The Social Construction of Data:

Methodological Problems of Investigating Learning

in the Zone of Proximal Development

Peter Smagorinsky

University of Oklahoma

College of Education

820 Van Vleet Oval

Norman, OK 73019-0260




FAX: 405-325-1498


Researchers in education, psychology, and related fields have historically been concerned with the extent to which the research methods they employ affect the emergence of the data they collect and analyze, with many textbooks cautioning researchers about the perils of the Hawthorne effect. The operative metaphors that have characterized researchers' implication in the data collection process have stressed the notion of the purity of data: Researchers "intrude" through their media and procedures, or worse, they "contaminate" the data by introducing some foreign body into an otherwise sterile field. Data collection procedures, according to this metaphor, must be neutral and inconspicuous in order to capture data in their immaculate form.

Yet sociocultural theory emerging from the work of Vygotsky (1978, 1987; Vygotsky & Luria, 1993) raises issues that challenge the appropriateness of the purity metaphor in social science research, submitting instead that the social nature of learning and development implies that data are instead social constructs developed through the relationship of researcher, research participants, and the means of data collection. Vygotsky's developmental theory and its complex implications stress the inherent social nature of all human activity. Key to Vygotsky's proposition of development is his well-known postulation of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) which is typically thought of as the range of potential each person has for learning, with that learning culturally shaped by the social environment in which it takes place.

The ZPD has powerful methodological significance for educational researchers. The implications stem from questions about the extent and character of the zone itself, in particular the way the conceptualization of the ZPD suggests that the mind is not fixed in its capacity but rather provides a range of potential. The mind, therefore, is both elastic in terms of the different directions cognitive growth may take depending on the sociocultural environment in which it develops, and unbounded in terms of its potential for growth and the physical space it occupies.

From a methodological standpoint the unboundedness of the mind has important implications, particularly with regard to the mind's physical location. Vygotsky's insistence on the inherent social nature of development suggests that commerce with other humans does not contaminate the natural mind but rather provides the tools through which the inherently social mind develops according to particular cultural codes.

Social mediation, as Wertsch (1985, 1991) has argued, is semiotic in nature, with psychological tools providing the means through which an individual internalizes the higher mental processes central to social transactions in particular cultures. Moll (1990) has based his conception of the ZPD on this view of the role of tool use in cognitive development, thus focusing on the ZPD as the context that facilitates sociocultural transformation, with the environment of learning providing mediational tools that learners may use to internalize the ways of thinking central to participation in the cultural world around them. To Moll mediational tools not only abet the development of higher mental processes but are fundamentally a part of the processes themselves. Social transactions are necessarily mediated by some sort of cultural tool, usually (in Western society) speech that follows specific social conventions (Wertsch, 1991). These cultural or psychological tools themselves are central to human thought and development; they are the means through which children internalize cultural knowledge and exercise their own mentation. Because these tools are central to thinking and are social in origin, they are necessarily part of culturally-rooted cognitive development. The ZPD thus extends out of the human skull and includes the tools within a social context through which learners mediate thought and activity.

From this perspective, the mind is unlimited in the sense that its development is inseparable from the tools of mediation, which themselves are often corporeal things (e.g., computers, paint brushes) that extend out into the material world. The means of mediation can also be invisible yet powerfully influential in shaping thought and communication, such as the speech genres that govern discourse in specific sociocultural settings, or so embedded in our daily lives that we do not notice them as tools, such as a pencil or appointment book. These tools have no inherent value and use, but take on meaning as tools with specific values and uses through the historical cultural functions that members of a society have found for and attributed to them. Psychological tools thus link individual minds to other minds, both those that are immediate and contemporary and those that have provided the cultural antecedents through which mediational tools accrue value and assume meaning. The mind is thus spatially unbounded in that, through the tools of mediation, it extends out and is connected to the social and cultural world in which it develops. From a semiotic standpoint, the signs that a culture establishes to order its world require tools for creation and interpretation, and thus cultural tools link people across generations as well as to their contemporaries.

Researchers of psychological processes cannot separate the changes in consciousness that are usually the objects of psychological study from the goal- directed, tool mediated activity through which the changes take place (Wertsch, 1985). In that tool use is fundamental to changes in consciousness such as the concept development central to Vygotsky's (1987) notion of cognitive growth, researchers need to understand the relationship among the mediational tools, their historical cultural uses within the learner's community, their means of employment in the learning (and research) environment, the intersubjectivity between the learner's understanding of the learning task and the evaluator's (teacher's or researcher's) understanding of the task, and other factors that make up the interrelated social environment of learning.

