To be honest, I am not sure if I am convinced if the world has become more polarized, or if we are just becoming more aware of how divided we already were. If you go back and look at ideas like sociocultural history, there certainly is ground work for the idea that we are all different. But one thing is sure: we need to improve where we are regardless of whether we just got here or have always been here all along and just didn’t know it.

My interest in sociocultural theory came about in an Advanced Instructional Design course, where we had to take some educational theory and argue 1) why it was an instructional design theory, and 2) why it counted as an advanced one. There are different flavors of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory out there, but the way that I look at it that will suffice for this post is that we all belong to various sociocultural groupings that are constantly changing and affecting who we are and how we learn. These groupings can be anything from physical characteristics to employment status to educational study topic to even where we are currently eating a meal. The first set of videos in EngageMOOC touch on many different ways to look at some important sociocultural groupings, for example.

Because we are all slightly different socioculturally, and who we are socioculurally is in constant flux, making something like education into an unchanging constant becomes counter-intuitive to who we are as the human race. But those unchanging constants are what most theories look to codify.

Was I successful in defending sociocultural theory as an advanced instructional design theory? You can read the paper to judge for yourself (“Sociocultural Theory as an Advanced Instructional Design Method: Examining the Application, Possibilities, and Limitations”), but our instructor also admitted to us that there really is no such thing as “advanced” instructional design theories. The Master’s Degree program had an “instructional design” course, so the Ph.D. program was given an “advanced ID course… just because.

Not too long after that, I became aware of the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and especially her most well-known work Can the Subaltern Speak?  (good one paragraph summary here, or full text here). The basic problem she was addressing was how many post-colonialists were trying to help the untouachables in India, but were speaking for them instead of having them speak for themselves. Additionally, there was also the assumption that all of these groups had one collective opinion on any topic, thus erasing individual differences.

What does this have to do with our current polarization? We seem to throw around solutions like “just listening to the other side” or “just respond in kindness”…. but to those of us that have tried those methods, we find they rarely work. I have responded with kindness. I have responded with heated debate. I have responded with seeking to understand. Sometimes good dialogue is the result, but most times they keep arguing.

However, I have taken note of what starts many fights online. There is usually a provocative thought about the opposite side thrown out by a person, typically containing vast misunderstandings and outright hyperbole about the “other.” This enrages those “others,” who jump in and start swinging. For example, you will rarely see a fight start over someone saying “I am pro-life because I want to see all babies born.” You more typically see enragement ensue after some statement like “I am pro-life, which is so much better than you evil liberals that just delight in killing babies like your leader Killary does in her secret pizza basement ceremonies!”

Obviously, those of the liberal viewpoint take offense at this. But do we ask why they would get offended? I mean beyond the obvious reason that these statements are not true, and cast them in the most evil light. They know people think that way about them already – so why is it different when they see a FB comment from an acquaintance saying so?

I would submit that they feel their ability to speak for themselves has been violated by being cast into the wrong sociocultural grouping, based on assumptions from someone that didn’t even bother to ask what they think in their own voice.

They didn’t let the subaltern speak for themselves.

Spivak spoke about how subalterns can be anyone that is in a position of less power and control in a given situation, and not just the untouchables of India. In education, our students are typically subalterns to the instructors. In online conflicts, those that propose some wild misunderstanding of the “other” tend to quickly jump into the seat of power in those encounters, setting those they unfairly characterize into subaltern roles because of the language they utilize to tear them down.

So, of course, part of the task is getting everyone to realize that we all have unique sociocultural characteristics, and therefore we need to be allowed to speak for ourselves rather than have our beliefs dictated to us. But on the other side, when someone has attempted to erase our own voice in a situation, we should try to realize that it is okay to feel upset by that. It is okay to get “butthurt,” no matter what someone says. It is okay to push back. It is okay to ignore it. It is okay to respond in kindness, and it is okay to be angry. We are all unique people. We can all react uniquely. There is no roadmap.

But I would also suggest that we all need to learn from how we react, to make sure we don’t turn around and make others feel the same way.

Too many times, it seems like our solutions to “fake news” involves finding ways to get rid of anger. That will never happen. Other methods seem to point fingers at every time people get things wrong online. That will never end, because the first time people stamped letters into clay tablets was the first time people misunderstood something and wrote about it. People misunderstand – we always have, we always will.

None of this is easy. There will be no finish lines to cross to say “we fixed fake news!” or “we finally unpolarized everything!” It’s a process. You and I can only be our own unique part in it all.

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

One thought on “Vygotsky vs Spivak: Sociocultural Theory and Subalterns in #EngageMOOC

  1. Ronald Miller’s book “Vygotsky in Perspective” interesting perspective is about how many people get Vygotsky wrong. I find his most innovative concept is the division of cognition into lower mental functions (i.e. memory, attention, working memory, etc. . .) and Higher Mental Functions which are enabled by schools and mediated by cultural tool (like those found in math, science, literature).
    There is an interesting parallel to polarization today. Like most young intellectuals of the early Soviet Era, Vygotsky was a young, engaged and committed Marxist. His goal was to create a psychological science based on Marxist principles. His problem stemmed from the political class that was only interested in ideology. So Vygotsky’s worked was banned in the Soviet Union until the 1960s.
    I find much of the right today is also driven by primarily by ideology. There are interesting conservative principles, but most conservatives you have contact with have very little need to be right in the same way as liberals just as the Soviets had little need for a real Marxist science of psychology.

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