Sociocultural theory is an emerging field within modern psychology, exploring how society contributes to the development of the individual. Developed out of the work of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, sociocultural theory seeks to understand how one’s participation within groups shapes mental structure. As the individual interacts with others and processes the effects of those interactions, the individual learns.
Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) believed that children develop higher cognitive functions, especially reasoning, as emerging out of their social activity. Essential to this learning was his concept of the Zone of Proximal Development, which held that new knowledge is reliant on both previous learning as well as current instruction. Much of Vygotsky’s work was suppressed in the Soviet Union and unavailable in the West due to poor translations.
His rediscovery allowed social scientist to reexamine how individual learning is the product of both adult and peer influence, but on cultural assumptions. All cultures provide for children a basic set of tools that allow them to adapt learning. For example, some cultures may stress note taking, while others emphasize rote memorization. Sociocultural theory is often contrasted with Piaget’s constructivist theories, in that sociocultural theorists will seek out interpretations regarding behavior based on their participation in culturally based activities.