Cultural-Historical Activity Theory Travels to Greece: Actors, Contexts and Politics of Reception and Interpretation



This article explores how socio-cultural, cultural-historical and activity theory approaches to education and psychology have traveled to Greece over the last three decades. It explores the history of introducing these approaches in the Greek context while identifying key dimensions of the process, such as: diverse interpretation of original works, key actors in academic teaching and research and linkages with educational policy and activism beyond the university spaces. Greece with its specific history of military dictatorship, constitutional change, varied struggles for democracy within the university, European integration, and current crisis and neoliberal reforms is seen as a sample case; taking this case as a point of departure, the authors develop a meta-theoretical frame on how to discuss the various ways in which socio-cultural-historical approaches have traveled across socio-cultural, historical, institutional, political, regional, and also, increasingly globalized contexts of education.

General Information

Keywords: activity theory, cultural-historical psychology, A.N. Leontiev, A.R. Luria, socio-cultural approach, translation, L.S. Vygotsky, globalization, traveling theory

Journal rubric: Problems of Cultural-Historical and Activity Psychology

Article type: scientific article


For citation: Dafermos M., Chronaki A., Kontopodis M. Cultural-Historical Activity Theory Travels to Greece: Actors, Contexts and Politics of Reception and Interpretation. Kul'turno-istoricheskaya psikhologiya = Cultural-Historical Psychology, 2020. Vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 33–41. DOI: 10.17759/chp.2020160205.

Full text





The theoretical and methodological perspectives that were first formulated in the 1920s and 1930s by such scholars as L.S. Vygotsky, A.N. Leontiev and A.R. Luira haw gained popularity, albeit in non-uniform ways, in education, psychology and social work by academics, activists, teachers and policymakers in diverse settings and with diverse purposes in the second half of the 20th century. A few more authors are often considered as classic ones, in this frame, depending on the specific context and one’s interpretation e.g. M. Bakhtin, V.N. Voloshinov and S.L. Rubin­shtein. A common point of reference that appears in most, if not in all, of these scholarly works is a focus on the study of mental processes as culturally-historically and collectively developed, mediated through the use of tools and signs and established through participation in social practice.

The translation and interpretation of these classic texts has not been unproblematic, which, in turn, has created much debate in the relevant academic spaces. It took several years for example for English-speaking scholars to understand that Mind in Society (1997) has never been published as one such book with this title in Russian. It also took several years for Thought and Language [77] to be translated as Thinking and Speech [78], which seems to be a more accurate translation [15; 29]. While the list of such examples can become very long, it seems that the choice of titles and terms has often reflected the implicit epistemological as well as cultural understandings, and, sometimes, even the political preferences of the involved authors and translators within quite diverse schools of thought, such as: cognitivism, discursive and cultural psychology and Activity Theory [54]. There is little agreement even on how to refer to the sum of the relevant classic texts with various terms in use (Activity Theory, cultural psychology, socio-cultural approach, etc. [23; 12; 81].

When moving beyond the Anglo-American academia, the complexity increases, as for example, in China, Vygotsky’s and Leontiev’s work have been received through the specific prism of the long Chinese cultural history, including the cultural revolution, and most recent political, ideological and economic developments [32]. Theoretical concepts, such as activity, mediation, zone of proximal development, have become instrumental in child therapy, teacher education and curriculum reform in the German Democratic Republic during the 60s and in Brazil in the last 15 years, in yet different ways than this happened in anglophone settings [28; 37].

Two oppositional approaches are often juxtaposed in the aforementioned context: On the one hand, a rather dogmatic effort to interpret the classic texts in the correct way takes place, thereby claiming that one particular version is the right one as opposed to all others. On the other hand, one may encounter an oversimplified mosaic approach to theory use running the danger of suggesting that all possible theoretical appropriations are legitimate. However different these two positions might appear at a first glance; they overlook the fact that the traveling of theory from one context to another is itself an activity embedded in socio-cultural practices and context politics. Translation, reception and interpretation of texts do not take place in a vacuum but within networks and institutions that facilitate but also shape processes of interpreting and appropriating key ideas and concepts in diverse localities and subject areas [67].

