Monday, May 16, 2005

Reading :: Learning Challenges in Organic Vegetable Farming

Originally posted: Mon, 16 May 2005 18:13:01

Learning Challenges in Organic Vegetable Farming: An Activity Theoretical Study of On-Farm Practices

by Laura Seppanen

A while back I planned to read a set of dissertations that had come out of the Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research at the University of Helsinki, starting with Mervi Hasu's. Other readings intervened, so I've only now come to the second. Like Hasu's, Seppanen's dissertation is a "wrapper" that contextualizes and pulls together several published single-author and multi-author articles. The text itself is only 74 pages, but it refers to the six other articles, indicating an impressive amount of work.

I confess that I skimmed quickly through the dissertation. Much of it involved simply applying activity theory to the activity of organic farming -- a worthwhile exercise, but not one that generated many new insights into activity theory itself. The insight that "learning in organic vegetable farming is a continuous, dynamic process" (p.5) doesn't seem to be terribly surprising (although I thought it was a bit broad of a claim given the scope of the study).

On the other hand, there were some surprises in the way the activity was visualized. For instance, on p.13, Seppanen provides a diagram that visualizes the levels of activity in organic farming. Levels of activity are typically represented textually or in tables, but here Seppanen depicts the levels of activity, action, and operation in what looks like a hierarchical or "tree" graphic; each element on one level is decomposed into many elements on the next level. In addition, she provides an intermediary step between activity and action: "Practices (groups of actions) such as onion planting." The activity of the particular farm is depicted as "embedded" in the general activity. I think that this diagram is useful for thinking about the relationships among these different elements, but it's also misleading in a few key ways.

First, activities are not simply embedded as depicted here, they interpenetrate other activities simultaneously. This is a key tenet of the "third-generation" activity theory being developed at the Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research, and it's also reflected in Seppanen's discussion of the particular organic farmers she studied -- who entered the activity of organic farming late and brought in tools and practices from other activities.

Second, the intermediary step of practices may or may not make sense, but it's really not orthodox activity theory and Seppanen doesn't provide a discussion or cites to justify this change. Perhaps this notion of practice has been picked up by others at CATDWR, but I don't see much evidence of that. I'm not sure how grounded this intermediary step is in that research, but it seems like trying to leverage a notion that is often discussed in related literatures (e.g., Lave and Wenger).

Third, the portrayal of activities decomposing into practices which in turn decompose into actions, etc. is one that, although more or less consistent with activity theory since Leont'ev, overmodularizes the relationships and underestimates the interconnectedness of these relationships. For instance, the same action (say, planting an onion) could help to move along several activities simultaneously; the same operation (say, lifting an onion sack) could intersect more than one action; and so on. I'm reminded of the family farmers in Iowa who often take up other jobs so that they can support the family farm, which remains unprofitable in itself. Each corn seed that is planted is supposed to eventually bring a monetary yield, but it also allows the farmer to continue participating in the family farm, to continue being a farmer in her community of family farmers, to figuratively put her thumb in Monsanto's eye, to (perhaps) draw farming subsidies, to feel closer to the land. These are not only significances but social-material activities, and the modular relations depicted in this figure don't really do them justice.

As you can tell, the dissertation is thought-provoking. My sense is that it was written just as much for agricultural readers as for activity theorists, so it's not surprising that the dissertation doesn't go to heroic lengths to generate new theory; it is primarily meant to recontextualize organic farming with the help of activity theory. That it tends to do quite well, providing another example of how learning-by-expanding can provide insights into developmental work activity.

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