Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, vol. 50, no. 1, January–February 2012, pp. 50–64.
on the Activity Theory of Alexis Leontiev and his own
Theory of Social Identity as referred to the meta-theory of Lev Vygotsky
Academician V. Lektorsky, who has been the editor-in-chief of Voprosy filosofii, a journal of the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences, since 1987, and the new editor-in-chief who is replacing him just at this time, V. Pruzhinin, conducted a joint interview with the Hungarian scientist László Garai, a theoretical psychologist and researcher in problems of social and economic psychology.
Academician Lektorsky: Professor Garai, Your psychological research has always had a clearly expressed philosophical meaning. It is no accident that we have published your writings in our journal.1 Allow us to ask you a few questions, the answers to which may be of interest to readers of Voprosy filosofii.
You were influenced by the cultural-historical theory of L.S. Vygotsky and the psychological theory of activity of A.N. Leontiev. Today interest in the activity approach has been revived among both our psychologists and philosophers. Some link the activity approach to philosophical constructivism. What do you think about the prospects for the cultural-historical theory and the theory of activity in psychology and, more broadly, in the human sciences?
Professor Garai: These prospects stem from the fact that psychology, ever since it split off from philosophy in the nineteenth century, has investigated problems that are multiaspected. Rubinstein, for example, based on Marxism before it got violated, cited the aspect of activity, the aspect of objectness, the aspect of community, and the aspect of historicity. Psychology itself, however, was only interested in one of these aspects at a time. At first it was the object: how we sense it, how our memory imprints and retains it, etc. Then came new times, and behaviorism, with its exclusive interest in activity, became the mainstream of psychology. Behavior, after all, is activity; except it is a kind such that, in order to study it, the object does not exist. The object has been reduced to a single point, which is occupied by a stimulus rather than an object. And incidentally, when behaviorism found itself removed from its mainstream status, to which cognitivism had been assigned, the exclusive focus was again on the object, which was ostensibly reflected by the consciousness without the participation of any activity. So the theory of activity of Leontiev, Galperin, and Luria actually discovered for our science not activity as such, but activity mediated by an object, and, in turn, activity that mediates an object. Thus, instead of single-aspect psychologies, a psychology was invented that organically synthesizes two of the four Rubinstein aspects.
Of course, one might think that two instead of four is a step back. But the point is that Rubinstein derived from Marx’s writings not merely a methodology for an integrated psychology (“merely”—yet after all, he accomplished a great feat in doing this), and Leontiev and his associates worked out specific procedures for experiments that applied the theory of activity to various fields. Single-aspect psychologies had very narrow capabilities: within these frameworks it was not possible to explain even such phenomena as attention or memory, although attention and memory had been the oldest topics of the new science as it emerged in the 1860s. The psychologists of those years (and some to this day) applied the principle of reflection to both topics. According to this, if a contemplated object whose properties are reflected through sensation or perception is distinguished somehow from its space-time surroundings, this distinct image is reflected in attention. Memory, meanwhile, ostensibly reflects the association of objects with one another in space-time. So we psychologists began to truly understand attention when its single-aspect interpretation was replaced by the concept of the theory of activity on the orientational basis of activity.
The fate of the psychology of memory developed in a more unfortunate way, since the theory of activity was only able to rescue it to a lesser degree. For the simple reason that memory is unquestionably associated with the aspect of historicity, and today we already know that it is also intimately associated with the aspect of community, the theory of activity regarding this pair of aspects is not doing anything like the research that has been done regarding the first pair…
Pruzhinin: May I interrupt you? I would like you to focus on your original theory of identity. How does it tie in with this tradition?
Professor Garai: When I became acquainted with Leontiev’s theory of activity, I discovered a curious contradiction. Both community and historicity were predefined for the theory as a self-evident definition of everything that was investigated, but they themselves were never investigated as problems. The experiments of thee theory of activity always focus on the fact that a specific individual confronts a specific object. Needless to say, the latter has a background, and this cultural background, at least as long as the focus is on an individual child, is mediated for him by the company of another individual. But is that all there is to the aspect of historicity and the aspect of community? And even if it is, how are they related to each other?
