Sophie's comments on Yrjo's four types of inner tensions and contradictions
in human activity caused me to go to Yrjo's 1987 book and re-read the
below. I copied a relevant lengthy passage for others so inclined. Yrjo
uses the example of a doctor to illustrate examples of each of these four
kinds of contradiction. I wonder if a parallel set of examples could be
developed regarding children's play.
From Learning by Expanding: An Activity - Theoretical Approach to
Developmental Research by Yrjo Engestrom, 1987.
Passage in Chapter 2, 2. THE EMERGENCE OF LEARNING ACTIVITY AS A
HISTORICAL FORM OF HUMAN LEARNING
from the section INNER CONTRADICTIONS OF HUMAN ACTIVITY, about half way
into Chapter 2.
Graphics are not included here, see
from Engestrom (1987):
Internal contradictions find their outward expressions in external ones. The
latter are no less real, but derivative in genetic terms (see Ilyenkov 1977,
334-335). In the analysis of human activity, four levels or layers of
contradictions may be discerned. These levels may be illustrated with the help
of Figure 2.7, an elaboration of the model of activity depicted in Figure 2.6.
The primary contradiction of activities in capitalist socio-economic
lives as the inner conflict between exchange value and use value within each
corner of the triangle of activity.
The secondary contradictions are those appearing between the corners. The
hierarchical division of labor lagging behind and preventing the possibilities
opened by advanced instruments is a typical example.
The tertiary contradiction appears when representatives of culture (e.g.,
teachers) introduce the object and motive of a culturally more advanced
the central activity into the dominant form of the central activity. For
example, the primary school pupil goes to school in order to play with his
(the dominant motive), but the parents and the teacher try to make him study
seriously (the culturally more advanced motive). The culturally more advanced
object and motive may also be actively sought by the subjects of the central
The quaternary contradictions require that we take into consideration the
essential 'neighbour activities' linked with the central activity which is the
original object of our study.
The 'neighbour activities' include first of all the activities where the
immediately appearing objects and outcomes of the central activity are
(let's call them object-activities). Secondly, they include the activities
produce the key instruments for the central activity (instrument-producing
activities), the most general representatives being science and art.
they include activities like education and schooling of the subjects of the
central activity (subject-producing activities). Fourthly, they include
activities like administration and legistlation (rule-producing activities).
Naturally the 'neighbour activities' also include central activities which are
in some other way, for a longer or shorter period, connected or related to the
given central activity, potentially hybridizing each other through their
Figure 2.7: Four levels of contradictions within the human activity system
Level 1: Primary inner contradiction (double nature) within each constituent
component of the central activity.
Level 2: Secondary contradictions between the constituents of the central
Level 3: Tertiary contradiction between the object/motive of the dominant
of the central activity and the object/motive of a culturally more advanced
of the central activity.
Level 4: Quaternary contradictions between the central activity and its
Now the quaternary contradictions are those that emerge between the central
activity and the neighbouring activity in their interaction. Conflicts and
resistances appearing in the course of the 'implementation' of the outcomes of
the central activity in the system of the object-activity are a case in point.
The work activity of physicians in primary medical care (general
may serve as an illustration of the four levels of contradictions.
The primary contradiction, the dual nature of use value and exchange value,
be analyzed by focusing on any of the corners of the 'central activity' of the
doctor. For example, instruments of this work activity include a tremendous
variety of medicaments and drugs. But they are not just useful preparations -
they are above all commodities with prices, manufactured for a market,
advertised and sold for profit. Every doctor faces this contradiction in his
daily decision making.
A typical secondary contradiction in this work activity would be the conflict
between the traditional biomedical conceptual instruments concerning the
classification of diseases and correct diagnosis on the one hand and the
changing nature of the objects, namely the increasingly ambivalent and
problems and symptoms of the patients. These problems more and more often
comply with the standards of classical diagnosis and nomenclature. They
an integrated social, psychological and biomedical approach which may not yet
A tertiary contradiction arises when, say, the administrators of the medical
care system order the practitioners to employ certain new procedures
corresponding to the ideals of a more wholistic and integrated medicine.
procedures may be formally implemented, but probably still subordinated to and
resisted by the old general form of the activity.
Suppose that a doctor, working on such a new wholistic and integrated basis,
orders or suggests that the patient shall accept a new habit or conception
change his way of life in some respect. The patient may react with resistance.
This is an instance of the quaternary contradictions. The patient's way of
or his 'health behavior' is here the object-activity. If patients are
as abstract symptoms and diseases, isolated from their activity contexts, it
will be impossible to grasp the developmental dynamics of the central
Contradictions are not just inevitable features of activity. They are "the
principle of its self-movement and (...) the form in which the development
is cast" (Ilyenkov 1977, 330). This means that new qualitative stages and
forms of activity emerge as solutions to the contradictions of the preceding
stage of form. This in turn takes place in the form of 'invisible
At 08:25 AM 9/21/2004 +1200, Sophie Alcock wrote:
>This bounced so am resending
>From: Sophie Alcock
>Sent: Monday, September 20, 2004 9:46 AM
>Subject: RE: michal roth's intro?
>Well I found the intro useful and reassuring because Michael does refer to
>Engestrom's triangle model of AT and defends it's potentially static,
>structuralist interpretation by simply pointing out that criticisms of the
>model, "fail to recognize that the the model is inherently dynamic". I
>find fluid diagrammes of ideas useful for breaking down categorical
>assumptions, and variations on this triangle can therefore be more helpful
>than too many words.
>I also appreciated the clear linking to Marxist theory.
>I'm not sure how useful it is to try to categorise the internal tensions
>and contradictions in activity systems as four types, yet the
>categorisation is logical. This is a tension I grapple with. Tension is
>central to young children's playfulness and humour (my study
>focus). Contradictions are inherent and basic to humour. It helps to use
>practical examples. So, the contradictions around children's word play and
>rules (and roles) are obvious. And the contradictions do motivate and
>propel the activity. In the play process childrn have fun both
>re-creating sounds, rhythms, meanings, of words and also connecting with
>each other. At the same time children may feel some sense of control
>as together they improvise and synchronise words, making and remaking
>I'm still puzzling over tensions and contradictions and look forward to
>reading the article when it's posted.
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