The methodology of activity theory Essay

3.1 Introduction

The chief aim of this research undertaking, as defined in Chapter 1, is to look into the inquiry of what tools are needed by system developers to pattern and gestate computer-supported concerted work, taking into history the nature of their pattern. Having located the survey in the research field of CSCW, through a reappraisal of the relevant literature in Chapter 2, I now turn to the theoretical foundation of the survey – activity theory. Activity theory has had some influence in CSCW, and in the related field of HCI, holding been proposed as a possible attack to some of the more intractable jobs of developing collaborative and synergistic systems to suit their context of usage ( see Section 3.3 ) . However, it has non been widely adopted, partially because of the sensed trouble of the attack, and the fact that it does non come ready packaged as a tool or method that can be used in analysis, design and rating. It is hence of import to warrant the usage of activity theory in this survey. As I will show, in activity theory the method of enquiry can non be separated from the theoretical attack. This chapter therefore has a double intent: to show the theoretical model for the survey and to discourse its methodological analysis. “The theory of how to make it merely washes over me” As will be seen in the fieldwork instances in Part II, one of the cardinal jobs faced by the developers at GreenFam during the Notes undertaking was a deficiency of resources – methods, theoretical accounts, techniques – to back up the development of groupware tools to back up a more collaborative manner of working with information. The developers intuitively recognised this quandary and articulated it as “We truly necessitate a new sort of analysis” . The context of the job was a reasonably stiff division of labor between the “end users” and system developers ; the practical restraints of clip and resources ; and a matter-of-fact attitude to package development among the members of the ITP, sceptical of methodological analysiss and theories from outside. This last point was brought place to me when Greg, the moving Program Manager of ITP, responded to my remark that the traditional structured systems analysis techniques that I was familiar with ( Avison and Fitzgerald, 1995 ) seemed wholly irrelevant to the job of groupware development –

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“ We ‘re really goal-orientated… it ‘s a instance of ‘what are the demands to acquire things done? ‘ … it ‘s a matter-of-fact attack. The theory of how to make it merely washes over me… ” ( Chat over tiffin, October 31, 1997 ) When looking at the inquiry of what design tools such as patterning techniques and methods might be utile, this is the real-world context and civilization with which they have to suit. It is of import to maintain this in head throughout the extroverted chapter, particularly as it will cover with theoretical attacks to the job of design. Before showing the empirical grounds in Part II and suggesting some solutions to the “What tools? ” inquiry in Part III, I foremost want to develop a theoretical model for understanding the concerted work of systems development and the function that theoretical accounts and representations, quintessential design tools, drama in the activity of planing. I present a methodological analysis grounded in activity theory and concentrate on four key issues –

  • The inquiry of the ‘unit of analysis ‘ – the minimum, meaningful unit which provides a footing for analyzing the concerted work of system developers join forcesing with system users in the design of computing machine tools ( Section 3.4 ) .
  • The dialectical construct of contradictions as a beginning of development and transmutation in activity systems ( Section 3.5 ) .
  • A model for understanding the function that a particular category of artefacts – representations or theoretical accounts – drama in interceding the work of design ( Section 3.6 ) .
  • Activity theory as a method for analyzing work pattern as it develops over clip and its deductions ( Sections 3.7 and 3.8 ) . First I will supply some background information about the philosophical roots of activity theory ( Section 3.2 ) ; and its evolving usage in HCI and CSCW, including treatments about its possible as a model for understanding concerted work ( Section 3.3 ) .

3.2 The roots of activity theory

Activity theory10 is the term normally used to group together approaches which originate in the work of L. S. Vygotsky and his followings in post-revolutionary Soviet psychological science, in the 1920s and 1930s. The categories11 – although, as will be discussed, non ever the method – 10 The strand of activity theory which I present in this chapter is sometimes besides called cultural historical activity theory ( CHAT ) . 11 Bakhurst defines ‘category ‘ as it is conventionally used in Soviet composing – “Categories describe ( or draw a bead on to depict ) world as it is. Therefore, classs are necessary signifiers of idea merely in the sense that the right description of the universe requires us to use them.” ( 1991, p.141 ) .

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used by research that adopts the conceptual model of activity theory are chiefly those discovered by Vygotsky ( 1978 ) , Leont’ev ( 1981 ) and other scientists of this school. However, the construct of activity in Soviet psychological science ( Wertsch, 1979 ) comes from the Marxist- Leninist tradition of dialectical historical philistinism with its roots in the German classical philosophical tradition of Kant and Hegel. It is of import to understand something of the background of activity theory in order to appreciate its methodological deductions. In this subdivision I will curtail myself to looking at the work of some cardinal minds in order to demo how the classs and method of activity theory have evolved into the version that is normally adopted by surveies in the Fieldss of HCI and CSCW. For a more comprehensive treatment of the many others who have contributed to the development of Soviet activity theory see Zinchenko ( 1992 ) , Kozulin ( 1996 ) and Bakhurst ( 1990 ) . They describe the political contexts and restraints which influenced this research, and supply a position into some on-going arguments that seldom surface in HCI and CSCW. The foundation of Marxism The cardinal rule that underlies the doctrine of activity theory is the Marxist apprehension of head, or consciousness, as inseparable from the material conditions of human being. This is a challenge to the dominant enlightenment philosophical rule of dualism, or separation of head and bodily being, single and society. In direct resistance to dualism the dialectical materialist place takes the position that – Life is non determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. In the first method of attack, the starting point is consciousness taken as the populating single ; in the 2nd method, which conforms to existent life, it is the existent life persons themselves, and consciousness is considered entirely as their consciousness. ( Marx and Engels, 1970, p.47 ) The kernel of this thesis, which was set out by Marx and Engels in their early philosophical work in 1845-1846 ( Marx, 1970 ; Marx and Engels, 1970 ) , is that consciousness does non hold an independent being, independent of the lives of persons. It is neither biologically unconditioned, fixed and unchanging, nor is it the consequence of single contemplation as in Descartes ‘ preparation “I think therefore I am” . Consciousness is the merchandise of adult male ‘s practical activity ( labor ) as he goes about bring forthing the agency of his being. Through the activity of labour adult male transforms the natural, material universe in order to bring forth what he needs and in so making transforms himself. Because production, and the signifiers of societal administration feature of different degrees of production, alteration and develop historically alleged human nature is historically specific.

