Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Reading :: Vygotsky and Research

Vygotsky and Research
By Harry Daniels

Harry Daniels has a series of books on Vygotsky, including both monographs and collections. This one is a monograph—a succinct overview of Vygotskian theory, Vygotsky's own research, and research strands influenced by it (including distributed cognition, situated cognition, and activity theory). It's a rewarding overview of Vygotsky-related research traditions that will be of interest to neophytes as well as those who are well acquainted with the relevant literature.

Since I'm in the latter category, I'll skip the first two chapters, which cover Vygotsky's theory and his circle's research.

Chapter 3, "The sociocultural tradition," tackles studies that have been labeled "sociocultural"—a term that tends to be applied in different ways, but that generally refers to "its focus on the development of an understanding of the social formation of mind" (p.51). One critical issue that is considered in this literature is whether social and individual worlds are separable or indivisible (p.51). In a handy summary table, Daniels identifies scholars belonging to weak and strong views about inseparability (p.55): Wertsch, Cole, and Valsiner are on the weak side, while Rogoff, Lave, Wenger, Matusov, and Shweder are on the strong side. Daniels also discusses mediation, quoting Wertsch's ten claims concerning mediation (p.61). Finally, Daniels discusses something that has interested me lately: whether Vygotsky was a dialogical thinker, as Wertsch sees him, or a dialectical one. Daniels lays out Wegerif's (2007) argument that the dialogic should be understood as an ontological principle (pp.65-66). (This find alone made the book valuable for me, since I have been looking for just this sort of discussion.)

In Chapter 5, "Situated action and communities of practice," Daniels reviews "a move from research that takes its major preoccupation as being that of cognition to a more concerted interest in action" (p.91). After overviewing this body of work, he reviews some of the major criticisms of it. Here, he quotes Valsiner (1988)'s citation analysis of Vygotsky, noting that a large percentage of Vygotsky cites in English are to flawed translations (p.107; n.b., I am currently finishing up that Valsiner book). According to Valsiner and others, Western interpreters have subsumed Vygotsky's original intentions under their own priorities (p.107).

In Chapter 5, he also returns to the question of separability that was earlier aired in Chapter 3. He quotes Matusov as asserting that Vygotsky himself advocated the separability thesis, while Bakhtin advocated the non-separability thesis. According to Matusov, Vygotsky ethnocentrically regarded Western societies as the most advanced, while Bakhtin was more concerned with how people constitute each other and participate in unending dialogue (pp.113-114).

In Chapter 6, "Activity theory and interventionist research," Daniels identifies AT with the inseparability thesis, but airs the criticism that it has not yet come to terms with that thesis methodologically (p.115). Daniels briefly reviews the Vygotsky-Leontiev difference, noting Cole and Gajdamaschko's argument that Leontiev did not fundamentally repudiate Vygotsky so much as complement his work (p.116). He also notes the difference between Western and Russian approaches to AT, quoting Hakkarainen's claim that Western CHAT sees activity as an object of scientific study and management, while the Russian activity approach sees it as an explanatory principle (p.117). Daniels then overviews CHAT, identifying five principles:

  • expansive learning
  • dialogicality and multivoicedness
  • boundary objects, translation, and boundary-crossing
  • cognitive trails
  • labor power (pp.123-131)
Re the latter, he critiques Engestrom's identification of the primary contradiction of capitalism as use-value vs. exchange-value. Daniels says that Engestrom sources this primary contradiction in Leontiev. However, Daniels says, this view does not adequately take into account Marx's identification of two classes of commodities: (a) a general class of commodities and (b) labor-power (p.130). Daniels argues that "Education, training and work-related learning are forms of social production of labour-power potential," which he says suggests that "the 'meta-object' of a workplace activity system is the expansion of labour-power potential" (p.130). He says that "the development of Vygotsky's activity theory in the subsequent work of Leontiev and Engestrom is rooted in a concern with the collective aspect of labour-power" (p.130, his emphasis). And he charges that "object-oriented activity is rendered contradictory because it constitutes both directly functional work and the social production of labour-power, which is always riven with contradictions" (p.131). 

In Ch.7, "Institutions and beyond," Daniels continues his discussion of activity theory in its application to institutions. Among other things, he argues that "activity theory needs to develop tools for analysing and transforming networks of culturally heterogeneous activities through dialogue and debate," citing Engestrom and Miettinen 1999 (p.164). He proposes a diagram to examine dominance in networks of activity systems over time (p.167). 

Overall, this is a dense and highly rewarding book. It focuses heavily on Western interpretations of Vygotsky, which may not be a plus to all readers, but it provides a nuanced and wide-ranging overview of these interpretations. If you're interested in any of these Western applications of Vygotskian thought, definitely pick this one up. 

Reading :: Community and Society

Community and Society
By Ferdinand Tonnies

Tonnies has been referenced often in the books I've read over the last decade, but perhaps most prominently in Adler and Heckscher's work, where they make full use of his distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society). When a collaborator brought this distinction up again, I decided I should invest the time to read the source material.

