Monday, October 06, 2003

Reading:: Mind As Action

Originally posted: Mon, 06 Oct 2003 08:05:57

Mind As Action

by James V. Wertsch

When I was just starting to look into activity theory, in 1995, one of the first books I picked up was J.V. Wertsch's Voices of the Mind. In that book, Wertsch attempts to synthesize the Vygotskian cultural-historical tradition with Bakhtin's dialogism. I was really fascinated by it, but didn't understand why Wertsch wasn't using triangle diagrams or extensively citing Engestrom, Leontiev, and others in that vein. As I studied more deeply, I began to realize that Soviet psychology had forked after Vygotsky, and that the activity theory tradition with which I was familiar tended to trace its lineage to Vygotsky's colleague Leontiev, while Wertsch's CHAT tradition took a somewhat different path.

Nevertheless, the two schools have much in common both in terms of thought and sources. So when Mind as Action came out, I read it eagerly and took much away from it. Parts of it were key to helping me understand and develop my own ideas about mediation. (Mediation is the main focus of both books.) And some of Wertsch's cases in this book helped me to think about CHAT in more political-ethical terms than I had before. Although parts of Mind as Action were hotly contested on the mailing list xmca, as a whole the book is solid, interesting, and useful.

In his attempt to further understand mediated activity, Wertsch turns to Kenneth Burke's Pentad. Burke, like Bakhtin, is hard to characterize but can be called a language philosopher and literary critic. His Pentad, a heuristic for analyzing human action in terms of Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, and Purpose, is here applied to mediated action in general.

And what interesting examples Wertsch tends to give us. Being an educational psychologist, Wertsch tends to draw his cases from pedagogy -- not really my main interest. Wertsch looks at how education is intertwined with issues of power, how power is often taught through narrative, and -- surprisingly -- how citizens of Soviet Estonia, taught a heavily fictionalized and regulated history of their country, managed to develop a far more critical and nuanced understanding of the country's history than students in the U.S. (The last case I don't find altogether convincing because Wertsch's methods drew on a very small sample of citizens and it's unclear how he chose them -- but the narratives are fascinating nonetheless.)

All in all, a provocative book and one I'm sure I'll read yet again.

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