L.S. Vygotsky in the 21st Century: Impact on Psychology of Emotion (based on dissertations in English)



Despite the popularity of L.S. Vygotsky in the English-speaking world, there is much debate about how exactly his ideas are applied in contemporary research. The article provides a quantitative analysis of dissertations on the psychology of emotions that mention L.S. Vygotsky from 2000 to 2020. It covers 177 dissertations from the ProQuest Dissertations & Thesis database, considering their topics and application of Vygotsky's ideas in the texts. It was discovered dissertations are distributed roughly equally into pedagogical (89) and psychological (88) dissertations. Half of all dissertations refers to Mind & Society, while a quarter relies on English editions of Thinking and Speech. Another 16% of dissertations contain no direct references to L.S. Vygotsky. In the majority of works, L.S. Vygotsky is mentioned either as the author of the sociocultural theory as a whole or as one of the concepts in the field of development. The methodology of the analysis of the semantic structure of consciousness and experiences is little in demand by English-speaking researchers. Only two dissertations have dealt with the concept of "experience". In 13 works, based on L. S. Vygotsky, the authors apply the ideas of mediation, development zones, development of concepts to emotions in childhood, the cultural specificity of emotional language, and consider the emotional side of speech. It is possible to trace both indirect influence of L.S. Vygotsky's legacy on psychology of emotions, testifying to graduate students' familiarity with the cultural-historical approach, and direct, through contemporary advancement of is core ideas.

General Information

Keywords: emotions, methodology, "perezhivanije" (experience), Vygotsky

Journal rubric: Vygotskology

Article type: scientific article

DOI: https://doi.org/10.17759/chp.2022180215

Funding. The reported study was funded by Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR), project number 20-01-00001.

Received: 16.11.2021


For citation: Leontieva A.A. L.S. Vygotsky in the 21st Century: Impact on Psychology of Emotion (based on dissertations in English). Kul'turno-istoricheskaya psikhologiya = Cultural-Historical Psychology, 2022. Vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 136–144. DOI: 10.17759/chp.2022180215.

Full text


In recent years there has been a growing interest in the social and cultural contexts of emotional experience. While in the early 2000s, along with rapid improvements in psychophysiological methods and precision recording techniques, interest in the psychology of emotions as a natural science discipline grew [see: 12; 30], after a certain saturation with data the situation is changing. Thus, the famous emotion researcher L.F. Barrett developed the concept of the social construction of emotions [1], which is supported by neurostudies [27]. Although Barrett herself is familiar with the work of L.S. Vygotsky and refers to him, it is not clear how exactly the tradition he started in general psychology turns out to be productive and in demand in this “humanitarian turn” of emotion researchers.

A number of contemporary studies are devoted to the reception and development of the cultural-historical tradition in the world scientific literature [3; 6; 9; 10]. A scientometric study shows that works about Vygotsky have appeared steadily in the ten-year period since 2009, with Russian researchers predominating [9]. Due to the fact that interest in the social development of the emotional sphere among researchers is now high, the (non)using of L.S. Vygotsky’s approach to the psychology of emotions can be considered as a separate case of scientometric analysis. Does a wide range of researchers of emotions resort to the works of L.S. Vygotsky as a source of methodological ideas? And how exactly does this happen?

To answer this question, a thematic analysis of PhD dissertations available through the Pro Quest Dissertations and Theses database was conducted. The dissertations reflected areas that, at a minimum, researchers with the right to lead PhD students found promising, and, at a maximum, in which interested PhD students were able to obtain a specific result. The criterion for selection was that the dissertations explicitly manifested knowledge of the legacy of L.S. Vygotsky. Therefore, I assumed that the analysis of the use of the ideas of cultural-historical psychology and the predominant themes of works in the field of emotions that mention L.S. Vygotsky allows us to describe the contemporary spread of his approach in this relatively new subject.

The possibilities of quantitative methods in historical-scientific and scientific research are limited and do not allow for a meaningful analysis of conceptual development. Algorithmizing, however, provides research with special tools. The possibility of putting different kinds of programs at the service of scientific reflection becomes very real for modern scientists, including when studying the development of the cultural-historical approach.

