Sociocultural Theory: The Variables that Define Our Behavior

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The question of the relative importance of Nature vs. Nurture in human development has been around for ages. Could there be a third factor that needs to be considered?

Sociocultural theory is a fairly recent term that was conceived by Russian psychologist Lev S. Vygotsky. In a nutshell, it states that our individual behaviors and thoughts are products of our culture and interaction with society.

This adds a new wrinkle to the two prevailing ideas that either a) we are simply “born that way” or b) parenting (or lack thereof) is the key determinant in psychological development.

Vygotsky posited that an individual’s psychological development is molded by surroundings—say, a specific place with a unique culture where a person lives. This will have a profound effect on his/her general outlook.

Twins, for example, typically grow up in similar circumstances. They share the same genetic make-up and home environment. They could be expected to be far more similar, experience-wise, than two random people.

Yet there are countless examples of identical twins having quite distinct personalities. Where a pair of twins both demonstrate an early interest in food and cooking, one goes on to become a chef while the other goes into restaurant management.

The divergence, according to sociocultural theory, is caused by external contact, including peer groups, adult role models and involvement in social activities. Praise and criticism factor in, as do encouragement and discouragement. Cultural beliefs and attitudes impact how instruction and learning take place.

Sociocultural theory also raises the concept of the “zone of proximal development” or ZPD. This is loosely defined as the “range of abilities that a person can perform with assistance, but cannot yet perform independently.”

In this regard, the notion of “guided participation” is factored in, as one young twin is drawn toward helping out in the kitchen while the other is involved in party planning and shopping. Each will develop capacities according to the opportunities for guided instruction that are received.

On a macro scale, societies shape individuals, too. The larger social units—villages, cities or regions—dictate more general affiliations. Of course, Parisian children prefer French cuisine; Bangkok kids like spicy Thai-style food. Similarly, preferences for art, music, sports and other cultural activities are guided by locale and public opinion.

What’s coming out of sociocultural theory is a new appreciation of the roles of social interaction, negotiation and collaboration in the learning and development process. Moreover, the discourse, norms and practices of communities must be taken into account as a function of child rearing.

Being human is certainly not as simple as once thought. Sociocultural theory is reflective, perhaps, of the complexity of modern living as compared to how relatively uncomplicated life was in Cavemen Times.

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Lex Cavemen

LEX is the scientist. He is obsessed with understanding why and how the world around him works the way it does.

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