In the late 1960s (when I
was interning in Leontiev’s department, and immediately
afterward was invited under a Keldysh grant to the
Institute of the History of Natural Science and Technology of the USSR Academy
of Sciences, where I did research in the Scientific Discoveries Sector) I began
to deal with these issues. Under Leontiev I did an
experiment (the first social-psychological one in the history of the Psychology
By that time Henri Tajfel had already issued his appeal “for a more social socialGL1 psychology.” He pointed out to us that our test subject did not come to our laboratory out of a vacuum but as a representative of the place that he actually occupied in an actual social structure, and that society had been predefined for him, accordingly, not in the form of another isolated individual but in the structure off their relationship. There is likewise more to historicity than to the history of the objectification of production and the passive presence of that history in de-objectifying activity. Freud allowed us to understand that in the course of a biographical history there is often a reversion not only to stages of that individual history that were already traversed but also to archaic points in the generic history of humankind (see, e.g., the Oedipus complex). At the same time, Tajfel’s social psychology and Freud’s anthropological psychology, as I ventured to point out earlier, are mutually exclusive, just like behaviorism and cognitivism.
So I set myself the goal of copying the methodological feat of the creators of the synthesis that emerged from the theory of object-based activity, and in this manner to create a methodology on a parallel track for the synthesis of this other pair of psychologies. And then, out of this synthetic methodology, to work out procedures for research efforts and for applied psychological research, as Leontiev, Gal’perin, Luria, Davydov, and hence their coworkers, did in their time and for their scientific purposes.
Social identity for us is different from how it is generally represented by the scientific and laymen’s idea regarding it. For these ideas, social identity is an internal cultural-biological certainty: whether I am a Hungarian or a Russian, Eastern Orthodox or Muslim, a man or a woman, a black person or a white one. Here social identity is depicted perhaps even as a cultural definition, but in any case as the same kind of definition as it is in nature to be a dog or a turtle, to be carbon or ammonium hydroxide: in any of these instances an internal property of the individual units will determine how each of them will react to random events in the environment. Nothing like this is found in our theory, for which social identity is determined not by people’s property but by relationships.
Relationships like similarity and difference. I will show in a brief example what I mean:
Let us assume that we are living in Germany in the early 1930s; I am a German proletarian, so I am, without question, a carrier of the sociological property or definition of a German, and equally so the property of a proletarian. Can the social identity of a German or a proletarian be ascribed to me? This will depend on how my relationships with others evolve and how all of us interpret these relationships. Assume that Peter is also a German, but a bourgeois, and Paul is also a proletarian, but a Jew. Here we have shadings and similarities and differences both with Peter and with Paul. So then social categorization transforms these contradictory shadings into categorical unambiguousness. I categorically exaggerate my similarity to either Peter or Paul and, accordingly, my difference from the other, and what draws me together with the latter and would separate me from the former is simultaneously understated. So this categorization results in the identity of “workers of all countries,” or, in terms of our example, the identity of Germans who represent and, accordingly, represent to themselves “ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” (a single people, a single empire, a single leader). From what is predetermined sociologically, the categorization produces social identity, and social categorization holds sway in the background of history, in this case in the background of the Führer’s accession with a Nazi dictatorship.
Pruzhinin: May I interrupt you with a question? This is what I’d like to ask you: you have written about the crisis in psychology in regard to its split into research, how should I put it, of a natural-scientific perhaps, and hermeneutic nature. Can we assume that this split is been overcome today? This is why I am asking: this question takes us back to Vygotsky. He has a work about the crisis in psychology, but his followers, as they evolved during the Soviet period, focused on activity, which they understood more as a material, labor-related kind. Does this provide a way out of the crisis? Did this emphasis precisely on the material, labor-related aspect of activity not lead to an even more vigorous confrontation between physiological psychology and, so to speak, hermeneutic psychology, which, incidentally, we have today. Tell us, how do you see it?
Professor Garai: Unfortunately, I can only agree with what was already implied in your question as an answer to it. This is indeed the case.
The point is that, as a faithful heir of enlightenment, I thought: if psychology is suffering from something, in this case from the fact that it is split into a natural hemi-science and a historical hemi-science, then as soon as a remedy for this illness is offered, the patient will grab at it with both hands. But I did not take into account that the psychologist is not predefined as an abstract being. He received a behaviorist education at a university, and his confrere was molded at another university as a cognitivist. They have lived half of their professional lives, and they did not wish to know about each other. It turns out that I was wrong to expect them to be happy at the news I am giving them that there is a possibility of becoming reunited under the umbrella of Vygotsky’s theory . . . Which to them means starting everything from scratch.