Emotions in Cultural-Historical Perspective

Emotion is not a key term for cultural-historical psychology from the experts’ point of view [9], although the analysis of publications in the journal Cultural-Historical Psychology shows that from 2005 to 2016, 11% of articles belonged thematically to the “Personality, Motivation, and Emotion” section, 13 articles were published on “Experiences” and 15 on “Meaning.” Studies of emotional life, despite the fact that their methodological schemes are not as elaborate as those in studies of learning and development, are related to very important problems for L.S. Vygotsky.

By 1933, L.S. Vygotsky wrote the critical part of his treatise “The Doctrine of Emotions”. [4]. His positive part was never written [7]. In 1932, he gave a lecture “Emotions and Their Development in Childhood”. [5]. Vygotsky referred to the related problems of emotion —affect and experience —in their connection with the development of the child’s personality (for example, in “The Crisis at 7”), art (aesthetic emotions), intellect (the unity of affect and intellect), mastery of the actor, etc.

The concept of “experience,” which is difficult to translate into English, is important for Vygotsky’s approach to emotional life [14]. Vygotsky did not explicitly formulate a methodology for analyzing emotional life proper. This incompleteness creates space for discussion of possible cultural-historical versions of the theory of emotions [see: 16; 18; 23].

As a preface to the analysis of materials on emotions, it can be noted that among the followers of L.S. Vygotsky the most developed version of the psychology of emotions known to the Russian-speaking reader can be found in the Moscow psychological school [8]. For A.N. Leontiev, emotions are a tool of activity regulation that signals motivation to the subject. As such, a person’s emotional life is closely connected with his or her life world.

The analysis conducted by Brazilian researcher J. Mesquita is called “Vygotsky and the Theories of Emotion in Search of a Possible Dialogue”. [28]. She suggested the possibility of viewing emotions as a product of mediating cultural scripts of primary emotional reactions with subsequent interiorization by analogy with concepts in the development of thinking. This approach is realized in the Brazilian school of the KIP [see, for example: 31], but not only in it.

A more developed version of the Vygotsky idea of cultural mediation is Holodinsky’s theory of emotion interiorization, known to the Russian-speaking reader due to the textbook by G. Breslau [2]. In 2013, the journal “Mind, Culture, and Activity” published two special issues on emotion in cultural and historical terms. The editor was Manfred Holodinsky; in this issue, in particular, he also outlined an updated version of his theory [22].

Another way to talk about a holistic theory of emotions from the perspective of cultural-historical activity psychology is offered by I. Burkitt [16]. For him, emotions are also connected with personality and L.S. Vygotsky’s ideas are supplemented by M.M. Bakhtin’s work on emotional and semantic processes.

Thus, the cultural-historical perspective of emotion research constitutes a separate substantive area, succeeding L.S. Vygotsky.


Criteria. The sample of the study consisted of 177 Ph.D. dissertations from the Pro Quest Dissertations & Theses database. Inclusion criteria: dissertations written after 1999 in English, containing in their text the name Vygotsky and among the key words the term emotion. Of the 196 results, language and access criteria excluded: 3 dissertations in Spanish; 8 master’s theses; and 7 dissertations were either unavailable or their texts were not searchable. The distribution of dissertations by year is shown in Figure 1. Of the 177 dissertations in this database, 172 were defended in the United States. The analysis was conducted in 2021.

Parameters. The Pro Quest Dissertations & Theses database contain information about the place of defense, year, subject and subject field. The number of thematic and subject categories assigned to each dissertation is unlimited. Moreover, there are six types of classifications with names: classification, classification codes, major classification codes, subject classifications, subject terms, subjects. For subject coding, the list of subject terms was taken.

The references used to Vygotsky’s work in the literature and the context in which the work was cited were coded. From the array of citations, one subcategory included those in which Vygotsky is mentioned only as the author of the theory of “sociocultural development” without elaboration. The second subcategory included citations in which L.S. Vygotsky is briefly mentioned in connection with the zone of nearest development or the role of cultural tools (scaffolding). An example of the citation defining assignment to such subcategory is “L.S. Vygotsky (1962) also argues that the self-concept of a child emerges through interaction with others. [25]. The works with extended and analytical citations were arranged into a separate subcategory of methodological continuation and considered accordingly.

In a random subsample (alphabetically) of dissertations (n=50), the paradigm of the main study was coded into large categories: 1) correlational research with quantitative measurement, including testing or interviews; 2) experimental and quasi-experimental designs; 3) qualitative research, including ethnographic and anthropological methods; and 4) the “other” category, which included cross-cultural comparisons, action research, and theoretical research.

