Studying the workplace: considering the usefulness of activity theory

Helena Worthen
Assistant Professor, Labor Education
University of Illinois Chicago Labor Education Program
Suite 214 The Rice Building, 815 West Van Buren Street
Chicago, IL 60607

NOTE: This is a working draft of a paper with a very specific purpose – namely, to engage others in my field of labor  education, which is often sited in departments or institutes of industrial relations, in a discussion of activity theory. It is directed  at practitioners here in the US who may have no familiarity with activity theory. I am posting it on xmca in the hopes that I can find like-minded persons who are interested in talking about this application of activity theory but I am also anxious about getting it right. I don’t want to be out there advocating for a theoretical framework if I have missed some of the main points or got it wrong. So I welcome comments of all sorts from xmca participants. Thanks very much to all.

The field of industrial relations, to which labor studies and labor education are closely linked both historically and institutionally, is an interdisciplinary field and as such has never securely claimed a single theoretical foundation (see Kaufman 1993). At present contributions to the field arrive framed by the theoretical assumptions of their home disciplines which may be various schools of history, psychology, sociology, neoclassical economics, institutional economics, labor economics, anthropology, etc. Often, the theoretical assumptions of these home disciplines are left unstated and hence never negotiated in an ongoing discussion.

This article draws attention to a theoretical framework that may be turn out to be useful as a way of linking the theories that support work in this interdisciplinary field. This framework has been developing in the United States during the last forty years primarily in the discipline of education, where its emergence has supported the study of the role of language in child development, first language acquisition, second language acquisition, concept formation in older learners and, to a certain extent, adult education and literacy.

In these arenas this theoretical framework is referred to as “Vygotskian,” after the Soviet psychologist Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) (Vygotsky 1962) or “sociocultural” or “sociocultural-historical,” which emphasizes the many commonalities between this theoretical tradition and the tradition of John Dewey (education), George Herbert Mead (social psychology), Clifford Geertz (anthropology), and many others. It is consistent with Frierian educational theory (see Friere 1970) and Batesonian systems theory (see Bateson 1972).

At once a theory of learning, memory and thinking (Cole 1996) this framework emphasizes social and historical contexts and foregrounds the mediating role played by language and the use of artifacts created using language, like laws, rules, textbooks, oral and written discourse, contracts, tests, conventional scripts, rituals, accounting systems, etc. It exists in tension with theoretical frameworks that disregard context (that decontextualize actions or processes) or overlook the mediating role of some language artifact. Obvious arenas within education, in which these frameworks are contrasted with each other, include are discussions of the impact, purpose, or methodology of standardized testing; debates about the breadth or narrowness of curriculum; debates about intelligence; and studies of the value or effectiveness of distance education technologies.

In the last fifteen years there has been a number of studies published using this framework in an incarnation referred to as “activity theory.” Activity theory acknowledges its roots in Vygotskian, sociocultural theory and extends to incorporate semiotics, reflecting the attention paid to language artifacts (see Wertsch 1985). While activity theory researchers and sociocultural theory researchers continue to be closely allied, the socioculturalists in the United States tend to continue to study educational contexts, using this theoretical framework to study learning and contexts of learning. The activity theorists, who are largely based in countries other than the United States (Scandinavia, Russia, New Zealand, for example), are studying other contexts including the workplace.

For the purposes of researchers in labor studies or industrial relations, studies of the workplace are obviously likely to hold the most interest. For example: in Engestrom and Middleton’s Cognition and Communication at Work (1996), Edwin Hutchins and Tove Klausen write about “Distributed cognition in an airline cockpit.” Leena Norros writes about “System disturbances as springboard for development of operators expertise.” Yrjo Engestrom writes about “The tensions of judging: Handling cases of driving under the influence of alcohol in Finland and California.” Harley Shaiken writes about “Experience and the collective nature of skill.” This volume builds on earlier sociocultural work such as Zuboff’s study of the effect of “informating” technology on control of the workplace (Zuboff 1988), Lave and Wenger’s (1991) studies of learning in apprenticeship contexts, Hutchins’ study of teamwork during navigation (Hutchins 1995), and Hull’s studies of changing demands on workers’ literacy practices (1993, 1997).

