Monday, April 11, 2005

(Reading Roundup: Engestrom and Engestrom, Engestrom, & Karkkainen on the third generation of activity theory)

Originally posted: Mon, 11 Apr 2005 09:42:44

My reading of Between School and Work yielded several cites that seemed directly relevant to my recent interests: (1) the relationship between dialogism and activity theory and (2) work fragmentation. So I looked up a couple of the cites, both by Yrjo Engestrom and coauthors. They provided some insight into how Engestrom and other activity theorists have been handling these questions, but raised other questions.

Engestrom, Yrjo. "Developmental work research as educational research."

This is apparently an introductory essay for a special issue of Nordisk Pedagogik on developmental work research, which is the project that Engestrom and his collaborators have been developing for some time. This project has its roots in Engestrom's Learning by Expanding.

As the name implies, developmental work research uses a developmental perspective of work, even in increasingly fragmented work. The way to follow developments, Engestrom says, is by examining the contradictions or double binds that build within and between activity systems.

The concept of activity took the paradigm a huge step forward in that it turned the focus on complex interrelations between the individual subject and his or her community. In the Soviet Union, the societal activity systems studied concretely by activity theorists were largely limited to play and learning among children, and contradictions in activity remained an extremely touchy issue. (p.132).

But in the 1970s, researchers in the West picked up the concept and began applying it to different domains, such as work (p.132). Engestrom credits Ilyenkov with conceptualizing "the idea of internal contradictions as the driving force of change and development in activity systems" (p.133), but modestly avoids discussing his own considerable role in elaborating and popularizing the idea. This work led to the "third generation" of activity theory, which has begun to examine connections and contradictions between activity systems as well as within them. "The third generation of activity theory needs to develop conceptual tools in order to understand dialogue, multiple perspectives, and networks of interacting activity systems" (p.133). Engestrom discusses some of the work on developing each of these, including James Wertsch's and Ritva Engestrom's separate work on dialogue; Holland & Reeves' work on perspective; and the question of activity networks, which has been developed by Saarelma as well as Engestrom and his collaborators. A "discussion" between "Bruno Latour's" actor-network theory and activity theory "has been initiated" and Engestrom points to boundary-crossing as another "tool." In this third generation of activity theory, "the basic model is expanded to include minimally two interacting activities" (p.133).

Now Engestrom gets to the question of changes in work -- "radical changes," over "the last ten years," he says (p.133), changes that Engestrom examines in terms of flexibility and collectivity (p.134). He sees activity theory and developmental work research as playing a special role in the range of research approaches and theories brought to bear on work (p.134).

What special role?

Developmental work research is a multidisciplinary approach. However, it is also a distinctively educational approach. The educational quality of the approach is threefold. For the first, developmental work research studies processes of learning and development as its central objects. Secondly, the methodology of developmental work research is based on educational interventions. And thirdly, developmental work research also studies education as work and educational institutions as workplaces. (p.134)

Yes, developmental work research is educational in nature, hence the enduring focus on development. The notion of contradictions, as Engestrom hinted earlier, takes a major role here as the source of change and development; an activity system must continue to change so that it can loosen the double binds and reconcile the contradictions that dog it. A "third generation" analysis recognizes the contradictions set up across multiple activity systems, some of which become visible as the result of "boundary crossing" -- such as the boundary crossing individuals undergo as they move from school to work, or from job to job.

On the other hand, some organizations such as state monopolies "have multiple mechanisms to muffle and buffer the contradictions so that they do not take the form of mounting experienced disturbances in everyday work," "postponing a double bind inside the workplace while the situation may be approaching a crisis when observed from the outside" (p.136).

Engestrom goes on to describe a "change laboratory," which sounds very much like a participatory design activity to me (p.138).

So what do we get out of this overview? First, we get the general program Engestrom and his collaborators have set for a "third generation" of activity theory. Second, we get an idea of how changes in work, including what I'm loosely calling work fragmentation, have precipitated this third generation and developmental work research in particular. Third, we get the centrality of education and the importance of contradictions within that framework.

Remember that Latour looks askance at the notion of contradictions. I'll have to review these sections. But I doubt that it's a coincidence that Latour also avoids a developmental, educational perspective in his work. Latour's language of change is translations, which emphasize contingencies; Engestrom's language of change is contradictions, which emphasize orderly tensions and progressive development.

Engestrom, Yrjo, Engestrom, Ritva, and Karkkainen, Merja. "Polycontextuality and boundary crossing in expert cognition: Learning and problem solving in complex work activities."

This article is a bit more directly related to the themes of Between School and Work. It tackles the question of expertise. What is it? Engestrom et al. charge that expertise has been traditionally defined vertically, in terms of the stages a person passes as she becomes more expert in a specific domain: an expert chessmaster, an expert ditch digger, etc. But the authors argue that there is also a horizontal dimension to expertise:

In their work, experts operate in and move between multiple parallel activity contexts. These multiple contexts demand and afford different, complementary but also conflicting cognitive tools, rules, and patterns of social interaction. The criteria of expert knowledge and skill are different in the various contexts. Experts face the challenge of negotiating and combining ingredients from different contexts to achieve hybrid solutions. The vertical master-novice relationship, and with it, in some cases, the professional monopoly on expertise, is problematized as demands for dialogical problem solving increase. (p.319)

Yes, yes. I agree here: activity theory has had to evolve to take into account the increasing interpenetration of work activities. As Engestrom said in the previous article, this increasing interpenetration yields increasing potential for contradictions among the activities, and at the same time these activities are too massive and too interconnected with other activities to simply synthesize. Those separate "contexts" and separate dialogues aren't going to go away. So Engestrom et al. are positioning activity theory/developmental work research to address work multidimensionally.

To do so, they address "two central features of this newly emerging landscape": polycontextuality and boundary crossing (pp. 319-320). Polycontextuality involves working on tasks from different activities or frames of work simultaneously. And on the level of activity -- here's the authors' contribution -- polycontextuality "means that experts are engaged not only in multiple simultaneous tasks and task-specific participation frameworks within one and the same activity. They are also increasingly involved in multiple communities of practice" (p.320).

Polycontextuality leads to boundary crossing. When two different activities are linked together -- such as two organizations that must collaborate to provide a service, or two workplaces that have emerged separately but have been acquired by the same company and must now work together -- "the two contexts" in linked activities must "be iteratively connected." The tools, relationships, social languages, and so forth may be very different; the linked activities need "boundary crossers" who can mediate between them (p.321). The authors refer to Suchman's 1994 article in Computer Supported Cooperative Work, which I should read soon, along with a string of other cites which suggest that boundary crossing is becoming the hallmark of knowledge work.

The authors then turn to Susan Leigh Star's valuable work with boundary objects, which they characterize as "a useful attempt at identifying mediating artifacts that may help overcome 'groupthink' and fragmentation" (p.322). I don't think this was Star's original intent, but this is the potential Engestrom et al. see for it. (Latour talks about boundary objects approvingly as well, though I don't think he would agree with this characterization.)

The authors then go into three case studies that illustrate various aspects of boundary crossing. These are valuable, but not as valuable as the position-staking that goes on earlier in the chapter, which is really quite interesting. I come back to the point that the authors are trying to adapt activity theory in the face of increasing work interpenetration and fragmentation. The question I keep coming back to is the question of whether a developmental perspective buys us much in the face of increasingly interpenetrated work. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the level of activity is a very abstract thing, extrapolated and inferred rather than observed, and I am not sure how many abstract activity systems can be inferred with fidelity once we reach a certain threshold of interpenetration.

Blogged with Flock

No comments: