Readers who encounter a new journal are rightfully curious about what it promises, other than one more journal to read. In the present case, it is easy to put aside worries on the latter score; as indicated on our masthead, this journal is the continuation of an already existing publication, The Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (QNLCHC). So, the relevant questions about Mind, Culture, and Activity (MCA) are why a journal has emerged from the previous publication and what the new forms of scholarly communication indexed by the terms "newsletter" and "journal" portend for its future. The simplest answer to the question of why we have decided to go "upscale" with the Newsletter is that times have changed and with them the need for a new institution and a new kind of discourse.
When the Newsletter first appeared in 1976, its contents were largely devoted to methodological studies. This was an era when cognitive psychological methods were routinely used to draw far reaching conclusions about differences among human beings associated with such categories as culture, ethnicity, and race. On the basis of extensive comparative work in Africa, Mexico, and urban centers in the United States, we were convinced of the inadequacy of standard psychological theories and methods, and we were distressed about the uses to which they were being put. The Newsletter was seen as a forum within which scholars from a broad range of potentially relevant disciplines could seek a way out of the problems into which methodological behaviorism had led the study of culture and mind. The pages of early Newsletter issues contain articles by sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and linguists, all of whom were seeking a way to include the sociocultural world more fruitfully in our methods for studying human nature.
It is striking that the name, L. S. Vygotsky, is nowhere to be found in the first several issues of the Newsletter. It was interdisciplinary American social science that was our common source. Matters soon changed, and dramatically, with the unexpected boom of interest in the ideas of the Russian cultural-historical school that was triggered by the publication of Vygotsky's Mind in Society in 1978. Here, it seemed, was a way of thinking that had enormous potential for according culture a fundamental role in constituting human beings' psychological natures. To its prior methodological critique the Newsletter added explanations of a theoretical framework that could enable the formation of a new paradigm.
An essential consequence of the investigation of Russian cultural-historical psychology was the subsequent realization that it was the Russians represented only one in a broad, international, set of similar traditions which had been submerged in the rising tide of the positivist division between social sciences and humanities a century ago. In response to this realization, conscious efforts were made to re-cover the common historical routes of "sibling" traditions in Germany, England, and France. And, of course, it did not take long before additional unrecognized cognate traditions in Europe, Asia, and South America made their voices heard. The Newsletter became a more self-conscious, international undertaking.
Recent issues of the Newsletter reflect the enriched discourse that has grown up over the years. One easily sees the increased interest in post-Vygotksian activity theories deriving from the work of Alexei Leont'ev, but heavily influenced as well by northern European scholarship in the tradition of critical psychology. Early Newsletter discussions of methodologies for the study of cognition in non-experimental contexts have been superseded by more sophisticated ways of combining theory and practice in the design of new forms of activities and of studying the links among the various settings where practices labeled "everyday" occur.
It is interesting that along with the evolution of the contents of Newsletter discussions one sees an evolution in their structure, as well. In place of relatively short, "think pieces" longer and more substantial statements became the norm. Our Newsletter was becoming more "journal-like" at the same time that it was becoming broader and deeper in its intellectual and international scope.
In the last several years, discussions in the Newsletter began to intersect and overlap with discussions in the then-new medium of electronic mail. In the late 1980's, XLCHC, an electronic discussion group that had begun as a way of maintaining contact among scholars who had spent time at our Laboratory, began to grow rapidly to include people interested in the general theoretical/methodological movement of which we were one small part. XLCHC discussions moved very rapidly, bringing together unusual, and often stimulating juxtapositions of ideas. However, our experience with XLCHC and the other discussion grouped under the XFAMILY electronic umbrella showed that while it could stimulate many interesting ideas, it did not lead to collective self-reflection. Some way of putting communication in the electronic medium into interaction with communication in printed media seemed a possible means for creating more effective forms of collective reflection.
While each of these trends contributed to our decision to create MCA, none was decisive. The final element in our decision was influenced by the fact that young scholars who had been raised to believe in the kinds of approaches that appeared in the Newsletter did not have a bona fide source in which to publish their substantial contributions. The fact that the publication was "only" a Newsletter meant that articles could not be placed in the vita category called "refereed journal articles." What had been a useful, semi-formal means of communication was becoming a liability for the next generation.
Taken together, the various threads we have just enumerated (and others which we have not) provided some of the key ingredients of our justification for expanding the Newsletter into a journal. There is a substantial international scholarly community which takes a serious interest in study of mind as a cultural-historical process of human development. It is to serve as one of the useful media of this process that we have initiated MCA.
