RE: Motives and goals: Leont'ev and Axel

From: Peter Smagorinsky (
Date: Wed Feb 04 2004 - 03:19:17 PST

My own understanding of motive has always been much broader than what I see
Leont'ev, Axel, and Eugene arguing. I'll paste in something I coauthored a
few years ago in Grossman, P. L., Smagorinsky, P., & Valencia, S. (1999).
Appropriating tools for teaching English: A theoretical framework for
research on learning to teach. American Journal of Education, 108(1), 1-29.

Motive. Activity settings encourage particular social practices that
presumably participants will come to see as worthwhile means to a better
future. Activity settings provide constraints and affordances that channel,
limit, and support learners' efforts to adopt the prevailing social
practices. In this sense a constraint is a positive set of limitations that
provide the structure for productive activity (Valsiner, 1998). Central to
an activity setting is the motive or outcome implicit in the
setting. Wertsch (1985) maintains that "the motive that is involved in a
particular activity setting specifies what is to be maximized in that
setting. By maximizing one goal, one set of behaviors, and the like over
others, the motive also determines what will be given up if need be in
order to accomplish something else" (p. 212). This motive provides a
setting with a sense of purpose that implies a code of suitable conduct.
An activity setting has a cultural history through which community members
have established specific outcomes that guide action within the
setting. The condition of having a cultural history requires that a
setting involve, in the words of Sarason's (1972), "two or more people
com[ing] together in new relationships over a sustained period of time in
order to achieve certain goals" (p. 1). Sarason, who is interested in the
creation of new settings, foregrounds the ways in which people conceive
practices and artifacts designed to sustain their relationships. Wertsch
(1985), in contrast, focuses more on how existing practices and artifacts
constrain and afford new action, saying that "an activity setting guides
the selection of actions and the operational composition of actions, and it
determines the functional significance of these actions" (p. 212). Their
different focuses aside, both regard the condition of sustained
relationships as central to an activity setting. These relationships are
mediated by tools and artifacts for which participants develop over time a
general agreement over purposes and meaning. Without widespread agreement
on the motive and mediational means, a setting could not exist. Central,
then, to the existence of an activity setting is the condition that action
within settings is goal-oriented and that a set of practices and artifacts
exists to mediate development toward those goals.
Consensus on an overriding motive, however, is problematic. Multiple and
competing desired outcomes often coexist within an activity setting, though
typically some predominate. The overriding motive for a setting, then,
while not specifying the actions that take place, provides channels that
encourage and discourage particular ways of thinking and acting. For
example, student teaching, as an activity setting, has diverse and
sometimes rival goals. From one perspective, student teaching is an
opportunity to experiment, to try out practices in a supportive environment
(e.g., Dewey, 1904). On the other hand, student teaching is also a
high-stakes demonstration of one's competence as a teacher, successful
completion of which is pre-requisite to graduation or certification. The
first purpose, experimentation and learning, might have encouraged Frank to
try out the writing workshop approach he had learned in his methods
class. However, the classroom management problems he quickly encountered
detracted from the second goal: that of demonstrating his competence.

