Originally posted: Sat, 15 Nov 2003 08:50:08
Amazon.com lists this book as "out of print -- limited availability." No kidding. My copy is actually a copy of a copy: Charles Bazerman lent his copy of the book to David R. Russell, who copied it and later lent the copy to me to make my own copy. So I have the notes of two really outstanding scholars in the margins. It's not as great as it sounds: Chuck apparently puts vertical lines by the parts that he likes, while David typically writes "YES!!" by points he finds to be illuminating.
There are a lot of vertical lines and yesses in this book, though, because it is smart and interesting. And unlike Learning by Expanding (reviewed below), this slim "research report" is based almost entirely on empirical work the author did with other scholars: two examinations of interaction in courtrooms and one of interaction between nurses and an elderly patient. All use conversation analysis or at least something that looks a lot like it (but Ritva Engestrom, one of the group, published a 1995 paper in Mind, Culture, and Activity arguing that activity theory was a superior framework to CA, so now I'm not sure what to call it). And fortunately all three empirical studies have been published elsewhere. So you don't have to get copies of them from me.
The real gem here, though, is Chapter 1. It's a framing piece meant to situate the three studies that follow, and it does that quite well, arguing that reigning understandings of expertise are Cartesian and suggesting that a non-Cartesian understanding -- like that provided by activity theory -- has to understand expertise as distributed. "Expertise resides in collective activity systems," he declares. That's a striking argument, because taken to its logical conclusion, it means that competence -- and incompetence -- is not the property of an individual but rather of the system in which that individual is embedded. As I argue in a piece to be published in 2005, that's rather problematic because it means that responsibility, blame, and accountability are complicated enormously. What about when someone just flat screws up?
Well, let's leave that question for now. Engestrom gets to the instability of activity systems here -- an old theme, and I hope that my review in yesterday's "Reading Roundup" didn't give the opposite impression -- and uses one of my favorite declarations, "the activity system incessantly reconstructs itself." Incessantly, because its parts undergo continuous transformations, partially because their interpenetration with other activity systems in a network of activity. No, he doesn't cite Latour here, but he does elsewhere and the comparison with actor-networks is quite clear.
Latour, of course, is almost indifferent to explanations of expertise and competence; he says very little about how people learn, gain expertise, and transform their activities accordingly. Engestrom is very interested in all these topics and he brings in key concepts from activity theory, such as internalization/externalization and the zone of proximal development, to talk about these. He also brings in Bakhtin to argue that an activity system is a multivoiced formation.
Much of the rest of the chapter introduces vocabulary and arguments that we've seen elsewhere in his writings. For instance, he discusses the four types of contradictions and again fingers the primary contradiction as between use value and exchange value in a capitalist society. (That's the Marxism showing through.) He presents a detailed taxonomy of disruptions. And he preps us for the three careful case studies that follow.
It's a great publication, and one that I keep coming back to. Despite its 1992 publication date, this material is largely fresh and keeps giving me new insights, particularly as I wrestle with this issue of networks.
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