The Current Situation
A basic conclusion from our brief glance at recent changes among those who read the Newsletter and participate in the electronic XFAMILY discussions is that there is much interest in and intellectual curiosity about cultural-historical theories of activity and mind. On the other hand, there is a lot of uncertainty and vagueness about key concepts, ideas and appropriate methodologies: What is the proper unit of analysis in cultural-historical studies of cognition? What are the relationships between practice, activity, and action? What do we mean by objects, motives and goals? How should we understand such concepts as community, context and mediation? What is the role of history, time and development in analyses of mediated activity? How can ethnography and discourse analysis be employed to warrant conclusions about mind within a cultural-historical and mediational framework? Many such theoretical and methodological questions are expressed in the form of dichotomies: stability versus change, theory versus practice, internal versus external, discourse versus structure, product versus process, quality versus quantity. We see this journal as a forum for joint elaboration of these issues, for the search, articulation and testing of new mediational means to overcome and transcend such dichotomies.
Looking to the Future
Such a search and elaboration requires opening up new frontiers of exchange and interaction. We will actively seek contributions from schools of thought that may not traditionally be connected to cultural-historical activity-theoretical traditions or with psychology and cognitive science as disciplines. Such schools of thought are to be found by extending our view both in time and in space. Historically, important traditions - such as pragmatism or Wittgensteinian philosophy, for example - have offered dynamic and fruitful sources for reflection. But their connections to cultural- historical activity approaches to mind have only recently begun to be widely rediscovered. In terms of space, we know too little of relevant theoretical and empirical work done around the globe, particularly outside the United States and northern Europe. By the same token, adherents of similar world views in differently located disciplines need to discover each other. The task of exchange and interaction of these kinds is central to the mission of MCA.
The articles to be published in MCA fall into four categories, the relative weights of which will change somewhat from issue to issue. The first category is devoted to articles of general theoretical and empirical import that go through a regular peer review process. We refer to the second category as "symposia." The symposia are built around a central article that addresses important theoretical themes to which we invite commentaries from scholars from different intellectual traditions and cultural contexts. As the symposium in this issue demonstrates, our goal is to open up discussion across borders, not at closure and identification of approved ideas. The symposium authors will typically be available for further discussion in the electronic XLCHC network.
The third category contains less formal communications. They can be reports of interesting work-in-progress, summaries of e-mail discussions, or experiments in alternative genres of writing. A poem by Ray McDermott represents this section in the present issue. Our intention with respect to this category of contributions is to maintain the Newsletter's tradition of encouraging discussion of ideas that are in the process of emerging.
The fourth category contains substantial book reviews and shorter book notes. Books about which book notes are written may or may not later be chosen for fuller review.
The Inaugural Issue
In putting together this inaugural volume of MCA we have sought to present as representative a set of topics and theoretical perspectives and methodologies as our restricted page limits allow. The initial article, by Dorothy Holland and James Reeves brings to bear the approach of two cognitive anthropologists on the activity of student computer programmers participating in a course on software engineering. Holland and Reeves seek to extend activity theory approaches to cognition by tracing how different programming teams develop different perspectives on the objects of their activity over time. Their analysis links local actions to their institutional contexts and different activity systems to each other in ways which make available for analysis structures of power.
Jaan Valsiner returns us to the work of the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, whose ideas about the temporal aspects of life processes, cultural mediation, and the creative nature of evolution have generally been overlooked owing to the unpopularity of the vitalist doctrines he espoused in the later part of his life.
The affinity of Bergson's ideas to those of more widely cited cultural- historical thinkers in the 20th century is clear from his characterization of the source of human uniqueness among species in Creative Evolution.: "If we could rid ourselves of all pride, if, to define our species, we kept strictly to what the historic and prehistoric periods show us to be the constant characteristic of man and of intelligence, we should say not Homo sapiens but Homo faber. In short, intelligence, considered in what seems to be its original feature, is the faculty of manufacturing artificial objects, especially tools for making tools, and of indefinitely varying the manufacture (p. 139)." Valsiner's wide ranging discussion makes clear the many ways in which history is central to the concerns of those who place cultural-historical processes at the center of their theorizing about human mind. The links he draws between Bergson's ideas and those of the Russian cultural-historical psychologists and those of James Mark Baldwin on the other index a broader set of affinities that are much in need of elaboration.
The importance of perspective returns in Robert Serpell's comparative analysis of parental ethno-theories about child development in two very different sociocultural circumstances. Serpell's focus brings to the fore another theme central to those who ground their theorizing in everyday practical activityÑthe necessity for academicians who theorize about social action to enter into ongoing dialogue with those who must be the informed agents of their own livesÑin this case, the parents' whose children are source of social concern that generates the research in the first place.
Our first symposium is built around an article written by Arne Raeithel for a conference that took place six years ago. Even at the time, as he notes in the introduction, there was dissatisfaction among cultural-historical activity theorists in the "paradigm of production" as the linchpin of a theory of human mind and nature. Since that time, we have witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, where that paradigm was institutionalized as one of the legitimizing ideological foundations of the social structure.