During the 1970s I
revisited the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in
exaggerating very little here.4 And
at the same time I am not being ironic in the least when I say that while I was
among these Parisian psychologists I got to know colleagues who were
brilliantly gifted. They had simply reached the limit of the framework in which
a psychologist cultivating his plot of partitioned psychology can think.
Regarding the future of our science I am still optimistic, not because a third
of a century has passed since the above-mentioned incident. Time may not change
anything. The same goes for space. Thirty years after that
If I am still optimistic about the future of our science, it is because psychology has been given not only an opportunity to get rid of its partitions. It has also been assigned the necessity of carrying out this historical scientific procedure.
The point is that if, just as for Hamlet, “The time is out of joint” for us as well, then I should note that in this case it is not the Danish prince who is confronted by “cursed spite,” and “to set it right” psychology must act. Just take the example of international conflicts. They have traditionally been handled by states, and in order to cope with this task, while they have resorted from time to time to psychology, they did not need it: they maintained an army without it, they manifested their intelligence-gathering interest in the army of a potential or actual adversary without it, and they knew, basically, how to identify each soldier in terms of whether they belonged to our or to the enemy’s army. But how does one manage without psychology where potential wars, or wars that suddenly break out, are waged by suicide terrorists? By people who do not wear their fascist or American, Polish, Swedish or Tatar-Mongol uniforms, but dress like us, eat like us, live in the same cities as us, are students at the same universities, are viewers of the same television programs, travel in the same subways and the same planes as us—but for another purpose. How do we figure out that purpose, how do we foresee its implementation, how do we ensure the survival of our society without the assistance of psychology? But how can our science begin to solve this problem without being born? Without being born as a science. A synthetic science that is synthesized from its components.
Pruzhinin: Professor Garai, in connection with the question about the prospects
for psychology another that is very relevant today comes up: about the status
of applied psychological research. You are the founder of economic psychology
Professor Garai: You are putting a very important question. As in the past,5 to this day I have no doubt that it is cultural-historical psychology that put forth a needed integrative idea when it made a case in favor of equivalence, or at least mutual causality, between tool and symbol. Tools are undoubtedly associated with man’s object-based activity. Symbols, meanwhile (if we advance along the path with Vygotsky from the famous knot in the handkerchief to language and speech), become historically embedded in structures, the paradigm of which is the structure of language; which in every act of communication reproduces this history. Aleksei Alekseevich Leontiev declared that such an act of communication is nothing other than a variation of acts of activity. Frankly, his views on this point were shared by nearly all the adherents of activity theory.
To a certain degree one can understand this approach. After all, what makes an utterance within communication similar to objectifying activity is the fact that the object-product also retains its activity history. But only in a condensed form. Subsequent activity initiated by a tool does not reproduce the activity’s prehistory that engendered this tool: a Paganini does not act at all like a Stradivarius. When we apply language in our speech, we behave, on the contrary, precisely this way: we imitate our ancestors who created the language with their verbal practice. True, while Paganini does not replicate Stradivari’s activity, later Stradivaris specifically emulated their brilliant predecessor. In doing so, however, they compressed the emulated activity as much as possible. Previous searches and delusions are not replicated. We exercise in various acts of activity and cram information about an object, but when we have already assimilated what we needed, we no longer insist on the prehistory of this knowledge. For rational reasons we condense it.
But when the issue concerns acts of activity or an exchange of symbols of various kinds of cultural structures, then, conversely, we actively resist condensing, which is so reasonable in object-based activity. When we interact in the field of cultural history, we reproduce with nearly eidetic precision all of history, we ritually replicate it, we play out the Passions of Christ with his crucifixion, death and the subsequent mourning and burial of Jesus’s body…
The treatment of ritual is the highest personification of man’s historicity. I will stipulate right off that we assign this importance not to reproduction of the ritual but to the treatment of this cultural legacy, which in addition to playing out the rituals includes their, so to speak, establishment, as well as, if that is the outcome, their rejection. This stipulation makes it possible to identify a highly important relationship: the treatment of ritual makes manageable the contacts that unite certain individuals into small or large groups, with certain groups demarcated from others. It is enough to realize that one variety of the treatment of ritual is the given of cultural history in which we see the most powerful means precisely of such social functioning, regarding which L. Wittgenstein, with good reason, came up with the term “language game.” In this connection it is interesting to cite a find by Margit Köcski, who has been my coauthor more than once. She was studying the social-psychological development of children’s speech, and while observing the development of the children we have in common she discovered that from the earliest age the children took a liking to language rituals: if, purely by a chance, a brief dialogue occurred between a child and some family member, the child insisted endlessly on playing out a repetition of the model.
