Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Reading :: Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory

Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory
Edited by Annalisa Sannino, Harry Daniels, and Kris D. Gutierrez

This book is in a sense a tribute to Yrjo Engestrom, whose landmark book Learning by Expanding (1987) was so influential to developing - and popularizing - activity theory. In the introductory chapter, the editors chronicle "four main phases of Engestrom's work as an activity theorist" (p.11). These included 1) the discovery of AT; 2) the turn from student learning to workplace learning; 3) developmental work research (DWR) and expansive learning; and 4) "the formation of activity-theoretical communities aimed at changing social practices" (p.11). The authors in this collection were influenced by all of these phases, particularly the latter three, and they discuss how Engestrom's work has filtered into various disciplines and fields.

For instance, Frank Blackler describes how Engestrom has impacted organizational studies, particularly in more recent discussions of nonhierarchical work involving horizontal learning, mycorrhizae, and knotworking (p.23). Blackler also lauds Engestrom's "powerful" critique of actor-network theory (p.23; I don't agree with this assessment - see my book Network if you like). Blackler does allow that he thinks Engestrom's later work has been steered more by Engestrom's desire to explore exciting new forms of human agency rather than to seriously "chart the changing nature of work and organizations" (p.30). But he very much admires Engestrom's approach to intervention in organizations (p.34).

In rhetoric and writing studies, David R. Russell (n.b., my dissertation director) discusses what he calls "writing, activity and genre research" (WAGR) (p.40). I quite like this acronym, which I think David developed just for this chapter and which I mentally pronounce as "WAGeR." Russell argues that cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) is a welcome framework for writing studies, since it integrates writing and activity; allows for mesolevel analysis; allows for a unit of analysis broader than the dyad; eschews the Cartesian split; and doesn't privilege one medium over another (p.41).

Russell goes on to examine the role of genre in activity systems at the macro, meso, and micro levels. At the micro level, he argues that "genre helps account for social-psychological stability, identity, and predictability in organizations or, indeed, broader social formations as unconscious operationalized actions" (p.45). But at the meso level, he states that "genres are also central to object formation, transformation, and maintenance of activity systems" as well as "deeply involved in the construction of motives. Genres are, in a sense, classifications of artifacts-plus-intentions" (p.45). Third-generation activity theory emphasizes interlocking activity systems; Russell argues convincingly that genre systems or ecologies provide one crucial avenue for mediating these interlocking activity systems through the boundary objects of genres (p.48). This chapter does a great job of both summarizing WAGR development and linking it to 3GAT in ways that those outside of writing studies can understand. As far as I'm concerned, it's a standout piece that should be cited broadly in writing research (and of course I'll be citing it soon).

In another intriguing chapter, Vladimir Lektorsky reminds us that Engestrom's version of AT is not the only one. Lektorsky argues that "Engestrom's ideas are essentially original. They contain a nw conception of activity, a new understanding of its structure, and they are used to solve new problems" in contrast with Russian and other variants and with the original Vygotskian project (p.78). In particular, Lektorsky draws contrasts in terms of the subject and mediation (p.79).

In terms of the subject, Lektorsky emphasizes that although some variants of AT don't require a subject, "I cannot agree with this idea. Activity has its bearer. ... The subject is activity itself from a certain point of view" (p.79). (On a side note, this emphasis on a human subject is one of the many fundamental, yet underexplored differences mainstream AT has with actor-network theory.) In terms of mediation, Lektorsky airs some Russian philosophical critiques of internalization, then explores mediation to some extent (p.82).

