Andy Blunden, August 2010

Social Situation of Development and a Child’s Needs

L. I. Bozhovich, The Social Situation of Child Development, Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, volume 47, no. 1, July-August 2009, pp. 59-71, written c. 1965.

Lydia Bozhovich argues that child development must be understood through a complex unity of the internal and external factors which she refers to as perezhivanie (translated as “an experience” or “a lived experience” or “an emotional experience” or “experiences”). This perezhivanie depends on the relationship between the child and their environment: on one side, the child’s past experience which determines what the child themself brings to the situation; on the other side, the social position which the child is expected to occupy, with the associated rights and demands that society places on them.

Bozhovich cites Vygotsky’s concept of “social situation of development,” which she defines as “the special combination of internal development processes and external conditions that are typical of each developmental stage,” a “node where the varied influences of different external and internal circumstances come together,” ... “how the external environment is refracted by its subject.” Bozhovich says that this is a unit, but one which can and must be broken down further, while observing that, contrariwise, Vygotsky held that perezhivanie is “an indissoluble whole.”

I believe that Bozhovich wrongly ascribes an “intellectualist” view to Vygotsky when she says that Vygotsky “felt that the nature of experience in the final analysis is determined by how children understand the circumstances affecting them, that is, by how developed their ability to generalize is.”

This is based on the examples Vygotsky gave in “The Problem of the Environment” to illustrate how the characteristics of the child determine which factors in the social environment are relevant to the social situation of development. Bozhovich seems to misunderstand the point that Vygotsky is making, taking an illustrative example as a general model for an internal / external relationship.

To illustrate that “the perezhivanie arising from any situation ... determines what kind of influence this situation ... will have on the child” he “examines one such straightforward case from our clinic,” and goes on to talk about siblings of different ages showing that “the same environmental events can influence various people’s development in different ways.” Paedology, he said:

“ought to be able to find the relationship which exists between the child and its environment, the child’s perezhivanie, in other words how a child which becomes aware of, interprets, [and] emotionally relates to a certain event.”

Isn’t it clear that with this and the other examples, Vygotsky wishes to make clear that it is not an event in the environment in itself, but its significance, its meaning for the child, which is significant for the child’s experience of it, and therefore, for the child’s development. If someone insults you in Greek, it will have no effect on you if you don’t understand Greek. To draw a conclusion from this example, that Vygotsky regarded the relation of the child to its social position intellectually or that a child must ‘interpret’ a situation for it to have developmental impact on the child, is, in my opinion, wilful misunderstanding.

Bozhovich works around the problem of characterising the relationship between external and internal factors with a number of formulations, such as the environment being refracted through the child’s past experiences. All of which makes it clear that the social situation of development, and the perezhivanie of the child are some kind of combination of external and internal factors. But Bozhovich fails to convincingly formulate a concept of this relation, which is what Vygotsky is striving to do. To do so, Vygotsky must look at some class of developmental problems, in order that a concept may be formed relevant to this class of problems. It is not enough to decompose the child’s situation into a diversity of factors, internal and external, to be assessed relative to one another and conjointly: the point is that the situation is a specific problem which has to be grasped as a true concept and explained in each unique case.

A perezhivanie is a unit of analysis. It is always, Vygotsky says, “an indivisible unity of” ... “something which is found outside the person - and on the other hand, what is represented is how I myself am experiencing this.”

“In one situation some of my constitutional characteristics play a primary role, but in another, different ones may play this primary role which may not even appear at all in the first case.” The social situation is not just the sum of all the factors present. “It is not essential for us to know what the child’s constitutional characteristics are like per se, but what is important for us to find out is which of these constitutional characteristics have played a decisive role in determining the child’s relationship to a given situation.”

Vygotsky says at one point: “any event or situation in a child’s environment will have a different effect on him depending on how far the child understands its sense and meaning.” [my emphasis]. This is perhaps the formulation which lends most support to the thesis that Vygotsky has developed an “intellectualist” theory of development, that is, that something in the child’s social situation is significant for the child’s development only so far as the child “understands” it. It is always the case that something is developmentally significant for the child only insofar as it lies within the child’s horizon of consciousness, that is, that it expresses a real need of the child. But it is obviously not at all the case that this meaning for the child is an intellectual one; the child does not even attain an intellectual relationship to his environment until a certain stage in his development. Development is always tied up (as Bozhovich herself says) with the child’s needs and the means of their satisfaction, insofar as the given need is satisfied in and through the child’s own activity. It is only those objects which figure as needs in the child’s consciousness which have the capacity to stimulate development. Development is driven by the child’s needs being problematised in some way, something which is only possible in connection with what figures in the child’s consciousness, that is, what bears on the child’s apprehended needs. Understanding development is always a matter of giving expression to the problem.

Vygotsky develops only a couple of themes in this article, one of which is how a child may be protected from insults which go over their head so to speak. But to respond to a stimulus according to whether the stimulus lies within the horizons of one’s needs and their satisfaction, is not to be ‘intellectual’.