At 03:24 PM 2/3/2004 -0500, you wrote:
>Dear everybody-
>Thanks a lot, Peter, for the useful article. I extracted the article and
>captured the text (see attached). I also put the full text of Axel's
>description of Leont'ev's example and analysis along with Axel's interesting
>critique of Leont'ev below (I'd recommend reading his entire article
>I think Leont'ev's example and analysis is great. I *somewhat* forget about
>it. It is much better than my examples. I want to comment the example,
>analysis, and Axel's critique of them.
>In my view, Leont'ev introduced (at least) three related important issues
>related the notion of motive. First, what is the motive and when is the
>motive: when actions are mobilized by the environment (its affordances) and
>when they are mobilized people through mediation? Second, what is the social
>nature of the motive? Third, what is the difference between the motive and
>Let me start with the third issue. In my view, Leont'ev's example can make
>easier to envision how motive can exist with goal and how goal can exist
>without motive. Motive without a Goal: imagine a group of inept hunter went
>to hunt motivated by hunger. When the saw a prey, they started chase of it
>without any plan. They were coordinated by the prey (shared affordance) but
>not by a goal. Now Goal without a Motive: Imagine a group of skilled hunters
>coming back from visiting a friendly tribe bumped into a prey. Seeing this
>opportunity, they decided to organize a skillful hunt described by Leont'ev.
>In this case, they had goal without a motive.
>I think Leont'ev is right claiming that motive has its social nature because
>it is mediated by social activity (and social discourse - we can plausibly
>assume for the collective hunt described by Leont'ev to occur people have to
>negotiate it and develop an agreement).
>Now, Axel raised an important issue about an observer. Axel is right
>pointing at relativistic nature of Leont'ev's analysis. However, I disagree
>with Axel's characterization of the relativism and his solution of it. Axel
>claims that Leont'ev's relativism is subjective and Axel wants to make
>objective judgments about other people's motives. I argue that Leont'ev's
>relativism, correctly noticed by Axel, is not subjective but discursive and
>communal and cannot be objective (or subjective for that matter). As I tried
>to argue in my past message, motives comes out of communal discourses (an
>observer can initiate a new communal discourse in a relation with the
>observed community).
>What do you think?
> > -----Original Message-----
> > From: Phil Chappell []
> > Sent: Tuesday, February 03, 2004 10:12 AM
> > To:
> > Subject: Re: Motives and goals
> >
> > Thanks for that link, Peter. It looks very worthwhile (when a minute is
> > spare!)
> >
> > Phil
> > On Feb 3, 2004, at 4:39 AM, Peter Smagorinsky wrote:
> >
> > > An article posted at by
> > > Erik Axel discusses the motive/goal time to comment,
> > > must teach a class in a few minutes. The article is also in Mind,
> > > Culture, and Activity: seminal papers from LCHC (eds Cole, engestrom,
> > > vasquez) which we're discussing in class tonight. p
> > >
> > >
>One Developmental Line in European Activity Theories
>By Erik Axel LCHC Newsletter 1992
>.We shall introduce them by using Leont'ev's example of primeval collective
>hunt, which is, at the same time, an instance of cooperative interaction in
>activity. Collective hunting is the activity, the prey is its object, and
>hunger for the prey is its motive. When beaters make noise to frighten the
>game, the clapping of their hands is an operation, and the beating as a
>whole is an action within the hunting activity, motivated by the hunger to
>be fulfilled by the realization of the activity. This noise making action
>has as its goal the frightening of the game. However, the goal contradicts
>the object and motive of activity, which is to catch the animal and
>distribute and consume the food. The beaters' action is part of the activity
>on the basis of their conscious knowledge that they frighten the game so
>that it can be caught. This implies that human consciousness has an engaging
>and a mediating representational aspect. The beaters' action is only
>possible on condition that they represent the link between the goal of their
>action and the motive of the cooperative activity. They must be able to
>represent relations between objects, irrespective of their actual needs, or
>else they would simply go for it themselves and therefore in many instances
>fail to obtain the object. Their specific and particular consciousness is
>constituted through its content, which has meanings as elements. Through the
>meanings they are able to represent the connection between the motive and
>the goal of action, in this way they are engaged in the activity, it makes
>sense to the beaters.
>One activity is mainly distinguished from another by its object or motive.
>This can become a key to accounting for the development of activity in the
>following way. If, for example, a beater discovers it is fun beating, if he
>starts beating for its own sake, be is motivated by the beating, the beating
>is an appropriated object, he has produced a new activity from the old
>action. An action can thus develop into an activity by acquiring a motive,
>and the new activity might itself become subdivided into a set of actions.
>On the other hand, an activity can become an action if its motive wanes, and
