Tuesday, June 28, 2005

(Reading Roundup: Engestrom's umpires and Latour's cosmos)

Originally posted: Tue, 28 Jun 2005 18:55:55

We have two very different articles today, with no theme binding them together save that they are both responses to articles I have not yet read.

Engeström, Y. (2000). Activity theory and the social construction of knowledge: A story of four umpires. Organization, 7:301?310.

In this response to an article by Blackler et al. on activity systems, Engestrom uses the illustration of four baseball umpires to illustrate epistemological and methodological issues of activity theory. Engestrom's trying to clear the way for moving AT from a psychological theory to "an original and potentially powerful approach to the social construction of knowledge" that "may prove useful for practice-based attempts to reconceptualize knowledge in organizations" (p.301).

The four umpires represent the epistemological stances of traditional realism, constructivism, constructionism, and activity theory. From Karl Weick:

The story goes that three umpires disagreed about the task of calling balls and strikes. The first one said, 'I calls them as they is.' The second one said, 'I calls them as I sees them.' The third and cleverest umpire said, 'They ain't nothin' till I calls them.' (quoted on p.301)

Engestrom methodically goes through these three stances, arguing that the shared problem is individualism: "the assumption that he or she as an individual is the center of construction of knowledge and reality" (p.302). But in the fourth, activity-theoretical perspective, the umpire can be "the center of activity" at moments, but not throughout. "In the next action, someone else takes the position of the subject" (p.304). In this activity system, the activity can be disturbed and dealt with by various actors occupying the subject position. Engestrom gives the example of an umpire who, observing the reactions of the crowds during foul balls and reviewing the stats afterwards, works with her colleagues to uncover a betting scandal. Engestrom's point is that the activity is collective and works through contradictions; "the fourth umpire crosses the boundaries of her given role and becomes involved in the initiation of a historical reorganization of the entire game of baseball in Finland" (p.305).

The contradiction is identified as the primary contradiction of capitalism, use-value vs. exchange-value, here featured as the conflicting outcomes of winning vs. profit. Organized betting has tipped the scales here, leading to a secondary contradiction between the game's rules and its object.

So far so familiar. But here we get to the methodological issues.

The first issue: "Blackler et al. (this issue) state that, rather than analyzing an organization as a single activity system, they deem it more satisfactory to analyze the organization as a network of nested and overlapping activity systems" (p.307). "But I favor carefully grounded analyses and worry about shortcuts. From Blackler et al.'s article we learn little about the 'internal systemic connections' of the three Strategy Development Groups, and even less about their concrete actions" (p.308).

The second issue: Engestrom applauds the concept of multiple perspectives, but these perspectives can be discussed under multivoicedness (Bakhtin) and is "inherent in the speech, thought, and action of every individual" (p.308). That is, perspectives should be empirically demonstrable through speech rather than inferred, second-order constructs.

The third issue: Learning. "Activity theory is at its best in analyzing such poorly understood processes of developmental transformations over time. Expansive learning is energized by historically accumulated developmental contradictions within and between activity systems, and it is triggered by disturbances and concrete innovative actions" (pp.308-309).

Latour, B. (2004). Whose cosmos, which cosmopolitics? Comments on the peace terms of Ulrich Beck. Common Knowledge, 10(3):450?462.

In this response, Latour goes over the argument he developed in War of the Worlds, that the separation of nature and culture serves as a way to underpin ethnocentrism/multiculturalism (two sides of the same coin). He starts out with a great illustration:

famous disputatio that Spaniards held to decide whether or not Indians had souls susceptible of being saved. But while that debate was under way, the Indians were engaged in a no less important one, though conducted with very different theories in mind and very different experimental tools. Their task, as Viveiros de Castro describes it, was not to decide if Spaniards had souls?that much seemed obvious?but rather if the conquistadors had bodies. (p.451)

Were the Europeans spiritual entities, or human beings?

The Amerindians? experiment was as scientific as the Europeans?. Conquistador prisoners were taken as guinea pigs and immersed in water to see, first, if they drowned and, second, if their flesh would eventually rot. (p.452)

So the Europeans looked for social proof while the Amerindians used a naturalistic methodology. The point?

The relevance of this anecdote should be apparent: at no point in the Valladolid controversy did the protagonists consider, even in passing, that the confrontation of European Christians and Amerindian animists might be framed differently from the way in which Christian clerics understood it in the sixteenth century. At no point were the Amerindians asked what issue they took to be in dispute, nor is Beck asking now. (p.452).

The Europeans and Amerindians both assumed that there is a univeral baseline for the negotiation of a dispute (p.453) -- a limiting factor to the disputes, a universal stasis that all parties can reach. Latour says no, and draws on Isabelle Stengers' work for backing. And that's the basis of his critique of Beck:

For Beck, as for most sociologists and all political scientists, wars rage because human cultures have (and defend) differing views of the same world. If those views could be reconciled or shown to differ only superficially, peace would follow automatically. This way of understanding cosmos and cosmopolitics is limited in that it puts a limit to the number of entities on the negotiating table. But if cosmosis to mean anything, it must embrace, literally, everything?including all the vast numbers of nonhuman entities making humans act. (p.454)

This view is not satisfactory: "If this be peace, I must say I prefer war. By war I mean a conflict for which there is no agreed-upon arbiter, a conflict in which what is at stake is precisely what is common in the common world to be built" (p.455). Open war is preferable to cold war, in which one side indulgently allows "multicultural" interpretations of the one nature, i.e., separates nature and culture with the implicit understanding that one culture really does understand nature better than the others. Nature becomes an absolute arbiter, the voice of God. We might as well have open war leading to open negotiations than this cold war in which resentments fester! And they do, not just in the "other cultures": "anyone who holds that fabricated means untrue, and made means fake, tends toward fundamentalism" (p.460). "And when one fundamentalism butts heads with another, no peace talks are possible because there is nothing to discuss: pedagogical wars are waged to the bitter end" (p.461). And here's the knockout: "My main objection, then, to the peace terms of Ulrich Beck is that he has not put the West?s own native fundamentalism up for discussion. Our naturalism has failed: it was a war plan disguised as a peace plan, and those against whom we directed it are no longer fooled. Naturalism, like any fundamentalist ideology, amounts to a prejudice against fabrication" (p.461, my emphasis).

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