Sylvia Scribner


"Sylvia Scribner's contributions to the emergent field of cultural psychology have been monumental. Her studies of reasoning and thinking within contexts of culture and activity added new concepts, methods, and findings to what many now consider a distinctive branch of psychology. Mind and Social Practice brings together published and unpublished work from Sylvia Scribner's wide-ranging and prolific career."
“Sylvia Scribner’s contributions to the emergent field of cultural psychology have been monumental. Her studies of reasoning and thinking within contexts of culture and activity added new concepts, methods, and findings to what many now consider a distinctive branch of psychology. Mind and Social Practice brings together published and unpublished work from Sylvia Scribner’s wide-ranging and prolific career.”


Sylvia Scribner was a unique but compatible voice among the scholars of the Cole lab at Rockefeller University. A full account of her remarkable career can be found in the volume dedicated to her memory: Mind and Social Practice: Selected Writings of Sylvia Scribner[1]. Like many LCHC scholars, her background was cross-disciplinary and her interests were theoretical, clinical, political, cultural, experimental, and reflective.

We pick up the story in 1968, when Sylvia wrote “The Cognitive Consequences of Literacy,” a reflection of her thinking at the time she was at Albert Einstein College of Medicine as an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and at the New School for Social Research where she did her doctoral research on cross-cultural perceptions of mental disorders. In that piece she ponders written language and how, as a human invention, it can transform culture and become transmitted and internalized as human cognitive tool.

After reading the work that Mike Cole and his lab members were carrying out at Rockefeller University, she wrote him: “From my speculative route and your empirical one, we seem to have arrived at similar constructs. We agree that on the ‘input’ side we are dealing with cultural systems and technologies – not mentalities and capacities – and on the “output” side we are dealing with certain specific mental skills, such as the intentional structuring of cognitive tasks – not ‘intelligence.’” Mike generously offered funds for Sylvia to gain an appointment as Senior Research Associate at Rockefeller, and in 1970 the official collaboration began.

At Rockefeller, Sylvia attended seminars and working groups, and had conversations with lab visitors on a wide range of topics and issues, including mathematical models of memory, children’s narratives, logical thinking, and intelligence tests. During these years, in addition to Mike, Sylvia developed several other significant and lasting collegial, intellectual, and personal friends[2].

Throughout her career, Sylvia was concerned with the societal roots and effects of psychologists’ research practices. Some of her work at Rockefeller involved detailed critical analyses of widely accepted concepts and methods in psychology. Among other topics she focused on research practices in the study of race and intelligence, class and mental health arguing that psychology’s “avoidance … of the significant dimensions of social life” carried profound consequences for poor and minority children in schools, for people in psychiatric hospitals, and for others.

Sylvia had studied Vygotsky’s writings and those of other Russian cultural-historical psychologists and had incorporated their approaches in her thinking. During the Rockefeller years, Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner, and Ellen Souberman, in fact, edited L. S. Vygotsky: Mind in Society which ultimately appeared in 1978. Sylvia promoted the understanding of an activity theory approach among the lab members, strengthening what would eventually become a profound paradigm among psychologists, educators, experimentalists and qualitative analysts alike. In her experimental methodology, for instance, she stressed for the cultural interpretation of the experiment and of how people assimilate experimental tasks into their own cultural framework. The research group at Rockefeller shared substantive questions on thinking and culture in many different contexts both at home and abroad.

So, as part of Mike’s research program on culture and cognition Scribner spent several extended periods between 1970 and 1978 carrying out research in Liberia, West Africa, first working closely with Kpelle collaborators to investigate how Kpelle people reason, remember, and carry out other cognitive activities. Cole and Scribner’s book reporting this research, Culture and Thought: A Psychological Introduction, was published in 1974. In 1973 Sylvia and Mike conducted research on the relationship between literacy and cognitive activity among the Vai people in Liberia. Scribner and Cole’s volume based on that research, The Psychology of Literacy (1981) challenged prevailing assumptions about the consequences of literacy and presented a paradigm-shifting challenge to cross-cultural research methods.