Interestingly, the next chapter actually mounts a critique of AT precisely because it is overly bound to the notion of a subject. Georg Ruckreim argues that digital technology and mediation pose a twofold challenge to AT: theoretically and methodologically (p.88). He argues that "there is no way to characterize those [global] communication networks adequately in terms of subject, action, or activity, let alone goal or motive": they enable pure contingency in self-weaving communication networks. So, he asks, "Can those automatically and independently functioning technical systems still be called activities or activity systems?" (p.91). He charges that phenomena such as Rheingold's "smart mobs" have been brushed aside by activity theorists such as Engestrom, boxed in with vague descriptors such as "interagency" and considered "rare, bizarre, or difficult to comprehend phenomena"(p.93). "Since activity theory is basically tied up with the concept of a subject of activity, it is more than difficult to combine the above-mentioned 'very temporary organizational forms' [i.e., interagency] ... with a kind of 'collective intentionality'" (p.93).

Ruckreim also criticizes Engestrom's work in terms of mediation:
Engestrom's understanding of the problem of mediation remains within the framework of the classical authors and alternates between Vygotsky's and Leont'ev's version of how to solve the problem of mediation. In consequence, Engestrom refers to collective activity systems embedded in capitalist societal structures as described by historical materialism. His methodology does not allow him to interpret the Internet as a basic transformation factor, let alone as a framework for perceiving our present reality as a qualitatively new emerging social formation. ... he analyzes emerging communication processes in terms of old socioeconomic concepts. ... His intervention strategy does not provide him with an adequate instrument to differentiate between traditional changes and emerging revolutionary transformations and their specific problem structures. (p.95)
These are fighting words. Ruckreim continues:
Engestrom seems to fail to take notice of Leont'ev's explicitly repeated emphasis on the strictly systemic nature of the components of individual activity. Instead, he stresses their hierarchical structure and so turns them into an ontological understanding. The psychological meaning of central concepts such as "subject" and "intentionality" inevitably slips into a sociological understanding of activity. ... There is no theoretical understanding of why and how this complexity has been formed as an independent system and got to be more than an augmentation of the same. (p.109)
(Engestrom is not happy with this critique, and lets Ruckreim have it in his response chapter.)

Skipping ahead, Reijo Miettinen examines "high-technology capitalism," which he describes as "the latest form of capitalism" (p.161). In this phase of capitalism, increasing complexity means that no one masters the activity, and "this is why actions must increasingly be transformed with respect to the changing object and motive of a given activity by the people who participate in that activity. A new kind of activity, learning activity, is needed to accomplish this" (p.161). Drawing on Marx, Miettinen argues that
the institutions of capitalism, such as markets, hierarchy as an organizational form of production, and the systems of intellectual property rights evidently do not satisfactorily support the formation and uses of the general intellect. New nonmarket and nonhierarchical forms of organization are needed that allow the development of individual capabilities and call for trust-based collaboration, and that favor the exchange of knowledge and understanding between the participants in the general intellect. (p.169)
Reading that sentence again, I'm struck by how many nominalizations and how much passive voice Miettinen uses, and how they hide the actors. Ruckreim critiques Engestromian activity theory for its fixation on the subject, but here Miettinen reverts to a subjectless, actorless process of historical development, similar to Adam Smith's dead hand of capitalism - or more to the point, a redescription of the inevitable, universal process of dialectics as portrayed in Engels and Ilyenkov. Nevertheless, I am glad to see Miettinen noting the movement from markets and hierarchies toward networks (in the Castells sense) (p.170). He argues that the network society embeds a primary contradiction between common knowledge and the knowledge society's privatization of knowledge (p.172).

Like Miettinen, Anne Edwards addresses the network society. "We live in risky times," she declares, as boundaries and certainties dissolve at all levels and "the sequential linearity of early modernism ... has been disrupted" (p.197). So "the workplace is therefore now less likely to be the source of a sustained identity, whether we are victims [sic] of short-term contracts (Sennett, 1998), are boundary-breaking creatives (Guile, 2007), or are specialist professionals collaborating on complex tasks (Edwards, 2005)" (p.197). Such changes disrupt the organizations that had emerged to leaven the worst effects of capitalism (p.198). In response, Edwards sees AT's collective subject as "a way of thinking about the risky nature of work that is carried out beyond the safety of established social practices and perhaps a way of countering rampant subjectivity (p.197).

