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Cultural mediation

Cultural mediation describes a profession that studies the cultural differences between people, using the data in problem solving. It is one of the fundamental mechanisms of distinctly human development according to cultural–historical psychological theory introduced by Lev Vygotsky and developed in the work of his numerous followers worldwide.

Vygotsky investigated child development and how this was guided by the role of culture and interpersonal communication. Vygotsky observed how higher mental functions developed through social interactions with significant people in a child's life, particularly parents, but also other adults. Through these interactions, a child came to learn the habits of mind of her/his culture, including speech patterns, written language, and other symbolic knowledge through which the child derives meaning and affects a child's construction of his or her knowledge. This key premise of Vygotskian psychology is often referred to as "cultural mediation". The specific knowledge gained by a child through these interactions also represented the shared knowledge of a culture. This process is known as internalization.

The easiest way to understand mediation is to start with an example and follow with the Vygotskian principles behind it.

At a North American girl's fourth birthday, she sits at the table with friends and family. As the candles on her birthday cake are lit and it is placed on the table, the child gains a feeling of deeply felt joy. This is not only because she knows the cake is sweet and she likes sweet food, nor that the candles' sparkling is pleasing to her eyes. While these would be sufficient reason to arouse an emotional response in an ape, there are mental processes in a four-year-old that extend well beyond this. She patiently waits as her family and friends sing "Happy Birthday to You". The joy is not in the cake itself but in the cake's specific meaning to her. It is a sign that today is a special day for her in which she is the center of attention and that her friends and family are praising her. It's also a sign that she is bigger and as such has higher status among her peers. It's not just a cake, it is a birthday cake and, more specifically, it is her own. The true significance of the birthday cake then, is not in its physical properties at all, but rather in the significance bestowed upon it by the culture the daughter is growing into. This is not restricted to such artifacts as a birthday cake. A classroom, a game of soccer, a fire engine are all first and foremost cultural artifacts from which children derive meaning.

  • Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  • Vygotsky, L.S. (1987). Thinking and speech. In L.S. Vygotsky, R.W. Rieber (Series Eds.), & A.S. Carton (Vol. Ed.), The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky. Vol. 1: Problems in general psychology (N. Minick, Trans.). New York: Plenum.


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