Theory & Psychology
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DOI: 10.1177/0959354306060107
2006 16: 37 Theory Psychology
Harry Daniels
The 'Social' in Post-Vygotskian Theory
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The ‘Social’ in Post-Vygotskian
Harry Daniels
University of Bath
Abstract. In this article some limitations of the increasingly popular
theories of the Russian semiotician L.S. Vygotsky will be identified.
Emphasis will be placed on the lack of an account of social positioning
within discourse as well as the social, cultural and historical production of
discourse. At the heart of these concerns there lies an underdeveloped
perspective on the social function of language, particularly when it is used
to influence interpersonal relations. The theories of cultural transmission
developed by Basil Bernstein in the later stages of his career will be
discussed in terms of the potential for refining the Vygotskian thesis.
Key Words: Bernstein, language of description, social positioning,
This paper will discuss some of the shortcomings of the social theory of L.S.
Vygotsky and suggest that Basil Bernstein’s work on social positioning and
his approach to the development of multi-level languages of description may
be of value to those concerned with theoretical and empirical work on the
social formation of mind.
In what is arguably his most influential text, Thinking and Speech,
Vygotsky (1987) discusses the process of development in terms of changes
in the functional relationship between speaking and thinking. He asserts that
‘change in the functional structure of consciousness is the main and central
content of the entire process of mental development’ (p. 188). He illustrates
the movement from a social plane of functioning to an individual plane of
functioning. From his point of view the ‘internalization of socially rooted
and historically developed activities is the distinguishing feature of human
psychology’ (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57). In this way interpersonal processes are
transformed into intrapersonal processes as development progresses.
Vygotsky provided a rich and tantalizing set of suggestions that have been
taken up and transformed by social theorists as they attempt to construct
accounts of the formation of mind which to varying degrees acknowledge
social, cultural and historical influences. His is not a legacy of determinism
Theory & Psychology Copyright © 2006 Sage Publications. Vol. 16(1): 37–49
DOI: 10.1177/0959354306060107
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and denial of agency; rather he provides a theoretical framework which rests
on the concept of mediation by what have been referred to as psychological
tools or cultural artefacts.
Bernstein (1993) has suggested that the metaphor of the ‘tool’ itself serves
to detract attention away from the relation between its structure and the
context of its production:
The metaphor of ‘tool’ draws attention to a device, an empowering device,
but there are some reasons to consider that the tool, its internal specialized
structure is abstracted from its social construction. Symbolic ‘tools’ are
never neutral; intrinsic to their construction are social classifications,
stratifications, distributions and modes of recontextualizing. (p. xvii)
There is a long-running debate as to whether Vygotsky was a Marxist who
wished to create a Marxist psychology. There is no doubt that he drew on
theoretical Marxism. It has been argued, for example by Bernstein (1993),
that this in itself presented him with a particular theoretical challenge:
A crucial problem of theoretical Marxism is the inability of the theory to
provide descriptions of micro level processes, except by projecting macro
level concepts on to the micro level unmediated by intervening concepts
though which the micro can be both uniquely described and related to the
macro level. Marxist theory can provide the orientation and the conditions
the micro language must satisfy if it is to be ‘legitimate’. Thus such a
language must be materialist, not idealist, dialectic in method and its
principles of development and change must resonate with Marxist princi-
ples. (p. xv)
If activities are to be thought of as ‘socially rooted and historically
developed’, how do we describe them in relation to their social, cultural and
historical contexts of production? If Vygotsky was arguing that formation of
mind is a socially mediated process, then what theoretical and operational
understandings of the social, cultural, historical production of ‘tools’ or
artefacts do we need to develop in order to empirically investigate the
processes of development? These questions would appear to be a matter of
some priority for the development of the field, as so much of the empirical
work that has been undertaken struggles to connect the analysis of the
formative effect of mediated activity or tool use with the analysis of tool
production. I intend to try to invoke an account of the production of
psychological tools or artefacts, such as discourse, that will allow for
exploration of formative effects of the social context of production at the
psychological level. This will also involve a consideration of the possibil-
ities afforded to different social actors as they take up positions and are
positioned in social products such as discourse. This discussion of produc-
tion will thus open up the possibility of analysing the possible positions that
an individual may take up in a field of social practice. In this paper I will use
the following question as a device with which to open a debate about the
relationship between principles of social production, regulation and in-
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dividual functioning: ‘How do principles of power and control translate into
principles of communication and how do these principles of communication
differentially regulate forms of consciousness?’ (Bernstein, 1996, p. 18).
