Educational Review 61(2), May 2009
Special Issue: Critical Perspectives on Activity Theory
Ed. Deirdre Martin and Nick Peim
I usually review books here, but occasionally I'll review sets of articles or special issues, if they're interesting or valuable enough. This special issue meets both criteria. In these articles, just over a year old, various authors provide some criticisms of activity theory - sharp criticisms, in both senses of the word. Below, I'll review the editorial and five articles; the sixth rereads the Zone of Proximal Development in terms of Derridean deconstruction, and unfortunately I just can't work up the enthusiasm to read it. Nothing personal, Derrida.
So let's turn to the other articles.
Martin, D. and Peim, N. "Editorial: Critical perspectives on activity theory."In this editors' introduction, Martin and Peim set up the issue for us. Activity theory is usually discussed in terms of sociocultural theory or cultural-historical theory (as sociocultural activity theory, or SCAT, and cultural-historical activity theory, or CHAT). But, the editors echo Daniels and Edwards, SCAT has "two areas of philosophical uncertainty" (p.131). First, sociocultural theory is rooted in anthropology, but AT is focused on transformative potential. Second, AT is ambivalent about "conceptualizations of agentic action" (p.131). Martin and Peim explore those tensions further, specifically in Engestrom's version of AT (or EAT).
As Martin and Peim tell us, five of the papers question EAT's relationship to the Vygotskian thought on which it is based - an important criticism, since "activity theory claims its authority in its allegiance to and development of Vygotsky" (p.131). So let's EAT, CHAT, and SCAT across the special issue and see what happens.
Avis, J. "Transformation or transformism: Engeström’s version of activity theory?"If you've followed Engeström’s more recent work on AT, particularly his latest book, you're familiar with the notions of co-configuration and knotworking - Engeström’s attempts to address loose work (for want of a better term). In this article, James Avis "seeks to locate [EAT] within the socio-economic and theoretical context in which notions of co-configuration and knotworking are set" (p.151). He notes that Engeström’s AT analyses and his Developmental Work Research (DWR) approach have become popular in part because it
offers progressive possibilities by enabling movement from current practices deemed problematic, to those that are more effective and qualitatively different – in other words the facilitation of transformative change. (p.152)Unlike other contemporary Marxist analyses, DWR "offer a politics of hope" - but one that "stops short of wider societal engagement" (p.152). Indeed, the DWR vision has its attractions for "progressively oriented educators" but also for "capitalist firms operating in competitive market places, as well as those managing public sector organizations seeking to enhance efficiency" (p.152), particularly those working within the conceptualizations of the knowledge society or information society (p.153). Indeed, "questions of dominance and power are sidelined" in case studies such as Engeström’s studies of co-configuration in health care (p.153). Avis charges:
The rhetoric would suggest that organizations have become increasingly fluid, open and amoeba like and that the logic of capitalist accumulation orientated towards the extraction of surplus value has been transmogrified. It should however be noted that this organizational vision refers to pre-figurative firms which are apparently at the cutting edge, serving an important ideological function. (p.154)Avis is not happy with this representation, which (in his view) overemphasizes the messiness of divisions between organization/environment, customer/product developer, public/private sector, and the openness of systems (p.154). He detects, and is suspicious of, a narrative of progressive pluralism and democracy in this account (p.154). And he adds:
Such descriptions draw upon stakeholder analyses and participatory and pluralist processes to imply a democratization of social relations. However, such an image is misleading as it neglects the terrain on which such activities operate, that is to say the capitalist accumulation process together with those who have the power to set institutional agendas. The salience of the preceding argument is that not only can it readily align with understandings of capitalism as a dynamic system but also with those that suggest the qualitative changes undergone have rendered former social antagonisms muted and of lesser significance. However the current credit crisis is salutary as it reminds us of the rapaciousness of capitalism. (p.155)I think Avis really reaches with that last sentence, and also that he imputes many of the popular ideas of the knowledge society to Engeström without a lot of evidence. At the same time, Avis definitely has a point when he argues that Engeström doesn't provide a consistent power-oriented critique of capitalism along the lines of canonical Marxism (p.155). Although Engeström acknowledges larger social structures,
This insight fails to be translated into broader political engagement as the focus of his interventions are upon practices within a particular activity system or those adjacent to it, as is the case with third generation AT. Consequently the wider social structure within which these processes arise tends to be ignored. This leads to analysis that leaves these wider relations in place and fails to interrogate the manner in which they shape the terrain on which an activity system or cluster is set. It is this limitation that in part results in analyses and change strategies that effectively secure the interests of capital. (p.156).So, Avis complains, DWR focuses on peripheral contradictions rather than primary ones (p.157). Engestromg, he says, uses Marxist categories "heuristically, as part of an analytic technique that serves to distance their mobilization from Marx’s underpinning philosophical and political position" (p.157). In the next section, Avis examines the heuristic of the AT triangle and the principles that Engestrom says underlie AT (p.158). In these principles, Avis says, Engeström "plays down managerial relations of power" (p.158), accepts capitalist relations (p.159), and treats development-through-contradictions "as a somewhat straightforward process that serves the interests of all participants" (p.159). By focusing on peripheral contradictions, "Engeström’s AT veers towards becoming a form of comfort radicalism, its transformative rhetoric has a progressive appeal but ultimately it readily lends itself to becoming no more than a management technique" (p.161). Avis concludes that "There is a tension in Engeström’s AT that readily lends itself to appropriation by capital, and is a consequence of its failure to seriously acknowledge social antagonism and wider patterns of social relations in which activity systems are located" (p.162). Yet Avis hopes for approaches that "re-politicize and re-vitalize AT" (p.162).
