Engestrom – The Future of Activity Theory: A Rough Draft

  • E. begins by recapping what Toomela (2000, 2008) claimed were the fundamental problems in an Activity Theory analysis:
    • AT relies on unidirectional instead of dialectical views of culture-individual relationships.
    • AT focuses on analyses of activities without taking into account the individual involved in the activity at the same time.
    • AT underestimates the role of signs and the importance of focusing on sign meaning.
    • AT approaches mind fragmentally, without understanding the holistic nature of mind
    • AT is fundamentally adevelopmental and therefore not appropriate for understanding emerging phenomena, including mind (1).

    Despite these putative problems, E. notes that citations of AT research on constantly on the upswing.  So, considering this, he notes that to keep AT alive, researchers must read each other’s work, dig into each other’s data, and visit each other’s fields of research and intervention.  This will keep AT alive and moving forward.  Considering moving forward, E. claims AT has some new directions to explore:
    Runaway objects – E. notes that AT attempts to provide a theory of object-driven activity . . . and the most interesting objects in the current environment are runaway objects or objects that have the potential to escalate and scale to the global level.  They’re not under any single person’s control and often have far-reaching and unexpected effects.  In ANT, these objects are “monstrous”.  As an example, E. uses Naomi Klein’s work to demonstrate how natural disasters and “shocks” are runaway objects that the economic and political elite use to reorganize societal conditions.
    Runaway objects don’t start big; rather, they’re usually small solutions or marginal innovations that burst out into the open in acute crises or moments of rupture (4).  Runaway objects provide a real challenge for thinking through the problem of shared activity systems (shared objects in two activity systems).  How do we think of something like Linux in the overlapping AT model?
    Runaway objects tend to subsume many (parts) activity systems.  Here’s a graph:

  • How does a runaway object become a runaway object?  1) it must have intrinsic properties that transcend the limits of utilitarian profit motive – it’s at the boundary of legitimate/illegitimate, sensible/crazy, work/leisure, technology/art (6); 2) must yield intermediate products yet remain an incomplete object (surely, the archive is just this sort of thing?!?); 3) there must be feedback and exchange from participants acting on or participating in the creation of the object (6).
  • E. notes that AT has moved through three generations: 2) Vygotsky’s notion of mediated action; 2) Leont’ev’s notion of activity system; and 3) E. (and others’) notion of multiple interacting activity systems focused on a partially shared object (6).
  • E. gives a shout out to Writing Studies, noting that David Russell’s work on genre as social action might functions “as a unit of analysis complementary to the unit of activity system.  For Russell, genres are classifications of artifacts-plus-intentions.  They are links between subjects, tools and objects.  Genres provide relatively stable ways of seeing what acts are available and appropriate in a given situation” (8).
  • E. finds the work on genres as systems of typified written communication interesting because of their mobility and ability to cross organizational boundaries.  But what about when we’re not in organizations anymore?  What about when we’re in multidirectional structures of complex activity like systems of social production?  E. notes that CBPP or social production functions as “wildfire activity” or “mycorrhizae activity” – activity that exists outside of the formal hierarchies of AT that Vygotsky and Leont’ev were working with.  (9)
  • What is the relationship between the visible, bounded structures that AT was developed to study and the weakly bounded, largely invisible systems that we see in CBPP?  Here’s what E. says:

  • E. notes that Shirky (2008) characterizes wikis as “a hybrid of tool and community” (136).
  • E. highlights a fundamental premise for the work I’m doing in the dissertation:  “the creation of new activity is a process of reflective re-mediation.  A mediating concept or device can open up an entirely new question and lead to the formation of a new object and a new activity.  This kind of re-mediation is radically different from goal-rational theories of change” (11).  In other words, you don’t need to define the thing to be changed from the beginning, it is often created (not given) in the activity itself (hence, it’s open-endedness).
  • What are the parts of “development” in E.’s AT? 1) living movement (in craft/individual activity – from periphery to center, in mass production – linear, in social production – pulse/swarm/criss-cross) – the patterns that arise from dwelling in a zone); 2) breaking away (when new dwellers enter a zone they intersect with the paths that are already there, often breaking away from them in ways that lead to conflicts; 3) double stimulation (breaking away requires expansive agency.  The act of breaking away can be achieved by using external cultural artifacts (tools such as writing, for example) that are imbued with meaning and become mechanisms that allow for control from the outside); 4) stabilization (new trails are marked, stabilized and made durable through critical conflicts (sources of irritation that channel human activity over time), means of authority and reification (the genre or mediating artifact becoming stable); and 5) boundary crossing (human beings are always involved in multiple activities and need to move across them – the moving across encourages development (12-14).
  • How do we conceive of authority, agency, and community in activity systems?  (This is perhaps the most important table in condensing this article)

  • E. notes that in systems of social production, “negotiation is a central coordinating mechanism of the distributed agency required in knotworking” (15)[1. Here we get something truly valuable for the dissertation and it’s connection to agency as distributed subjectivity.  In essence, E. is noting that rhetorical deliberation – negotiation – is the key to carrying out the kinds of work that occur in your piracy communities.].  Negotiation occurs when objects are unstable or resist control and standardization – they’re runaway object or monstrous objects that require rapid integration of expertise from a variety of locations and traditions – many of which can be tethered together by already extant tools toward the development of new tools [2. Think of the greasemonkey scripts here.].  How is negotiation defined in E.’s work: “more than an instrumental search for singular, isolated compromise decisions.  It is basically a construction of a negotiated order (Strauss, 1978) in which the participants can pursue their intersecting activities (16).  CBPP is activity where commentary and peer review is open and continuous – and transforms activity in the process of negotiation.
  • How does agency work in distributed environments?  It becomes relational.
  • What sorts of situations are AT good for studying (well, all of them, but the question of framing the situation is what’s important ); or, how do we characterize activity systems?  1) They’re situations where actors construct a novel solution or concept the contents of which are not known ahead of time; the activity is subject to negotiation and the negotiation shapes the activity itself; the activity generates intermediate concepts or solutions that might be used in other settings as tools (20-1).
  • Great quote on the enduring quality of activity systems over time: “Significant change is not made by singular actors in singular situations but in the interlinking of multiple situations and actors accomplished by virtue of the durability and longevity of objects (Engestrom, Puonti & Sepanen, 2003).

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