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The happenstance of the changing of fortunes and of human activity or selfchanging can be conceived and rationally understood merely as radical pattern. ( Marx, 1970, p.121 ) By “revolutionary practice” Marx does non intend radical political activity, but instead that all human activity is potentially radical because of its transformative consequence on both the universe and the human head through the dialectical relationship between the two. Marxist dialectics can look hard and vague, chiefly because the doctrine has ne’er been portion of the Western mainstream political tradition and so is foreign to the hegemonic ways of believing about things. David Bakhurst, showing Soviet idea for a Western audience, emphasises the demand to take an insider position in order to understand “ [ … ] a philosophical civilization that appears so distant from our ain, both in its attack to philosophical enquiry and in its vision of the function of doctrine in public life.” ( Bakhurst, 1991, p.4 ) 12. However, the transformative and surpassing consequence of practical activity is something within the mundane lived experience of us all. The work of the ITP at GreenFam, for illustration, non merely created new tools to be used within the administration and so transformed the manner it worked ( although non needfully in the ways or to the extent that was naively envisioned at the start of the undertaking ) , but through a procedure of automatic pattern the apprehension of ITP members about how to develop groupware evolved and developed. This is the procedure which Yrjo Engestrom, a prima activity theoretician, calls “expansive learning” ( Engestrom, 1987 ) – the transmutation of single consciousness through practical, corporate activity. The Notes undertaking can be interpreted as a procedure of the ITP larning together from and through their practical intercessions in the work of the administration and so developing their expertness. But alongside larning it was besides possible to detect its opposite – the failure to larn and therefore to exceed the jobs of the current state of affairs. Empirical grounds that shows this as an evolving, concrete procedure will be presented in Part

II, the field survey.

Built-in to dialectical historical philistinism is its method of enquiry – Marx ‘s historical empirical method. In the paragraph below it is clear that for Marx the get downing point of 12 Bakhurst remarks with some justification “ [ … ] Marx ‘s philistinism, so important to his method, yet so cryptically presented in his writings.” ( op cit, p.27 ) . Marx did non include a ‘methodology chapter ‘ in Das Kapital and pupils must take out his method from the few, scattered paragraphs that refer to it explicitly, and through a reading of the work. The ground for this is that for Marx the method of question could non be considered in the abstract, separate from the object of question: the method of Capital is a method of analysis and review of the societal dealingss of capital. Followings of Marx must therefore specify a dialectical method appropriate to their object of question, as Vygotsky did for the survey of the development of the human head.

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52 scientific enquiry is existent life, in its historical specificity, instead than abstract theoretical premises: This method of attack is non barren of premises. It starts out from the existent premises and does non abandon them for a minute. Its premises are work forces, non in any antic isolation and rigidness, but in their existent, through empirical observation perceptible procedure of development under definite conditions. Equally shortly as this active life-process is described, history ceases to be a aggregation of dead facts as it is with the empiricists ( themselves still abstract ) , or an imagined activity of imagined topics, as with the dreamers. Where guess ends – in existent life – there existent, positive scientific discipline Begins: the representation of the practical activity, of the practical procedure of development of work forces. ( Marx and Engels, 1970, pp.47-48 )

This is the topographic point where the construct of activity found in activity theory has its beginnings – as the practical, historically developing life-process of active topics. Practical-critical activity ( Marx, 1970, p.121 ) is, as stated by Newman and Holzman “ [ … ] the existent pattern of method, whereby the entirety of what there is ( the integrity of history ) both determines and is qualitatively transformed by human activity.” It is a “ [ … ] radically monistic and radical construct of activity” ( 1993, p.14 ) . Vygotsky ‘s radical methodological analysis I will return to the issue of method in Sections 3.4, 3.5 and 3.7, but note here that in some modern-day readings of activity theory its methodological deductions are mostly overlooked in favor of utilizing its classs simply to depict activity systems. Vygotsky non merely adopted Marx ‘s construct of activity as being radical, practical-critical activity, but besides his methodological attack. His undertaking was to use the dialectical method of Marx to the survey of head – to make for psychological science what Marx had achieved for political economic system: I do n’t desire to detect the nature of head by piecing together a batch of quotations13. I want to happen out how scientific discipline has to be built, to near the survey of head holding learned the whole of Marx ‘s method. … In order to make such an enabling theorymethod in the by and large accepted scientific mode, it is necessary to detect the kernel of the given country of phenomena, the Torahs harmonizing to which they change, their qualitative and quantitative features, their causes. It is necessary to explicate the classs and constructs that are specifically relevant to them – in other words to make one ‘s ain Capital. ( Vygotsky, 1978, p.8 ) In their book on Vygotsky Fred Newman and Lois Holzman ( 1993 ) make a compelling and committed portrayal of him as non merely an inordinately original scientist, but besides a follower of Marx ‘s method. It would be more accurate to state that in their construct the two are inseparable – because of the indispensable integrity of the practical-critical method of enquiry 13 A polemist against a figure of his coevalss who were developing a ‘Marxist psychological science ‘ in merely this formulaic, dogmatic manner ( Kozulin, 1996 ) .


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