In short, Avis sees Engeström as one of those guys who wears his Che t-shirt to Starbucks.
Hartley, D. "Education policy, distributed leadership and socio-cultural theory"I was a little surprised here to see that Hartley begins his literature review by discussing Graeme Thompson's typology of hierarchy, market, and network (p.140; see my recent review of one of Thompson's books on the subject). Hartley is interested in the implications for public governance, particularly distributed leadership in the public sector. To explore these, he examines studies by Spillaine and colleagues that are grounded in sociocultural theories such as structuration theory, AT, and distributed cognition. Like Avis, Hartley raises criticisms of how power, boundedness, and mediation are handled in sociocultural theory, but he is neither as critical nor as focused on AT in particular as Avis was.
Peim, N. "Activity theory and ontology."On the other hand, Peim is quite critical, perhaps moreso than Avis. Here, Peim criticizes EAT as "a technology of knowledge designed to enable positive transformations of specific practices," one that seeks to ground itself in Vygotsky but "is restricted by a commitment to a progressive, apolitical ideology of improvement" and "defined in terms of its expression of a will-to-power." Peim charges that EAT is disengaged from its supposed philosophical tradition and that it has misappropriated Vygotsky's legacy. And that's all just in the abstract (p.167). Peim further states in his introduction that EAT's "will-to-power arises from its desire to unmoor itself from any awkward political affiliations and to represent itself as a universal system of description," allowing EAT to function as "a thoroughly positivist technology of improvement" (p.167). And he continues: "Needless to say, the logic of improvement invoked by EAT lacks political contextualization. It is an odd feature of this socio-cultural historical theory that it reduces all of those dimensions – the social, the cultural, the historical – to apolitical abstractions" (p.167).
Peim hopes "to raise questions specifically about the political ontology of EAT" (p.168). And here, we get to a highly interesting passage which I'll quote in full:
EAT, then, has become a widely accepted technology of transformation harnessed to an ethic of improvement. This ethic has beset education as a whole with an overriding logic of performativity. One aspect of this marriage is the insistence, strongly emphasized by Engeström, on the local nature of activity systems. The avowal of a “radical localism” in EAT means that questions about social systems – and about the relations between local practices and larger social systems – are not, and cannot be, addressed (Engeström 2003, 36). As a result, what is sometimes known as sociocultural historical activity theory gives scant attention to any socially differentiated theory of culture or of history! Only thus can it offer itself as a universal technology of improvement. (p.168)Avis made a similar charge. And, honestly, it has some sympatico with my criticisms of AT in Network. Let me just insert the observation that Engeström has lately turned to "runaway objects," which are objects too big for any given activity system. One example he frequently uses is that of global warming - hardly a radically localized object. My sense is that as he has continued theorizing, Engeström has begun to try to account for public discourse using the locally grounded theoretical tools of AT.
Okay, back to Peim. Peim draws on Heidegger to examine EAT's ontology, concluding that EAT is "metaphysical" and "essentially phenomenological," yet without explicit references to the phenomenological tradition (p.169). He detects a de facto break with Vygotsky (p.169), despite a narrative of direct-line development from Vygotskian thought (pp.169-171), and charges that although EAT claims concern for key Marxist terms, "Absorption in the multiplicity and specificity of activity here begins to sound uncannily like a form of post-modernism that has abandoned all meta-narratival delusions" (p.171). In the EAT account, Peim charges, the Heideggerian idea of world is lost, and all structures break down to a radical localism. But how can an activity system be studied without a notion of world, he asks?
