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[Xmca-l] Re: Activity Setting

Fortunately, the book by Wertsch which Cliff and Roland cite in this article is one I have read and have on my shelf. So, I have scanned the pages cited (Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind, Wertsch 1985, pp. 210-216) and they are attached.

It seems to me that as Wertsch defines "activity setting" it simply means the activity within which a relevant action is situated. Wertsch rightly includes within this conception of activity all the artefacts (such as built forms) which mediate the actions and conditions the operations of which the activity is composed.

This is in fact the dominant conception of "context" within Activity Theory.


Andy Blunden wrote:
I am still trying to get clear on exactly what concept of "activity setting" this is though, Carol. It seems the term is a little polysemous. Unfortunately that web page only had the Introduction, but Amazon allowed me to read most of pp 72-81 on activity settings. Here is a key passage for how you define "activity settings" there:

   "Contexts in which collaboralive interaction, intersubjectivity, and
   assisted performance occur -  in which teaching occurs - are
   referred to as activity settings. What are these activity settings,
   and how can they be considered, evaluated, and designed? Although
   activity settings can be subject to abstract theorectical analysis,
   such as that to come in this chapter and that of Wertsch (1985b, pp.
   210-216), they are as homely and familiar as old shoes and the front
   porch. They are the social furniture of our family, community, and
   work lives. They are the events and people of our work and relations
   to one another. They are the who, what, when, where, and why, the
   small recurrent dramas of everyday life, played on the stages of
   home school, community and workplace - the father and daughter
   collaborating to find lost shoes, the preschooler recounting a folk
   tale with sensitive questioning by an adult, the child who plays a
   board game through the help of a patient brother, the Navajo girl
   who assists her mother's weaving and who eventually becomes a master
   weaver herself. We can plot our lives as traces of the things we do,
   in dissolving and recombining social groups and energy knots. Those
   are activity settings."

It seems to me that "activity settings" is the sum total of all the relations of a person to everything in the time and place where and when the relevant activities occur. As a concept of Activity Theory, it differs radically from "behaviour settings" because it is concerned with meaning and the significance of things for the person and their perception of them, not just the bare, external things and objective relations.

But later, p. 77, it looks more like what I would call "an activity". The following paragraph resonates with the discussion we just had about Leontyev's distinction between the motive an activity and the "really effective" motive of a child participant:

   "Why an activity setting exists and functions may be described in
   terms of two facets:the motivation and the meaning.

   "The goal of an activity setting usually provides its motivational
   impetus. If the goal is canoe building, the canoe itself - which may
   be important for the subsistence of the family and group - carries
   within it the motivation for the activity, at least for the more
   powerful authorities who sanction it and who make available the
   needed resources.This is not necessarily the motive for
   participation by every member of the activity setting: Some may join
   in because their friends are participating; less powerful members,
   such as children, may participate only under threat by their
   parents, or because they like the society of the uncles who are

I see also a lot of references to power relations within the activity which remind me of Jean Lave's conception of a "practice" and "situated

Do these excerpts do just to the concept, Cliff?


carolmacdon@gmail.com wrote:

I have had a student who used Tharp and Gallimore's "activity setting" and for one, Andy rather liked it. Good to see it thriving.
Sent via my BlackBerry from Vodacom - let your email find you!

-----Original Message-----
From: "Cliff O'Donnell" <cliffo@hawaii.edu>
Sender: xmca-l-bounces@mailman.ucsd.edu
Date: Mon, 12 Aug 2013 20:01:55 To: Lubomir Savov Popov<lspopov@bgsu.edu>
Reply-To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <xmca-l@mailman.ucsd.edu>
Cc: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity<xmca-l@mailman.ucsd.edu>
Subject: [Xmca-l] Re: Activity Setting

Thank you for your response, Lubomir. Roger Barker was an important influence on my thinking earlier in my career. His work is highly respected in community psychology. Quoting from our article, here is the distinction we see between behavior setting and activity setting:

