Sociocultural Theory

Sociocultural theory is a psychological and sociological theory. The theory was developed by Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, in 1934.

The theory talks about the importance of society and culture to shape and develop an individual. It shows how parents, friends, teachers and society develop the individual's sociocultural, learning and cognitive functions. Similarly, the theory highlights the importance of sociocultural values and beliefs in developing these functions.

Many researches and additions have been made to the theory since its development. It has been used to derive other cognitive development theories like social, and child development.

Children learning cycling

Concepts in Sociocultural Theory

Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.
- Vygotsky, 1978

According to Vygotsky, a child already has some innate biological characteristics of his brain. Society and culture only provides him "tools for intellectual adaptations". These tools vary in different cultures and societies. Socio-cultural development with the help of these tools develop his human intelligence and cognition.

Children learning to celebrate Christmas

For example, one culture teaches children to play with toys, while the other encourages them to play outdoors. Children from both cultures adapt to what their cultures teach them. If a culture encourages talking, they will learn to do so. If a culture requires children to learn two languages at the same time, they will learn both.

There are two levels of learning in children according to this theory - social level and personal level.

Social level (the first level) says that an individual learns through interaction in a society. Adding to this, Personal level (the second level) says these learning are reflected throughout his life.

Inter-psychological cognitive development is development of learning and cognition in the first level. It happens due to society and culture through interaction. On the other hand, changes that occur inside a child’s brain in second level is intra-psychological process of cognitive development. Here, child's behavior and thinking pattern changes because of interaction with culture and society. These are the two types of cognitive development that occurs socio-culturally in the theory.

Sociocultural reasons help children to form concepts, mindsets, logical memory and attention span. These are parts of cognition of humans.

Children gaining knowledge

Cognitive Development Strategies

Cognitive development happens within the limits of zone of proximal development (ZPD). ZPD is the difference between cognitive development that a child can achieve on its own and what it can't. In some activities, children need support from their social and cultural circles. They can get help from parents, teachers or peers to develop skills and form understanding.

Society teaches shared meanings to the children. It also helps in children's cognitive development socio-culturally. This help and support is the concept of scaffolding according to Vygotsky. The people who know more than a child and help it develop is the more knowledgeable other (MKO).

Other processes or strategies used to develop the child’s cognitive abilities are:

  • Modeling
  • Collaborative learning
  • Discourse

There can also be differences in the child’s potential to develop his/her cognition and the actual development level.

Principles of Sociocultural Theory

Children learning to use laptop

  • Children construct their own knowledge:
    Knowledge is not transferable; it needs learning. Acquiring knowledge is an individual ability. However, children might need help to do so.
  • Learning needs mediation:
    Other people interact with the child to use tools and facilitate the learning process.
  • Language is used for mental development:
    People use language to develop higher psychological functions.
  • Two levels of learning:
    It happens on social level at first and then on individual level.
  • Social context is important:
    If a person does not get the proper social environment to develop, cognition does not develop.
  • Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD):
    It is how much a child develops with help from society. It differs from that of the development that happens without help.

Examples of Sociocultural Theory

Children learning to play together

A child can’t learn many things without society like language skills. They need to be with people to learn how to use language.

Similarly, people also develop their own cognition by reading, interacting, using various tools, etc. So, a person’s cognitive level and another person's can be different.

One child can be curious, exploring, eager to learn and hardworking, while another child might not be. Someone might be better at indoor games while someone at outdoor games. People differ according to their cognitive development and their interests.

Individual persistence can help the person acquire new skills and knowledge. He/she might need external help to see and learn those things.

For instance, the child has never seen anyone play a Chinese game called Mahjong, the child will not be able to know how to play it. But if someone shows him/her, the child will develop a skill to play the game. He/she can even surpass the skills of the person who taught him/her with practice and cognitive development.

When a child is first taught to write, he/she might not be able to do it right away, but can write well after several days’ practice.

Children painting

Piaget's Sociocultural Theory

According to Piaget's Sociocultural theory, bits of information that form cognition is schema. It is mental representations and meanings of everything. Adaptation processes like assimilation, accommodation and equilibration help in changing schemata.

There are four stages of cognitive development. They are sensimotor stage, preoperational stage, concrete operational stage and formal operational stage.

Vygotsky and Piaget’s Sociocultural Theory

Vygotsky and Piaget have given their own versions of the theory. According to both, children construct knowledge by learning. But there are many differences between the two psychologists’ concept of the theory.

Vygotsky says that language and culture are more important than maturation.But, according to Piaget, there are stages of thinking based on natural maturation. Role of teachers is central according to Vygotskyand the opposite in Piaget.


According to Vygotsky, children need opportunities to develop skills in various things. For this, scaffolding is important. He also states that language is a means to achieve cognitive development while Piaget regards language as a measure of cognitive development.

Children gaining different skills

Criticisms of Sociocultural Theory

  • The theory by Vygotsky is in Russian and is not accessible in other parts of the world without translation.
  • The theory is assumed to be applicable to all cultures, but it might not be possible in some. The theory is refuted as being universal.
  • Concepts like scaffolding, use of verbal communication and use of language might not be applicable all times to all the people like blinds and deafs.
  • Skills are not learned through verbal instructions but by observation and practice.
  • Piaget has said that maturation and learning process is relational to contexts. Maturation does not only affect learning but learning can be a way of maturation.