But the elements of the system cannot belong entirely or solely to the system. The division of labour, for instance, must be an entity that exists between systems, founded in their very difference from one another, and certainly not a positive property of a single system. When we consider how EAT defines the constituent components of any particular system, we must always be left asking: How can any of these items have identity except as they exist both inside and outside the system? What is the nature of this inside/outside relation? What is outside the activity system? Only another interlocking activity system? Not a “world” in the Heidegger sense? ... The effect in EAT is to abstract the activity system from its wider social context, hence the insistence of “radical localism” (Engeström 2003, 36). (p.173)Peim goes on to ontologically problematize Engestrom's "five fundamental principles" (p.174). Later, he says, "In the foregoing analysis of the five principles of EAT, it can be seen that serious questions arise concerning the fundamental ontology of EAT. Given that, EAT aspires to be a 'theory of everything,' these questions carry considerable significance" (p.176). Yes, that's the problem with theories of everything. I suppose that's why I've been underwhelmed by Peim's and Avis' arguments here: I haven't taken AT to be a theory of everything, just a theory that is good for some things (cf. Network). The trick is to figure out which things it's good for.
Not that I am dismissive of Peim's claims. Peim is correct, I think, in charging that EAT has not deeply delved into the ontological or philosophical implications of its influences (see esp. pp.177-178), and has often drawn from traditions that are ontologically and philosophically at odds. This has led to some theoretical, philosophical, and methodological lack of coherence.
Peim last raises the issue that Engeström has styled himself as the authority and guardian of AT, and points his finger at "a hint of idealism and more than the trace of a will-to-power" (p.179). My reading of his position: EAT is mostly about the E.
Hardcastle, J. "Vygotsky's Enlightenment precursors"I regret giving short shrift to Hardcastle's article, which argues that we can better understand Vygotsky's statements about thought and language by reviewing Vygotsky's Enlightenment precursors - particularly Locke and Condillac - "to shed further light on these early influences and to suggest both the scale and complexity of the ideas about language, signs and symbolization that Vygotsky inherited" (p.193). It's an intriguing historicization. Or rather, I feel that it should be intriguing to me, but lately I have been more interested in critiques of Engeströmian AT. For those who are interested in the development of Vygotsky's thought, particularly the relatively underexplored non-Marxist roots, I recommend the article.
Bakhurst, D. "Reflections on activity theory"Rounding out the articles reviewed here (and recall that I skipped one) is this incisive critique of how Engeström interpreted Ilyenkov's work. As you may know, Engeström lifted Ilyenkov's treatment of contradictions and applied it to Leont'ev's notion of activity systems - a pivotal moment in the development of activity theory, since it made possible many things, including critiques that would have been unwise in the Soviet milieu; an account of macrolevel development; and the notion of interlocking (chained) and overlapping (interpenetrating) activity systems. (Not to sound like a broken record, but see my book Network for more on this pivotal development.) Bakhurst is well versed in Ilyenkov's work and has been cited frequently by Engeström, so I was highly interested in his take. And his take is not entirely complimentary.
Bakhurst declares that although many suggest that "activity theory represents the most important legacy of Soviet philosophy and psychology," Engeström’s canonical account of EAT as a third-generation development of AT is troubled because EAT is at tension with the concerns of AT's Russian founders. In particular, the Soviet tradition of AT "saw the concept of activity as a fundamental category to address profound philosophical questions about the possibility of mind," but "activity theory in the West has principally become an empirical method for modeling activity systems" (p.197).
Bakhurst begins by noting that in the Soviet tradition, activity is taken as "a fundamental explanatory category in philosophy and psychology" (p.197). Yet "The concept of activity, in contrast, had, and continues to have, no place whatsoever on the Anglo-American philosophical scene" (p.198) - and for very good reason, since human activity is such a broad, general notion as to be useless. How could one have a theory of activity that can simultaneously cover all human activity and yet be specific enough to be useful? "This is a question to which activity theorists must have an answer," he declares firmly (p.198).
Alas, Bakhurst has no neat answer to the question, and he laments that there is not so much agreement on what activity actually is (p.198). Indeed, he argues,
In its heyday in Soviet thought, the concept of activity was a vehicle for the articulation of a critical and creative species of Marxism that stood in a tense relation to the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy of the Soviet establishment. As a result, the activity approach was a means for the ventriloquation of all kinds of views. So now, when one steps back and reflects on the tradition, many of those views appear rather difficult to render coherent. (p.199)Now isn't that fascinating? Personally, I am used to reading Bakhtin in terms of veiled allusions and ambiguities, but not AT's Soviet writers. Reading this explanation, I felt a little stab of regret at my past harsh readings of Ilyenkov.
Back to the development of AT. Bakhurst praises Engeström’s Learning by Expanding for offering "a very detailed account of the diverse sources, philosophical and psychological, that inform activity theory"; but he deplores that "a simplified picture has emerged out of his work that has become part of the self-consciousness of those in the West who work in the tradition" (p.199). In particular, he means the idea that "there are three principal stages or generations of activity theory" (p.199; Bakhurst is too polite to say here that Engeström himself has been one of the chief advocates of this view, although he gets around to pointing the finger on p.200).
