The Transformative Mind by Prof. Anna Stetsenko: Reviewing & Expanding Vygotsky’s Approach

9780415256742Allan Prout concluded “The Future of Childhood” calling for interdisciplinary dialogue – among others – between the new sociology of childhood and the Vygotskian tradition of developmental psychology (2005, p. 145). I am soon moving to the University of Leeds hoping to further develop the work Allan Prout as well as Pia Christensen, Allison James and other colleagues have been doing over the last many years, precisely in this direction.

My aim below is to engage in this frame with Anna Stetsenko’s pioneering work The Transformative Mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s Approach to Development and Education” (Cambridge University Press, 2017). In about 400 highly accessible pages, Stetsenko explores how the classic work by Vygotsky can be expanded in dialogue with contemporary theories and research across an impressive array of natural and social sciences.

Vygotsky’s scholarship has indeed become increasingly popular among a variety of scholars, disciplines and cultural contexts over the last 40 years. Accessing high quality translations and less known texts has become much easier in the same period of time (Yasnitsky 2010). Moving beyond early rather reductive interpretations of Vygotsky’s work (such as the theory of scaffolding within zones of proximal development in Wood, Bruner, and Ross 1976) most contemporary scholars understand that Vygotsky’s theoretical work offers a complex account on interrelated processes of psychological, inter-personal and broader socio-political and cultural-historical transformation with implications not only for psychology or education but also for sociology, anthropology and other fields (Daniels 2012; Kontopodis, Wulf, and Fichtner 2012).

The first question, which poses itself in this frame is what and how to read from the considerable amount of texts that are now available (6 volumes of Collected Works,additional scientific work published elsewhere, e.g. van der Veer, and Valsiner 1994, as well asletters and personal notes such as in Zavershneva, and Van der Veer 2018). Mapping and navigating Vygotsky’s vast intellectual trajectory is not anyhow an easy task – especially for scholars who may come from different scholarly traditions and/or spend most of their time and resources engaging in field research.

A second question concerns the actuality and completeness of Vygotskian theory: Not only did Vygotsky build theory a century ago; he also died of tuberculosis at the age of 37 leaving behind a long yet sketchy and rather unfinished account of what could have probably become a complete theory, would he have lived long enough – let’s say as long as Jean Piaget or Claude Lévi-Strauss did. How does this unfinished theory from the 1930s look when taking under consideration current trends such as cognitive neuroscience, complexity theory, new sociology of childhood, actor-network theory or (post-) feminist scholarship?

 Anna Stetsenko undertakes the very difficult task of guiding the contemporary reader to understand how the questions above can be addressed. Stetsenko received her doctorate in general and developmental psychology at Moscow State University in 1984, and spent several years studying and working with highly renowned scholars (such as A.A. Leontiev and V.V. Davydov) of the cultural-historical school established by L.S. Vygotsky. In September 1991, Anna Stetsenko moved on a post-doctoral research fellowship to the prestigious Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Education in Berlin, Germany – the Fall of the Soviet Union took place just a few months after this, in December 1991.

Her academic career continued with an Assistant Professorship at the Department of Developmental Psychology, Institute of Psychology of the University of Bern in Switzerland, where she worked from 1993 to 1999. In 1999 she received tenure status with immediate effect as an Associate Professor at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York, where she works until today (being a Full Professor since 2008). Having the roots of her academic career in the rigid academic tradition of Soviet cultural-historical psychology, migrating a few times to different countries, getting to know the European and American psychological and social scientific thinking from the inside and at the same time being a woman academic has eventually offered Anna Stetsenko the critical blend of unique experiences that created the conditions of possibility for the seminal The Transformative Mind to come into life.

Anna Stetsenko does not only revisit the classic work of Lev Vygotsky; she further develops it by bringing it in dialogue with the most recent debates in evolutionary biology, epigenetics, neuroscience and dynamic systems theory as well as in critical and (post-) feminist scholarship. The result is an ambitious and highly provocative monograph, which takes critical distance from classic interpretations of Vygotsky’s work as well as from contemporary streams of Anglo-American post-modern critical thinking. Anna Stetsenko produces a powerful theory, which takes under consideration micro-political dynamics (e.g. related to gender and race) as well as ecological issues. Her analysis adds significantly to classic versions of cultural-historical psychology and activity theory, which have often been human-centric, and which have not sufficiently reflected on Otherness.

At the same time, Anna Stetsenko addresses macro-political struggles and takes seriously the dialectical philosophy and the Marxist ideology underlying cultural-historical psychology and activity theory. Is it possible to affirm Otherness while at the same time referring to “grand narratives” and “collective futures”? The answer, which Stetsenko gives to this question, is positive:

“…[A]ffirming the future in realizing it in the present is coextensive with persons affirming themselves – and not as isolated individuals but as actors and agents of social practices in their ongoing communal historicity – along with affirming others as such actors and agents too, in their heterogeneity and plurality, through commitment to solidarity” (31).

Stetsenko acknowledges the importance of the relational thinking in natural-scientific, psychological, educational and social research (as opposed to modes of analysis, which focus on particular brain functions, the individual person, etc.). Yet, Stetsenko argues that relational thinking, as such, does not provide all the conceptual and methodological tools that one may need in order to understand social change and contribute to it; Stetsenko proposes therefore a transition from a relational worldviewtowards a transformative worldviewpremised on the ethos of solidarity and equality (Part I and II).

