Bodong Chen

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Notes: Yamagata-Lynch, L. C. (2010). Understanding Cultural Historical Activity Theory



Citekey: @Yamagata-Lynch2010-eu

Yamagata-Lynch, L. C. (2010). Understanding Cultural Historical Activity Theory. In Activity Systems Analysis Methods (pp. 13–26). Springer, Boston, MA.


Summarize: This book chapter is a good ‘primer’ for understanding activity systems analysis (as a methodology). It goes through the historical context of CHAT and AT back to Vygotsky, and provides useful guidance for researchers who wish to adopt activity systems analysis.


Reading and Understanding CHAT (p. 1)

The origins of CHAT have been tied to 1920s’ Russian scholarship. Many CHAT sources were initially published in Russian (p. 1)

Not all cultural innuendos can be expressed in translated text format and before readers can fully appreciate what an author is try- ing to communicate (p. 1)

Mind, Culture, and Activity is a quarterly journal published in English on contemporary CHAT research. Human Development is another English language journal that has had special issues on CHAT. (p. 2)

North American scholars need to gain a perspective on historical events in Russia during the 1920s when CHAT originated to understand how history affected its theory development. (p. 2)

Vygotsky and CHAT (p. 2)

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian Jewish scholar who lived through the 1917 Soviet Revolution (also called the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian Revolution, or the October Revolution). (p. 2)

ygotsky worked at a time when significant historical events in Moscow lead to hectic and confusing times. Many of his works were not accessible to North American researchers until the 1960s because they were subject to censor- ship by the Soviet government. (p. 2)

Vygotsky was one of several post-revolution scholars who was asked by the new government to reformulate psychology, incorporating Marxist philosophical prin- ciples (Wertsch 1985a). (p. 3)

Following the charge set forth to him by the government, Vygotsky based his psychology on Marxian theory to describe the relationship between individuals and their social environment (Cole 1985; Wertsch 1985b). He used Marx’s political theory regarding collective exchanges and material production to examine the organism and the environment as a single unit of analysis. Through this reformula- tion of psychology, Vygotsky attempted to capture the co-evolutionary process individuals encounter in their environment while learning to engage in shared activities (Stetsenko 2005). (p. 3)

While witnessing the growing popularity of Pavlov’s work, Vygotsky became concerned that psychologists were taking a one-sided approach to exam- ining, interpreting, and understanding human psychology (Kozulin 1990; Vygotsky 1986). (p. 3)

In this uni- fied framework, the organism and the environment were parts of a complex system that co-created consciousness through human participation in activities (Vygotsky 1978). (p. 3)

He believed that psychology ought to become a scientific field that studied the relationship between the organism and the environment and how it enabled the development of human consciousness. He was concerned that if schol- ars systematically ignored this relationship they would not be able to understand how consciousness was formed. (p. 4)

Mediated Action (p. 4)

Vygotsky introduced mediated action as a concept to explain the semiotic process that enables human consciousness development through interaction with artifacts, tools, and social others in an environment and result in individuals to find new meanings in their world. (p. 4)

Vygotsky assumed that relationship among artifacts, tools, and social others were not constant and that they changed over time (Vygotsky 1987). The interactions in which individuals engage allow opportunities for medi- ated action that contribute to the social formation of their consciousness (Wertsch 1985b). In this interaction, individuals are not passive participants waiting for the environment to instigate meaning-making processes for them, but, through their interactions, individuals make meaning of the world while they modify and create activities that trigger transformations of artifacts, tools, and people in their environ- ment (Scribner 1997). (p. 4)

Mediated action involves an interaction between the individual and mediating artifacts/tools and signs (p. 4)

While explaining human speech development as a mediational pro- cess involving thinking and speech, Vygotsky proposed that signs were impressions made on individuals while interacting with artifacts/tools, and these impressions assisted individual speech development as well as consciousness (Vygotsky 1987). Signs do not have concrete physical existence in the environment, but they serve as a byproduct of the interaction between individuals and artifacts/tools to mediate thought processes (Vygotsky 1978). (p. 4)

Figure 2.1 represents what is often referred to as Vygotsky’s basic mediated action triangle (Cole and Engeström 1993). (p. 4)

This triangular representation of mediated action was Vygotsky’s attempt to explain human consciousness development in a manner that did not rely on dualistic stimulus–response associations. (p. 4)