Vygotsky’s account of development rests on notions of mediation and
externalization as well as what he termed internalization. The concept of
‘mediation’ opens the way for the development of a non-deterministic
account in which mediators serve as the means by which the individual acts
upon and is acted upon by social, cultural and historical factors. There is
considerable tension and debate as to the nature of such factors. The tensions
are revealed in competing definitions of ‘culture’ and the labelling of
contemporary theoretical approaches as, for example, either socio-cultural or
The means of mediation that have tended to dominate recent discussions
are cultural artefacts such as speech or activity. These semiotic and activity-
based accounts may be seen as referring to different levels of emphasis
within a single process. The field abounds with descriptors such as ‘socio-
cultural psychology’, ‘cultural-historical activity theory’, and so on, each of
which has been defined with great care. However, confusions persist
alongside what still appear to be genuine differences of emphasis.
Wertsch (1998) has advanced the case for the use of mediated action as a
unit of analysis in social-cultural research because, in his view, it provides a
kind of natural link between action, including mental action, and the
cultural, institutional and historical context in which such action occurs. This
is so because the mediational means, or cultural tools, are inherently
situated, culturally, institutionally and historically.
Activity theorists have adopted a different approach. Engestr¨ om (1993)
points out the danger of the relative under-theorizing of context. For
example, it could be argued that mediated action is such an under-
. . . individual experience is described and analysed as if consisting [of]
relatively discrete and situated actions while the system or objectively
given context of which those actions are a part is either treated as an
immutable given or barely described at all. (p. 66)
It is of interest that so much effort has been expended attempting to clarify
the movement from the social to the individual and yet relatively little
attention has been paid to the reverse direction. Bruner’s (1997) reminder
about Vygotsky’s liberationist version of Marxism serves to reinforce the
view that his was a psychology that posited the active role of the person in
his or her own cognitive and emotional creation. Whether the emphasis was
directly on creativity itself or through the use of expressions such as
‘mastering themselves from the outside’, in his early work Vygotsky
discussed externalization at some length.
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Engestr¨ om has developed a model of transformation he calls the ex-
pansive cycle in which internalization and externalization develop com-
plementary roles. Engestr¨ om and Miettinen (1999) provide a discussion of the
internalization/externalization process at every level of activity. They relate
internalization to the reproduction of culture and externalization to the
creation of artefacts that may be used to transform culture.
I wish to suggest that when the cultural artefact takes the form of a
pedagogic discourse, we should also analyse its structure in the context of its
production. Given that human beings have the capacity to influence their
own development through their use of the artefacts, including discourses,
which they and others create or have created, then we need a language of
description that allows us to identify and investigate:
● the circumstances in which particular discourses are produced;
● the modalities of such forms of cultural production;
● the implications of the availability of specific forms of such production
for the shaping of learning and development.
As Bernstein (1993) argued, the development of Vygotskian theory calls for
the development of languages of description which will facilitate a multi-
level understanding of pedagogic discourse, the varieties of its practice and
contexts of its realization and production. There is a need to connect the
theory of social formation of mind with the descriptions that are used in the
activity of research. This should provide a means of relating the social-
cultural historical context to the form of the artefact. Bernstein (2000)
illustrates the need for an appropriate language of description in his
discussion of the concept of habitus:
. . . if we take a popular concept habitus, whilst it may solve certain
epistemological problems of agency and structure, it is only known or
recognized by its apparent outcomes. Habitus is described in terms of what
it gives rise to, and brings, or does not bring about. . . . But it is not
described with reference to the particular ordering principles or strategies,
which give rise to the formation of a particular habitus. The formation of
the internal structure of the particular habitus, the mode of its specific
acquisition, which gives it its specificity, is not described. How it comes to
be is not part of the description, only what it does. There is no description
of its specific formation. . . . Habitus is known by its output not its input.