"The subjective focus of activity settings distinguishes
them from the behavior settings developed by Barker
(1960 , 1968 ). In behavior settings, the focus is on objective
molar behavior specified by time and place. Behaviors are
defined by the roles or positions of people in the setting and
activity is used to coordinate their behaviors. Suggestions
have been made to alter behavior setting theory to include a
wider range of individual behaviors, cognitions, and
interventions in the setting (e.g., Luke et al. 1991 ; Schoggen
1989 ; Wicker 1987 ). In contrast, activity setting theory
unifies the objective and subjective by showing how
activity is influenced and intersubjectivity developed.
Rather than a collection of individual behaviors and cognitions,
intersubjectivity develops as a setting characteristic
that becomes the shared meanings of culture and provides
the basis for cultural community psychology." (p. 24)

For a more thorough presentation of our use of the concept of activity setting, please see:

O'Donnell, C. R. & Tharp, R. G. (1990). Community intervention guided by theoretical developments. In A. S. Bellack, M. Hersen, & A. E. Kazdin (Eds.), International handbook of behavior modification and therapy, 2nd Edition (pp. 251-266). New York: Plenum Press.


Clifford R. O'Donnell, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
Past-President, Society for Community Research and Action (APA Division 27)

University of Hawai‘i
Department of Psychology
2530 Dole Street
Honolulu, HI 96822

On Aug 12, 2013, at 7:12 AM, Lubomir Savov Popov wrote:

Hi Andy,

I am also interested to find the term "activity setting" in Vigotsky's writings or those of his followers, including everyone in the East European activity theory tradition. I would appreciate articles or specific references and page numbers. I need this to anchor some ideas and to pay tribute to earlier theorists if they have worked on this.

I am also interested if there are people on this list who work on the development of the concept of activity setting or on activity theory in relation to the planning and design of built environment. They can contact me at the e-mail below my signature or via this list, whichever is more convenient. I was going to make such a request on this list some time ago, but now is a good occasion for this.

To my knowledge, no one in the East European activity theory tradition has used the term "activity setting," at least till the late 1980s. If I have missed something, it is good to catch up.

I personally work (on and off) on the concept of activity setting since the early 1980s. However, I develop it as a methodological category for the study of built environment. I have to acknowledge that I got the idea for activity setting from Roger Barker's "behavior setting." At that time, in East Europe, the concept of behavior was considered one-sided and with less explanatory power than the concept of activity. There was no way to introduce the behavior setting concept without setting the reaction of mainstream social scientists. Even if someone dared to suggest the behavior setting concept in an article, the reviewers will automatically recommend to rework it as "activity setting." In East European social science of that time, behavior referred mostly to the visible, mechanistic aspects of activity or in the sense of "demeanor."

Bob Bechtel has done a good work in the early 1980 expanding on Barker's behavior setting, operationalizing his ideas for the field of Environment and Behavior (Architecture and Human Behavior; Man- Environment Systems). However, this work didn't continue. On the other hand, at that time, it was too early to talk about activity settings in the USA. It is early even now, in particular in the field of Environment and Behavior. Many people in that field resent the idea of ditching behavior for activity. They believe that the concept of behavior setting is good enough and there is no need to introduce one more concept of similar kind.

In relation to the field of Environment and Behavior, I personally believe that Barker has offered very useful ideas and they can become a stepping stone for developing the concept of activity setting. The activity setting concept will allow us to use the apparatus of activity theory which is more powerful than the concept of behavior. I also believe that the development of the activity setting theory for the fields of teaching or management or social work and community building will be somewhat different. Their focus will be different and this will lead to working on different details. As usual, it is not possible to study everything about one object of study. We have to make difficult choices regarding aspects and depth: what to study first, what to defer, and what to skip.

Barker had a lot of conflicts with main stream psychologists (not activity theorists). I have heard from Bob Bechtel (a student of Barker) that psychologists were telling Barker: Roger, you think just like a sociologist, which in psychological parlance meant Roger, you are a SOB. This illustrates the disciplinary biases and divisions.

Best wishes,


Lubomir Popov, Ph.D.
School of Family and Consumer Sciences
American Culture Studies Affiliated Faculty
Bowling Green State University
309 Johnston Hall,
Bowling Green, Ohio 43403-0059

*Andy Blunden*
Home Page: http://home.mira.net/~andy/
Book: http://www.brill.nl/concepts

Attachment: wertsch.doc
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