Spinuzzi, Clay. “Losing by Expanding: Corralling the Runaway Object” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 10/2011, Volume 25, Issue 4, pp. 449 – 486.


Third-generation activity theory (3GAT) has become a popular theoretical and methodological framework for writing studies, particularly in technical communication. 3GAT involves identifying an object, a material or problem that is cyclically transformed by collective activity. The object is the linchpin of analysis in the empirical case. Yet the notion of object has expanded methodologically and theoretically over time, making it difficult to reliably bound an empirical case. In response, this article outlines the expansion of the object, diagnoses this expansion, and proposes an alternate approach that constrains the object for case-study research in writing studies.

  • S. begins by noting how 3GAT hs been used from theoretical framing in WS as well as in case studies (check out: Paretti, McNair, & Halloway-Attaway, 2007; Russell & Yanez 2003; Spafford, Schryer, Mian & Lingard, 2006; Walker 2004) because it provides a socioculturally meaningful unit of analysis and also because it is “amenable to synthesis with constructs such as genre” (450).
  • S. notes that the object in the AT analysis often acts as the “linchpin” or “sense-maker” of any analysis.  This means that empirically, the object defines the activity system and bounds its case.  IOW, the object is what makes AT analysis possible.
  • To push against the notion of the object as empirical anchor, S. reviews seven case studies of professional communication that use an AT orientation.  Here are the results:

Spinuzzi concludes that because only one study unambigously uses the object as a sense maker to define   the activity of the group, studies employing 3GAT in WS aren’t providing a clear unit of analysis (450).

  • Spinuzzi notes that this isn’t some sort of deficiency on the part of Writing Studies researchers employing activity theoretic analysis; rather, this suggests instead a fundamental tension exists in how the objects of activity systems are defined.
  • Spinuzzi highlights how Engestrom’s articulation of the object has transformed over time, noting that now E. talks a lot less about obvious bounded activities and objects and instead of runaway objects, or in ANT terms, monstrous objects.  These are objects that “have the potential to escalate and expand up to a global scale of influence.  They are objets that are poorly under anyone’s control and have far-reaching, unexpected side effects” (Engestrom 227, qtd. in Spinuzzi 453).  In other words, objects are no longer bounded or material and are often much bigger than the material in which they exist – they’re also multiperspectival and tend to be the locus of many different activities.  These runaway objects are typically not found in activities of industrial, craft, or agricultural production – they’re characteristic of swarming activities and massive collaborative work (453).
  • Considering the existence of runaway objects, Spinuzzi asks two questions: 1) “How did we get here?  How did the object run away from us, methodologically and analytically, and what are the repurcussions for 3GAT studies of writing?; and 2) How do we address this issue?  How do we corral the runaway object in writing studies? (453-4).
  • Spinuzzi notes that the object in AT systems “is both projective and objective”; IOW, the objectiveness of the object is found in its raw materials and the problems at hand – the use value of the object is the envisioned finished object.  As such, the object defines the “horizon of possible actions” (455).
  • S. notes that as activities become more complex and interdisciplinary, they’re object becomes more and more difficult to describe in cyclical terms.  This is because participants might have different motives and different perspectives on the shared object; further, it might also be because the object is “multifaceted, evolving” and “dialogical” or understood differently by different folks at different times over time (456).
  • Polycontextuality:  procedures remain incomplete, problematic situations change constantly (network reconfiguration), solutions have a short shelf life, etc.
  • Why is the problem expanding?  1) Methodologically, the problem is that AT is being applied to all-too-broad cases of study; analytically, activity is becoming more multidimensional as more and more human activity doesn’t fit into established modes (agricultural, industrial, craft) that AT was established to track (457).
  • Core requirement for 3GAT: a shared object that links two separate activity systems.  But in reality this often results only in dyadic activity systems; in reality, the shared object is typically made possibly by a variety (more than two) mediating instruments [1. In my own work in the dissertation, it will be important to note the existence of a shared object that is created through interlocking genre sets or instruments that facilitate the production of that object.  At the mesoscopic level, this means multiple different generic instruments developed for navigating the archive; at the macroscopic level, this means both the CMS and tracker function to faclitate the same object: production of shared piratical space (459).].
  • Activity networks: this describes what happens when one activity system takes a particular product as its object and then that object becomes a tool that is utilized to realize some other activity [2. Obviously, this is an answer that you’ve been trying to hash out with respect to the CMS/tracker as rhetorical genre that contains other objects (not just the objects that facilitate archive navigation, but a really large host of others as well).  Check your notes for “nested” activity systems.].  Need to check out these sources: Miettinen 1998 (“Object construction and networks in research work: The case of research on cellulose-degrading enzymes” ); Miettinen & Hasu 2002 (“Articulating user needs in collaborative design: Towards an activity-theoretical approach” ).   Nice example of an activity network (you’ll want to create one of these for the fourth chapter):