Bakhurst is not satisfied with the three-generation account. First, contra the linearity of this story, "within Russian philosophy and psychology, the concept of activity was always seen as problematic and open to multiple interpretations" (p.200). Bakhurst argues that, to rescue Vygotsky's work from the politically-inspired charge of idealism, "the concept of activity was brought to prominence by Vygotsky’s students as part of an attempt to defend the general Vygotskian framework against this objection" (p.202). This development "pulled the Vygotskian approach towards the tradition of Marx’s philosophical anthropology" and arguably away from Vygotsky's original conceptions (p.202).
Second, Bakhurst argues, Engeström’s account of AT yields "a theory of activity, in the form of a model of activity systems" (p.202). But "the Russian founders of the tradition" rather "deploy[ed] the concept of activity to explain something else – broadly speaking, our place in the world, the nature of consciousness, or personality. Their idea was that activity is the fundamental explanatory concept in philosophy and psychology because it is the central notion in any viable philosophical anthropology" (p.202). For instance, Bakhurst summarizes Ilyenkov's position thus: "Human beings are thus essentially social creatures because they owe their very status as minded beings, as persons, to their appropriation of culture" (p.203). Here, the concept of activity
is the key concept that explains both the emergence of the world as a possible object of thought through the objectification of significance and the emergence of our mental powers, which consist in a certain mode of active engagement with reality (responsiveness to reasons) and which develop in each individual through her appropriation of the specific modes of activity of her community, through initiation into a form of life. It is very typical of Russian philosophers of this tradition to look for such a root or core concept, the evolution of which encapsulates the logic of the system under scrutiny. (p.203)
Bakhurst does not read Ilyenkov's account as empirical but as purely philosophical - not to mention "deeply anthropocentric" (p.204). Bakhurst is critical of, but respectful toward, Ilyenkov throughout.
This Soviet notion of activity was
designed to form the basis of a viable psychology, a psychology of the kind Leontiev sought to develop. Out of Leontiev’s work then evolves the second strand, which is principally a method for modelling activity systems with a view to facilitating not just understanding, but practice. Activity theory in the second sense is, among other things, a way of modelling organizational change. (p.205)Here, Bakhurst points us to a 2005 Kaptelinin article, "The object of activity: Making sense of the sense-maker" (p.205). Bakhurst says that he does not choose sides here, but his "main concern is that we do not lose sight of what the first strand of activity theory was all about. I do not want the first strand to be simply taken up into the second and to survive in people’s imaginations only as the precursor of the second" - especially since the two strands involve different styles (p.206).
So let's talk about the second strand. Bakhurst suspects that many who use AT "want to look at a particular phenomenon" but "recognize that the phenomenon is not easy to capture using the standard techniques of standard social science" because "the phenomenon is part of a complex system" and "because it involves a rich human texture." So they seek an empirical approach with an appropriate theoretical framework (p.206). But Bakhurst suspects Ilyenkov would raise objections:
First, it is not clear that what we have here is a theory at all. What we have is a model or a schema that has minimal predictive power. If activity theory is a theory, it warrants the name because it is a theoretical representation of the general structure of activity systems. (p.206)But "It is pretty much impossible to find something recognizable as an activity that does not fit the model," he objects (p.206); " This implies that what we have here is a universal, but generally vacuous schema, that turns out to be a useful heuristic in reference to certain kinds of activity" - and that schema "vastly underdetermines the description of the 'activity system'under scrutiny" (p.207). The links are unclear, and "In terms of understanding the dynamics of the activity system, a fair load is carried by the idea of a contradiction, but this notion is conspicuously vague" (p.207).
Succinctly, Bakhurst says, "The moral is that you must be very cautious about given, stable, structural representations where you aspire to understand dynamism, flux, reflexivity, and transformation" (p.207).
Bakhurst reminds us that he sees this second strand as empirical rather than philosophical. But he is not convinced that the second strand needs more theory: "It might be better off with less," he argues, taking as an example the debate about the notion of "object" (p.208). Bakhurst notes that much ink has been spilled attempting to reconcile the two notions of object - what someone is trying to achieve vs. what they are working on - when he simply thinks the term is ill-formed and ambiguous. "I think recent discussions about the object of activity are a case where the second strand in the activity-theoretical tradition makes it seem as if there is a deep theoretical problem to be solved, when in fact there is not, and that turning to the first strand to address this pseudo-problem only promises to make matters worse," he staes (p.208).
Bakhurst ends with a bit of feather-smoothing that doesn't do much to take the sting out of his critique. It's a good critique, and I think the most valuable article in the issue.
Overall, should you read this issue? If you're interested in AT and have a solid background, I think you should. It has some smart critiques, and certainly some passionate ones. I don't agree with them all, and I think some have to do with differences in how AT is interpreted, but all are thought-provoking and deserve to be considered.