At Rockefeller, Sylvia wrote on thinking, culture, and society and the contexts of thought and action, and on how psychological theories can provide a unified framework for analyzing mental processes both within and across cultures by taking into account sociocultural factors within psychological systems. In her work on method and the epistemology of different disciplines, she stressed the need to integrate the psychological and anthropological analysis of cognitive processes. She developed a “quasi-experimental” method that begins with an anthropological, or ethnographic understanding of the context of a system of thinking and from there derives essential probes or tasks based on that understanding. The results help us move beyond facile assumptions of analytic categories of cognitive performance such as abstract and concrete or hypothetical and empirical. It also questioned the determinism attributed to properties of the symbol system (and, later, tools) per se.


When the Rockefeller group relocated to California, Sylvia joined the National Institute of Education to become Associate Director and head of its Teaching and Learning Program. The NIE was dedicated to educational planning and offered funding for research aimed at improving educational opportunities for all Americans. [3] At NIE, Sylvia focused on broadening the Institute’s conceptions of learning, education, and literacy to include learning in sites other than schools such as the workplace, and to include studies of learning in adults as well as children and adolescents.

In 1979, Sylvia left her administrative position at NIE and joined the Center for Applied Linguistics as a Senior Scientist[4]. There, she developed a highly influential research program on thinking at work that brought together themes from her scientific and political life. Her project examined the practical arithmetic of workers in a dairy distribution plant in Baltimore. The work was another conceptual and methodological breakthrough that challenged researchers’ assumptions about how thinking develops and offered new paradigms for studying everyday cognition.

“[My research] has three objectives. On the most ambitious level, I would like it to serve as a vehicle for elaborating the very general constructs of activity theory. I want to develop and test a method that integrates observational studies of naturally occurring phenomena with experimentation on model tasks. And most concretely, I want to discover something about the characteristics of practical thinking in everyday life. What activities might be suitable for investigating practical thinking? I chose to study work activities for reasons of both significance and strategy. Significance is apparent. In all societies, work is basic to human existence; in most it consumes the greater part of waking time, and, in many – certainly our own – it is a principal source of self-definition. Although we are not wholly defined through our participation in productive activities, the circumstances under which we work and what we do when we work have deep implications for intellectual and personal development.”[5]

While Sylvia was at the Center for Applied Linguistics, she discussed the Val work and how she

“developed a framework for interpreting the findings and their significance, and to guide further development of theory and method in the study of how socially organized activities come to have consequences for human thought. I called this framework a ‘practice account of literacy’ to emphasize that it is not a formal model nor grand theory…it appears to have a number of points of convergence with the theory of activity developed by Soviet psychologists.”

She developed a framework for cognition, again, integrating the theoretical and substantive concerns of her research and of the program she developed at NIE with social practice as a central construct. This construct provided a foundation to cross-cultural cognitive analysis and to research on thinking at work. In her continuing thinking about the Vai research, she argues that literacy is a social, not an individual achievement and its meaning in a particular society bound to societal values. Sylvia continued to study thinking, specifically literacy, as embedded within a practical work situation. Her analysis that societal and individual processes are linked and mutually transformative was based on a dialectical-materialist foundation of both the levels-of-organization concept and activity theory. Her analysis led her to refine the interdisciplinary research method she was developing, from ethnography of the plant to description of situated literacy-related tasks to task analysis and experimentation.

In 1981 Sylvia was appointed as Professor of Psychology in Developmental Psychology at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York.[6] Sylvia continued to publish on literacy, culture and thought, and methodology. She taught graduate seminars on memory, mind and society, Vygotsky, and research methods. Her work at CUNY began with a focus on developmental questions and examined the theoretical and methodological bases of a sociohistorical approach to the study of mind. In her view, the dialectical basis of Vygotsky’s theory is essential for an adequate account of the development of higher mental functions.

Her influential essay, ”Vygotsky’s Uses of History” (1985), focuses on development in its most fundamental relationships between histories on different levels and added clarity to some formulations of Vygotsky’s. Sylvia examines Vygotsky’s method of theory construction and shows how the general history of humanity, the child’s history, and the history of higher psychological functions are dialectically related in the theory, describing how changes in all three systems happen simultaneously. At the same time, Sylvia introduces a fourth level of history, the histories of particular societies or cultures, in order to support research and theory on higher mental functions in adults and children “in the present.”

