Genetic method

The genetic method (or is the research approach used by Vygotsky to reveal the essential nature of particular psychological functions by bringing them into being in an experimental setting.


The genetic method rests on the more general insight that processes can be understood by tracing their history. Goethe for example said “the history of science if science itself” (Theory of Colours, Preface), and Hegel in particular developed the historical approach to the understanding of natural and social processes, and Marx adopted this approach, insisting that “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production” (1859 Preface) and in this way grasped bourgeois society as a specific and transitory stage in the development of human life, rather than something rooted in an eternal human nature. Likewise, Chapter 1 of Capital included section outlining the historical evolution of the commodity relation up to the formation of money. Vygotsky approached psychology in the same way, beginning his investigation with “The historical meaning of the crisis in psychology” in which: “The methodological investigation utilises the historical examination of the concrete forms of the sciences and the theoretical analysis of these forms in order to obtain generalised, verified principles that are suitable for guidance. This is, in our opinion, the core of this general psychology.”


Luria described a series of experiments that were developed by Vygotsky's team in which child subjects who are unable to complete a certain task, are offered a symbolic artefact to assist in overcoming the barrier and solving the problem. In The Problem of the Cultural Behavior of the Child, he shows that this experimental approach replicates the normal cultural development in which cultural artefacts are offered to a child when they come across a barrier and seek help from adults.

“We can place a child in difficult situations, give him a task so difficult that he cannot solve it without the application of some special technical means. We are urging him to search for such means, to enter the field of inventions. In offering the child the corresponding material which he could utilize as such means, we are making such research visible and render it capable of being observed.” (Cultural Behavior of the Child)

Using the experimental genetic approach, researchers are able to observe how, and at what stage of ontogenetic development, a child is able or unable to use a cultural artefact to solve tasks, and later internalise the cultural method. He shows that at a certain stage, the whole structure of a child's psyche is transformed, and problems are solved in ways which are qualitatively different to how the younger child is able to solve them.

In Chapter 4 of “Thinking and Speech” Vygotsky uses this genetic approach to unlock the meaning of children’s egocentric speech, which arises at a certain point in the course of their cultural development, and thereby reveals he relation between thinking and speaking, which he summed up as follows:

“1. In their ontogenetic development, thought and speech have different roots.
“2. In the speech development of the child, we can with certainty establish a pre-intellectual stage, and in his thought development, a pre-linguistic stage.
“3. Up to a certain point in time, the two follow different lines, independently of each other.
“4. At a certain point these lines meet, whereupon thought becomes verbal and speech rational.” (Thinking and Speech, Chapter 4.2)

The genetic method applies this insight to experiments in which the mastery of specific psychological functions or psychological tools is fostered, revealing the development of the child’s psychology.

See the entry on Dual Stimulation for examples of application of the Genetic Method.


Goethe, J. W. v. (1810). Theory of Colours. Preface.

Luria A. R. (1928). The Problem of the Cultural Behavior of the Child,

Marx, K. (1859). Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

Marx, K. (1867). Capital, Chaper 1, section 3,

Vygotsky, L. S. (1934). Thinking and Speech. LSVCW v. 1. pp. 39-288

Vygotsky, L. S. (1934). Thinking and Speech. Chapter 4,

Vygotsky, L. S. and Luria A. R. (1939). Tool and symbol in child development,

-- AndyBlunden - 07 Oct 2014


Topic revision: r2 - 17 Nov 2014, AndyBlunden

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