How could a broader conception of translation, as a socio-cultural process and not a purely linguistic endeavor, help us explore, the multiple ways socio-cultural-historical approaches have moved and traveled in the locality of Greece while considering a range of cultural, historical, institutional and ideological factors that have influenced this move? In the present article, we aim to make a first step to map the rather fragmented landscape of relevant theory use in Greece and outline a meta-the- oretical frame for further work in this area. The paper is organized in four sections. After this introductory section, we move to discuss traveling theory as a theoretical lense in the second section. The third section describes the methodology of our inquiry, which then leads to the subsequent mapping of key actors and the analysis of relevant practices and contexts of interpretation.

Traveling theory

According to Said [66], when theories travel i.e. move into new contexts, they enter a constant process of transformation, as an effect of given differences in place and time. The concept of traveling theory, often employed in post-colonial studies, could be particularly important, indeed, in understanding the ways in which socio­cultural, cultural-historical and activity approaches to education and psychology have traveled to Greece and elsewhere over the last few decades. Instead of struggling to account for a direct one-to-one implementation of theory, when employing this concept, one may focus on the manifold socio-cultural encounters taking place across space and also in time, and therefore analyze the multiple transformations of a theory, as it becomes re/ appropriated in the local context.

Translation practices of theory traveling involve mediating devices, interpreting and creating texts, networking, funds, and infrastructures, as well as, personal motives and interpersonal synergies within the realms of academic and, eventually, broader institutional politics. The notion of traveling theory provides a fruitful meta- theoretical framework for such an analysis — in this case, capturing theory travels across multiple temporal layers from Russia, the UK, US, central and east Europe to Greece. In our analysis below, we trace the travel of socio-cultural-historical approaches to psychology and education across a range of practices, such as the translations of original works into the Greek language, the delivery of university-based courses in education and psychology, the conduct of research, the employment of relevant theory for educational policy and activism beyond the academia. Each of these practices may deserve more attention and could become a separate area for further investigation in the near future.

Methodology: Texts, contexts, actors
and interpretation

Based on our collective knowledge of published work and our own experiences and discussions with key informants, our investigation entailed the following steps: Initially, we engaged into discussing our research questions (i.e. appropriation of socio-cultural-historical approaches in the local context of Greece) in varied occasions and with different audiences (International Society of Cultural-historical Activity Research invited symposium in Rome [18] and regional ISCAR conference in Crete [20; 60]. At the same time, we searched for all relevant published work such as books, journal articles, conference proceedings papers, etc. and created a timeline of major relevant works in the Greek language (a total volume of about 700 pages i.e. 30 books from 1990 to 2019, see Appendix and Bibliography).

We identified the key Greek scholars, who have determined the interpretation of the classic texts in Greek through the lenses of their training and academic knowl­edges shaped in diverse contexts such as Russia, Poland, the UK, and the US. In parallel, we analyzed all relevant texts and textual interpretation that we could have access on with discursive methods [35]. Finally, we explored issues of homogeneity/ heterogeneity and tried to explain and contextualize the different interpretations by focusing not only on explicit but also on implicit or hidden aspects of communication and practice in the academic community and beyond. Therefore, we have included higher education courses, networks of scholars, implementation of theory in guidelines for curricular reforms and links to activism beyond academia [42].

When referring to theory traveling, we could not circumvent reflecting on our own status as researchers, who also have traveled, and continue traveling, in-between diverse localities. It is important for us to consider ourselves as part of what we study. We have studied and worked in different parts of the world (i.e. Dafermos in Soviet Union/Russia; Chronaki in the UK & Sweden; Kontopodis in Germany & the UK). We all have studied and employed Vygotskian theory in our different disciplines during our early studies (philosophy, mathematics education, and psychology, respectively). Engaging in this research paper has been a long process of synthesizing our different theoretical ideas, methodological tools, and viewpoints while reflecting on our own distinct trajectories within the landscape of socio-cultural- historical approaches to psychology and education.