The methodology common to all of these is reviewed in a thoughtful, exploratory essay by Arne Raeithel, “On the ethnography of cooperative work.” Raeithel points the way to studying how “human beings are able to create for themselves new possibilities of action” (321) through the “symbolic construction of possibilities” (322). While this may seem very abstract, labor educators will recognize it as one way to describe the activities of representation.

A new book, edited by Engestrom, Miettinen and Punamaki, Perspectives on Activity Theory (1999), adds to this literature by including a section on “Technology and Work” in which there is a chapter by Kutti called “Activity theory, transformation of work, and information systems design” and a chapter by Engestrom called “Innovative learning in work teams: analyzing cycles of knowledge creation in practice.” Much of Engestrom’s recent work has been in applying the activity theory model to actual work situations as part of the re-design of those situations. This is also the case with Capper (1999) whose research center (Center for Research on Work, Education and Business, Wellington, NZ) has produced studies of learning, skills assessment and economic restructuring.

Activity theory, at least as it is being developed by Yrjo Engestrom, one of its foremost proponents, is both intriguingly generative and technically specific with regards to methodology. In this essay, I will only describe the basic principles of Engestrom’s approach, leaving the rest to a more appropriate time. In both traditional Vygotskian sociocultural theory and activity theory, the unit of analysis is never an isolated entity – an individual, a manufactured item, a unit of value. It is a three-dimensional unit of analysis that joins a person doing an action using some kind of mediating language artifact – that is, a student learning a subject reading a book, a mechanic repairing a machine following a manual, a union rep processing a grievance under the contract, a committee meeting to implement a law. This means that the unit of analysis itself, although stable, is dynamic, continuously in the midst of a transformation.

In addition, according to Blanton (1995) four basic principles underlie Engestrom’s version of activity theory:

First, the subject of the activity is a collective subject. This reflects the fact that the individual is socially constructed as well as that the individual is part of a collective activity system which is also socially constructed. For those of us in labor education, a clear example of the importance of this is the difference between an individual worker who is just a union member and an individual worker who is a union steward with the rights that accrue to that position (see Schwartz 1999), or the protections under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act that flow from engaging in “concerted activities.. for mutual aid and protection.” (NLRA 1935:6)

Second, the collectivity is mediated by some kind of rules: perhaps cultural norms, perhaps laws, perhaps scripts like those used by workers in call centers. These rules are embedded in language, whether written or oral. The concept of “written” is very broad in this case and includes any kind of symbolic record, be it musical notation, signage, computer code or numeric calculation.

Third, the activities being investigated must be viewed in the light of their history. At this point, activity theory, because of its investment in language, crosses paths with the historically intra-textual world of Bakhtin (Bakhtin 1982, Holquist 1990) who, although his attention was on language and literature, was in fact a contemporary of Vygotsky and writing in the same cultural environment. This means that many studies drawing on activity theory have an ethnographic quality to them. The presence of the historical past in any investigation is essential to make visible the change that may be going on in an activity system; it also supports “prolepsis” or the power of the subject(s) to imagine the future in the light of the past (Cole 1996:185).

The investigation of history has a methodological as well as descriptive purpose: as Blanton points out, “The data obtained by ‘taking the history’ of an activity system is used to differentiate problems from inner contradictions” (1995:2).

This leads to the fourth principle, which is that the inner contradictions in a system are to be the focus of any study because they will determine the nature of the future of the system. Blanton says:

The final principle is that inner contradictions are the source of change in the activity system. These expansive cycles are a function of the tension created by the collective subject engaging in goal-directed activity. An activity system is a perpetual change machine, transforming itself through a series of expansive cycles…(Blanton 1995:2).