All types of coding were done by a single coder. In addition, the same database was analyzed using Vos Viewer, a program designed for bibliographic analysis.


Topics of papers. The topics of works displayed by the system Proquest Dissertations & Theses are presented in Table 1. Based on the 22 thematic fields, dissertations were classified by two-stage clustering into two groups. Their size turned out to be almost equal, of 88 and 89 papers (silhouette measure = 0.3).

Thus, there are two groups of research on emotions using the works of L.S. Vygotsky, which can be designated as psychological and pedagogical. It is interesting that studies in the fields of social psychology, cognitive psychology, family studies and communication studies turn out to be integrative. They are represented comparably among both pedagogical and psychological studies of emotions. Clusters do not differ by year (F=0.90; p=.764) in pedagogical studies (M=2011.99; sd=5.098) and psychological studies (M=2010.69; sd=5.087).

Automatic processing of the same base by means of Vox Viewer resulted in not two, but three clusters (Fig. 2.). “Education” and “Psychology” were supplemented by the cluster “Social Sciences” and separate groups like “Language” “Early childhood education,” etc. The main divergence in the analysis is that the clustering method in Vos Viewer is supplemented by MM-algorithm, and it uses a different list of keywords from the metadata of articles.

Pic. 1. Distribution of number of dissertations on emotions and Vygotsky by year

Pic. 2. Coherence of thematic fields of dissertations in the area of emotion studies, that mention L. S. Vygotsky. Three thematic clusters established by Vox Viewer processing

Table 1

Dissertations topics and cluster distribution (n=177)

Subject terms*


H0: clusters are equally probable



Psychology, %

Education, %

Chi sq, df=1

p-value 2-side

Developmental psychology





p <.001

Educational psychology





p <.001

Clinical psychology





p <.001

Social psychology






Early childhood education





p <.001

Cognitive psychology






Teacher education





p <.001












p <.001

Personality psychology






Individual & family studies






Language & arts





p <.001

Behavioral psychology












Elementary education






Organizational behavior












Curriculum development






Higher education


















Special education






* based on subjectTerms category in the database

Research paradigm and sources. Of the 50 works selected for additional coding, 24 are based on quantitative measurements, 5 are experimental, and 13 are qualitative. The rest use other paradigms: 3 cross-cultural comparisons, 2 historical-theoretical papers, and 1 each research-in-action (formative research) and secondary quantitative data analysis. These distributions showed no significant relationships with year of work (F from .315 to .405). Quantitative dimensions as a paradigm predominated in the psychological dissertation cluster compared to the pedagogical cluster at the trend level (χ¬2= 3.82; p=.051) and qualitative/ethnographic dimensions predominated in the pedagogical cluster (χ2= 5.03; p=.025).

The analysis of dissertation source lists revealed that half of all dissertations refer to some edition of Mind in Society [37] a quarter rely on the English editions of Thinking and Speaking [38; 39], and another 16% of dissertations contain no direct references to L.S. Vygotsky, which means that his ideas are presented in them on the basis of secondary sources [15; 32; 41]. Only three papers [24; 33; 42] cited the English translation of the text “Emotions and their development in childhood” in two different editions [35; 36]. The references have no connection to the thesis year and thematic cluster.

In a large part of the works, emotions, although considered, are not the main subject. The context of references to L.S. Vygotsky’s works was specifically examined across the entire database of theses and dissertations. Three types of citations of L.S. Vygotsky on this basis can be distinguished. First, it is the use of reference to indicate the sociocultural approach in general; in this case, Vygotsky is often mentioned together with other authors, such as A. Bandura [e.g.: 17]. Secondly, it is the citation of a specific idea, most often about development or speech: the zone of closest development, mediation, and interiorization [e.g.: 13]. Third, dissertations where L.S. Vygotsky’s ideas are used to construct a hypothesis or argument about emotion. One— early — dissertation is devoted to the theoretical understanding of L.S. Vygotsky’s legacy in understanding personality and emotion [26]. In several papers, the authors use the idea of mediating to the development of socioemotional concepts, such as children’s understanding of the concept of apologetics [34]. One dissertation reveals the idea of experience [19]. Others in one way or another use the approach of L.S. Vygotsky to analyze the development of emotional regulation, considering the connection of emotional experience and language [29; 43].