Expansively developing Vygotsky’s project in dialogue with a variety of other critical traditions, she outlines the Transformative Activist Stanceas a foundational principle in understanding the processes of human being and becoming in the “world-in-the-making”. Human development is, in this perspective, a collaborative project of people “changing the world while being changed by and in this very process of enacting their transformative agency” (270). The mind and other psychological processes are understood non- individualistically as embedded in social life and community practices – which does not imply “passively dwelling in a stable world of the status quo” (270) but actively seeking after future of social justice and equity. The vision of such a future is thereby constantly redefined and transformed every time an individual makes an “agentive contribution to this process” (33). On this premise, theories and research on mind, development and education are challenged and radically reworked in terms of transformative onto-epistemology (Part III). Last but not least, in dialogue with Paulo Freire and other critical traditions, the pedagogy of daringis outlined (Part IV).

Anna Stetsenko invites us to participate in an intellectually challenging endeavour, which aims at overcoming much-criticised divides such as nature/culture; psychological/social; praxis/theory; particularity/universality. Through her in-depth and timely analysis, Stetsenko introduces not only a powerful conceptual frame but also a methodology for mapping and further transforming socio-material and political formations that concern children and adult lives at local and global levels (cf. Kontopodis, Magalhães, and Coracini 2016). Anna Stetsenko’s work sets the foundations for a radical and thought-provoking approach to understanding human nature andhistory; She provides a powerful synthesis (in the dialectical sense of the word), which draws on, as well as moves beyond a wide array of existing modes of theorising with challenging implications across fields – most importantly for the study of human development and education.

Given the depth and scope of this book, one could say that Anna Stetsenko has now accomplished the intellectual endeavour that began many years ago in one of her first publications in English, in Mind, Culture & Activity, titled: “Constructing and deconstructing the self: Comparing post-Vygotskian and discourse-based versions of social constructivism” (Stetsenko, and Arievitch 1997). Building on the powerful foundations, which Anna Stetsenko developed, future work could probably address the following issues:

  • How to theorise agency that may appear to be collaborative and transformative, although in reality it is often not that – for example, in the case of young people engaging in right-wing political groups? Further work addressing this question would be particularly welcome by the international readership and highly relevant given today’s global socio-political turmoil.
  • What is the place of academic theory and writing in relation to other modes of knowledge, which can also be emancipatory, let’s say: oral stories by indigenous people living in the Amazon or YouTube movies by teenagers experiencing the recent financial crisis in Athens? How can the attention given to such modes of knowledge be “equal” to the attention given to academic knowledge? There is a heated debate in the relevant fields on this question; Stetsenko’s emphasis on the socio-material and embodied dimensions of knowing and the pedagogy of daring hint at possible answers to this issue, which would eventually deserve its own attention in a separate piece of work.
  • Last but not least: Anna Stetsenko puts appropriate emphasis on the values of solidarity and social justice at all steps of her theorising. How could the Transformative Activist Stancebe further expanded so as to embrace ethical-political values that refer to Other-than-humans, such as the interdependence of all life forms and sustainability? It would be interesting, in this regard, to follow up from the links drawn between political ecology and transformative views on ontology and epistemology (Part III, 189 ff.) and make this dimension explicit in the overview and table provided in the last section of the book (Part V, 353-354).

Given the impressive depth and breadth of theoretical discussions and analyses presented in The Transformative Mind, this brief reflection constitutes an invitation to the interested reader to think along,withand, if needed, beyond Anna Stetsenko – in accordance withthe foundational openness of Stetsenko’s pedagogy of daring.

 I see this book as a highly significant and much-needed contribution to the dialogue across psychological and sociological traditions of thought with concrete and valuable implications for pedagogy and education. What is more: the book constitutes a rich and timely resource for neuroscientists and biologists interested in the dialogue with social sciences – which is precisely what Allan Prout in “The Future of Childhood” has encouraged. Last but not least: Stetsenko’s theoretical work provides powerful foundations for teachers and practitioners in the fields of social work, child policy and community engagement to counteract neoliberal politics and support children and young people in transforming their “collectividual” lives.

References

Daniels, H., ed. 2012. Vygotsky and Sociology. London: Routledge.

Kontopodis, M., C. Wulf, and B. Fichtner, eds. 2011. Children, Development and Education: Cultural, Historical, Anthropological Perspectives. Dordrecht: Springer.

Kontopodis, M., M. C.  Magalhães, and M. J. Coracini, eds. 2016. Facing Poverty and Marginalization: 50 years of Critical Research in Brazil. Bern, Oxford and New York: Peter Lang.

Stetsenko, A. 2017. The Transformative Mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s Approach to Development and Education. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Stetsenko, A., and Arievitch, I. 1997. “Constructing and Deconstructing the Self: Comparing Post-Vygotskian and Discourse-based Versions of Social Constructivism.” Mind, Culture & Activity4(3): 160-173.

van der Veer, R., and J. Valsiner, eds. 1994. The Vygotsky Reader. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Wood, D., J. Bruner, and G. Ross. 1976. “The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving.” Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology17(2): 89-100.

Yasnitsky, A. 2010. “Archival Revolution in Vygotskian Studies? Uncovering Vygotsky’s Archives.” Journal of Russian & East European Psychology48(1): 3-13.

Zavershneva, Е., and R. Van der Veer, eds. 2018. Vygotsky’s Notebooks: A Selection. Dordrecht: Springer.

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