David Russell.  “Uses of Activity Theory in Written Communication Research.”  Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory.  2010.

  • Russell refers to the convergence of rhetorical analysis, genre theory, and typification as WAGR (writing, activity, and genre research).  He notes that WS scholars were initially intrigued by the work of Latour & Woolgar, as well as Vygotsky’s uptake by researchers like Scribner & Cole.
  • CHAT has been used in WS because it doesn’t seperate the activity of writing from its contexts; further, it doesn’t seperate texts from their mediating capacity in activity.  As such, it expands research beyond the dyad of reader-writer in reader response criticism or critical discourse analysis.  IOW, it evades the Cartesian split between mind and world, texts and context (41) that’s quite common in cognitive theories of composition.
  • R. notes that Engestrom’s work hasn’t been used a lot in WS and when it has, it tends to theorize the social dimensions of activity along with distributed cognition and discourse communities of practice (41).  This is mostly due to the importance of genre in WAGR.
  • R. notes that “Beginning in the mid 1990s, Engestrom’s elaboration of Leont’ev’s activity system gave some of us doing WAGR a way to articulate the social systematics of textual circulation networks and their contributing role in accomplishing communal work – as well as impeding or transforming work through dialectical contradictions” (42).
  • R. uses Engestrom’s notion of knotworks or polycontextual systems of activity to try and discover how university students write specialized discourse and write to learn knowledge.  This work answers, according to R., one fundamental question:  How can one analyze in a principled and systematic way the macrolevel social and political structures (cultural studies) that affect the microlevel actions of the teaching and learning (educational psychology that students and teachers do with texts (applied linguistics) in education systems? (42-3).
  • R. argues that genre didn’t enter WS through the work of Bakhtin (though influential) but through Alfred Schutz’s phenomenological concept of typification (Schutz & Luckmann, 1973).  He connects typification directly to Carolyn Miller’s work in “Genre in Social Action.”
  • Genres are more than categories of tools that are classified according to particular features; rather, they also embody the traditions of the tools, or the “forms of life, ways of being, frames of social action'” (Bazerman 1994, 79, qtd on 43).
  • Important work in genre in WS:  1) genres can be analyzed historically at the level of the entire activity system as well as the level of operation.  Bazerman 1999, 2992, Yates 1989, Spinuzzi 2003; 2) at the level of conscious action: spinuzzi 2003, Schryer 1993 – studies of tools-in-use. ; 3) genres must be learned by newcomers to an activity in order to perform actions and coordinate their actions with others – they eventually may become operationalized (44-5).
  • R. notes that genres are also involved in the construction of motives: “Genres are, in a sense, classifications of artifacts-plus-intentions” (45).  This is because genres as tools-in-use enact social intentions and embody particular histories of cultural use . . . use that is always directed and never instrumental.
  • R. highlights that genres are landscapes for action that call attention to the strategic agency of individuals who use genred utterance to further the interests of the collective but are also, in some sense, hemmed in by those same interests (46).
  • R. notes, relying on Berkenkotter & Huckin 1995, that organizational learning is really development by individuals of genre knowledge for particular activity systems.  As R. puts it, “Voices arise more immediately from genres than from the broader social languages; and genres are what structure the cooperation/co-construction of communication through mutual recognition” (46).
  • According to R., Engestrom’s work on the third generation of AT allows folks in WS to describe the social systematics of textual circulation and the ways that mediating artifacts (in this case texts) contribute to the accomplishment of communal work (47).  It also provides a useful heuristic for tracing dialectical contradictions in written activity; i.e.,  it allows researchers to see how genres functioning as stabilized for now entities are agentive: subjects only recognize disturbance and change in relation to the stabilized genres at work; as such, they have the potential to change entire organizations through restructuring particular motives (48).  E.’s work also contributes to WS through notions such as polycontextuality and knotworking (the multiple, overlapping AT triangles).  because multiple genres that overlap tend to structure the activity of organizations, this understanding of written documents is helpful.  Further, When “boundary crossing” occurs, we’re able to better understand why.
  • Finally, Russell sees E.’s notion of “learning by expanding” (1987) useful because it explains how an individual’s progressive acquisition of genre knowledge is an effective metric for tracing organizational learning (49).
  • R. equates genres with the “trails” or “emergent knowable terrain” that E. et al. discuss when referencing Cussins’s work on individuals establishing the landscapes of action and nodes of knotworking (50).
  • R. references Carter (2004)’s work to develop “Labwrite” (an online tool to help students understand scientific method by connecting laboratory practice and lab report writing) using Activity Theory (see: Teaching genre to English first-language adults: A study of the laboratory report. Research in the Teaching of English, 38, 395–413).

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