So I cannot agree with those who maintain that communication is nothing more than a variant of activity.
On the contrary, if we assume methodologically that there is mutual causality between tool and symbol, then psychology can look for Vygotsky’s dyad in every phenomenon, without exception, of the world under its purview.
Here is an example of what I mean. This example is not my find but comes from the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins. Somewhere he writes about ancient agriculture, the nature of which necessitated that the father cooperate with the son, but, he notes, it was not the nature of agriculture that necessitated that precisely the father and son cooperate rather than the mother’s brother and the sister’s son or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. So (and this is no longer Sahlins’s conclusion but mine) in the first necessity the tool aspect is manifested, while in the second necessity it is the aspect of the symbol. And these two aspects are predefined each time in their mutual causality in Vygotsky’s dyad.
And thus we have arrived at the other half of your multipart question: you asked me about the specific nature of the theory in economic psychology that I developed. Well, this theory was constructed entirely on Vygotsky’s dyad. The mainstream of economic psychology is interested exclusively, so to speak, in Sahlins’s first necessity: How do they cooperate there? No matter who cooperated with whom. To be fair, I must state right off that in the context of this necessity the mainstream is interested not only (and even not so much) in the technological aspect of the matter but in the financial aspect as well. During the 1990s a Nobel Prize was twice awarded to scientists who, it is true, were not developing economic psychology but economics, for the fact that they discovered the world of transaction costs. These are the costs by which I ensure that a potential collaborator, no matter who, cooperates not with just anybody, but specifically with me. In the world of transaction costs, money is the mediating factor, as it is in the market itself. So then, my theory in economic psychology asserts that, in addition to money, social identity can also be such a mediating factor. While money ensures that the cooperation is not just with anyone but with me, social identity ensures that the collaborator will turn out to be not just anyone but precisely potential collaborators of my choosing. Figuratively speaking, I’ll put it in terms of the earlier, highly simplified example: I am counting on cooperating with Peter, since he is also a “German,” or, accordingly, with Paul, because he is also a “proletarian.” Here social identity acts like a twin to money. In the matter of mediating cooperation social identity and, accordingly, money can mutually buy out each other: our brother the “German”/“proletarian” may agree more eagerly to cooperate with me, and this way I can save a portion of the transaction costs—conversely, in order to circumvent the embargo imposed on cooperation with me, it may cost me quite a lot of extra money.”6
Lektorsky: You apply your original psychological theory of identity to many different worlds as an explanatory theory. Today a number of researchers, both internationally and in our country, maintain that the problem of identity, as it was understood in the past, has lost meaning, because modern man’s identity is being eroded. Some speak of multiple identities, while others even say that identity is disappearing altogether. What do you think in this regard?
Professor Garai: I do not believe the declarations that the concept of identity per se is obsolete, and here is why. The first Nobel Prize in economics in our new century was awarded a scientific discovery according to which the market functions properly (i.e. by selecting the most profitable of all possible options) only to the extent that the social identity of the persons operating in the market is clearly designated for one another. Absent this condition, that is, if the market bears in mind only monetary relationships (at one pole, a commodity belonging to no matter whom; at the other, money belonging to no matter whom), such a market makes, contrary to expectation, a counterselection: it provides for the sale only of the lowest grade of commodity, while the highest grade of commodity drops out of the market.7
The problem is not that the concept of identity per se is obsolete but that its interpretation as a property, and as one that is predefined, is out of date. Earlier we already discussed what factors prompted me to orient myself more in the direction of relationships rather than property. These factors were mostly psychological. Now we can also take into account (I would even say: we cannot avoid taking into account) the testimony of economic scholars as well: the trio awarded the Nobel Prize, of a liberal persuasion, note with satisfaction that the functioning of the labor market depends relatively little on whether it is a black or a white person who is offering his services; on the contrary, they are disconcerted by their own observation that the functioning of the market depends heavily on whether it is a black person or someone indeterminate who is applying (e.g. on the phone) for a job. Here is the difference: whether I am specifically a black or a white person is a matter of identity as property; on the other hand, whether I am a black person or someone indeterminate, here the question concerns identity as relationship. In point of fact, what is disappearing outright is not identity per se but ready-made, mass-produced identity as property. And at that, eroding identity (or multi-identity) is a starting point for the creative molding of identity as relationship. The less defined a predetermined identity is, the more it calls for categorization.