It seemed to us that the questions Arne was posing have only gained in urgency in the intervening years. Consequently, we suggested to him that he submit it for review, in the hopes that the commentaries would provide resources for further development. At the same time we sent the reviews to Arne, we asked the reviewers if they would be willing to expand upon their comments for publication. One reviewer declined, the other, Nile's Engelsted, accepted. We then recruited two additional commentators, one a sociologist (Leigh Star) and one a philosopher (Adrian Cussins) to provide as broad a discussion as possible on the issues raised in Arne's paper. We also invited Arne to write a commentary on his own article, since he had indicated his own dissatisfactions with it after a six year interval filled with additional scholarly contributions to the issues he had addressed.
What we offer the reader, then, are several points of view on Arne's attempt to understand the origins and mechanisms by which human beings produce and reproduce the social coherence of human communities and the special characteristics of human mind that are associated with their forms of social life.
Ray McDermott's verse commentary on a presentation by V. V. Davydov, a leader in applications of activity theory ideas to education, touches on many of the themes that appear in the earlier article. It reminds us, in addition, that essayist academic prose is neither the only, not necessarily the most effective, way to promote reflection on theoretical concepts or the implications of our theories for the people upon whom we practice.
Taken as a whole, the articles offered here indicate the scope of our concerns. The authors are from several countries and disciplines. Their concrete concerns include the study of adult work, the enculturation and schooling of children, the historical origins of important theoretical ideas, and the crucial importance of the actor/analyst's perspective in framing and evaluating both data and theory. We invite our readers to join with us in expanding this inclusive discussion of mind, culture, and activity.
Note: In the Fall of 1995, XLCHC, the electorically mediated discussion group, has changed its name to XMCA. To subscribe to XMCA, follow these instructions:
The study we describe here, an ethnographic investigation of the cognitive work of three programming teams, led us to emphasize an aspect of situatedness that is relatively unexplored: the developing perspective of intellectual workers on their contexts of action. We followed teams composed of students in a Department of Computer Science as they were being taught "software engineering." Despite their subordinate position as students, we found that the institution was not totally successful in dictating their work; we could not assume a similarity of work activity across teams. Instead the teamsÕ perspectives on their projects were collectively developed over the course of the project and they diverged. Consequently, the teams differed in their construal of the objects of their intellectual work and in the significance and time they devoted to the components of their work, and to the ways in which they carried them out. In this paper we recount these differences and relate them ultimately to ongoing tensions and contradictions within, and external to, the university. "Perspective," we argue, usefully extends the applicability of theories of situated cognition, especially activity theory, to the type of diversity we encountered. back to table of content
Developmental psychology has failed to emphasize the historical nature of the phenomena of development. Hence it continues to face a major conceptual problem: the time frame of developmental phenomena is irreversible, whereas our accounts of development assume repetitiveness of different kinds of developmental events across places and times. This problem was addressed by Henri Bergson in his philosophy of time and constructive evolution. BergsonÕs thinking was the major source of intellectual influence upon the major developmental scientists of this century (e.g., J. Piaget, L. Vygotsky, H. Wallon), and was in its turn based on the psychological, evolutionary and sociogenetic thinking of the turn of the century (J. M. Baldwin, P. Janet, W. James). Despite its later development in the intuitivist direction, BergsonÕs thinking about the dynamics of life processes deserves careful analysis in a number of specific domains (e.g., concept of time, role of semiotic mediation in the regulation of the stream of consciousness, constructive focus on development, etc.). Many of BergsonÕs ideas are relevant to the construction of historical psychology, and might lead to a radical re-organization of methodology. It is in the latter realm that contemporary socio-cultural perspectives need a substantial breakthrough. back to table of content
Explanations of child development can be used to inform social action at various levels. In many cases a key factor determining the effectiveness of such explanations is the degree to which they are appropriated by primary agents of child socialization, such as parents. In every culture, parents routinely draw on implicit theoretical ideas to interpret the behavior of the children for whom they care, to decide how to respond to that behavior, and to predict changes in child behavior across circumstances and over time. The system of meanings about child development and socialization shared by most of the participant-owners of a culture may be regarded as a cultural model, or ethnotheory. Research is presented concerning caregiver ethnotheories in a rural Chewa community in Zambia, and in two low-income neighborhoods in a US city. In both cases the focus of attention was on the ways in which caregivers construe the significance of schooling in childrenÕs development. In order for this field of application in developmental psychology to achieve cultural validation, the author argues that a process of negotiation is required, in search of common ground between the explicit, formal constructs and theories of the educational establishment and the implicit ethnotheories of caregivers in the childrenÕs homes. The first step in this process is to articulate and acknowledge differences of perspective. From there, teachers, caregivers, and psychologists can work towards a fusion of horizons. back to table of content
back to table of content
back to MCA Journal Index
back to the Mind, Culture, and Activity Homepage