James Wertsch

James Wertsch


Director Emeritus of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy
Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology
Professor of International and Area Studies
David R. Francis Distinguished Professor
PhD, University of Chicago
research interests:
  • Psychological Anthropology
  • National Narratives and Memory
  • Former Soviet Union
View All People

contact info:

mailing address:

  • Washington University
    CB 1173
    One Brookings Drive
    St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
image of book cover

Wertsch is the director emeritus of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy. A professor of sociocultural anthropology, Wertsch’s topics of study are national narratives and memory, collective memory and identity, especially in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, as well as in the United States.

He has particular interests in how these issues play out in Russia, the South Caucasus, and Estonia, but his research is also motivated by a broader set of concerns about the nature of collective memory in general. In previous writings he has drawn on the ideas of L.S. Vygotsky, M.M. Bakhtin, and others in order to examine problems of language and thought from a sociocultural perspective.

Professor Wetsch is currently working on several projects in the South Caucasus, especially the Republic of Georgia. This includes collaborating with colleagues on efforts to understand the emergence of civil society, and democracy in this region. Of particular interest for him is how schools and other institutions are harnessed to create and maintain official collective memory.

Mind As Action

Mind As Action

Contemporary social problems typically involve many complex, interrelated dimensions--psychological, cultural, and institutional, among others. But today, the social sciences have fragmented into isolated disciplines lacking a common language, and analyses of social problems have polarized into approaches that focus on an individual's mental functioning over social settings, or vice versa. 

In Mind as Action, James V. Wertsch argues that current approaches to social issues have been blinded by the narrow confines of increasing specialization in the social sciences. In response to this conceptual blindness, he proposes a method of sociocultural analysis that connects the various perspectives of the social sciences in an integrated, nonreductive fashion. Wertsch maintains that we can use mediated action, which he defines as the irreducible tension between active agents and cultural tools, as a productive method of explicating the complicated relationships between human action and its manifold cultural, institutional, and historical contexts. Drawing on the ideas of Lev Vygotsky, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Kenneth Burke, as well as research from various fields, this book traces the implications of mediated action for a sociocultural analysis of the mind, as well as for some of today's most pressing social issues. Wertsch's investigation of forms of mediated action such as stereotypes and historical narratives provide valuable new insights into issues such as the mastery, appropriation, and resistance of culture. By providing an analytic unit that has the possibility of operating at the crossroads of various disciplines, Mind as Action will be important reading for academics, students, and researchers in psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, sociology, literary analysis, and philosophy.

Memory in Mind and Culture

Memory in Mind and Culture

This text introduces students, scholars, and interested educated readers to the issues of human memory broadly considered, encompassing both individual memory, collective remembering by societies, and the construction of history. The book is organized around several major questions: How do memories construct our past? How do we build shared collective memories? How does memory shape history? This volume presents a special perspective, emphasizing the role of memory processes in the construction of self-identity, of shared cultural norms and concepts, and of historical awareness. Although the results are fairly new and the techniques suitably modern, the vision itself is of course related to the work of such precursors as Frederic Bartlett and Aleksandr Luria, who in very different ways represent the starting point of a serious psychology of human culture.

Voices of the Mind: Sociocultural Approach to Mediated Action

Voices of the Mind: Sociocultural Approach to Mediated Action

In Voices of the Mind, James Wertsch outlines an approach to mental functioning that stresses its inherent cultural, historical, and institutional context. A critical aspect of this approach is the cultural tools or "mediational means" that shape both social and individual processes. In considering how these mediational means--in particular, language--emerge in social history and the role they play in organizing the settings in which human beings are socialized, Wertsch achieves fresh insights into essential areas of human mental functioning that are typically unexplored or misunderstood.

Although Wertsch's discussion draws on the work of a variety of scholars in the social sciences and the humanities, the writings of two Soviet theorists, L. S. Vygotsky (1896-1934) and Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), are of particular significance. Voices of the Mind breaks new ground in reviewing and integrating some of their major theoretical ideas and in demonstrating how these ideas can be extended to address a series of contemporary issues in psychology and related fields.

A case in point is Wertsch's analysis of "voice," which exemplifies the collaborative nature of his effort. Although some have viewed abstract linguistic entities, such as isolated words and sentences, as the mechanism shaping human thought, Wertsch turns to Bakhtin, who demonstrated the need to analyze speech in terms of how it "appropriates" the voices of others in concrete sociocultural settings. These appropriated voices may be those of specific speakers, such as one's parents, or they may take the form of "social languages" characteristic of a category of speakers, such as an ethnic or national community. Speaking and thinking thus involve the inherent process of "ventriloquating" through the voices of other socioculturally situated speakers. Voices of the Mind attempts to build upon this theoretical foundation, persuasively arguing for the essential bond between cognition and culture.

Voices of Collective Remembering

Voices of Collective Remembering

This book draws on psychology, history, literary theory, semiotics, sociology, and political science to provide a comprehensive review of collective memory. It outlines a particular way that narratives produced by the modern state are consumed by individuals. These issues are examined with the help of examples from the transformation Russia has undergone as it entered its post-Soviet era. This is a case study of how a modern state can lose control of collective memory and how memory can be regenerated in unique ways.