In 2003 I published the book Identity Economics,8 which examines how the macroworld of mass reproduction handles social categorization for social identity. Two years later I published another book, The Multiple Identities of József Attila9: A Study in the Psychology of Creativity, which examined the same thing in the microworld of creativity.
The macroworld of mass reproduction and the microworld of creativity are two worlds that are absolutely opposite to each other. To deal with both, and within a period of two years to boot, is probably a matter of either brilliance or cheating. I myself am convinced, without false modesty or justifying myself, that for such an accomplishment there is no need either to be a genius or to expose oneself as a cheater. Back in 1931 Kurt Lewin formulated his appeal to psychology to emulate physics, which had replaced its Aristotelian way of thinking, applying one theory to celestial bodies and another to earthly ones, a third to falling bodies, and a fourth to airborne ones, with the Galilean method, which brings its worlds to a common denominator of interpretation.
For a very long time
psychology not only did not find but did not even look for this common
denominator, it rather tended to push Lewin’s comment
out of its scientific consciousness. That is why it came to a dead end
(sometime between its 1966 Congress in
So Vygotsky’s dyad is clear.11 Embodying the entire legacy of Rubinstein’s tetrad: both the object with activity and the aspect of history with the aspect of society.
1. “Istoricheskii materialism i problema lichnosti,” Voprosy filosofii, 1968, No. 9, pp. 19-30.
“Eshche odin krizis v psikhologii! Vozmozhnaia prichina shumnogo uspekha idei L.S. Vygotskogo” (co-author: Margit Köcski), Voprosy filosofii, 1997, No. 4, pp. 86-96.
“Netipichny akademik,” Voprosy filosofii, 2005, No. 1, pp. 67-69.
2. “La regulation communicative de la relation sociale et le devenir conscient des contenus de mémoire.” In J. Janousek, ed., Experimental Social Psychology: Papers and Reports from the International Conference on Social Psychology (Institute of Psychology, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, Prague, 1969).
3. Or at least marxisant (gravitating toward Marxism).
4. Cf. Chadwick-Jones, J. “The Debate Between Michel Plon and Morton Deutsch: Some Related Comments,” European Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 6, Issue 1, pp. 129-137.
5. See “Eshche odin krizis v psikhologii! Vozmozhnaia prichina shumnogo uspekha idei L.S. Vygotskogo” (co-author: Margit Köcski), Voprosy filosofii, 1997, No. 4, pp. 86-96.
6. Economic psychology has worked out a special calculation for the reciprocal conversion of monetary costs and social identity (see Garai, L. “The Price of Excellence.” In Inquiries Into the Nature and Causes of Behavior. Proceedings
63 64 journal of russian and east european psychology of the XXIV Annual Colloquium of the International Association for Research in Economic Psychology, 1999, pp. 750-759.
7. “Behavioral Macroeconomic and Macroeconomic Behavior.” Nobel Prize Lecture of George A. Akerlof (December 8, 2001). http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/2001/akerlof-lecture.html. Another laureate in the same area showed that the impetus that can be observed nowadays toward second, third and more diplomas is attributable not to a desire for extra knowledge but to the forced signaling of social identity in the labor market.
8. Identity Economics: An Alternative Economic Psychology. Available at www.staff.u-szeged.hu/~garai/Identity_Economics.htm.
9. Attila József was a great Hungarian poet (1905-1937). Cf. Garai, L. “The Case of Attila Jozsef: A Reply to Gustav Jahoda,” New Ideas in Psychology, 1988, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 213-217.
10. The just-mentioned Attila József, in addition to being a great poet, was also a brilliant theorist of cultural-historical social studies, and advanced a theory, in particular, that a creator, by creating a work of literary fiction, at the same time creates a new symbol and thereby re-creates the integrity of the language that he used.
GL1. Sic! Not a typographical error!