Human activity is a process that involves artifacts that act as technical tools and signs that act as psychological tools available in the social environment (p. 4)

Mediated action is viewed as a means of interpersonal communication through the interactions among subject, tool, sign, and object while the subject develops new signs that help them make meaning of the world (Kozulin 1996). Once a sign materializes, the subject can transform the sign into an artifact or a cultural tool by the way in which s/he decides to continue to use and share the sign. There is not a clear moment when an artifact transforms into a cultural tool, but a cultural tool is an artifact that has gained value within participants’ activities rather than as a temporary tool for engaging in an immediate activity. (p. 5)

The Russian word “object” has multiple meanings when translated into English. It has been used interchangeably to refer to the goal of an activity, the motives for participating in an activity, and material products that participants try to gain through an activity. This has created confusion among CHAT scholars regarding what object-oriented activity means (Nardi 2005). What CHAT scholars do agree about is that the “object” is the reason why individuals and groups of individuals choose to participate in an activity (Kaptelinin 2005), and it is what holds together the elements in an activity (Hyysalo 2005). (p. 5)

keep in mind (p. 5)

Mediated Action and Internalization (p. 5)

Vygotsky referred to internalization as a concept that explained how individuals developed their own consciousness. (p. 6)

Vygotsky’s efforts to reconcile the disembodied treatment of the organism and the environment may have been a bold attempt in the 1920s and 1930s, but his argu- ments themselves were not free from binding dualistic language. (p. 6)

Mediated Action in Zone of Proximal Development (p. 6)

Vygotsky used the concept of zone of proximal development (ZPD) as a metaphori- cal tool to explain the potential learning of children while collaborating in problem solving activities with an adult or peer. (p. 6)

It should be noted that ZPD is one of the major legacies of Vygotsky’s work in the social sciences. (p. 6)

However, ZPD from a CHAT perspective is a conceptual tool for understanding the complexities involved in human activity while individuals engage in meaning making processes and interact with the environment. ZPD was a concept introduced in Vygotsky’s later works shortly before his death, and he did not live to fully develop the implications (Wells 1999). Therefore, according to Wells, even though the ZPD is a provocative metaphor, there are times that its applications by Vygotsky himself are somewhat contradictory with the rest of his theory. (p. 7)

By using the ZPD as a metaphor, Vygotsky attempted to eliminate the unidirec- tional relationship he himself created between the organism and the environment in his internalization process. The ZPD is where the interpersonal and intrapersonal activities blend and fuse and no longer exist as different entities. Vygotsky was attempting to move away from viewing individual consciousness as a commodity that grew within an individual; instead he viewed it as a shared embodiment between individuals and their environments, including social others. (p. 7)

However, Vygotsky did not clearly articulate this concept to establish how the relationship between the organism and the environment dynamically evolved (Engeström 1987). (p. 7)

Post-Vygotskian CHAT Theorists (p. 7)

After Vygotsky’s death in 1934, the Soviet government banned his work on intelligence and the study of consciousness (Wertsch 1985b). Even before Vygotsky’s death, Luria and Leontiev were pressured to leave Moscow and abandon the study of mental activity (Prawat 1999). (p. 7)

Activity theory was originally developed during the early twentieth century by S.L. Rubinshtein, inde- pendent of Vygotsky’s work, as a philosophical and psychological theory (Brushlinskii 2004). (p. 8)

The Kharkovites extended Rubinshtein’s work by focusing on the psychological aspects and treating activity as a holistic unit of analysis directed by an individual or groups of individuals’ goals and motives for participating in an activity (Davydov 1999; Galperin 1992; Leontiev 1974). In this process, they broadened the scope of Vygotsky’s mediated action by introducing human activity as the unit of analysis that is distributed among multiple individuals and objects in the environment (Zeek et al. 2001). Vygotsky’s mediated action is often explained as a process, but human activity from an activity theory perspective is a series of processes that is contained within an activity that acts as a bounded system. (p. 8)

Activity Theory (p. 9)

Contributing to the development of activity theory, Leontiev identified object-ori- ented activity as the unit of analysis that activity theorists are interested in examin- ing. Object-oriented activity involves interaction among subject, object, motivation, action, goals, socio-historical context, and the consequences and activity (Davydov 1999; Galperin 1992; Lazarev 2004). Leontiev (1974)1 defined object-oriented activity as: …a molar and nonadditive unit of a material subject’s life. In a narrower and more psycho- logical sense, activity is a unit of life mediated by mental reflection whose real function is to orient the subject to the world of objects. Activity is thus not a reaction or a totality of reactions, but rather a system possessing structure, inner transformations, conversations, and development (p. 10). (p. 9)

