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Sociocultural Approaches to Memory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 3121 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Psychology is quite the broad topic of study with memory one of the most theorised areas of study. One method a lot of theorists in more recent years conducting research into memory have applied the sociocultural approach. The sociocultural approach was first presented by Russian theorist Lev Vygotsky in the 1930’s, he was a contemporary to other great theorist of the time such as Piaget Freud and skinner however although his work was only given the recognition it deserved posthumously after his death in 1934. His work wasn’t published until 1953 after the death of Stalin and only became prominently popular in the 1980’s emerging as an alternative to Piaget’s cognitive development theory. Vygotsky placed a far greater emphasis in his work on the role that society and the child’s surroundings play on their cognitive development whereas Piaget’s work focused more on the child’s interactions and explorations in their development. Another big difference between the two was that while Piaget’s theory suggested that development is universal whereas Vygotsky believed that cognitive development varied from culture to culture. His work is often compared in contrast to the work of Piaget that Vygotsky’s Cultural-historical theory of cognitive development is focused on the role of culture in the development in children of higher mental functions and capabilities such as speech or reasoning. His theory is recognised to as the first to conceptualise the sociocultural approach and is often referred to by. The theory emphasises the importance of society and culture in the cognitive development of children. Vygotsky believed that it was adults in a society that fostered children’s cognitive development in an intentional and systematic matter by engaging them in challenging but meaningful activities. The sociocultural approach is one of the most effective methods when explaining what it exactly makes and defines us as individuals, emphasizing the importance of the society around us in cognitive development. The approach also cites cultural factors such as language, art and social norms as playing significant roles in the development of our cognitive abilities.

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Vygotsky’s stated that cognitive development in children varied between different cultures and societies. Although cognitive development may differ in each of these, the way they are handed down usually stays the same generation to generation. Vygotsky theorised that babies are born with four elementary motor functions which were attention, sensation, perception and memory. Eventually through interaction with their sociocultural environment these elementary functions develop into higher mental functions and capabilities. He cited three ways of learning that children used to intake this information which were imitative, instructed and collaborative learning. A core element of Vygotsky’s theory is the presence of an older and educated individual such as a parent or teacher in aiding the development of a child. For example, when a child is trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle together for the first time the child will struggle as it has no previous knowledge of how to put together such a puzzle. A parent who is sitting down watching the child will assist the child by giving some basic tips and guidelines to figure out the solution to the problem such as firstly separating the middle pieces from the edge pieces. After demonstrating the correct methods to solve the problem and by encouragement the child will become more competent and eventually be able to solve the puzzle independently. Higher mental functions are characterised by independent thinking but they can be only cultivated by the four elementary motor functions which involves an older more knowledgeable teacher, according to Vygotsky this type of social interaction also requires both collaborative co-operative dialogue and this is what promotes cognitive development. This is the first of Vygotsky’s four key principles to his theory that cognitive development of children is contingent upon learning and is a crucial part of passing down culture ideas from parent to child. The second element of Vygotsky’s theory is that of the Zone of proximal development. He conceived the idea as a better more effective means of gauging how a child is developing cognitively than standard academic tests of his time which did not take into account sociocultural factors. He devised the zone as a big circle highlighting a person’s potential abilities and within this circle was a smaller circle which represents our already acquired abilities. Wood Burner and Ross (1978) expanded Vygotsky’s zone adding the key stage in between the two known as scaffolding which refers to help provided by a teacher or parent to help the child expand on their acquired abilities into their potential abilities. Going back to my earlier example we could see this when the child was learning how to solve a jigsaw puzzle. The child’s acquired abilities were insufficient for him to complete the task however through the parent’s scaffolding this helped the child reach further into his own potential. 

