Vygot’sky developed his theory of the culture-making process in the 1930s and early 1940s. He sought to provide a comprehensive explanation for how a society goes from being in an initial stage (the presocial) to developing into a complex social system that is capable of sustaining its own dynamics.
This was at a time when the focus in Soviet social science, following the work of Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria, was on the development of brain and mind.
Vygot’sky’s theory requires some background knowledge. In order to understand how Vygot’sky’s theory works, it is necessary to know that every human society has traditions. Everyone in a society practices those traditions and knows them intimately.
They become deeply rooted in the mind and actions of members of that society: they are internalized as habits, emotional preferences, and skill-sets which are available for people to use at any time. Societies have values which guide the practice of tradition in specific circumstances. The practice of tradition in a society is supported by institutions.
The development of a society occurs through the dialectical synthesis of its internal structures, called ‘functions’, with the influence of an external environment. As people practice their traditions they create new activities which assist them to live more effectively.
The newly created activities can be turned into functions, as long as they are able to solve an existing problem and contribute to the stability and directionality of social life. If a new activity successfully meets those criteria it becomes institutionalized as a function in society. The result of socio-cultural development is the emergence of a new level of society.
For example, consider a group of hunter-gatherers. The people live in camps and move periodically in search of food. They have a function, mobility, which makes it possible to carry out their life activity. They also have a series of activities which include searching for food and eating when it is found; cooking the food; keeping warm at night; communicating with other members of their group; and so forth.