Tonnies published his first version of the book in 1887 (he was 32 at the time). Like Marx, Tonnies interpreted history in terms of economics, arguing that the development of trade, the modern state, and science, Gemeinschaft characteristics gave away to Gesellschaft characteristics.

So what are Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft? The distinction is similar to the one between mechanical and organic solidarity in Durkheim. Gemeinschaft relations are "real and organic," while Gesellschaft relations are "imaginary and mechanical" (p.33). (Confusingly, Gemeinschaft roughly corresponds to Durkheim's "mechanical solidarity" and Gesellschaft to Durkheim's "organic solidarity.")

"All intimate, private, and exclusive living together" is "life in Gemeinschaft," while "Gesellschaft ... is public life" (p.33).

Tonnies argues that Gemeinschaft emerged first, from "the assumption of perfect unity of human wills as an original or natural condition which is preserved in spite of actual separation," "because of dependence on the nature of the relationship between individuals who are differently conditioned" (p.37). It is characterized by mother-child relationships, husband-wife relationships, and sibling relationships (p.37). But beyond blood, it can also involve neighborhood (e.g., physical locality) and friendship (e.g., common mind/goals) (p.42). In Gemeinschaft, understanding is tacit by nature (p.49). Gemeinschaft is focused inward, toward the community (p.79).

In contrast, Tonnies argues that Gesellschaft is an "artificial construction of an aggregate of human beings which superficially resembles the Gemeinschaft in so far as the individuals live and dwell together peacefully," but "they remain united in spite of all separating factors"—in contrast with Gemeinschaft, in which they "are essentially separated in spite of all uniting factors" (pp.64-65). In Gesellschaft, "goods are conceived to be separate, as also are their owners" (p.65), so individuals engage in exchanges rather than gifts (p.66). Also in Gesellschaft, "Contracts must be executed" (p.75). Tonnies quotes Adam Smith as arguing that every man becomes a merchant (p.76). Gesellschaft is focused on the outward world and on trade (p.79). Indeed, it exists for merchants and capitalists, and in this frame, those who are not merchants or capitalists are slaves (p.83). Paradoxically, he claims, this line of thinking leads to the abolishment of slavery, since all people are free agents—and one cannot have a Gesellschaft relationship with nonpersons (p.84). (I am reporting this argument, but I am not sure that I adequately follow it.)

The structure of Gesellschaft is described by three acts: "(1) the purchase of labor, (2) the employment of labor, (3) the sale of labor in the form of value elements of the products" (pp.100-101).

In Part II, Tonnies writes taxonomically, contrasting natural and rational will. Natural will, he says, is just thinking, while rational will involves metacognition (p.103). He breaks will down further into "vegetative will" (material stimuli); "animal will" (perceptions, sensory stimulation); and "human will" (thoughts and verbal sensations; mental stimulation) (pp.106-108). Later, he sums up: Gemeinschaft involves natural will, including liking, habit, and memory. Gesellschaft involved rational will, including deliberation, decision, and conception (p.134).

The rest of Part II similarly breaks things down into binaries, always binaries. Organs vs. tools (p.135), freedom vs. choice (p.136), women's feelings vs. men's intellect (p.151). On the latter, Tonnies claims that by entering the workforce, women are developing their rational will (p.166).

In Part III, Tonnies discusses "the sociological basis of natural law" (p.171). He argues that under Gemeinschaft, every relationship is "either potentially or intrinsically, a higher and more general self"; under Gesellschaft, every relationship is "the beginning and the potentiality of a superimposed artificial person" (p.177). So Gemeinschaft is a "personality of united natural wills" and Gesellschaft a personality of "united rational wills" (p.177). He sums up with this contrast:


  • Natural Will 
  • Self
  • Possession
  • Land
  • Family Law
  • Rational Will
  • Person
  • Wealth
  • Money
  • Law of Contracts (p.181)
One other contrast implied by the above: you can leave Gesellschaft, but you can't leave Gemeinschaft (p.204). In fact, when women gain Gesellschaft-like independence, "marriage and marital community of wealth degenerate [sic] into civil contract" (p.204). 

Broadening the focus, Tonnies turns to the State, which he says has a "dual character": on the one hand, it is Gesellschaft, a free association governed by law; on the other, Gemeinschaft, a unity in which all participate in the will of the state through being dependent on it (pp.216-217). 

Finally, in the conclusion, Tonnies argues that he is contrasting two social orders: one resting on harmony of wills, one on convention and agreement (p.223). He further argues that these social orders emerged in different periods of history (p.231; cf. Durkheim; Engels). Ultimately, Tonnies believes that this progression leads to "a socialism of state and international type ... inherent in the concept of Gesellschaft" (p.234). 

And that's the book. Frankly, I liked Tonnies less than I did Adler and Heckscher's gloss of his work. Like roughly contemporaneous work (e.g., Durkheim), it seemed overly binary in its argument, sorting a variety of characteristics into opposing camps. I understand how the argument is based on economics, but that argument devolves into the familiar teleological argument that was in the air in the late 1800s-early 1900s. 