The social character of development becomes crucially important when researchers undertake the study of learning. When researchers enter a sociocultural setting to conduct research on developmental processes, they become part of that setting and thus become mediating factors in the very learning they purport to document. Rather, however, than "contaminating" the research environment, they become additional mediational means in a learner's development. Researchers provide mediation even when the learner does not personally interact with the researcher, but instead has learning measured through the mediation of some instructional intervention and assessment vehicle. Such mediational means are not culturally neutral, but replete with cultural values.

The research of Moll and Greenberg (1990) illustrates the point well. Moll and Greenberg investigated the learning of Southwestern Mexican-American students both in school and in their home community. Concerned by the historical disproportionate failure of Latino students in American schools, they endeavored to identify the source of these students' failure, which had primarily been attributed to cognitive deficiencies. Taking a Vygotskian perspective, Moll and Greenberg (1990) disputed the judgments of the teachers and researchers who found these students to be cognitively deficient. Using the ZPD as the foundation for their analysis of what they believed to be an erroneous interpretation of students' academic performance, Moll and Greenberg argued that the students did not have a fixed level of "ability" that was "measured" by the neutral instruments of school assessment, but instead a range of potential that had taken a particular cultural shape through their immersion in the agricultural community in which they had been raised. Moll and Greenberg (1990) concluded that the determination that the students were cognitively deficient was a function of the culture-laden means of evaluative mediation that were more congenial to students of European-origin middle-class backgrounds than to students of Mexican-origin agricultural backgrounds; and that the "zones of proximal development"--which to the reseachers include the social context of learning and the cultural tools it provides--that afforded opportunities for success in the Mexican-American community did not exist in school.

These studies illustrate the hidden problems involved in conducting research, even when the researcher takes precautions to prevent "contamination" from taking place. Simply by choosing a means of assessment, the researcher enters the learning environment with assumptions that a particular means of assessment is capable of determining "learning"; and as Gardner (1983) has argued, educational measurement assumes that linguistic and logical/mathematical means of assessment identify a person's "true" intellect at the expense of many other types of intelligence and vehicles for developing and demonstrating it. Moll and Greenberg (1990) have pointed out that the assumption that the means of assessment are neutral can have insidious and pernicious implications for students who are not culturally attuned to the type of higher mental processes necessary for completing a given task according to the assessors' expectations. Wertsch (1991) and others have argued that these means of assessment erroneously assume that a specific type of psychological mediation represents "achievement," when in fact what is being measured is the cultural compatibility between learner and the means of mediation.

Central to Moll's and Wertsch's criticism of conventional measurement procedures is their appropriation of Vygotsky's conception of the ZPD. The ZPD, with its implication that higher mental processes are culturally learned rather than developmentally universal, suggests that most assessment vehicles used in school and research tilt the advantage of those students whose higher mental processes have developed in a way similar to those who create the assessment vehicles. The ZPD's developmental nature suggests that the instruments of data elicitation are never neutral; they are instead always mediational. The ZPD has an inherently developmental and semiotic character that is instrumentally affected by the learner's appropriation and implementation of a culture's psychological tools. Data are therefore social constructs in that the means of mediation are necessarily sociocultural in nature.

Researchers are often pressed to account for their own roles in the emergence of data in order to persuade the research community that the data have not been contaminated by the researcher's participation in the means of elicitation. This criticism, however, operates from a misconception of development, at least from a Vygotskian perspective. Data on human development are inherently social in nature and therefore the invocation of the purity metaphor is inappropriate in discussing investigations of learning in the zone of proximal development. Data can only be "pure" in a sterile environment, and human development takes place in a teeming social milieu. To assume that learning can be separated from its social foundations is to misunderstand the nature of the ZPD; and to assume that the study of learning can take place outside the bubble of the social environment of learning is to misconceptualize the role of mediation in human development and to underestimate the effects of the introduction of any research tools into the learning environment.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind. NY: Basic Books.

Moll, L. C. (1990). Introduction. In L. C. Moll (Ed.), Vygotsky and education: Instructional implications and applications of sociohistorical psychology, (pp. 1-27). NY: Cambridge University Press.

Moll, L. C., & Greenberg, J. B. (1990). Creating zones of possibilities: Combining social contexts for instruction. In L. C. Moll (Ed.), Vygotsky and education: Instructional implications and applications of sociohistorical psychology, (pp. 319-348). NY: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Thinking and speech. In L. S. Vygotsky, Collected works (vol. 1, pp. 39-285) (R. Rieber & A. Carton, Eds; N. Minick, Trans.). NY: Plenum.

Vygotsky, L. S., & Luria, A. R. (1993). Studies on the history of behavior: Ape, primitive, and child. (V. I. Golod & J. E. Knox, Eds. & Trans.). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wertsch, J. V. (1985). Vygotsky and the social formation of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wertsch, J. V. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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