  • The runaway object is “one that is shared by multiple activities with variable actors occupying different locations and collaborating irreguarly . . . . The object is no longer common, distinct, and atomic but multiperspectival, fractional, and runaway” (462).  Spinuzzi provides examples of runaway objects : global warming, linux, etc.
  • S. notes that the methodological problem draws attention to the theoretical one: contexts are expanding, activities are interpenetrating, and connections are becoming multiperspectival for a reason: the nature of mediation itself is changing because work activity makes the object more multidimensional: broadly circulated, shared, and interpreted in different activities (463).  S. notes that these kinds of activities tend to be informational.
  • S. [4. Check Ding 2008 (“The use of cognitive and social apprenticeship to teach a disciplinary genre: Initiation of graduate students into NIH grant writing”) for a discussion of ecology as interrelated set of genres.] tracks the movement of objects toward information thusly:  1) Objects become knowledge; 2) knowledge is a representation (or representations) of other objects (knowledge objects make representational objects but representational objects sometimes contradict what they’re supposed to represent); 3) Knowledge is transformed in multiple activities; objects become polycontextual (this is the same notion as presented in Mol’s The Body Multiple; i.e., multiple objects as informational represent multiple facets of an object and multiple activities that an object might be involved in – i.e., “the patient might be represented by texts such as X-rays, blood-test results, a database of payments and insurance reimbursements, a liability waiver, all of which compose the patient’s records but which circulate independently and represent different aspects of the patient (467))  A key to this understanding is that the more representational objects become, the more polycontextual and transportable they are – they become multiple through activity..; 4) Coconfiguration emerges as a historically new form of work: this is the notion that the kinds of work in the world have transformed from industrial production to networked information production.  Objects are not only rendered multiple but fluid, fragmented, and fractional.  Object-related motives for participation are not suffeciently stable enough to constitute a constant of the activity system (470).
  • Let’s summarize those last sections:  Spinuzzi works in this article to demonstrate that knowledge work challenges the cyclical, developmental account of work that AT was created to trace; further, bounding the case isn’t the only problem as the cases themselves are becoming more interconnected/networked and multiple (470).  To make sense of all these things, S. argues that researchers must account for multiple perspectives and polycontextuality to expand the object.  The methodological-analytical problem Spinuzzi describes is summed up here:


  • To address the incapacities of 3GAT, Spinuzzi postulates a couple of notes toward developing methods and analytics of objects:
    • Writing studies research knowledge work; as such, texts tend to be the focus of people’s work.
    • Knowledge work focuses on knowledge, brining in specialists from different areas to transform it – this contributes to a texts multipleness.
    • Knowledge work is collaborative: specialists must work together across boundaries to develop the same object – perhaps “collaboration” is the object of interdisiplinary activity [7. A smart point that you might consider elaborating in your own work going forward – in essence, the object of your research is collaboration in CBPP.  See Gygi & Zachry 2010 (“Productive tensions and the regulatory work of genres in the development of an engineering communication workshop in a transnational corporation”) for more details.
  • Spinuzzi recommends a couple of different movements to address these transformations for 3GAT[8. Consider using these at the end of the introduction section on breakaway objects to bound your study and provide something of a limit to the activity network.]:
    • Provisionally bound the case – we must start at a phenomenological level – what is the “dwelling” of the activity?
    • Identify a common representational object (text) within these bounds: identify a representational object for the locus of study – not vague objects.  What is the shared object that all individuals can agree that they’re working on?
    • Identify outcomes (qualifiers): what are the different outcomes that subjects identify the object as meeting?  This expands the object but also constrains it from meaning everything.
    • Rebound the Case: Based on the identificatio of the object and the outcomes, reboud the activity using observable, verifiable data to redraw the boundaries of the activity, defining the activity in terms of the object (475).
    • Describe the activity: reassemble the activity triangle, providing an AT account of the representational object within the bounds and characteristics established.  Here’s the movement in total:

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