Tuesday, May 17, 2005

(Reading Roundup: Engestrom on Expansive Learning at Work)

Originally posted: Tue, 17 May 2005 18:49:15

Engestrom's "Expansive learning at work: Toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization" (Journal of Education and Work 14.1, 2001) is very similar to some of the other Engestrom articles and chapters I've reviewed recently. In fact, it shares some passages with "Developmental work research as educational research." But it covers some different ground as well.

For instance, in its brief history of activity theory, it acknowledges the "deep-seated insensitivity of the second generation activity theory toward cultural diversity" originally pointed out by Michael Cole (p.135), and says that the internationalization of AT meant that "questions of diversity and dialogue between different traditions or perspectives became increasingly serious challenges" (p.135). Ah. So is this why Bakhtin's dialogism has become so interesting to third-generation activity theorists?

Engestrom then lays out the working of an activity network, including a diagram on p.136 in which the objects of two activity systems form a third object -- a Venn diagram portraying the intersection of the separate objects. He differentiates among

- "object 1" ("an initial state of unreflected, situationally given 'raw material'" such as "a specific patient entering a physician's office")

- "object 2" ("a collecively meaningful object constructed by the activity system" such as "the patient constructed as a specimen of a biomedical disease category and thus as an instantiation of the general object of illness/health")

- "object 3" ("a potentially shared and constructed object" such as "a collaboratively constructed understanding of the patient's life situation and care plan")

"The object of activity," he concludes, "is a moving target, not reducible to conscious short-term goals.

Given the understanding of the object, Engestrom summarizes AT in terms of five principles:

- The activity system "seen in its network relations to other activity systems" becomes the unit of analysis (p.136).

- Activity systems are multivoiced: "the activity system itself carries multiple layers and strands of history engraved in its artifacts, rules, and conventions. The multi-voicedness is multiplied in networks of interacting activity systems. It is a source of trouble and a source of innovation, demanding actions of translation and negotiation" (p.136).

- Activity systems have historicity: they "take shape and get transformed over lengthy periods of time." "History itself needs to be studied as local history of the activity and its objects, and as history of the theoretical ideas and tools that have shaped the activity" (pp.136-137).

- Contradictions are central to change and development. "Contradictions are historically accumulating structural tensions within or between activity systems" (p.137).

- Activity systems undergo expansive transformations in which "the object and motive of the activity are reconceptualized to embrace a radically wider horizon of possibilities than in the previous mode of the activity" (p.137). Engestrom links expansive transformations to the zone of proximal development.

Engestrom uses these five principles as the columns in a matrix; the rows are the questions:

- Who are learning?

- Why do they learn?

- What do they learn?

- How do they learn?

The matrix turns out to be a useful heuristic for examining learning, which is AT's main focus, at least as it has tended to be conceptualized by Vygotsky and Engestrom. In fact, the question of learning is so important for Engestrom that he begins to see it everywhere, and assert it with such assurance that I begin to doubt my own memory. Does Engestrom really say that "Latour's (1987, 1996) actor-network theory recommends that we locate learning in a heterogeneous network of human and non-human actors"? Why, yes he does, here on p.140. Does Latour ever mention the term "learning" or a related concept? No, not really, not unless you locate learning as central to collective activity. Latour does not. In fact, from what I can tell, Latour remains agnostic about individual learning, and is much more interested in the forming of settlements -- which does not necessarily include learning or subscribe to a theory of learning at all!

To Engestrom, studying knowledge formation or the sociology of scientific knowledge implies a theory of learning; to Latour, it does not. That's because the two have very different projects with very different emphases and origins. For instance, look back at the history of activity theory and you'll see a progressive outgrowth from the study of individual cognition (Vygotsky) to larger structures. As you can see from the matrix mentioned above, the individually oriented concepts have turned into concepts for studying overall activity. Expansive visibilization, for instance, is simply the zone of proximal development applied to activities rather than individuals. Compare that with actor-network theory, which has its roots in political and economic theory and sociology, with an assist from philosophy and rhetoric -- all of which are concerned with group or societal relations rather than individual relations. ANT doesn't build on the notion of an individual to reach its understanding of human activity; it tracks movements, not learning.

Let's end with something that has been interesting me quite a bit lately: The concept of the germ-cell. In Learning, Working, and Imagining, Engestrom discusses Frederich Engels' example of Carnot's theorization of the steam engine. From Engels' Dialectics of nature, p.229: "the steam engine provided the most striking proof that one can impart heat and obtain mechanical motion. 100,000 steam engines did not prove this any more than the one?>

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