Edwards draws on two case studies to explore these themes. In particular, she examines partnership working, in which partnerships and alliances increase in number, also increasing the tensions and therefore becoming more difficult to sustain and manage (p.203). In such situations, practitioners working in the boundary zone developed configurations of confidence that, Edwards tells us, were not networks in the Castells sense so much as latent mycorrhizae activities in the Engestromian sense (p.204). She points to "how one learns how to know how to know who" (p.205), a catchy but difficult-to-parse way to express personal networking.

Katsuhiro Yamazumi also addresses agency in the knowledge society, more specifically, the shift from mass production to interorganizational collaboration (p.212). Focusing on expansive learning, Yamazumi argues that "new types of agency are collaborations and engagements with a shared object in and for relationships of interaction between multiple activity systems" and describes a "hybrid activity system" (p.213) - I found this last part interesting because Engestrom and others describe such hybrids as activity networks with shared objects.

"The world of human activity is increasingly dominated by longitudinal dialogic relationships of collaboration between multiple activity systems," Yamazumi continues. And
these multiple activity systems are engaged by 'runaway objects,' that is, partially shared large-scale objects in complex, distributed multi-activity fields (Engestrom 2005a, 2005c, 2006b). Although these partnerships and alliances are obviously relevant to rediscovering and expanding use values in the objects of activities, they are extremely difficult to sustain and manage. This is where collaborative learning possibilities and challenges truly become necessary. Such learning can be characterized as interorganizational learning (Engestrom, 2001) engaged in the expansive reforging of shared objects and creating new forms of activity between different activity systems. (pp.214-215)
Thus we need a better account of expansive agency or distributed interagency (p.215). Like David Ronfeldt in his TIMN work, Yamazumi argues that types of agency are associated with organizational forms:
This imperative of a new type of agency principally differs from the historically previous forms: "control and command" for management, "resist and defend" for workers in hierarchy organizations, and "take advantage and maximize gain" in market organizations. The efficacy and valuer of collaboration and reciprocity are missed or limited in both of these forms. (p.216)
Later in the book, Susanne Bodker discusses some personal history and theoretical developments in a subject dear to my heart, participatory design research. (She also cites me briefly, something that made my day.) I think Bodker's book, based on her PhD thesis, was the first book-length treatment of activity theory I had read - and I was surprised to read in this rememberance that she hadn't encountered Engestrom's work until after her thesis was completed, when Kari Kuutti showed her a copy of Engestrom's Learning by Expanding (p.275). Bodker goes on to briefly recount PD's development, compare it to Developmental Work Research (DWR), then lays out some challenges to PD and DWR that, like other chapters in this collection, have to do with knowledge work. These include multiplicity (p.282) and going beyond communities of work to address the entire life context (pp.282-283).

Finally, Engestrom responds to the pieces, partially laying out what he'd like third-generation activity theory (3GAT) to address. "Third-generation activity theory still treats activity systems as reasonably well-bounded, although interlocking and networked, structured units. What goes on between activity systems is processes, such as the flow of rules from management to workers ..." but "In social production and peer production, the boundaries and structures of activity systems seem to fade away. Processes become simultaneous, multidirectional, and often reciprocal. The density and crisscrossing of processes makes the distinction between processes and structure somewhat obsolete. The movements of information create textures that are constantly changing but not arbitrary or momentary" (p.309). But, he argues, this phenomenon can still be analyzed within the bounds of activity theory (pp. 309-310). Like literal mycorrhizae, "social production requires and generates bounded hubs of concentrated coordination efforts" and "activity system models are very appropriate for the analysis of such hubs" (p.310). He speculates that perhaps we need a 4GAT to better model trails and mycorrhizae (p.310).

At the end of the volume, I was encouraged by the number of authors who took on knowledge work and knowledge society issues, although I still would like to see much more development along these lines. If you're interested in activity theory and particularly how it's developing to address new forms of organization, this is certainly a strong collection. Take a look.

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