The method of coding the content of dissertations used in the present article has two serious limitations. First, the coding for this work was done by only one researcher, which means that the threat of bias in this evaluation has not been assessed. Second, a search by name was used to determine the context of the use of L.S. Vygotsky’s legacy. This means that works written in the framework of the cultural-historical approach and studying emotion might not fall into the appropriate category if they drew on the developments of later followers. In our sample, for example, there are works that mention L.S. Vygotsky and use only references to abstract works or those that postulate their connection to the theory [15; 21; 32; 40; 41].

In the 2000—2020 dissertation sample, there is no reversal of interest in L.S. Vygotsky’s legacy over the years, although some upsurge took place in the noughties and was expressed by the peak of publications in 2009. This differs from the dynamics of mentioning L.S. Vygotsky in the general array of academic articles, where, according to colleagues [9], there is a slow growth with a peak rather around 2015-2017. This may be due to thematic specificity, as the presented analysis is focused only on works on emotion, and not on all academic materials. We can surmise that the preparation of the English-language dissertations on emotion is not oriented to the general context of publications in the field of cultural-historical psychology. Perhaps, due to the manifested perception of L.S. Vygotsky predominantly as the author of sociocultural theory in psychology and pedagogy, there is no close connection in them specifically with the development of cultural-historical methodology.

The data obtained about citations of L.S. Vygotsky’s works correspond to the observation of M. Dafermos [6] and N. Veresov [3], who also noted that the predominant references are translations of “Thinking and Speech” and “Mindin Society”.

A study by A. A. Shvedovskaya and N. V. Meshkova [11] allows us to compare the topics of works in the field of emotions in dissertations and in the journal of cultural-historical orientation. It showed that out of 316 empirical articles published in the journal “Cultural-Historical Psychology” from 2006 to 2016, 11% can be grouped into the block “Personality, Motivation, Emotion.” In this block the themes of fears, the participation of bodily sensations in the understanding of emotions, sense-making, and self-regulation stand out [11]. These themes form a generally unified field with those to which the theses in the analysis presented here are devoted. However, there are possible stylistic differences: for example, in the English-language dissertations the role of language is problematized rather than the participation of bodily sensations in emotional processes, whereas in the Russian-language works the trend is reversed. Also, the Russian-language journal contains 13 publications on experience, which was analyzed only twice in the English-language dissertations (once specifically [19] and once in a paper devoted to the contribution of L.S. Vygotsky [26]). Some materials of Beth Verholt’s dissertation on experience were subsequently published in a special issue of the journal “Mind, Culture, and Activity” [20], including in a polemical way. This is a reminder that dissertations not only mark interest in L.S. Vygotsky, but are themselves factors in the development of the cultural-historical psychology of emotions.


Dissertations on emotions, in which the authors use L.S. Vygotsky’s ideas, form two equal blocks: psychological research, mainly on development, and pedagogical research on education and its participants. In the majority of works L.S. Vygotsky is presented as the author of the sociocultural approach and such concepts as “zone of the proximal development”, “mediation”, etc.; and in them there is no direct connection with emotions as a subject of research. Only two dissertations [26; 19] work with the concept of “experience”.

Half of all the theses refers to some edition of “Mind in Society”, a quarter refers to the English editions of “Thinking and Speech”, and another 16% of theses make no direct references to L.S. Vygotsky. The scientist’s work on emotion is relatively underrepresented in English and has yet to find its way to researchers.

In absolute numbers, the number of works based on L.S. Vygotsky’s methodology in developing the psychology of emotions is small. Among the dissertations on emotions there is a number where the authors make creative attempts to apply the ideas of mediation, developmental zones, development of concepts to emotions at different stages of childhood, to the cultural specificity of emotional language and experience, and to the emotional side of speech.

It is possible to trace in dissertations both the indirect influence of L.S. Vygotsky’s legacy on psychology of emotions, testifying to graduate students’ familiarity with the cultural-historical approach, and the direct one, through the development of relevant ideas.


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Information About the Authors

Anna A. Leontieva, researcher, Belgorod National Research University, Belgorod, Russia, ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5689-0442, e-mail: anna.a.leontieva@gmail.com