Sylvia was also developing the research program on thinking at work initiated in Baltimore, analyzing cognitive transformations functionally shaped by goal-directed work activities in a variety of technological settings. In the late 1980s, with support from the Spencer Foundation, the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, the National Center for Education and the Economy, and the National Center for Research in Education, Sylvia founded the Laboratory for Cognitive Studies of Work. The focus of her research was now on thinking at work. Graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and research assistants working with her included Jorge Ayala, King Beach[7], Matthew Byrne, Michael Cohen, Lia DiBello, Roseanne Flores, Farida Kahn, Jessica Kindred, Edith Laufer, Angeliki Nikolopoulo, Pat Sachs, Rosalie Schwartz, Joy Stevens[8], Elena Zazanis. Pat Sachs headed up a research project examining the implementation of Manufacturing Resources Planning (MRP) technology in the electronics manufacturing environment and its use and understanding by planners, expediters, and shop floor workers. Laura Martin directed a project studying machinists who were making a transition from operating manual machine tools to writing programs to run the tools automatically[9]; Lia DiBello was researching how the accelerating introduction of enterprise information technology was changing worker cognition[10]. King Beach and Elena Zazanis worked on Sylvia’s project supported by the Spencer Foundation.[11] Lab meetings hosted visitors from Germany, Japan, Russia, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and France (plus the U.S.) who engaged in lively discussions on Activity Theory, developmental paradigms, and research methods.

Sylvia’s thinking about activity theory had methodological consequences for studying cognition. Because social practices were integral to understanding mental functioning, interdisciplinary approaches were necessitated. In fact, socially defined categories of activity served as the organizing domains for comparative psychological research at LCSW. Her work at CUNY and that of her students and lab members take into account the environmental, the societal, as well as the individual in defining the units of analysis in their studies of workplace cognition and everyday thinking.

In her career, Sylvia moved from applied work in mental health and labor, to theoretical and experimental work in development and applied practice, including the practice of experimental psychology. The theoretical analyses she developed had great impact on the study of thinking, literacy, and cultural systems as well as on the study of thinking at work. Her work was fostered by the affiliation with and collaborations of LCHC and went on to contribute pivotal understandings of the relation between individual thought, society, and culture.

Additional Resources

Affiliated Colleagues

[1] Tobach, E., Falmagne, R., Parlee, M., Martin, L. & Scribner, A. (Eds.). Cambridge University Press.
[2]William Estes, Kay Estes, Rachel Joffe Falmagne, Elsa Bartlett, Steve Reder, Sue Sugerman, William Hall, Anderson J. Franklin, Ray McDermott, George Miller, Tom Sibarowski, and Dalton Miller-Jones.
[3] In addition to Patricia Albjerg Graham, the Institute’s Director, Sylvia’s colleagues during this period included Lois Ellin-Datta, Ned Chalker, Susan Chipman, Judith Orasanu, Judith Siegel, Lauren Resnick, Michale Timpane, and Ramsay Selden.
[4] Joining Ed Fahrmeier, Evelyn Jacob, and others.
[5] S. Scribner, “Head and Hand: An Action Approach to Thinking.” Eastern Psychological Association, Arlington, Va., April 1987. [Reprinted by the National Center on Education and Employment, Teachers College, Columbia University.] [6] Her colleagues there included Katherine Nelson, Joseph Glick, and Harry Beilin, Dalton Miller-Jones, Mary Parlee, and David Bearison.
[7] Scribner, S. & Beach, K. (1993). An activity theory approach to memory. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 7, 185-190.
[8] Stevens, J. & Scribner, S. (1989). Experimental studies on the relationship of school math and work math. NCEE Technical Paper No. 4.
[9] Martin, L.M.W. & Scribner, S. (1991). Laboratory for Cognitive Studies of Work: A case study of the intellectual implications of a new technology. The Teachers College Record, 92 (4), 582-602.
[10] DiBello, L. (1992). Looking for “what’s leading”: A legacy from Sylvia Scribner. The Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, October 1992, Vol (14). Number 4.
[11] Beach, K., Scribner, S., & Zazanis, E (1992). Counting by weighing in a stockroom: The transformation of ration in technological practice. Report to the Spencer Foundation.

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