Classic texts and translation in Greek

It was not before the late 1980s that socio-cultural-historical approaches to psychology and education were introduced to Greece. This was slowly achieved by Greek scholars trained in diverse settings in countries such as the UK, the US, France, Poland and Russia. When returning to Greece to obtain academic positions and develop teaching and research there, these scholars resorted on socio-cultural-historical theorizing in their quite diverse disciplines, such as: psychology, educational science, anthropology, philosophy, art history and linguistics. Vygotsky [79; 80] was therefore not the only author translated, and many other Russian and Soviet scholars were given significant attention such as Bakhtin [2], Voloshinov [71; 72], Luria [49; 50], etc.

As the translation of these classic texts began around 1990 in Greece (i.e. much later than in Germany, the US and the UK.), their translation has often not been from the original Russian text but from already translated texts in English, German, or French. Common mistakes that have recently been identified in the English translations happened also in Greek (e.g. thought instead of thinking; etc. [70]. Unfortunately, the original text(s) in Russian were not easily accessible — at least in the first years. Currently, increased access to primary resources (as well as the problematization of translation itself) has become easier, and historiographical and etymological/ philological knowledge is increasingly available.

Key actors and academic disciplines

University-based pedagogical departments, i.e. Departments of Primary and Early Childhood Education, were amongst the first in the early 90s to adopt socio­cultural-historical approaches to psychology and education in academic teaching and research.

Yiannis Papamichael at the Department of Education of the University of Patras explored the relationships between learning and teaching in neo-Piagetian and Vygotskian frameworks [56]. At about the same time, Christos Frangos was among the first at the Department of Early Childhood Education at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki to introduce Vygotskian theory. Frangos [26] tried to develop a teaching model based on ideas of Socrates, Vygotsky, and Piaget and became quite active in ECERA (European Early Childhood Research Association).

A few years later, Luria’s Cognitive Development was translated from English into Greek by M. Terzidou and Anastasia Kostaridou-Eukleidi in 1995 (Department of Psychology of the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki). Kostaridou-Eukleidi [38] argued for a necessary move from Piagetian to Vygotskian research as a more adequate frame to explain cognitive development in terms of a cultural-historical approach. Along similar lines, Vosniadou [75] has edited a collection of core essays in cognitive science and was a founding member of the newly convened journal, Noesis. As series editor of Psychology with Gutenberg publishing house, she has also promoted the publishing of books on socio-cogni- tive aspects of learning ([34], dialogical perspectives on learning [55]: on the zone of proximal development in Vygotsky’s theory, etc.).

Both Stella Vosniadou and Anastasia Kostaridou- Efkleidi and their collaborators have played an important role in framing discourses on cognitive (and socio-cogni- tive) development, school learning, epistemology and educational psychology through their internationally acknowledged research work. It is important to mention that both scholars, back in the early and middle 90s, placed attention on socio-cultural work and became active towards editing the translation of major works such as Mind in Society (1997) and Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations (1995) in Greek. At the same time, politically engaged intellectuals outside the university published the first translations of classic texts [49; 80].

Still, the first time a systematic undergraduate course devoted to the study of cultural-historical psychology took place in 2002 at the Department of Psychology, University of Crete. Manolis Dafermos’s book The Cultural-Historical Theory of Vygotsky [in Greek] was the basis of this course. Psychology students having enrolled this course claimed that cultural-historical psychology opened for them a different route as compared to the dominant paradigms taught until then. Soon after, The Development of Children by Cole, Cole & Lightfoot [13] was translated and used as a textbook in many departments of psychology and education in Greece.

