Primacy of the Social and Sociogenetic Method

Formerly, psychologists attempted to derive social behavior from individual behavior. They studied individual reactions observed in a laboratory, and then, in a group, they studied how the reaction of the individual changes in a group situation. (Vygotsky 1997: 106)

Following the cognitive revolution, many scholars adopted informationprocessing approaches to study knowing and learning. In the 1980s, at the height of the information-processing paradigm, a shift was observable in theories of knowing and learning that moved to individual (Piagetian, radical) constructivism and then to social constructivism. In the latter version, however, the social tends to be taken in a trivial way, the social merely constituting external context[1] Thus, the development of an individual is described in terms of “the maturation of the nervous system,” which “determines the totality of possibilities and impossibilities at a certain stage” (Inhelder and Piaget 1958: 337). The social environment constitutes a context “indispensible for the realization of these possibilities,” which, therefore, “can be accelerated or retarded as a function of cultural and educational conditions (1958: 337). When someone writes something into a personal diary, the result is taken to be an individual construction; when two students do some writing together, then the result is socially constructed and subsequently internalized by means of another individual construction.

There is in fact a problem with the very concept of construction (Roth 2011). The verb to construct is derived from classical Latin, and literally has the sense to pile (struere) together (con-). It was used to denote what craftsmen were doing, such as to construct a house. Is a house the result of an individual construction if I do it on my own? Conversely, in which sense is the house I am building on my own social? Consider the following example from our own experience of building an entire floor of a house, sometimes working alone and sometimes with a helper. In framing the walls, holes are left into which slabs that we know to be doors are later installed.

These slabs, as everything else, are not individual because one person has installed them alone. Instead, these slabs are social through and through. Evidence of this is given by the fact that when this part of the house is finished, visitors will not try to go through “windows” or “walls” but they push these slabs to get into the room behind. These slabs covering the holes in the wall—though an individual installed all of these—are social because they were produced by and for people to go through and enter the room (e.g. office). The builder also steps through the door on a daily basis to enter his office. But this, too, does not make the door individual. The individual relates to this part of the house in the way he has learned it in relations with others. In his building of the door, the builder has returned to the Other—i.e. the idea of stepping through a hole in the wall and closing it with a wooden slab to prevent temperature variations, and to have privacy—what has come to him from this Other.

Overzealously critical readers might immediately hold against us that all of this may be true for building a house, but it surely would not be true for something like writing into one’s diary, thinking in private, or talking to oneself. But here the critic is on a path in the direction opposite to the one that a concrete human psychology is taking, for “to write for oneself, means to relate to oneself as to another” (Vygotsky 1989: 58). That is, writing for oneself comes after relating to an Other; and it is modeled on the relation with others. More importantly, Vygotsky does not just state that writing for the self is modeled on writing for others. Instead, he considers this relation itself to be a general law. Thus, immediately following the quoted phrase, he writes: “This is a general law for all higher psychological functions” (Vygotsky 1989: 58).

So what is the essence of this law? We can find it in Vygotsky’s statement: there is a relation with an Other, and this relation with an Other subsequently becomes a relation with oneself. The relation with others is the social, and it is maintained by social behavior. My behavior is not social in itself; it is social because it originates in and is oriented towards a relation with others in ways that let the social be seen and known. My behavior is such that other people can recognize in it their own behavior. This can be observed, for example, in the following situation. In front of the office, the above builder takes off his sandals. When visitors come, they too take off any slippers. Visitors do so without having been or having to be asked. They do so without having been taught the rule, “Take the shoes off prior to entering the office,” and in the same way they would be doing if they were to enter a mosque or Japanese tearoom. Readers all too quickly might say that the visitors take their shoes off because their host has taken his (house) sandals off. We counter that the host is not just taking his shoes off, as if it were an individual action. This action is social because of its intelligibility to others, who, in the taking off of sandals see an invitation—or, perhaps stronger, see a rule—that in this office no shoes are to be worn.

In this chapter, we develop the idea of the primacy of the social. We do not mean to replace the primacy of the individual by its opposite. Instead, we show that the individual and the social always implicate each other, having been born from a singular plural being-with that predates human forms of consciousness. The indi?vidual and the social are not the two sides of the same coin but, in relation, always appear together. What individuals do—when drivers cross a four-way intersection with nobody else around, or when someone writes into a diary—always is premised on the social relations that they have participated in, lived through, and undergone. To set up the contrast with the social understood and treated in the trivial way (i.e., as co-presence of individuals), we take a brief look at some published work that deals with the ways in which norms come about in school classrooms. We then provide an example from our own research and articulate the various ways in which the primacy of the social—that is, the social in the strong sense—manifests itself. We finally move to discuss the sociogenetic method, which is a way of seeking out and investigating phenomena often ascribed to individuals but that in fact have their origin in social relations involving these same individuals at an earlier point in time.

  • [1] In Chap. 13 we provide a critical historical analysis of the notion of context as it is currently usedin different theoretical approaches. © Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017 W.-M. Roth, A. Jornet, Understanding Educational Psychology, Cultural Psychology of Education 3, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-39868-6_5
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