Activity emerges through a reciprocal process that transforms the subject, the object, and the relationship between the two and their context (Davydov 1999; Rogoff 1995). Additionally, the activity itself holds cultural formations with its own structures (Engeström and Miettinen 1999; Leontiev 1974). Once an activity is institutionalized, it becomes a robust and enduring tool within the culture (Cole and Engeström 1993). (p. 9)

Leontiev provided a clear distinction between object-oriented activity and goal- directed actions. Goal-directed actions are much more temporary in nature and may be a step that subjects take in the process of participating in an object-oriented activity. Goal-directed actions often are individually focused and have less of a col- lective consequence to the community-based object-oriented activity (Leontiev 1974), and may be a means for individuals or groups of individuals to participate in the object-oriented activity. (p. 9)

Leontiev’s definition of activity allowed researchers to explain human learning as series of object-oriented activities and move away from mentalist approaches (Bedny and Harris 2005; Lazarev 2004). His work provided a framework in psychology that did not treat the organism and the environment as isolated entities (Galperin 1992; Rozin 2004). (p. 10)

This position has been passed on to a new generation of Russian CHAT scholars and is represented in the work of A.A. Leontiev and D.A. Leontiev, A.N. Leontiev’s son and grandson, and V. P. Zinchenko (Leontiev 1981b, 1995; Zinchenko and Leontiev 1995). (p. 10)

Engeström’s Activity Systems Analysis and CHAT (p. 10)

Engeström (1987) further developed analytical methods within activity theory by introducing activity systems analysis. Activity systems analysis is used to map the co-evolutionary interaction between individuals or groups of individuals and the environment, and how they affect one another. It extends mediated action as a model of human activity that accounts for sociopolitical situations (Cole 1996). It specifically addresses both the individual and the environment in order to move away from former CHAT methods that were too person-focused. (p. 10)

As introduced in Chap. 1, Engeström’s (1987) activity systems model is repre- sented as a triangle diagram. The top triangle – Vygotsky’s original mediated action triangle – signifies the subject that may be an individual or groups of indi- viduals, the tool that may be social others and artifacts, and the object that can be the goal or motive of the activity represented. Artifacts that function as tools are not conveniently handed to the subject. They are invented, purchased, discarded, and replaced in the activity (Engeström and Middleton 1996). Therefore, subjects may discover new tools across multiple activities and the value of a tool may change over time as they engage in new activities. The rules, community, and divi- sion of labor components add the socio-historical aspects of mediated action that (p. 10)

were not addressed by Vygotsky (Engeström 1999a). As described in Chap. 1, rules refer to formal or informal regulations that can, in varying degrees, constrain or liberate the activity and provide to the subject guidance on correct procedures and acceptable interactions to take with other community members (Engeström 1993). The community is the social group with which the subject identifies while participating in the activity. The division of labor refers to how the tasks are shared among the community. All of the above components of activity systems, including Vygotsky’s triangle and the bottom socio-historical components described in Chap. 1 can mediate change that may lead to an outcome not only for the object but also for each other (Engeström 1993). (p. 11)

Human activity can trigger tensions caused by systemic contradictions (Cole and Engeström 1993; Engeström 1987, 1993). These tensions arise when the conditions of an activity put the subject in contradictory situations that can preclude achieving the object or the nature of the subject’s participation in the activity while trying to achieve the object. (p. 11)

Three Generations of Activity Theory (p. 11)

Engeström (1996, 2001) described three generations of activity theory research as distinct approaches to activity theory. He refers to Vygotsky’s identification of the mediated action triangle as first generation activity theory. Second generation activ- ity theory is attributed to A.N. Leontiev’s work that emphasized the collective nature of human activity, along with Engeström’s own work in 1987 that developed the activity systems model. Finally, Engeström refers to third generation activity theory as applications of activity systems analysis in developmental research where the investigator often takes a participatory and interventionist role in the partici- pants’ activity to help participants experience change. (p. 11)

Many studies in the United States using activity systems analysis have primar- ily focused on the descriptive nature of second-generation activity theory, and used activity systems analysis as a supplementary tool in qualitative research. (p. 11)