Establishing a more specific focus on science education, the work by Katerina Plakitsi and her students has been significant in introducing Activity Theory at the Department of Preschool Education, University of loannina. Their “©Formal Informal Science Education Group” consisted of senior researchers, postdoctoral, PhDs and postgraduate students and has proposed to reexamine STEM Education from the perspective of the cultural-historical activity theory [58; 59].

Major socio-cultural-historical works have also been translated by engaged political groups and public intellectuals interested in making use of socio-cultural- historical approaches for ideological and socio-political purposes. Michalis Kouvelas, member of the Greek Communist Party, and Elissaios Vagenas are amongst the main intellectuals, who edited and published translations of classic works and collections of various classic texts [39; 40; 69]. We consider this trend as distinct from other streams mentioned above since its explicit purpose has been to enable access to socio-cultural-historical approaches for purposes of political critique, political activism, and intervention from a Marxist perspective.

In a broader, interdisciplinary, critical, and cross- theoretical perspective, Marios Pourkos at the University of Crete (initially in the Department of Psychology and since 2000 at the Department of Early Childhood Education) along with other scholars linked with him, has advanced theoretical aspects of Vygotskian and Bakhtinian studies with an emphasis towards discussing epistemological and philosophical issues, as well as with a focus on qualitative research methodology [61; 62; 63; 64]. Along similar lines, the work by Anna Chronaki at the University of Thessaly brings together socio-cultural theory in mathematics education with a focus on situated knowledges, hybrid learning identities, gender studies and post-structuralist approaches [6; 7; 8; 9; 10].

Most recently, Patelis and Kakarinos [57] have tried to situate cultural-historical and activity theory in the broader context of Soviet Psychology by highlighting its relationships with other trends. They argue that the theory should not be perceived as a tool for propaganda, but as an extremely important, yet under-researched, theoretical, methodological tradition that, potentially, opens new horizons for understanding, learning and action in the direction of radical social and political transformation.

Context(s) of interpretation

Without going into many details, modern Greek history is currently characterized by strong opposition amongst two distinct tendencies: market-driven modernization vs. radical political activism that resists neoliberal practices. At the same time, contem - porary life in Greece is still weaved with the histories of a strong leftist movement and a civil war after the World War II; a military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974; the dilemmas of a so-called European Integration during the last 40 years and the most recent debt crisis and austerity measures.

The Greek University, as an institution, has historically played an important role against the military dictatorship of the 70s when the students’ radical action along with leftist activists paved the way against the military junta. For this, the University has until recently been considered the institution par excellence for democratic engagement and free circulation of ideas towards even radical forms of political thought and action. At the same time, university-based academics have been the driving force of the market-oriented modernization of the Greek society, too. In this context, more and more universities have been established across metropolitan and peripheral locations and many academics, who were educated in countries as diverse as the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Sweden and Russia/Soviet Union therefore representing a wide range of theoretical and research trends and traditions, have been employed in Greece. As such, it is not accidental that our analysis has identified very different ways of how socio-cultural-historical approaches to psychology and education were appropriated in the Greek context.

A first approach aims explicitly to promote socio­cultural thinking in the academic teaching of cognitive science, educational psychology and school psychology. This way of appropriating socio-cultural-historical theory follows similar developments from the 70s and 80s in the US, where socio-cultural-historical approaches were linked to varied forms of cognitivism and constructivism as part of a critical reaction to behaviorism. Greek universities have since the late 90s increasingly reproduced the dominant North Atlantic scientific paradigm of research. Often in this frame, translations of classic Russian texts in Greek, were based on the English translation, and followed a rather positivist epistemology without any explicit reference to distinct political issues and values linked with the Soviet school [68].

As technology became more important in education and society, the focus shifted slightly from cognition in terms of brain research to so-called distributed cognition [31] or the system humans-technology-activity [7]. University courses with a specific focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education (STEM) have been developed. Cultural-historical activity theory and other socio-cultural-historical approaches have been significant here and often provided the frame for the organization of large-scale teacher training programs especially in technology use in subject specific domains.