(p. 133)
If processes of social formation are posited, then research requires a
theoretical description of the possibilities for social products in terms of the
principles that regulate the social relations in which they are produced. We
need to understand the principles of communication in terms derived from a
study of principles of social regulation.
If, as Lemke (1995) argues, communication plays a critical role in social
dynamics, then social theories about discourse should point the way to a
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dynamic, critical, unitary social theory. Lemke suggests that whilst linguis-
tics furnishes theories of description and psychology provides theories of
mind, both tend to ignore the social functions of language and the social
origins of human behaviour.
He laments the lack of progress in advancing this agenda:
Unfortunately, most theories of discourse are not social theories. Indeed
most theories of discourse are mainly linguistic and psychological, paying
relatively little attention to the question of who says what when, why, and
with what effects. The social context of discourse, and issues of discourse
as social action are largely ignored. Instead discourse is mostly seen as the
product of autonomous mental processes, or it is simply described as
having particular linguistic features. (Lemke, 1995, p. 28)
The concepts of both ‘habitus’ and ‘genre’ have been proposed as theoretical
devices for ‘bridging’ the gap. As I noted above, however, Bernstein is
critical of habitus for its weaknesses when it comes to operational descrip-
tion and thus comparative analysis.
Both Hasan (1992a, 1992b, 1995) and Wertsch (1985a, 1985b, 1991) note
the irony that whilst Vygotsky developed a theory of semiotic mediation in
which the mediational means of language was privileged, he provides very
little if anything by way of a theory of language use. Wertsch has turned to
Bakhtin’s theory of speech genres for such a theory. However, Hasan (in
press) has argued that whilst Bakhtin’s views concerning speech genres are
. . . rhetorically attractive and impressive, the approach lacks . . . both a
developed conceptual syntax and an adequate language of description.
Terms and units at both these levels in Bakhtin’s writings require clarifica-
tion; further, the principles that underlie the calibration of the elements of
context with the generic shape of the text are underdeveloped, as is the
general schema for the description of contexts for interaction.
Hasan is also concerned with the bias within activity theory towards the
experiential function of language. She equates this with the ‘field of
discourse’ within systemic functional linguistics. Her concern is with the
absence of analysis of what she refers to as the ‘tenor of discourse’, by
which she means the social relations and the positioning of the interactants,
and the ‘mode of discourse’, that is, the nature of the semiotic and material
contact between the discursive participants.
Within Vygotskian theory, speech is supposedly the primary means of
semiotic mediation, and yet the social functioning of language is under-
theorized. In an account of the social formation of mind, surely there is a
requirement for theory which relates meanings to interpersonal relations.
This emphasis on representational/experiential meaning and the absence of
an account of the ways in which language serves to regulate interpersonal
relations and in which its specificity is in turn produced through specific
patterns of interpersonal relations and thus social regulation constitute a
serious weakness (Hasan, 2005).
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Halliday’s (1978) view of language as a social semiotic requires us to
think of it as a resource to be deployed for social purposes. He seeks to
analyse the uses of language as integral to the social functions, the social
contexts of actions and relationships in which language plays its part
(Lemke, 1995). Halliday provides the account of language use that is absent
in Vygotsky, and Bernstein provides the basis for a language of description
which may be applied at the level of principles of power and control which
may then be translated into principles of communication. Bernstein also
seeks to show how these principles of communication differentially regulate
forms of consciousness.
As Bernstein (1996) noted in discussion of sociolinguistics:
Very complex questions are raised by the relation of the socio to the
linguistic. What linguistic theories of description are available for what
socio issues? And how do the former limit the latter? What determines the
dynamics of the linguistic theory, and how do these dynamics relate, if at
all, to the dynamics of change in those disciplines which do and could
contribute to the socio. If ‘socio’ and linguistics are to illuminate language
as a truly social construct, then there must be mutually translatable
principles of descriptions which enable the dynamics of the social to enter
those translatable principles. (pp 151–152)
One implication of this position is that different forms of social may be seen
in relation to different patterns of communication:
From this point of view, every time the child speaks or listens, the social
structure is reinforced in him and his social identity shaped. The social
structure becomes the child’s psychological reality through the shaping of
his acts of speech. (Bernstein, 1971, p. 144)
Different social structures give rise to different modalities of language
which have specialized mediational properties. They have arisen, have been
shaped by, the social, cultural and historical circumstances in which inter-
personal exchanges arise, and they in turn shape the thoughts and feelings,
the identities and aspirations for action of those engaged in interpersonal
exchange in those contexts. Hence the relations of power and control which
regulate social interchange give rise to specialized principles of communica-
tion. These mediate social relations.
