Russell, David. “Rethinking Genre in School and Society: An Activity Theory Analysis.” Written Communication 14 (1997). 504-554. Print.
Abstract: The relation between writing in formal schooling and writing in other social practicesis a central problem in writing research (e.g., critical pedagogy, writing in nonacademic settings, cognition in variable social contexts). How do macro-level social and political structures (forces) affect micro-level literate actions in classrooms and vice versa? To address these questions, the author synthesizes Yrjo Engestrom’s systems version of Vygotskum cultural-historical activity theory with Charles Bazerman’s theory of genre systems. The author suggests that this synthesis extends Bakhtinian dialogic theory by providing a broader unit of analysis than text-as-discourse, wider levels of analysis than the dyad, and an expanded theory of dialectic. By tmcing the intertextual relations among disciplinary and educational genre systems, through the boundary of classroom genre systems, one can construct a model of ways classroom writing is linked to writing in wider social practices and rethink such issues as agency, task representation, and assessment.
- R. begins by highlighting how the macro social and political structures affect the micro-level literacy practices of individual in our writing classrooms. This is an interesting claim because it points out the lack of empirical tracing possible in the movement from ideological structures that shape our political possibilities and the actual writing practices of our classrooms (Jim Berlin, what’s the answer?). So, as a remedy, Russell intends to synthesize Engestrom’s CHAT work with Bazerman’s genre systems theory to demonstrate how writing as a social practice (micro-level) in different institutional settings serves the macro-level interests of powerful institutions (505).
- R. sees this work as important because it expands the “most elaborated current theory of context”: Bakhtin’s dialogism. He claims it expands it by providing: 1) a broader unit of analysis than text-as-discourse; b) wider levels of analysis than the dyad; and 3) an expanded theory of dialectic that embraces objects and motives of collectives and their participants to explain reciprocal interactions among people through texts, which dialogism theorizes as the heteroglossic interpenetration of social languages (505). He later notes that he hopes his analysis “may offer a theoretical bridge between the sociology of education and Vygotskian social psychology of classroom interaction, and contribute toward resolving the knotty problem of the relation between macro- and microstructure in literacy research based on various social theories of context (Layder 1994) (508)
- How does he plan on doing this? By “tracing the intertextual relation of a disciplinary or professional genre system to an educational genre system, through the boundary of a classroom genre system.” In this process R. claims to create a model that does demonstrate the relationships between the micro (individual classroom writing) and macro (institutions) levels of writing.
- R. notes that social constructionist articulations of writing account for the social dimensions of writing in addition to paying heed of the textual (formalist) and cognitive psychological (constructivist) dimensions of language use; however, all of these epistemologies fall prey to Cartesian dualism (a container and thing contained, i.e., the subject is preserved in mind/individual/text). As an alternative, R. looks to dialogism or Bakhtin’s early theory that there is nothing beyond the discourse – the discourse is the rhetorical situation. . . it does not reflect an already existent rhetorical situation. So, using dialogism as a theoretical backing will allow for more ecological considerations of composition. R. recognizes that while Bakhtin’s dialogism is more comprehensive than constructed discourse communities it fails to take into account the nonverbal, material realities that affect the doing of writing. Turning to AT, R. notes that Engestrom’s AT explanation provides the ability to consider the effect of long-term objectives and motives beyond conversation (beyond the dyad of present speakers and their use of language).
- Article trajectory:
o Introduction (see above)
o Sketch systems version of Vygotskian AT
o Elaborate AT in terms of North American genre research
o Illustrate how genre theory can clarify problems of analyzing how students change as writers.
- R. highlights how AT is similar to social constructionism in that it traces cognition and behavior to social interaction; likewise, it is similar to diologism in that it doesn’t posit some underlying conceptual scheme to explain behavior but instead looks to behavior as a place where “reciprocal mediation” results in exchange and negotioation. As such, AT and diologism “move from the social to the individual in their analyses” (509). The object of analysis isn’t the subject of the object but the social intercourse that occurs in between, motivating elements to action. Instead of using context of conversation as the metaphor for activity AT uses “interlocking dynamic systems or networks” as the way to understand the interaction among human agents and their tools (writing and speaking included).
- Working from Engestrom and Cole, R. defines an activity system as “any ongoing, object-directed, historically conditioned, dialectically structured, tool-mediated human interaction” and provides examples like family, advocacy groups, political movements, research laboratories and professions (511).
- How is identity created in Activity Systems? Identity is merely the intersection of the person’s history of involvements among multiple activity systems in combination with idiosyncratic factors like genetics (510-11).
- What are tools? Tools are mediational means or material objects in use by an individual or group to accomplish actions.