These works have provided valuable insights into how activity systems analysis can be applied as a methodology within social sci- ence research and practice. However, many CHAT scholars now encourage inves- tigators to engage in new work within an interventionist framework using third generation activity theory. (p. 11)

Identifying Bounded Systems for Activity Systems Analysis (p. 12)

Engeström (1999b) suggests that activity theory researchers and practitioners need to examine interactions shared among multiple activities and the bound- aries of those activities to identify the potential development and changes in both human activity and societal systems. (p. 12)

When engaging in my own work, in addition to the typical activity theory bounded systems including object-oriented activity and goal-direction actions, I rely on activity settings and the three planes of sociocultural analysis to identify units of bounded systems in my data set. (p. 12)

activity settings provide frameworks for identifying bounded con- texts in which the object-oriented activities and goal-directed actions that investiga- tors observe take place. The three planes of sociocultural analysis is a theoretical tool that provides a framework for investigators to identify bounded units of activity based on the subject who is engaging in the object-oriented activity or goal-directed action. (p. 12)

Activity Settings (p. 12)

Activity settings are bounded systems related to the social environment in which object-oriented activities and goal-directed actions are anchored with other related activities with similar objects (Gallimore and Tharp 1990). It is the setting that provides the context in which activities take place (Tharp and Gallimore 1988). (p. 12)

Thus, activity settings allow investigators to interpret how participant activities are influencing and are being influenced by the social context (Rogoff 1990; Wertsch et al. 1995). In this process, investigators will find how activity settings, object- oriented activity, and goal-direction actions are fluid, intertwined, and changing from moment to moment (Lave 1993). (p. 12)

Three Planes of Sociocultural Analysis (p. 13)

The three planes of sociocultural analysis, which consist of the personal, interpersonal, and institutional/community planes, rely on the subject of an activity to identify bounded systems of activity (Rogoff 1995). The individual is the subject of activities that take place in the personal plane. The subjects of activities that take place in the interpersonal plane consist of groups of individuals engaging in col- laborative initiatives. Community-based collective global activities are the subject of activities that take place in the institutional/community plane. Each of these planes can help identify object-oriented activities and goal-directed actions into units of bounded systems. In activity systems analysis, the object-oriented activities under investigation still remain to be the unit of analysis, but the subject of that activity can be an individual, group of individuals, or an organization. (p. 13)

Rogoff (1995, 1998) suggests that during investigations they ought to zoom into one plane of analysis at a time and blur out the other two planes. Blurring out is not equivalent to ignoring. Blurring consists of identifying the salient features of the planes that are not being examined but are essential and relevant to the study to help further appreciate the complex activities that take place on the zoomed-in plane of analysis. (p. 13)

Summary in Relation to Activity Systems Analysis Research Design (p. 13)

First, researchers and practitioners interested in using activity systems analysis need to understand mediated action and how Vygotsky used it as a concept for describing human activity and bidirectional relationship with the environment. Researchers and practitioners have to understand how Engeström used mediated action as a foundational concept while formulating his activity systems model. Activity systems analysis is a method to capture multi-mediational processes in human activity (Engeström, 1987, 1999a, b). Therefore, while engaging in activity systems analysis, investigators need to develop questions that will address media- tional activities. Investigators then need to design the data collection methods to specifically capture information that will enlighten them about their participants’ mediational processes. (p. 13)

Second, researchers and practitioners need to understand what object-oriented activities and goal-directed actions are from a CHAT perspective and be able to identify them in activity systems units. Activity systems do not present themselves in observed data sets in a neat and organized manner. Once investigators begin their data analysis, they will find that their data set is messy and complex. Through an interpretive process, investigators need to immerse themselves with the data and identify the multi-mediational activities their participants’ experienced. In this messy process, investigators have to parse their raw data into object-oriented activ- ity and goal-directed action units. (p. 14)

Finally, researchers and practitioners need to understand how to identify bounded systems in their data sets when engaging in activity theory studies. While identifying these bounded systems investigators must ensure that the process does not oversimplify or overcomplicate participant experiences. Interpreting data involving real-life interactions in a natural setting can be overwhelming because the information that is relevant and essential to the study and that which is not are all in the data set. Therefore, conceptual tools such as activity settings and the three planes of sociocultural analysis are helpful when investigators are parsing the data set into units of bounded systems. (p. 14)