Bernstein seeks to link semiotic tools with the structure of material
activity. Crucially he draws attention to the processes which regulate the
structure of the tool rather than just its function:
Once attention is given to the regulation of the structure of pedagogic
discourse, the social relations of its production and the various modes of its
recontextualising as a practice, then perhaps we may be a little nearer to
understanding the Vygotskian tool as a social and historical construction.
(Bernstein, 1993, p. xix)
Bernstein also argues that much of the work that has followed in the wake
of Vygotsky ‘does not include in its description how the discourse itself is
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constituted and recontextualised’ (p. 45). As Ratner notes, Vygotsky did not
consider the ways in which concrete social systems bear on psychological
functions. He discussed the general importance of language and schooling
for psychological functioning; however, he failed to examine the real social
systems in which these activities occur. The social analysis is thus reduced
to a semiotic analysis which overlooks the real world of social praxis
(Ratner, 1997).
The feature that can be viewed as the proximal cause of the maturation of
concepts, is a specific way of using the word, specifically the functional
application of the sign as a means of forming concepts. (Vygotsky, 1987,
p. 131)
Whilst it is quite possible to interpret ‘a specific way of using the word’ to
be an exhortation to analyse the activities in which the word is used and
meaning negotiated, this was not elaborated by Vygotsky himself. The
analysis of the structure and function of semiotic psychological tools in
specific activity contexts is not explored.
In Engestr¨ om’s (1987) work within activity theory the production of the
outcome is discussed but not the production and structure of the tool itself.
The rules, community and division of labour are analysed in terms of the
contradictions and dilemmas which arise within the activity system specifi-
cally with respect to the production of the object. The production of the
cultural artefact—the discourse—is not analysed in terms of the context of
its production, that is, the rules, community and division of labour which
regulate the activity in which subjects are positioned.
Mediating artefacts:
Tools and signs
Division of
Community Rules
Figure 1. The structure of a human activity system (Engestr¨ om,
1987: 78).
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Bernstein’s (1981) paper outlined a model for understanding the construc-
tion of pedagogic discourse. In this context pedagogic discourse is a source
of psychological tools or cultural artefacts. Bernstein’s primary object was to
view the production of pedagogic discourse in the context of the action of a
group of specialized agents operating in a specialized setting in terms of the
often-competing interests of this setting.
Bernstein’s work on cultural transmission in schools shows his continuous
engagement with the interrelations between changes in organizational form,
changes in modes of control and changes in principles of communication.
Initially he focuses upon two levels: a structural level and an interactional
level. The structural level is analysed in terms of the social division of
labour it creates, and the interactional level in terms of the form of social
relation it creates. The social division of labour is analysed in terms of
strength of the boundary of its divisions, that is, with respect to the degree
of specialization. Thus, within a school the social division of labour is
complex where there is an array of specialized subjects, teachers and pupils,
and it is relatively simple where there is a reduction in the specialization of
subjects, teachers and pupils. Thus, the key concept at the structural level is
the concept of boundary, and structures are distinguished in terms of their
boundary arrangements and their power supports and legitimations
(Bernstein, 1996).
The interactional level emerges as the regulation of the transmission/
acquisition relation between teacher and taught: that is, the interactional
level comes to refer to the pedagogic context and the social relations of the
classroom, or its equivalent. The interactional level then gives the principle
of the learning context through which the social division of labour, in
Bernstein’s terms, speaks.