Nevertheless, it's an important distinction that has exerted great influence on later works. As a historical document, it's well worth reading. If you're interested in community, society, sociology, or the influence of economics on any of those three, take a look.

Reading :: Institutional Ethnography

Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People
By Dorothy E. Smith

Dorothy Smith has been cited in a strain of work in professional communication studies dealing with ethnographic research. (I think the first reference I saw to her work was in one of Dorothy Winsor's articles.) Smith, a sociologist, published this 2005 book to explain and summarize institutional ethnography:
The aim of the sociology we call 'institutional ethnography' is to reorganize the social relations of knowledge of the social so that people can take that knowledge up as an extension of our ordinary knowledge of the local actualities of our lives. It is a method of inquiry into the social that proposes to enlarge the scope of what becomes visible from the site, mapping the relations that connect one local site to others. Like a map, it aims to be through and through indexical to the local sites of people's experiences, making visible how we are connected into the extended social relations of ruling and economy and their intersections. And though some of the work of inquiry must be technical, as mapmaking is, its product should be ordinarily accessible and usable, just as a well-made map is, to those on the terrain it maps. (p.29)
That is, IE takes a partnership orientation with its participants, like participatory action research (PAR).  Smith contrasts IE with what she characterizes as the typical mode of research in sociology, in which "everyday and local events" are interpreted "in terms of a framework originating in sociological and political economic discourse," a framework that displaces actual people: "Categories such as 'sociocultural differences,' 'social class,' and 'racial status' become the subjects" and "the potentially unruly (from the point of view of sociological discourse) actualities of people's everyday lives are selectively appropriated" (p.31; cf. Latour's similar argument).

In contrast, an IE "would begin in the actualities of the lives of some of those involved in the institutional process and focus on how these actualities were embedded in social relations, both those of the ruling and those of the economy" (p.31). So "research would begin by building accounts of their situation" and experiences; those accounts then define the ethnography's direction and further steps by identifying the "problematic." And Smith continues:
The institutional regime they confront would be explored from their perspective; their perspective and experience would organize the direction of the ethnographers' investigation. (p.31)
I pulled this quote because, reading the sentence within the paragraph, "they" and "their" seem to refer to "researchers" and "institutional ethnographers" in the previous sentences—but in the clause after the semicolon, "their" seems to be referring to the participants instead. I'm pretty sure Smith meant the latter interpretation.

In any case, "Institutional ethnography begins by locating a standpoint in an institutional order that provides the guiding perspective from which that order will be explored. It begins with some issues, concerns, or problems that are real for people and that are situated in their relationships to an institutional order" (p.32). From there, IE maps out social relations "so that the larger organization that enters into and shapes it becomes visible" (p.35).

Smith notes that IE may sound like Burawoy's extended case method. But the extended case method uses its investigation of people's lifeworlds to discover how the system objectively works—that is, it assumes a system that governs these individual lifeworlds. IE, on the other hand, has "no prior interpretive commitment"; "it means to find out just how people's doings in the everyday are articulated to and coordinated by extended social relations that are not visible from within any particular local setting and just how people are participating in those relations" (p.36). Ultimately, Smith sees IE as an alternate sociology, not just a methodology (p.50; see also pp.54-55). (Again, compare with Latour.)

Later in the book, Smith draws on Mead, Voloshinov, Vygotsky, and Luria to explore the relationship between consciousness and subjectivity (p.75). Interestingly, she characterizes the "text-reader conversation" as active, but "peculiar and unlike conversation in that the text remains the same no matter how many times it is read" (p.105)—I can see what she's trying to say, but I don't think this characterization is adequate within the Mead-Voloshinov-Vygotsky tradition. However, it underpins a later argument in the chapter on texts and institutions, where Smith claims that "it is the replicability of texts that substructs the ruling relations; replicability is a condition of their existence. ... Replicable and replicated texts are essential to the standardizing of work activities of all kinds across time and translocally. It is the constancy of the text that provides for standardization. ... Texts suture modes of social action organized extralocally to the local actualities of our necessarily embodied lives. Text-reader conversations are embedded in and organize local settings of work" (p.166).

In tying discourse to data, Smith later argues that when interviewing a participant, "I'm not interested in whether his account is an accurate telling of events; I am interested, rather, in his experience and how he tells it and in the traces of social relations and organization present in it" (p.138).

Later, Smith mentions grounded theory, charging that it tends to universalize the researcher's intuitions (p.160).

Overall, I found this book to be interesting, but not a revelation. It might be that Smith's earlier publications have impacted qualitative research methodology to the extent that I'm already familiar with her propositions before reading them—but much of this argument seems similar to work with which I'm already familiar, from Whyte to PAR to participatory design to Latour. And as I mentioned above, the characterization of texts seems lacking, especially the notion that texts (a) remain the same in a sociologically meaningful way and (b) in themselves standardize activities across time and space. I'm open to a weak form of that argument, but Smith seems to be pushing for a strong form that severs texts from ongoing meaningful activity.

Nevertheless, it's a solid book packed with details about IE's theory, methodology, and practice. If you're interested in qualitative research in general and IE in particular, I recommend it.