Capper, whose studies examine nested activity systems, explains that in some cases “The contradiction remains latent until some changed factor in the external environment comes into play and activates it” (pers. com 03:2000).

Engestrom has devised further refinements of the application of activity theory but this is not the place to consider them. These four principles, then – the socially constructed nature of the subject (the collective subject); the rule-governed nature of the system (rules externalized in language, not just imagined or remembered); the historicity of the context (implying its future as well as its past, and therefore its potential for change); and the primacy, for the purpose of understanding change in the system, of what is contradictory rather than what is modal or normal – frame the methodological mindset through which one might look at a workplace in the light of activity theory.

Using this framework, I think that it is possible to achieve an understanding of a workplace that takes into consideration the dynamic contradictoriness, the historicity, and the collective nature of the employment relationship. This should be of particular interest to researchers working in areas where there is either existing or potential unionization because unionization is the process through which the employment relationship becomes legally defined as collective (see National Labor Relations Act Section 7, 1935). In addition activity theory is easily adaptable to any scale, whether the focus is trained on a small work group adapting to new technology or a state implementing new federal legislation. Therefore the researcher might consider looking at activity theory in order to:

This last characteristic – the potential to move around inside a system and look at different elements from more than one point of view – is highly attractive to those attempting to understand workplace relationships and actions because it allows the researcher to escape from the unitary view of the workplace that places the imperatives of production above everything else.

We now return to the value of activity theory to labor-oriented researchers working in the field of industrial relations. Studies of work produced in the industrial relations field usually focus on the production process (see Appelbaum and Batt 1994, Appelbaum, Bailey, Berg and Kalleberg 2000, Bailey 1996, Dunlop and Weil 1996 among others). While these studies are not explicitly management-oriented, they do foreground the production process. No other processes – social processes, for example, of the sort that constitute much labor education curriculum like union representation activity, health and safety monitoring, organizing or mobilization, anti-discrimination campaigns, contract bargaining or enforcement, participation in political activity – appear in view. Even when we are talking about transforming the production process, introducing new technology, or reorganizing the work place, studies of work continue to allow a focus on the production process to determine the unit of analysis: they become studies of skill needs, hours of training, incentives, all contingent on the production process. Even when work reorganization proposals lead to recommendations that workers be taught team building skills, for example, these skills are viewed as “wetware” adjuncts to the hardware and software of the production process. (From an educator’s point of view, team building skills are no more isolated skills than reading comprehension is a set of de-coding skills.) But the conventional perspective, rarely made explicit, of most industrial relations research on the workplace (at least in the United States) is from a point of view that places the production process in front of all other processes that are occurring in the workplace.

The workplace from one perspective is the place where products are produced; from another perspective, it is the place where people make a living. In order to move from one perspective to another, one needs a systemic analysis that enables the researchers to choose more than one point in the system from which to view what is going on. This is one of the uses of activity theory. For labor-oriented researchers working in the field of industrial relations, the power to escape from the unitary view is critical, so a theoretical framework that makes it possible to move back and forth among perspectives is a valuable tool.

Activity theory is going to be of interest more to academics who are engaged in research than to union activists. For people who are engaged in the type of day-to-day work that unions require, whether as elected representatives or staff, the guidelines of activity theory – the collective nature of the subject, the primacy of communication systems, the importance of knowing the history of every situation, the problem-defined nature of systems – are all intuitive. In fact, Capper ( 2000) says that a typical reaction from a practitioner to some of his research (in which he keeps the apparatus of activity theory invisible) is ‘Oh, well, yes, that’s how it is.” But for academics in industrial relations, a theoretical framework that lays out an approach that is essentially non-unitary, that looks for problems rather than norms, that enables a shifting perspective, that requires us to consider how the subject – the worker, for example – is socially constructed as an individual and as part of a collective – might be refreshing. In addition, employed on a very large scale, it might help us reflect on the multiple nested contexts of academic disciplines that are presently neighbors, but not always engaged, in our interdisciplinary field.


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