Bernstein distinguished three message systems in the school: curriculum,
pedagogy (practice) and evaluation. Curriculum referred to what counted as
legitimate knowledge, which was a function of the organization of subjects
(fields), modules or other basic units to be acquired. Pedagogy (practice)
referred to the local pedagogic context of teacher and taught, and regulated
what counted as a legitimated transmission of the knowledge. Evaluation
referred to what counted as a valid realization of the knowledge on the part
of the acquirer. Curriculum was analysed not in terms of contents but in
terms of relation between its categories (subjects and units). Pedagogic
practice, again, was to be analysed not in terms of its contents but in terms
of the control over the selection, sequencing, pacing and criteria of commu-
nication in the transmitter/acquirer relation. It is apparent that the curriculum
is regarded as an example of a social division of labour and pedagogic
practice as its constituent social relations through which the specialization of
that social division (subjects, units of the curriculum) is transmitted and
expected to be acquired.
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Bernstein uses the concept of classification to determine the underlying
principle of a social division of labour and the concept of framing to
determine the principle of its social relations, and in this manner he
integrates the structural and interactional levels of analysis in such a way
that, up to a point, both levels may vary independently of each other.
Classification is defined at the most general level as the relation between
categories. The relation between categories is given by their degree of
insulation. Thus, where there is strong insulation between categories, each
category is sharply distinguished and explicitly bounded and has its own
distinctive specialization. When there is weak insulation, then the categories
are less specialized and therefore their distinctiveness is reduced. In the
former case, Bernstein speaks of strong classification, and in the latter case,
he speaks of weak classification.
In terms of framing, the social relations generally, in the analysis, are
those between parents/children, teachers/pupils, doctors/patients, social
workers/clients, but the analysis can be extended to include the social
relations of the work contexts of industry or commerce. From Bernstein’s
point of view, all these relations can be regarded as pedagogic:
Framing refers to the control on communicative practices (selection,
sequencing, pacing and criteria) in pedagogical relations, be they relations
of parents and children or teacher/pupils. Where framing is strong the
transmitter explicitly regulates the distinguishing features of the inter-
actional and locational principle which constitute the communicative
context. . . Where framing is weak, the acquirer is accorded more control
over the regulation.
Framing regulates what counts as legitimate communication in the ped-
agogical relation and thus what counts as legitimate practices. (Bernstein,
1981, p. 345)
In that the model is concerned with principles of regulation of educational
transmission at any specified level, it is possible to investigate experimen-
tally the relation between principles of regulation and the practices of pupils.
Relations of power create and maintain boundaries between categories and
are described in terms of classification. Relations of control revealed in
values of framing condition communicative practices. It becomes possible to
see how a given distribution of power through its classificatory principle and
principles of control through its framing are made substantive in agencies of
cultural reproduction, for example families/schools. The form of the code
(its modality) contains principles for distinguishing between contexts (recog-
nition rules) and for the creation and production of specialized communica-
tion within contexts (realization rules).
Through defining educational codes in terms of the relationship between
classification and framing, these two components are built into the analysis
at all levels. It then becomes possible in one framework to derive a typology
of educational codes, to show the inter-relationships between organizational
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and knowledge properties, to move from macro- to micro-levels of analysis,
to describe the patterns internal to educational institutions and relate them to
the external social antecedents of such patterns, and to consider questions of
maintenance and change. (Bernstein, 1977, p. 112)
The analysis of classification and framing can be applied to different levels
of school organization and various units within a level. This allows the
analysis of power and control and the rules regulating what counts as
legitimate pedagogic competence to proceed at a level of delicacy appro-
priate to a particular research question.
Bernstein later (1996) refined his distinction between instructional and
regulative discourse, such that the former refers to the transmission of skills
and their relation to each other, and the latter refers to the principles of social
order, relation and identity. Whereas the principles and distinctive features
of instructional discourse and its practice are relatively clear (the what and
how of the specific skills/competences to be acquired and their relation to
each other), the principles and distinctive features of the transmission of the
regulative are less clear as this discourse is transmitted through various
media and may indeed be characterized as a diffuse transmission. Regulative
discourse communicates the school’s (or any institution’s) public moral
practice, values, beliefs and attitudes, principles of conduct, character and
manner. It also transmits features of the school’s local history, local tradition
and community relations. Pedagogic discourse is modelled as one discourse
created by the embedding of instructional and regulative discourse.
The language that Bernstein has developed allows researchers to take
measures of school modality: that is, to describe and position the discursive,
organizational and interactional practice of the institution. Research may
then seek to investigate the connections between the rules the children use to
make sense of their pedagogic world and the modality of that world.