The next principle of Vygotsky’s theory is that language is crucial to a person’s development for it is language that separates us from the rudimentary language of animals, essentially meaning without our linguistic capabilities we would all live in a world void of society and information. For example dogs may be able to bark and growl at each other to indicate their feelings toward each other but they cannot communicate in direct terms of what they are trying to convey to the other dog. Whereas we as people simply can communicate and convey to each other what we are trying to get across and understand each other perfectly given they speak the same language. The sociocultural approach has been also adopted by researchers attempting to understand memory in biological terms. A good example of this is the Bifold model which takes both social and cultural influences as well as biological factors. The model argues that, like all the other higher mental abilities of humans, freewill is in fact largely a socially-constructed and language-enabled habit of thought. Animals (unlike people) as we understand them have reactionary minds, a good example would be that of a gazelle having never encountered a lion before. If the gazelle sees the lion hunt and kill another gazelle it will know from experience the danger lions possess. If humans on the other hand found themselves in danger of being attacked by a lion we would know immediately of the dangers of one from our information acquired on them through use of our linguistic abilities, this is ultimately what separates us from animals. Many believe without language we would have never evolved from a primitive species to one that would one day take over the world. Vygotsky’s work has become renowned after its publication and has become known as the Mozart of Psychology, prompting other researchers to expand on his work.

Sir Frederic Bartlett was a British psychologist who was the first head of experimental psychology at Cambridge University. Bartlett considered most of his work on cognitive psychology to be a study in social psychology much like Vygotsky. Bartlett suggested that recalling memories was subjected to personal interpretations and that people extract underlying meaning and make sense of it by using what we already know. As a result in 1932 Bartlett conducted an experiment which became known as the war of the ghost’s experiment which demonstrated the constructive nature of memory and how it can be affected by individual’s own schema. In the experiment conducted, his Edwardian English participants were told an old Native Canadian story twice and told them to remember it and re-tell the story at extended periods after hearing it. The story was very convoluted with many aspects unfamiliar to the participants  As the intervals between re-telling’s got longer the story clearly became less accurate as previously told. The interesting results in the experiment came when participants who couldn’t remember certain aspects used their own schema to transfer missing aspects into more familiar forms from their own culture such as changing the word canoe to boat. Bartlett conducted a similar experiment to this also where he used repeated reproduction again, this time sketching a cat. Over ten re-sketches by participants the cat gradually changed shape form and direction varying hugely. After these results Bartlett argued that people store memories in term of schemas. These are our ideas and expectations of the world and they form a framework which we fit new information. Bartlett’s main conclusion from his research was that memory and accuracy is measured in quality not quantity. He also cited the way we recall things are affected by three ways levelling, sharpening and assimilating. Levelling refers to the simplifying of things, in his war of the ghosts experiment this was done when the participants re-told the story and it was almost half the length of the original. Sharpening refers to highlighting and over-emphasizing little details we could see this in his second experiment with the cat drawings where the shape, size and form of cat changed on multiple occasions. Assimilating is changing details to fit our own backgrounds and knowledge to deal with a new object or situation, we could see this in the war of the ghosts experiment when participants changed the word canoe to the word boat.

From his studies Bartlett took away a key concept being that remembering is constructive process of welding together from divergent sources into a new form. Another experiment that supports the effectiveness of schemas on retrieval was one conducted by Anderson and Pichert (1978). In the experiment participants were split into two separate groups, burglars and potential house buyers. Both groups were told the same story which was about two boys skipping school and going to one of their houses, the story described both the house itself, the area and the objects inside. Once the story had been told to the participants they participated in a distracting task for twelve minutes before the recall test with five minutes added to the delay. Half of the participants were given a different schema of the story to read (home buyer perspective switched to burglars and vice versa) with the other half being given the same schema. The changed schema group recalled seven percent more on the second recall test. The recall of the ides the participants had last read increased by ten percent whereas recall of the first schema declined. In contrast, the comparison group who did not change perspective recalled nearly three percent less. This indicates that schema must have some effect at retrieval as well as encoding since the second schema perspective the participants read could have only affected recall at the retrieval stage. This showed the participant’s encoded information that was irrelevant to their prevailing schema such as the burglars remembered the coin collection. These findings only support Bartlett’s theory on memory and the sociocultural influence is clear to see, Bartlett stated in his book Remembering when talking about memory “ Remembering is not the re-excitation of fragmentary traces, It is an imaginative construction or reconstruction built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organised past reactions or experiences.

