Wednesday, September 16, 2020

(Reading roundup: Mutizwa Mukute and colleagues)

I haven't reviewed a set of articles for a while, but recently I've been reading some work that applies and extends cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) to explore and facilitate community action in southern Africa. This work has been promoted by Yrjo Engestrom and Annalisa Sannino, and it's noteworthy in part because it applies the Change Labs methodology to community action contexts.

The articles I've read include:

Colvin, J., & Mukute, M. (2018). Governance in Ethiopia: Impact evaluation of the African Climate Change and Resilience Alliance (ACCRA) project.

Lotz-Sisitka, H., Ali, M. B., Mphepo, G., Chaves, M., Macintyre, T., Pesanayi, T., … McGarry, D. (2016). Co-designing research on transgressive learning in times of climate change. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 20, 50–55.

Lotz-Sisitka, H., Mukute, M., Chikunda, C., Baloi, A., & Pesanayi, T. (2017). Transgressing the norm: Transformative agency in community-based learning for sustainability in southern African contexts. International Review of Education, 63(6), 897–914., K., & Mukute, M. (2019). Exploring group solidarity for insights into qualities of T-learning. Sustainability (Switzerland), 11(23).

Mukute, M. (2016). Dialectical critical realism and Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT): Exploring and expanding learning processes in sustainable agriculture workplace contexts. In L. Price & H. Lotz-Sisitka (Eds.), Critical realism, environmental learning and social-ecological change. New York: Routledge.

Mukute, M., & Lotz-Sisitka, H. (2012). Working with cultural-historical activity theory and critical realism to investigate and expand farmer learning in Southern Africa. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 19(4), 342–367.

Mukute, M., Mudokwani, K., McAllister, G., & Nyikahadzoi, K. (2018). Exploring the Potential of Developmental Work Research and Change Laboratory to Support Sustainability Transformations: A Case Study of Organic Agriculture in Zimbabwe. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 25(3), 229–246.

CHAT isn't a stranger to facilitating community action—see for instance the work that Bodker did with unions in the UTOPIA project—but here, Mukute and colleagues apply it across geographically different communities and to issues of decolonization. Because of the wider scope, Engestrom and Sannino cite this work to illustrate a new iteration of CHAT (Yamazumi, n.d.; Engestrom & Sannino 2016). Mukute and colleagues at Rhodes University have examined cases such as “(1) sustainable agriculture in Lesotho; (2) seed saving and rainwater harvesting in Zimbabwe; (3) community-based irrigation scheme management in Mozambique; and (4) biodiversity conservation co-management in South Africa” (Lotz-Sisitka et al. 2017, p.897; cf. Lotz-Sisitka, Pesanayi et al. 2016; Mudokwani & Mukute 2019; Mukute 2016; Mukute & Lotz-Sisitka 2012; Mukute et al. 2018). In these related studies, the authors examine how “expansive learning might also facilitate instances of transgressing norms – viewed here as embedded practices which need to be reframed and changed in order for sustainability to emerge” (Lotz-Sisitka et al. 2017, p.898). 

Mukute et al. (2018) specifically examine organic agriculture in South Africa. They state that activity theory points to “the limitations of current problem-solving approaches that have been developed in and tend to serve a capitalist-based approach, which commodifies knowledge, natural resources, and life forms.” (p.244). In their interventionist research with “eight interacting district organic farmer associations” across Zimbabwe (p.233), they conducted four Change Laboratory sessions. The first session, involving 99 organic farmers and 10 extension workers, was conducted over eight days and focused on identifying challenges and generating mirror data for the later sessions. The second through fourth sessions involved 39 farmers and seven content specialists, and focused on analyzing mirror data and then modeling and refining solutions (p.235). The fourth section in particular involved three groups presenting solutions to each other and critiquing these solutions (p.236). Through these discussions, the interventionist researchers identified how “that the matters were not only interconnected but also stratified”:

For example, climate change causes water shortages through droughts and longer midseason dry spells, and water shortages undermine food production, which results in food insecurity and poverty. Research participants’ analyses of the matters of concern using problem tree analysis suggested that the nexus issues such as food insecurity, water, and climate change had multidirectional causal relationships. For example, poverty and food insecurity make farmers vulnerable to climate change, and climate change weakens farmers’ abilities to produce food and get out of poverty. (p.237)

Through this Change Laboratories approach, Mukute et al. argue, the participants were able to participate in transgressive learning, which challenges “unjust and unsustainable norms and practices that have become normalised” (p.229). In transgressive learning,

transformations to sustainability may involve transgression of unjust and unsustainable norms. Such transgression and associated transgressive learning are interested in protecting and caring for the earth and life in and on it. ... Such learning can be supported through the CHAT-informed expansive learning process using the CL method. However, the current CHAT conceptualisation of goods and services that are produced, exchanged, and distributed seems to exclude common good and ecological services that are important in transformations to sustainability. (p.245)

It's fascinating work. If you're interested in CHAT and its development, and/or how to apply CHAT at broader scope, and/or how CHAT can work with decolonization projects, definitely check it out.