Bernstein provides an account of cultural transmission which is avowedly
sociological in its conception. In turn, the psychological account that has
developed in the wake of Vygotsky’s writing offers a model of aspects of the
social formation of mind which is underdeveloped in Bernstein’s work.
Hasan (1995) brings Bernstein’s concept of social positioning to the fore
in her discussion of social identity. Bernstein (1990, p. 13) used this concept
to refer to the establishing of a specific relation to other subjects and to the
creating of specific relationships within subjects. As Hasan (1995) notes,
social positioning through meanings is inseparable from power relations.
Bernstein (1990) provided an elaboration of his early general argument:
More specifically, class-regulated codes position subjects with respect to
dominant and dominated forms of communication and to the relationships
between them. Ideology is constituted through and in such positioning.
From this perspective, ideology inheres in and regulates modes of relation.
Ideology is not so much a content as a mode of relation for the realizing of
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content. Social, cultural, political and economic relations are intrinsic to
pedagogic discourse. (pp. 13–14)
Here the linkage is forged between social positioning and psychological
attributes. This is the process through which Bernstein talks of the shaping
of the possibilities for consciousness.
The dialectical relation between discourse and subject makes it possible to
think of pedagogic discourse as a semiotic means that regulates or traces the
generation of subjects’ positions in discourse. We can understand the
potency of pedagogic discourse in selectively producing subjects and their
identities in a temporal and spatial dimension (Diaz, 2001, pp.106–108). As
Hasan (1995) argues, within the Bernsteinian thesis there exists an inelucta-
ble relation between one’s social positioning, one’s mental dispositions and
one’s relation to the distribution of labour in society. Here the emphasis on
discourse is theorized not only in terms of the shaping of cognitive functions
but also, as it were invisibly, in its influence on dispositions, identities and
practices’ (Bernstein, 1990, p. 33).
As Engestr¨ om and Miettinen (1999) note in their discussion of a Marxian
interpretation of Hegel’s conception of self-creation though labour:
Human nature is not found within the human individual but in the
movement between the inside and the outside, in the worlds of artefact use
and artefact creation . . . the creative and dynamic potential of concrete
work process and technologies remains underdeveloped in his [Marx’s]
work. (Engestr¨ om & Miettinen, 1999, p. 5)
Bernstein (1990, pp. 16ff.) argues that socially positioned subjects, through
their experience of and participation in code-regulated dominant and domi-
nated communication, develop rules for recognizing what social activity as
context is the context for, and how the requisite activity should be carried
out. Participation in social practices, including participation in discourse, is
the biggest bootstrapping enterprise that human beings engage in: speaking
is necessary for learning to speak; engaging with contexts is necessary for
recognizing and dealing with contexts. This means, of course, that the
contexts that one learns about are the contexts that one lives, which in turn
means that the contexts one lives are those which are specialized to one’s
social position.
My argument follows that of Hasan that the Vygotskian account of the
‘social’ is insufficient for the task Vygotsky set himself in his attempt to
formulate a general social theory of the formation of mind. It lacks a central
requirement of any theory of semiotic mediation that attempts to account for
the way we as humans behave: how language is used to serve a social
interpersonal function. Bernstein’s account of social positioning within the
discursive practice that arises in activity systems, taken together with his
analysis of the ways in which principles of power and control translate into
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principles of communication, might allow us to investigate how principles of
communication differentially regulate forms of consciousness.
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Harry Daniels is Professor of Education: Culture and Pedagogy at the
Department of Education, University of Bath. He is also Director of the
Centre for Socio-cultural and Activity Theory Research. His research
includes work on processes of social exclusion and collaboration. His
writing reflects his interests in socio-cultural and activity theory. He has
published three books concerned with Vygotskian theory: Charting the
Agenda: Educational Activity after Vygotsky (as editor, Routledge, 1993),
An Introduction to Vygotsky (as editor, Routledge, 1996) and Vygotsky and
Pedagogy (Routledge, 2001). Address: Centre for Sociocultural and Activ-
ity Theory Research, Department of Education, University of Bath, Bath,
BA2 7AY, UK. [email:]
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