Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Reading :: Activity Systems Analysis Methods

Activity Systems Analysis Methods: Understanding Complex Learning Environments
By Lisa C. Yamagata-Lynch

I've been meaning to read this book for a while—it was published in 2010—but my library only has it in an electronic version (hard to read) and it retails for $125 (hard to justify). However, I recently reviewed a book proposal for Springer and they offered to send me a book, so I selected this one.

The book is from a CHAT perspective, specifically grounded in Engestrom's work, and aims to explain how to apply the activity system as a unit of analysis in qualitative research of education environments. The author is an education researcher, and the book is illustrated with examples from her own studies.

To provide grounding for the application, the author begins by overviewing activity systems analysis; describing CHAT (including its roots in Vygotsky); and overviewing CHAT criticisms. From there, the author provides examples of activity systems analyses; discusses how qualitative research is conducted in conjunction with activity systems analyses; and provides detailed examples from her own research. In the appendices, the author provides consent forms, interview protocols, and other study-specific examples from the studies she describes. By the end of the book, the reader has a general overview of CHAT and many examples of its application.

Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed by the book, which has a bit of an identity crisis.

The first half of the book provides a tour of CHAT development that is detailed enough to raise some of CHAT's internal contradictions, but not detailed enough to address their implications. For instance, after noting some of the conflicts about the definition of the object, the author shrugs off the conflicts, saying, "As a methodologist, I do not see it as part of my work to redefine the 'object'" (p.17)! (The author and I have different understandings about what being a methodologist entails.) Yet the author also goes into surprising detail about the development of CHAT, including the disagreement between Vygotsky and the Kharkov group. These details raise questions about CHAT that go unanswered and have curiously little impact on the methodology discussion or the application in the second half of the book.

The second half focuses on examples in which a straight-ahead Engestromian CHAT analysis is applied. In these examples, the details are abundant (even including consent forms), but the principles are scarce. At points, I wasn't sure what I was getting out of the second half that I wouldn't have gotten by reading the methodology and analysis sections of exemplar studies.

The main text is only 138pp. At about the time that I got to the appendices, I realized that part of my problem with the book was that it attempts to do two things—understand CHAT's development and provide a CHAT methodological how-to—that are best done in separate texts, and that have been done better elsewhere. Here are two examples out of many:

Example 1: My book Network goes into CHAT development, while my book Topsight  provides a methodological how-to (which, unlike this book, is principles-first and explains its examples thoroughly). You can buy both of them, together, for $52. Activity Systems Analysis Methods by itself is over twice as much: $126.

Example 2: Kaptelinin and Nardi's two books examine CHAT development and apply methodological principles: Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design and Activity Theory in HCI: Fundamentals and Reflections. You can buy both of them, together, for $52.50. Again, that's less than half of the price of Activity Systems Analysis Methods and the books provide more thorough discussion of CHAT development and methodological principles.

I'm not counseling against reading and using this book. In fact, if you have ready access to it from a library and you are setting up a qualitative study in an educational environment, it might be directly useful to you. But I think the book works best as a supplement to books that are more specialized and principle-centric, and the cover price is too steep relative to analogous CHAT texts.