Thursday, January 07, 2010

Reading :: Critical Perspectives on Activity

Critical Perspectives on Activity: Explorations Across Education, Work, and Everyday Life
Edited by Peter H. Sawchuck, Newton Duarte, and Mohamed Elhammoumi

I went on an activity theory reading binge recently, reading three newish collections (a fourth is in the queue). Unlike the others I've reviewed so far, this one is not explicitly centered around Engestromian third-generation activity theory. Rather, it's part of the broader CHAT tradition anchored in Vygotsky, Luria, Leont'ev, and later Russian psychologists, and it's oriented more toward issues of education than it is toward working. So it's not as intrinsically interesting to me as the last two collections, but it still had some bright moments.

In their introduction, Sawchuk, Duarte, and Elhammoumi call activity theory "the most comprehensive analytic framework for analyzing human practice and learning currently available" (p.2) and discuss how this framework can be made more comprehensive by applying it to various issues and problems. One is, of course, the "broader societal debate over the nature of 'knowledge economies' and, by now, one of the most frequently discussed policy issues of all, 'lifelong learning'" (p.2). This is the third of the three AT books I've read that focus explicitly on addressing knowledge work, as my own recent book Network has done, so I'm glad to see the trend. At the same time, the editors want "to express a type of 'critical' perspective on activity and to recover, express, and press forward many of the original Marxist elements of the Cultural Historical tradition" (p.4). After all, they say, "Marxist dialectics is not a generic theory of change. It is a theory of change that is rooted in actualities of particular historical epochs. In our current historical context, it is a theory of change within and beyond capitalism specifically" (p.8).

Marxism plays a big role in many of the contributions. In Elhammoumi's "Is there a Marxist psychology," for instance, he argues that Vygotsky is more like psychology's Feuerbach than its Marx: Vygotsky and his successors were not able to move to radical categories beyond the pre-Marxist ones (p.24). In particular, activity theory should be based on a Marxist concept of spatio-temporality (p.31) and move beyond the individual as a starting point, starting instead with the "individual-form" (p.33).

Lompscher's "The Cultural-Historical Activity Theory" reviews the three stages of CHAT, then suggests that CHAT needs a fourth stage (p.35). The chapter provides a dense account of the three stages (the third of which is Engestromian AT; p.47). Then he argues that the computer has not been sufficiently theorized in any of the stages. In particular, third-generation AT characterizes the computer as a tool (p.49).
However, over the last few decades, the computer has become the new leading productive power (Haug, 2003: 38), penetrating and transforming all aspects and domains of production, including management, distribution, consumption, scientific research, and so on, and producing a new stage and mode of capitalist production - the transnational high-tech capitalism (the title of Haug's book) with the Internet as its medium. National and international economic processes have changed and continue to change dramatically with serious and far-reaching political consequences across the globe. As a result, human activity is changing in all spheres, including the borders between men's and women's work, between outside and self-regulation, and between work and learning, as well as between work and leisure time. (p.49)
That is, the knowledge society/information society/knowledge work/high-tech capitalism poses challenges to AT, challenges that AT has not addressed well because AT has still not theorized digital technologies beyond labeling them as tools. Not surprisingly, Lompscher cites Ruckreim (p.50; not Ruckreim's recent piece in Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory, but apparently a similar piece). He ends by expressing hope that AT can be found to be compatible with systems theory and media theory (p.50).

Ray McDermott and Jean Lave take up the question of another knowledge society characteristic, lifelong learning, in their chapter "Estranged Labor Learning." Yes, "Labor" is struck out; McDermott and Lave steal a page from Marx here, rewriting his essay "Estranged Labor" with learning in mind (p.92). As they explain in their framing, Marx argued that the more wealth the worker produces, the poorer he becomes - and that labor produces itself and the laborer as commodities (p.90). Similarly, they argue, school children are alienated from their own learning because learning can be measured only relatively to others (p.91).

Skipping ahead, in the chapter "Contradictory Class Relations in Work and Learning," Livingstone focuses on learning organizations in the knowledge society (p.149). "Dominant claims for the emergence of a knowledge-based economy remain suspect in terms of the restricted power most workers have to develop their knowledge and skill in capitalist workplaces, but most potential workers appear to be making concerted efforts to develop them nonetheless" (p.149). Yet "The socialization of the forces of knowledge production" is "a continual challenge to private capitalist efforts ... to control the social relations of knowledge production" (p.150). He argues that "This opposition between socialized forces and private relations of knowledge production is the fundamental contradiction of knowledge development and learning in advanced capitalist societies" (p.150). In response, he says that unions "continue to represent the most sustainable organizational sites for collective development of independent working-class consciousness" (p.158).

Paul Adler's "From Labor Process to Activity Theory" compares the two theories, using a case involving the rationalization of software development. Labor theory, based on Braverman, has recently lost ground to postmodernist theories (p.160), and Adler argues that one reason is that whereas LPT predicted mass deskilling, capitalist development has involved upskilling (p.160). Adler promises a more dialectical reading of Marx to explain this development.

Engestrom contributes the chapter "Values, Rubbish, and Workplace Learning," in which he draws on rubbish theory - which follows the nature, paths, and steps of movement that transform objects from products to rubbish to durables (pp.194-195). After all, Engestrom says, in AT "values at work are embedded in the object of the activity" and "being embedded in multiple activities simultaneously, objects have lives of their own and resist goal-rational attempts at control and prediction. Negotiations of objects are always also negotiations of values and motives - not just of 'what' but also of 'why,' 'for whom,' and 'where to'" (p.194). So Engestrom draws on rubbish theory, interprets it in third-generation AT terms, and applies lessons back to AT.

As a whole, the collection is solid, but I had a hard time getting enthusiastic about it. For me, the most interesting parts were the ones that focused on developing activity theory to address knowledge society challenges. But much of the book looked back to the past, burrowing deeper into Marx's original work, grounded in early industrialism, rather than aggressively adapting AT for the present.

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