theory in psychology that looks at the important contributions that society makes to individual development. This theory stresses the interaction between developing people and the culture in which they live.

An Introduction to Sociocultural Theory

Sociocultural theory grew from the work of seminal psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who believed that parents, caregivers, peers and the culture at large were responsible for developing higher order functions.

According to Vygotsky:

"Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals."

Vygotsky was a contemporary of other great thinkers such as Freud, Skinner and Piaget, but his early death at age 38 and suppression of his work in Stalinist Russia left him in relative obscurity until fairly recently. As his work became more widely published, his ideas have grown increasingly influential in areas including child development, cognitive psychology and education.

Sociocultural theory focuses not only how adults and peers influence individual learning, but also on how cultural beliefs and attitudes impact how instruction and learning take place.

According to Vygotsky, children are born with basic biological constraints on their minds. Each culture, however, provides what he referred to as 'tools of intellectual adaptation.' These tools allow children to use their basic mental abilities in a way that is adaptive to the culture in which they live.

For example, while one culture might emphasize memorization strategies such as note-taking, other cultures might utilize tools like reminders or memorization.

Piaget vs. Vygotsky: Key Differences

So how does Vygotsky's sociocultural theory differ from Piaget's theory of cognitive development?

First, Vygotsky placed a greater emphasis on how social factors influence development. While Piaget's theory stressed how a child's interactions and explorations influenced development, Vygotsky stressed the essential role that social interactions play in cognitive development.

Another important difference between the two theories was that while Piaget's theory suggests that development is largely universal, Vygotsky suggested that cognitive development can differ between different cultures. The course of development in a Western culture, for example, might be different than it is in an Eastern culture.

The Zone of Proximal Development

An important concept in sociocultural theory is known as the zone of proximal development.

According to Vygotsky, the zone of proximal development "is the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers."

Essentially, it includes all of the knowledge and skills that a person cannot yet understand or perform on their own yet but is capable of learning with guidance.

Observations

In his text Social and Personality Development, author David R. Shaffer explains that while Piaget believed that cognitive development was fairly universal, Vygotsky believed that each culture presents unique differences. Because cultures can vary so dramatically, Vygotsky's sociocultural theory suggests that both the course and content of intellectual development are not as universal as Piaget believed.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

References:

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Shaffer, D. R. (2009). Social and Personality Development. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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