Engestrom, Yrjo. “Activity Theory as a Framework for Analyzing and Redesigning Work.” Ergonomics 43.7 (2000) 960-974.
Activity theory, first proposed by Vygotsky and Leontev in the early 20th century, analyzes group behavior and action, not individuals, and is today a research approach used across many disciplines, mostly for scholarship about technology and work. To show how activity theory functions, the author uses a case study of how a junior physician in Finland underwent distinct, “script” operations to diagnose a young patient. The author asks what drives behavior – conscious, deliberate choice or the habit of following these scripts? Activity theory distinguishes between short-term, goal-directed action and longer-lasting, more permanent object-oriented activity, but the entire activity system is communal and driven by a commonly-held goal or object. Anything that stands outside the “script” of the activity sytem is called a distrurbance; the disturbance might change the outcome of the system and can point to instances where the script is inadequate to deal with the complexity of the object and goal of the activity system. Activity systems learn and adapt and expand when the scripts are questioned and analyzed; this is called an expansive learning cycle. The author also discusses the difference between vertical persepctive (always striving for higher levels of competence) and horizontal perspectives (seeking out alternative, parallel understandings and concepts to fit the problem and the situation.) The activity is always shifting and changing – as explained by the term knotworking – and this, as translated into activity theory, is about the interdependency (co-configuration) between the one receiving the action, the one doing the action, and the product/instrument/tool. The author lists six criteria for co-configuration: 1. adaptive product or service 2. continuous relationship between customer, product/service, and company 3. ongoing configuration or customization 4. active customer involvment 5. multiple collaborating producers and 6. mutual learning from interactions between the parties involved (973).
“Activity systems realise and reproduce themselves by generating actions and operations” (964).
“A collective activity system is driven by a deeply communal motive” (964).
“A crucial triggering action in the expansive learning process discussed in here, as in other analogous processes analyzed, is the conflictual questioning of the existing standard practice” (968).
Good visual on pg. 970 that shows the seven phases of an expansive learning cycle of an activity system: 1. questioning 2. historical and actual-empirical analysis 3. modeling the new solution 4. examining the new model 5. implementing the new model 6. reflecting on the process 7. consolidating the new practice.
Knotworking = a type of work organization: “The notion of knot refers to rapidly pulsating, distrbuted and partially improvized orchestration of cllaborative performance between otherwise loosely connected actors and activity systems. A movement of tying, untying and retying together seemingly separate threads of activity characterizes knotworking. The tying and dissolution of a knot of collaborative work is not reducible to any specific individual or fixed organizational entity as the centre of control. The centre does not hold. The locus of intiative changes from moment to moment within a knotworking sequence. Thus, knotworking cannot be adequately analyzed from hte ponit of view of an assumed centre of coordination and control, or as an additive sum of the separate perspectives of individuals or institutions contributing to it. The unstable knot itself needs to be made the focus of analysis” (972).
“Knotworking poses qualitatively new challenges to work communities and researchers. The relatively stable standard procedures of cooperative continuous improvement are not sufficient in conditions of knotworking. Rapid negotiation and improvization with constantly changing configurations of partners gain central importance” (973).
This seems like a good methodology for WPA work, especially in the design of curriculum and major/minor programs.
The customization of products for customers – an ongoing process – explains well what was going on in the engineering department at Midstate.
Lundell, Dana Britt and Richard Beach. “Dissertation Writers’ Negotiations with Competing Activity Systems.” Writing Selves/Writing Societies. Ed. Bazerman and Russell. 2003.
This article, which is based on a study of 11 doctoral students across five departments at the University of Minnesota, uses activity theory to describe the disseratation writing process, as opposed to the old models of describing the dissertation writing period as lonely and individualistic. The article discusses the ways in which these dissertation writers negotiated the competing and conflicting activity systems (their objects and motives) involved in both their graduate study, their writing, and their teaching. The five activity systems at play were the graduate school, the department, advisors and committees, grad student employment (TAships), and the job market. The author notes that the function of the dissertation (as the object of an activity system) is different now: it is no longer the writer’s first scholarly paper and entrance into the field, but instead it is used to restrict who can enter the field due to the tight job market. The author uses Engestrom’s model of development to explain how dissertation writers grow and develop and deal with “double bind” contradictions from competing activities (writing and teaching; creating new research methods or towing the disciplinary line) during the process of writing their dissertations. The dissertation can also be viewed as a genre social action, which analyzes how students cope with the double binds that inevitably come up and create new alternative activities and systems. Some of those coping strategies for dissertation writers include creating peer writing groups (when writers feel a lack of direction from advisors, departments, and committees), and presenting at discplianry conferences (to negotatie the demands of writing in the style of the grad school and wanting to enter the field as an emerging scholars.)