The academic discourse on socio-cultural approaches to psychology and education was conse - quently appropriated in an oversimplified and instrumental jargon by the Greek Ministry of Education and Research. Key Vygotskian concepts were introduced in curricular reform guidelines for school teaching and learning, echoing similar developments across the European Union and elsewhere in the world. Socio-cultural approaches to psychology and education became in this frame a recipe for teaching with a specific focus on ZPD, not as a complex socio-cultural-historical unit but as a socio-cognitive formula that can be used in practice in (uncritical) combination with a variety of other concepts and methods stemming from a different pedagogical and psychological theories [53]. For example, the former president of the Greek Pedagogical Institute, which determines curriculum content, suggested that:

The art of teaching and of learning — an adaptive constant reflection on the following parameters: the learning environment, learning methods, and pedagogical principles — can be applied for example on verbal or audiovisual learning in accordance with the conclusions theory of the programmed learning of behaviorist approaches (Skinner), active and constructive learning, and the socio-cultural context (Piaget, Vygotsky, Brun­er) [1, pp. 108—109].

Previously unrelated concepts and theories are now rather unproblematically combined here in their application on educational practice without significant reflection on the epistemological premises, theoretical underpinnings and practical limitations of such combination. However, teachers tend to oppose such unreflective uses of theory as we have experienced in studying how teachers learn to appropriate technol - ogy in their subject didactics in a long-term training course [11]. In this course, centrally organized by the Greek Ministry of Education, teachers had to employ Vygotskian concepts (such as tool, ZPD, mediation, scaffolding) and plan their teaching and learning practice: A few weeks after the training course was completed, and as teachers go back to their daily school duties and routines, the discussion continues at a personal level of interviewing concerning the is - sue of ‘teacher change’. Although teachers were able to consider ‘change’ as a more complex experience that cannot be detected at a behavioral level, they also talked about ‘change’ as something that cannot be re - ally achieved as one noted through humor:

Teacher: When Axxx (a tutor) was asking during the last day of the course how ‘technology’ has changed us, he (Teacher A) said: ‘ Why do you ask? Don’t you see me?’ We now have used this as our slogan. When we talk with other colleagues, we ask ‘How do you see me? Have I changed?’ (laughter)

Contrary to the good intentions of the educational reform, the teacher resists the discourse of a smooth ‘change’ simply by means of technology-use based on a Vygotskian approach of teaching and learning. Along with colleagues the teacher jokes about the possibility of noticeable ‘change’ and humor becomes their ally to denote the challenges of attempting to bring a theory into a complex educational terrain where technology serves many more other interests than just teaching and learning [11].

Last but not least, another distinct approach to socio-cultural-historical thinking in Greece has emphasized its potential for criticality. In academic discussions this perspective entailed a focus on epistemological critique while, when moving beyond academia, the emphasis has been on implications in terms of practice and political activism (see [9], [19]: awareness of cultural differences in education, [69]: political and ideological critique]). Even if there are significant differences among the various scholars, to whom we refer here, in terms of epistemological and political positioning (e.g. with regards to feminist vs. universalist understandings of the human); this last trend can be linked to the opening of the Greek so - ciety and the university to new ideas and paradigms in the post-dictatorship era, as briefly referred to above. It echoes similar developments in other countries, where socio-cultural-historical approaches have worked towards inspiring scholars to critically reflect on the links between education and broader socio-po - litical transformations (for example in West Germany in the 1980s and in Brazil in the post-dictatorship period there [51; 4; 36].

The aforementioned ways of interpreting and employing socio-cultural-historical approaches in Greece are clearly distinct from each other and they involve different motives, epistemological beliefs or, even, political and ideological values. As such the theory cannot be considered as a closed and neutral system of research tools and methods but as a rather open-ended framework that is being shaped by the social, cultural, historical and political, local dynamics.