- What is the object/motive? The raw material or problem space on which the subject(s) brings to bear various tools in ongoing interaction with another person(s) (ibid). So, if the object of activity is a cell the motive may be analyzing cells for cancer research purposes. Objects are tied to motives; however, motives work in scales. So, unknown motives might animate activity without knowledge of the subject (because of networks of interconnected activity systems – thanks Burke!) (ibid).
- Much like Reid’s acknowledgement of the importance of division of labor in human consciousness development, R. acknowledges that the social division of labor allows networks of activity to arise and proliferate. The reason why AT is referred to as a cultural-historical theory is because the ways that dynamic social interaction among human beings at the micro-level of interaction occurs across time changes the identit(ies) of subjects, the focus and motive of their actions and the tools-in-use (512).
- R. turns to North American activity theory to explain the way that genre – as operationalized social action – is a tool that mediates activity in systems in order to produce stability. He does this by highlighting four points:
o Genre must be dynamic. Working from Carolyn Miller’s “Genre as Social Action” and Bazerman’s 1994 book chapter “Systems of Genres and the Enactment of Social Intentions” R. notes how genres are “forms of life” that regularize tool use for groups; however, genres are always responsive to context. . . as such, they are “stabilized-for-now” (Schryer 1993).
o Discourse must be seen as one kind of tool among many other tools uses to relate genres to other kinds of material actions. In other words, discourse as tool-in-use means recognizing that language use is central to the construction and existence of activity systems.
o Written genres help mediate action of individuals within a collective (activity system) in order to create stabilized-for-now structures of action and identity. This means that activity system actions can be broken down into smaller parts on a cognitive continuum to most conscious to least conscious (or System – Action – Operation). When tools-in-use become consistent and routinized they become genre: typified tool-mediated responses to recurrent social conditions. Here’s the breakdown:
o Genre mediates change in individuals through appropriation. This means that when a new subject enters an activity system the conventions of genre not only allow the user to operationalize conscious actions but also to internalize the words, ways, and motives of others. This includes adopting an alternative subjectivity of the collective in order to support the object-oriented action (via motive) of the activity system itself! (516). All that being said, when a genre moves into another activity system wherein it doesn’t perform the same action (the recurring situation has changed) then the distortion of using one genre in multiple accounts creates contradiction and results in psychological double bind (to use it here or there? Why are my tools confusing me?!?)
- Using Bazerman’s definition of genre system (“interrelated genres that interact with each other in specific settings”), R. describes how activity systems are actually mediated by genre systems. . . in other words, I think R. is demonstrating how writing mediates the activity of large-scale activity systems (“At the DoD requests for proposals generate funding proposals , which generate contracts, which generate reports and experimental articles. . . .”) (520).
- Written genre systems stabilize-for-now the object/motive and collective identity of many activity systems by providing stable structures/protocols that interlock and direct activity (let it be known that the beauty here is that each individual isn’t responsible for knowing all the genres; rather, the ways the genres interact in systems allows for division of labor).
- Further, often written genres operate as boundary objects that allow transference between activity systems.
- When contradictions occur in an activity system genres can mediate collective change through innovation, reform, or revolution (522). Because genres predict but do not determine structure, appropriation across genre/activity systems allows for collective change. This is often the result of newcomers of different sorts who can redirect the activity system motive/object.
- R. claims that power is analyzable in “terms of dialectical contradiction in activity systems, manifest in specific tools-in-use (including written genres) that people marshal when they are corss-purposes” (523-4). This means that some people are more powerful than others because of their control over the tool-mediated systems or networks.
- R. traces an activity system of a biology course, the broader university, and the biology classroom in the second half of the article. Here’s what the genre system of his analysis looks like:
- He does this to demonstrate the interrelatedness of genre systems in this one broader activity system. In other words, the genres help operationalize the actions of the activity system that comprises the university. (530-2)
- In the final section of his article R. points to three problem of writing research (3 of many) that might be reconsidered or rethought in terms of contradictions/double-binds. He does this by tracing the ways that “intertextual genre systems” interpenetrate and determine activity in school and society (533). The central conflicts include:
o Analyzing students’ agency and identity as writers in relation to disciplines
o Analyzing the rhetorical nature of students’ supposedly arhetorical/text-based approaches to writing
o Analyzing institutional selection/assessment and student motivation for writing
- The crucial elements of the analysis that R. conducts in the aforementioned section include:
o The coconstructions of identity of individual and collective subjects (agents) in activity systems and the dialectical contradictions in those constructions
o The coconstruction of the object/motive of the activity and the diealectical contradictions in that; and
o The tools people use to construct their individual and collective subjectivities and objects/motives, particularly the operationalized (routinized) rhetorical tools-in-use we called genres. (546)