“When one activity system is foregrounded (e.g. school learning), other activity systems (e.g., of home, neighborhood, government, business) do not disappear” (485).
Good conclusion on pg 507 listing the contradictions in the activity systems of dissertation writers.
The double binds that can’t be solved (low pay, need to complete degree and support family, for example) “suggests that the purpose of the dissertation and its role in engaging students in the practices of the academy- such as becoming a faculty member, conducting research, and teaching in higher education – must be examined at the level of activity systems analysis to identify how these systems’ objects and motives shape the dissertation-writing activity” (508).
Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing Genres through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003. 25-58.
Chapter 2: Integrating Research Scope.
Spunizzi develops his methodology, genre tracing, in this chapter.
Spunizzi insists that to understand activity systems, it is necessary to “integrate reserach scope” by studying all three levels of activity: macroscopic (contextualized activity), mesoscopic (conscious action), and microscopic (habitual operation.) Spunizzi describes each of the three levels of activity and explains how they can be integrated through activity theory. According to Spunizzi, “activity theory posits that in every sphere of activity, collaborators use instruments to transform a particular object with a particular outcome in mind” (37). The activities are mediated through instruments (material objects or signs) that people use to reach their goals and, while using these mediating devices, the people themselves are changed psychologically (this is drawn from Vygotsky.) For example, the computer has changed not only how we save and enter data but has changed how we live and think. Instruments (mediation) are performed on artifacts, which are seen as a “‘crystallizaiton’ of aspects of historically developed activity” (40). Spunizzi goes on to examine genre at each level of activity (macroscopic, mesoscopic, and microscopic) and claims that, even though genres at each level are different, they can be brought together in conversation, and therefore genre analysis is a good way to frame research, especially in technical communication, a field that translates well to activity theory. Using genre as his base, Spunizzi studies the integration of all three levels of scope through both compound mediation and systematic destabilizations. He then goes on to explain a new methodology that he created, genre tracing. Genre tracing requires data tracing and data analysis at all three levels of activity. Spunizzi then describes four heuristics he uses for integrating all three levels of scope: activity system diagrams, genre ecology diagrams, videocoding databases, and contradiction-discoordination-breakdown tables. He notes limitations to these methods: they are time-consuming and require trained researchers that do not become overwhelmed by the amount of data. Quotable Quotes
“Workers’ operations must be examined in their own right, as interactions – often centrifugal, subversive interactions – that coconstitute (reciprocally make up, shape, sustain) the cultural activities and goal-directed actions in which workers engage” (27).
“Sociocultural theory points to an integrated-scope approach that draws no such lines between the observed person or thing and the context, or between operations on one side and activities and actions on the other” (28).
“By coconstitution, I mean that even though we can analytically separate the three levels and even though we need to use different methods and theoretical constructs to study each one, they are ultimately intertwined…Changes in an activity can be initiated at any level of scope” (37).
“Activity theorists do not deal with universal affordances. Rather, a tool embodies modes of action when it is encountered within a specific cultural-historical milieu and used with a particular objective” (40).
Macroscopic = the contextual layer. “It involves ways workers, work communities, cultures, and societies understand, structure, collaborate on, and execute their evolving cooperative enterprises” (32). “Macroscopic studies involve investigating the activity and its meaning” (33). Hunger
Mesoscopic = the goal-directed action (33). These studies often focus on the “local goals that users set for themselves and the tools and actions they use to accomlish these goals within a cultural-historical context” (34). Proper fishing equipment
Microscopic = the moment-by-moment operations, reflexes, and habits that workers use. Operations can be innovations and start out as conscious choices that then become automatic.
Good figure on pg 37 on activity theory.
Good summary on pg. 57