What Is Sociocultural Theory?

Sociocultural theory is an emerging field of psychology that looks at the contributions of society to individual development. This theory has become increasingly prominent since the 1990s and can be applied in educational settings as well as in socialization and play.

Psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed that parents, caregivers, peers, and the culture at large are responsible for developing the brain's higher-order functions. According to Vygotsky, human development relies on social interaction and, therefore, can differ among cultures.

Sociocultural theory of development
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell

Sociocultural theory stresses the role that social interaction plays in psychological development. It suggests that human learning is largely a social process, and that our cognitive functions are formed based on our interactions with those around us who are "more skilled."

According to the sociocultural perspective, our psychological growth is guided, in part, by people in our lives who are in mentor-type roles, such as teachers and parents. Other times, we develop our values and beliefs through our interactions within social groups or by participating in cultural events.

Sociocultural theory focuses on how mentors and peers influence individual learning, but also on how cultural beliefs and attitudes affect how learning takes place.

History of Sociocultural Theory

Sociocultural theory grew from the work of psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who believed that parents, caregivers, peers, and the culture at large are responsible for developing higher-order functions. According to Vygotsky, learning has its basis in interacting with other people. Once this has occurred, the information is then integrated on the individual level.

Vygotsky contended that children are born with basic biological constraints on their minds. Each culture, however, provides "tools of intellectual adaptation." These tools allow children to use their abilities in a way that is adaptive to the culture in which they live.

For example, one culture might emphasize memory strategies such as note-taking. Another might use tools like reminders or rote memorization (a technique that uses repetition). These nuances influence how a child learns, providing the "tools" that are appropriate to their culture.

Vygotsky, born in 1896, was a contemporary of other great thinkers such as Freud, Skinner, and Piaget, but his early death at age 37 and the suppression of his work in Stalinist Russia initially left his theories less well-known. As his work has become more widely published, his ideas have grown increasingly influential in areas including child development, cognitive psychology, and education.

The Zone of Proximal Development

An important concept in sociocultural theory is known as the zone of proximal development. According to Vygotsky, this is "the distance between the actual development level (of the learner) as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers."

Essentially, it includes all of the knowledge and skills that a person cannot yet understand or perform on their own but is capable of learning with guidance. As children are allowed to stretch their skills and knowledge, often by observing someone who is slightly more advanced than they are, they are able to progressively extend this zone.

Some research has supported the validity of the zone of proximal development. For instance, one study reported that whether a student experiences test anxiety is influenced, in part, by whether they have someone available to provide assistance if needed. A 2013 case study connects this concept with how a student develops writing abilities.

Vygotsky vs. Piaget: Key Differences

Jean Piaget was a psychologist and genetic epistemologist known for his theory of cognitive development which outlines the four stages in which children learn. Since they are both theories of learning, Vygotsky's theory is often compared to Piaget's.

Vygotsky's Theory
  • Social factors influence development

  • Development can differ between cultures

Piaget's Theory
  • Childhood interactions and explorations influence development

  • Development is largely universal

How does Vygotsky's sociocultural theory differ from Piaget's theory of cognitive development? First, while Piaget's theory stressed that a child's interactions and explorations impact development, Vygotsky asserted the essential role that social interactions play.

Another important difference between the two is that Piaget's theory suggests that development is largely universal and Vygotsky asserts that it can differ between cultures. The course of development in European culture, for example, might be different than in Asian culture.

Because cultures can vary so dramatically, Vygotsky's sociocultural theory suggests that both the course and content of intellectual development are not as universal as Piaget believed.

Some suggest that these two theories of human development differ greatly due to their founders' different upbringings and that Vygotsky had strong cultural ties while Piaget had a lonely childhood.

Applying Vygotsky's Theory

Sociocultural theory has gained popularity within certain settings. Here's how this theory can be put into practice in the real world.

In the Classroom

Understanding the zone of proximal development can be helpful for teachers. In classroom settings, teachers may first assess students to determine their current skill level. Educators can then offer instruction that stretches the limits of each child's capabilities.

At first, the student may need assistance from an adult or a more knowledgeable peer. Eventually, their zone of proximal development will expand. Teachers can help promote this expansion by:

  • Planning and organizing classroom instruction and lessons. For example, the teacher might organize the class into groups where less-skilled children are paired with students who have a higher skill level. 
  • Using hints, prompts, and direct instruction to help kids improve their ability levels.
  • Scaffolding, where the teacher provides specific prompts to move the child progressively forward toward a goal.

In Socialization and Play

Vygotsky's theory also stressed the importance of play in learning. Vygotsky believed that through playing and imagining, children are able to further stretch their conceptual abilities and knowledge of the world. 

Teachers and parents can use this concept by providing children with plenty of opportunities for play experiences. Types of play that can foster learning include imaginary play, role-playing, games, and reenactments of real events. Such activities help promote the growth of abstract thought.

A Word From Verywell

Although Vygotsky's sociocultural theory only gained credence after his death, research has helped validate the role that those around us play in shaping how we develop as individuals.

Even though not everyone agrees as to the specifics of this development, as outlined in Piaget vs. Vygotsky, the sociocultural perspective does contribute to this understanding. It has also influenced other modern theories of human development, such as those that relate to cognitive growth and education.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you use sociocultural theory in the classroom?

    Creating a collaborative learning environment is one way to use sociocultural theory in the classroom. This might involve pairing students with others of higher skill levels, or it could be by learning as a group versus having students learn on their own.

    Teachers can also take advantage of the zone of proximal development by providing guidance and support to help the students reach their learning goals—particularly in an online learning environment.

  • Why is sociocultural theory important?

    The sociocultural perspective reinforces the role that people in mentor-like positions play in shaping who we become. This includes not just parents and teachers but also community leaders and others we model ourselves after.

    If you are in one of these positions, it's important to recognize that you are shaping the development of the children around you. Because sociocultural theory also stresses the importance that culture plays in the process, this can help us better understand how our traditions and customs can influence future generations.

  • How does sociocultural theory compare to cognitive theory?

    Sociocultural theory explains learning as a social practice while cognitive theory considers learning on a more individual level. With cognitive theory, learning is dependent on a person's mental processes. Thus, it is more focused on how the human mind works versus the impact that society plays in development.

16 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.