Monday, July 28, 2003

Reading:: Perspectives on Activity Theory

Originally posted: Mon, 28 Jul 2003 00:05:28

Perspectives on Activity Theory
by Yrjo Engestrom (Editor), Reijo Miettinen (Editor), Raija-Leena Punamaki (Editor)

Perspectives on Activity Theory is composed largely of selected papers from the Second International Congress for Research on Activity Theory in Lahti, Finland. Consequently, the papers come from all over, tackle a variety of issues, and are generally quite short. The book thus provides a broad international and interdisciplinary set of perspectives on activity theory, its applications, and its parallels with other social, cultural, historical, cognitive, and interpretive perspectives. It is not for those new to activity theory.

I don't consider myself new to activity theory, having written about it since 1996, but I found many of the essays to be tough sledding. Partly that's because so many of the essays hearken back to AT's 19th-century German philosophical roots, with which I am unfamiliar. (I'll make a stab at these soon when I read Marx's Captial Vol. 1.) So I found myself out of my depth in discussions of ideality and so forth. Another factor is the international flavor of the contributions -- not because they represented different perspectives but because so much goes unsaid that I cannot follow or evaluate some of the arguments being advanced. I don't think that this is simply because I'm a provincial American but rather because I don't have the philosophical grounding emphasized in Russia or Finland. That philosophical grounding being what it is -- again, 19th century German philosophy -- I'm not sure how much effort I want to put into it, frankly.

Nevertheless, many of the essays were both accessible and useful. Engestrom and Miettinen's introduction gives a good "big picture" view of AT. Engestrom's "Activity Theory and Individual and Social Transformation" provides a strong argument for paying attention to contributions made by the people, not just elite decision makers (perhaps a dig at ANT?) and criticizes the agency/structure, psychology/sociology distinctions that have traditionally been made in the social sciences. Lektorsky and Hayrynen separately note AT's roots in the totalitarian society of the USSR and discuss the implications that this context had for how AT handled social development and agency-structure relations. Closer to my interests, Kari Kuutti again weighs in with a strong essay that classifies various traditions of human-computer interaction, including participatory design; the essay concludes by suggesting that AT can provide a framework that allows the Information Systems community to account for both individual and organizational viewpoints. Finally, Engestrom's essay "Innovative Learning in Work Teams" discusses expansive learning and provides the barest link to ANT.

I've read this collection before, but in light of my current readings, AT comes off as a good deal more structural than before and I can see some of its drawbacks more clearly. Fascinating. If you're familiar with AT, by all means check out this collection; if you're not, go for a more introductory text such as Nardi's Context and Consciousness.

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