>can become integrated into another activity. Likewise, an action can evolve
>into an operation, capable of accomplishing various actions.
>Having thus determined the elements of activity, it is important to stress
>that they must be understood as potentials which constitute a unity of
>social, personal and organismic aspects, and the actualization of the
>potentials must be conceived of as a specific developmental process, which
>is beyond their determination as potentials.
>The motive of activity is thus an individually constituted unity of an
>originally nonspecific biological "push" and previously socially produced
>objectified "pull." Biological functions, which express the arousal of the
>body, cannot themselves direct activity. Only when desires meet a socially
>produced object meant for human satisfaction do they become objectified, get
>their specific direction Likewise the goal of an action is an individually
>produced unity of what the objective social circumstances have made possible
>and the process of actions actualized. Furthermore, meanings are the unity
>of what appears to the subject on the one hand as relations of the world
>unveiled through activity, independent of its conscious- ness and on the
>other hand as an instrument to become conscious of objective relations.
>Lastly, sense is established as a unity when the social meanings unveil the
>relation between goal and motive to the subject and thus release the
>engagement or commitment of consciousness.
>Such elements constitute each kind of activity, and the recognizable unity
>of the ever changing activities of the subject constitutes the personality.
>Personality is the transformations of the subject, which comes about as a
>result of the development of its activities in the system of social
>relations. The emotions are seen as a constituent of personality, they
>reflect the relations between the motives of the personality and the
>possibility for their positive realization in the social world through
>activity. With the concepts of meaning, sense, and emotion we recognize a
>movement in the theoretical constructions of Leont'ev towads a localization
>of the individual in the knots of the system of activities.
>The advantages of Leont'ev's position are evident even from this summary
>Human nature does not determine specific activities, but it does determine
>the set of possible activities which can be realized. This is because human
>beings are active social agents who produce objects for the satisfaction of
>their needs and thereby develop the elements of their psyche and internal
>It is in accordance with this line of thought to state that the system of
>activity as presented is to be understood as a material as well as
>theoretical seminal core. It is common to all kinds of actualized historical
>activities, be they cultural, producing, or reproducing. Each particular
>activity, then, has a history which has developed through contradictions in
>different sets of concrete realizations of the elements emotional,
>conscious, operational, musical, instrumental, etc.
>However, there are also several problems with Leont'ev's position:
>His "babushka" system of activity, action and operation is not straight
>forward to work with. There are two conspicuous reasons for this. First,
>Leont'ev sometimes writes as if activity, action, and operation constitute
>three independent levels. This allows for a hierarchical structural
>conception of activity, which can be identified in some of his followers.
>Second, it is difficult to set up guidelines for the categorization of
>activity in a particular study. The unequivocal determination of individual
>motives is decisive in order to differentiate between an action and activity
>and between activities, but it is not possible. Leont'ev's aim is to
>describe objective activity, but his conception of activity thus easily
>becomes subjective and relativistic: Activity is what the researcher
>perceives as motivated.
>Leont'ev merely talks about an activity system, not about social
>organizations and formations. His combination of social theory and
>psychology remains too abstract and is only rudimentarily and inconsistently
>The final problem we shall look into is also the one with which we will draw
>a line of development produced by Critical Psychology. Leont'ev's theory of
>activity is- as already stated-meant to grasp individual development as
>socially produced, and thereby as an attempt to realize a not yet fulfilled
>promise within Marxist tradition. A central assumption with which to
>accomplish this is the conception of how needs and interests have a
>determining and indispensable function in producing knowledge through
>practice. Objective knowledge can be realized not by abstracting from, but
>by taking into account the contradictory class interests in which one is
>embedded. However, although Leont'ev presents the first elements to locate
>the subject and thus to demonstrate the unity among needs, interests, and
>knowledge, the picture presented is not totally coherent. As argued, there
>are tendencies toward structuralism, ahistoricism, etc., and it therefore
>becomes difficult to go beyond the demonstration of how a certain social
>position will typically produce a specific consciousness. In order to
>understand the specific and particular personal development we must
>systematically formulate a historical science of the subject. Critical
>Psychology set itself this task.

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