How do theories travel? Conclusionary
remarks & meta-theoretical reflection

According to Daniels, Cole, and Wertsch, studying Vygotsky in context means that we should define two different historical eras and multiple social milieus — the context of the Soviet Union in the first half of the 20th century and the context in different parts of the world of the 21st century [21]. As outlined above, not only are more than two spaces and temporalities involved [3]: one needs to closely document, analyze, and meta-theo- rize a series of processes that make possible for a theory to travel through particular space, as well as, in time.

It is important to situate the employment of concepts and the use of theory in research practices, academic networks, educational interventions, national policymak­ing, and other settings. Translation and historiography in a certain sense can cumulatively — i.e. almost objectively — always become richer, more detailed, and “better” [15]. However, when referring to the uses of theory, complex meta-theoretical tools are needed in order to explore, distinguish, and eventually evaluate them. The context of theory use is not only textual/semiotic, but it might also involve micro-political strategies for academic or other recognition, material needs and resources, ideological values, as well as political and aesthetic preferences.

Considering the local contexts into which a theory travels has been argued as paramount for encountering the relations amongst theory, literary texts and culture. In this sense, attention shifts from what a theory is to what a theory does. From this perspective, one may move “... from the position occupied by translations in various cultures to the way in which socio-cultural factors, poetics, ideology, politics, ethnic and gender identity, have shaped translations at different times and in different geographical areas” [22, p. 12].

We believe that apprehending the Greek context’s dynamics and complexity can support us to understand the reception, interpretation and, eventually, also the limitations in the manifold uses of socio-cultural-historical approaches to psychology and education in Greece. The dynamics of marketization vs. radical socio-political engagement is ultimately related, explicitly or implicitly, on how socio-cultural-historical approaches to psychology and education have been used in praxis with human and non-human actors, reassembled and re/appropri- ated in Greece.

We suggest that one needs to reflect on and explic - itly account for one’s political aspirations or interests,
when using the theory in one way or another. Even if one claims oi using this highly politicized theoretical corpus in “neutral”/ “non-political” ways, this is still a political act. Thus, we have no easy and gen era 1 solutions to suggest here; we can only claim that transparency and dialogue concerning political, aesthetic, and ideological criteria and values are required in all interpretation work and would be pivotal ior further theory-building in the future. The “original” text or the “original” context cannot be the only reference point in this undertaking because oithe two-level distinction that we have attempted to introduce above. New biopolitical challenges are currently emerging in Greece and all over the world, to name a ^^w^. g^^cb^aif pandemics such as the current Convid-19 happening as we now write this paper, environmental crisis, debt crisis and educational privatization. The open question ior the iuture is how existing theoretical discus - sions, endeavors, and works inspired by socio-cultural-historical approaches will ilourish and deepen in order to address such challenges.

In conclusion, the application oi the concept of traveling theory in exploring the reception and interpretation oi socio-cultural-historical approaches to psychology and education in Greece has enabled us to trace important aspects oi the relationship between knowledge production, on the one hand, and the local society and cultural history, on the other. We hope thus, that the notion oi traveling theory may also provide the much-needed meta-theoretical iramework to investigate the various ways in which socio-cultural- historical approaches to psychology and education have moved and continue to travel through disciplin - ary boundaries and regional, socio-cultural contexts in an increasingly globalized, interdisciplinary academic landscape.



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Information About the Authors

Manolis Dafermos, PhD in Philosophy, Professor of Epistemology of Psychology, Department of Psychology, School of Social Sciences, University of Crete, Crete, Greece, ORCID:, e-mail:

Anna Chronaki, Doctor of Philosophy, Professor, University of Thessaly, Greece, ORCID:, e-mail:

Michalis Kontopodis, Senior Lecturer in Education Studies, University of Roehampton, Paulo Freire Institute UK, Great Britain, ORCID:, e-mail:



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