Bracewell, Robert and Stephen P. Witte.  “Tasks, Ensembles, and Activity:  Linkages between Text Production and Situation of Use in the Workplace.”  Written Communication 20 (2003): 511-559.

Abstract: This article is concerned with characterizing literacy activity as it is practiced in professional workplaces. Its starting point is activity theory, which grew out of the work of Vygotsky and has been subsequently elaborated in Russia and elsewhere. First, the authors propose that existing versions of activity theory are unable to account adequately for practical human activity in contemporary workplaces, and present a revised perspective that opens the way for new theoretical developments. Second, they elaborate two new constructs, task and work ensemble, and apply them to a short collaborative writing sequence collected in the field. Both constructs are seen to account in a substantive way for the structure of the composing activity carried out by the collaborators. They close with a discussion of the complementarity and theoretical advantages of the two constructs.

  • The authors note that because of the complexity of any writing act, studies of literacy in the real world typically use ethnographic and grounded theoretic models to provide informative, detailed descriptions of literate activity.  The others want to use the extant work of the type to account for workplace literacy in professional settings [1. So this isn’t “tech comm in the wild”; however, if you’re correct, it isn’t the institution but the discourse community whose needs are met by different forms of technical communication . . . so “in the wild” means wild discourse communities, not wild environments.].
  • Two main arguments in article:  1) Leont’ev’s activity triangle isn’t adequate to account for the psychological aspects of activity; and 2) the psychological construct of “task” is necessary to understand human activity; further, “work ensembles” are the socially constituted units wherein tasks occur and are carried out (512).
  • According to the authors, Leon’tev’s work on partitioning activity into three intedependent levels (activity/motive, action/goal, condition/operation) was a desire to link the abstract characterization of activity with the more specific, concrete particulars (517).  Yet, Leon’tev’s weakness – according to Bracewell and Witte – is that “having broken the mediational triangle into three levels of activity, which relate to each other hierarchically, Leont’ev fails to specify how the levels relate to one another in terms of mediation” (517).  Said differently, the authors wonder, “How . . . would one relate the many action/goal triangles that comprise a particular activity/motive triangle to a higher-level triangle?” (518).  But, because Leont’ev’s division of activity into different “levels” brings together both the motivational and cognitive aspects of activity/performance, it is a very useful division.
  • Bracewell and Witte’s differences between operations/actions and activity:  1) “many, if not all, operations (e.g., coordinating eye and hand movements during handwriting) and actions (e.g., paddling a canoe) appear to entail physiological and neurophysiological dimensions that make them ‘objective’ in one sense”; and 2) many, if not all, goals and conditions are manifested by people in material/symbolic representations which can be identified by others (including researchers) and thus are objective in another sense” (521) [2. Examples include the verbalization and mutual uptake of goals for two individuals coordinating to paddle a boat or a child’s use of finger counting when mastering arithmetic.].
  •  Bracewell and Witte note that while operations/actions are “objective” or have measurable, observable objective units, “activity” doesn’t.  Relying on Granott, Bracewell and Witte note that “activity-oriented units run the risk of being subjective” (521).  This leads them to charachterize activity as a “theoretical construct” rather than a phenomenological one.  In this sense, activity is like gravity – an abstraction that can’t be “known” in and of themselves through the senses.  This means that the effects of activity – or any theory – are observable . . . not the theory themselves.  Their existence is proven only through an explanation that relies on a theoretical construction – an abstraction (522).  Considered this way, operations/actions are the effects of activity – or at least people’s participation in activity.
  • Activity defined:  “a theoretical construct that functions to explain or account for in some way a collocation of human behaviors and behavior outcomes centered around some set of performance parameters” (522).
  • This new articulation of activity redefines the activity – action/operation binary thusly:

  • So, what’s the import of this conversation?  From a methodological perspective, accepting Bracewell and Witte’s formulation of the activity – action/operation binary means accepting that the objects of study in any activity system are the observable, empirical effects of activity – the actions/operations.  As Bracewell and Witte note, “action/goal and operation/condition are constructs that can serve to specify models for observable phenomena and thus link the hard-core hypotheses of theory with observable phenomena.  Support for this proposal can be found in their objective phenomenological status – goals, actions, conditions, and operations can be reliably identified in people’s performances and interactions” (526).
  • What does the “task” do?  “recognizes the structural organization of actions and operations as they are employed and deployed in actual workplace settings in order to accomplish some objective.  We define the task as the set of goals and actions that implement these goals, which are developed in order to achieve a solution to a complex problem within a specific work context” (528).
  • What is the ensemble and what does it do?  The “work ensemble” “serves to link the task to social and material means that achieve the development and application of the solution in the material world.  We define the work ensemble as the smallest group of people who collectively use sign systems in conjunction with other tools and technologies to realize an appropriate solution to a complex problem within a work context” (528).
  • The composition of work ensembles:

  • Bracewell and Witte note that the construct of the task is a good organizer of group (ensemble) activities: “Where a topic was initially marked as a goal, it was taken up as a task by the group; where a topic was not so initially marked, it was relegated to a subsidiary status” (541-2).
  • What do tasks do?  “Tasks serve to organize practical activity temporally using symbolic resources to specify a sequence of goals to be accomplished” (542).
  • What do we learn about ensembles?  1) an individual participant’s history doesn’t begin with a particular work ensemble; 2) professional lives are rarely defined in terms of a single work ensemble; and 3) individuals will in the future be a product of their current work . . . this means that the work ensemble will not only affect future tasks and ensembles but the anticipated effect on future tasks will also affect the current work of the ensemble (545-7).
  • Value of the ensemble?  Methodologically it can aim toward objectivity and theoretical saturation (the condition wherein grounded categories no longer emerge from the data).  The ensemble as a unit of research is the smallest “whole” for investigating actions in the workplace.  It is objective because “it is recognizable and available in the phenomenal world of workplaces and in the sense that its principle components (people and developmental processes) are as available in one workplace as in another” (548).

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