When examining the sociocultural approach to memory it is important that collective memory is also looked at. Collective memory is a term coined by Maurice Halbwachs in the 1930’s the concept has changed the way in which researchers in both the social sciences and humanities understand what it means  for individuals and groups to remember. Definitions of collective memory abound. Generally, they fall into three classes: one that treats collective memories as consisting of publicly available symbols maintained by society and another that defines collective memory as individual memories shared by members of a community that bear on the collective identity of that community. The first class which collective memory falls into refers to the public symbols maintained by a society, here in Ireland a good example of this would be the huge memorial parade held in Dublin two years ago to mark the centenary since the 1916 rising. This event not only had a huge impact on Irish people at the time but the country as whole acting as the catalyst to Ireland’s push for Independence. We signify these events in our history as it defines our country and all the struggles endured by our forefathers in the name of independence and our culture. Certain memories collectively shared by a nation can also be suppressed. A good of example of this would be Germany, although the country is aware of the atrocities they committed as a race in world war two and have introduced several laws banning all Nazi related support in the country and have erected many monuments in memory of those lives lost during the conflict. The second class which collective memory relates to is that memories shared by members of a community that bear on the collective identity of that community. A good example of this would be memories my grandmother has of when she was young and having to use ration books during the second world war, as a nation people that were alive ach had their own experiences of the period that contribute to the greater history of the struggle of the time. One problem that can arise in such memories however that is the nation or those in power rather decides what memories are promoted. A good example of this we could see in action is that of North Korea. As a dictatorship with a lot of propaganda praising their leader Kim Jong-Un, North Korea has a different narrative of the Korean War which ended as a stalemate in 1953 when an armistice was called. North Koreans will learn that this was indeed their victory against the United States backed south however there was no real winner in the conflict with no peace treaty ever signed. Although some who were alive at the time may remember it differently there is no real way for the next generation thought the story as they would not know any better. Collective memory in terms of a small group can also have its flaws. A good example of this occurred in London after the attacks in July 2005 which killed up to 50 people. Two weeks later with tensions high in the city police shot dead an innocent Brazilian man Jean Charles de Menezes after mistaking him to be a potential terrorist. The officers schemas were activated as too were witnesses who saw the shooting, some testified in court that the man had jumped the railing and had been carrying a backpack. It took CCTV footage to prove that neither of these actually happened. This is why when police question witnesses they try to keep them away from other witnesses as their two schemas can converge they also make sure when questioning not to add in details to their questions as they can also affect their schemas.

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To conclude overall it is clear to see the prominent aspects of the sociocultural approach to memory. Many theorists have expanded on aspects of the theory Vygotsky first put forward but throughout them all there appears to be a common trend in the effects social and cultural influences play in the cognitive development of Children.  The two core elements of the theory however is language and culture and appear time and again in this approach. As Vygotsky’s work explained it is language that separates us from other animals and without it we wood still live like Neanderthals with a hunter gatherer society with rudimentary language to convey what we are trying to get across. The role of culture also plays a huge role in the cognitive development of children. It is essential a child is thought by more knowledgeable others certain things about the world using their basic motor functions which develop into higher mental capabilities.  It is interesting to see how this can vary also across different cultures applying different methods in contrast to theorists such as Piaget’s work where he theorised that cognitive development is universal. In work carried out by Bartlett it was clear to also see how schema can affect our memories with the war of the ghost’s story as a prime example. The sociocultural approach however has been proven to be a very effective model with even biological researchers now using it as a model for their work.


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