Luciano Mecacci

Vygotsky, the “difficult childhood”, and the normal-pathological dilemma

In the early twentieth century no psychological theory rejected the idea that the human mind develops in close interaction with the environment. The difference between the various theoretical trends was in the greater or lesser weight attributed to environmental factors compared to genetic ones. However, in these theories the environment was conceived in an abstract way, while for Vygotsky the environment has a cultural-historical connotation that is highly specific. One cannot extrapolate the development investigated in a given cultural-historical context to assume it as the normal development, as the reference point of comparison for other contexts (here is the main point of the criticism of Piaget and his “Swiss child”). The thesis of the cultural-historical nature of the variety of psycho-developmental patterns was introduced by Vygotsky since his first psychological studies. In a first phase of his research Vygotsky had to deal with children with disabilities of sensory and cerebral origin, with cognitive and affective disorders, with forms of social maladjustment resulting in juvenile delinquency, and finally with the phenomenon of besprizornye (literally: unprotected children). This whole spectrum of childhood, called “difficult childhood” (trudnoe detstvo), was the starting point for subsequent research on the so-called “normal” development. However, this issue was addressed by Vygotsky from a perspective that rejected any normative assumption (what is normal vs. what is abnormal) which would have had serious effects on social integration. This fundamental characteristic of Vygotsky’s theory - “a child whose development is impeded by a defect is not simply a child less developed than his peers but is a child who has developed differently” (Vygotsky, 1929) -  was ignored by Western researchers until a few decades ago due to the particular diffusion of his works from the 60s of the past century - a knowledge aggravated by the previous interventions of the Soviet censorship on Vygotsky’s works.