[xmca] units of analysis

From: Chuk Moran (chmo.student@gmail.com)
Date: Tue Mar 06 2007 - 17:55:30 PST

This is a short response kind of essay I wrote for Mike Cole's class.
Feeding on discussions last month on xmca about unit of analysis and the
'arbitrariness myth', mike started to pressure us about what difference it
made whether you talk about mediated action vs activity vs mediation,
etc. Here i'm hiliting a difference that matters between the unit of
analysis in Vytgotsky's "Thought and Word" chapter and activity theory in
Engestrom and Leontev.

Activity theory appropriates, or more exactly abducts into it, Vygostky's
unit of analysis of mediation. The Vygotsky that we've read was about the
relationship between thought and speech (of different forms) and the unit of
mediation present there was word meaning. The meaning of a word is not
arbitrary, but is culturally, socially, and historically specific. (All
three terms are important, and excluding any one of them can invite a major
oversight.) In contrast to Vygotsky's word_meaning, activity theorists,
such as Leontev and Engestrom, see mediation as a part of actions, and as a
component in activity. The kind of mediation that word meaning is
represents only one corner of a much bigger triangle.

Engestrom writes, "activity must be pictured in its simplest, genetically
original structural form, as the smallest unit that still preserves the
essential unity and quality behind any complex activity." Activity is more
than action, or mediated action, which is Wertsch's unit of analysis.
Actions are something that is a part of activity, and an action done that is
part of an activity outside of that activity (like hitting the breaks with
your foot while in a dream) can be actions. Activities can become
operations. (And vice-versa.)

Mediated action does not have the same time-scale of activity. Activity is
something done over and over, made possible by its historical moment.
Mediated action forgets history because it lets actions take place outside
of an historically forged framework of activity. Mediated action tries to
incorporate history by understanding where mediators come from (e.g. the
history of keyboards) and by situating the subject and its objects into
historical narratives. However, it does not have an imagination for
activities as activities.

In activity theory, the authorization for the unit of analysis comes from
Marx's theses on Feuerbach, where Marx argues philosophy has looked too much
at sensuous objects as something to be contemplated and experienced
individually, without understanding sensations as part of human activities.
Marx's longer work "The German Ideology" seemed to develop the theses on
Feuerbach into a more full argument that showed the importance of his thesis
about activity in terms of labor, and the development of thoughts in
relation to material conditions of life. In that interpretation of the
theses, the point is that sensuous objects have specific meaning depending
on the activities people are doing. That is, depending on the mode of
production and the form of life of the people encountering sensuous

Figure from Engestrom, "The structure of human activity"


For activity theory, though, the first thesis is an authorization to conduct
analysis at the level of human activity, situated culturally, socially, and
historically. Activity theory continues to take seriously the injunction,
however, from Marx's attitude in "The German Ideology" that ideas come from
conditions of life, and the form of activity has everything to do with the
material forces of history. So activity has to incorporate the super
triangle in order to grasp the essential unity and quality behind complex
activity, i.e. the society and mode of production.

In contrast, Wertsch and Vygotsky have units of analysis that are not the
molecular pair for this molar ordering of society. Vygotsky's unit of
mediation, understood as word_meaning, has no comment or commitment to a
vision of production, consumption, exchange, or distribution. Wertsch's
unit of mediated_action hopes to infuse each of its terms with things like
community and division of labor, but has no explicit role in a relationship
for such things. If it is not a person, a tool, or the objects of their
tool use, it is not part of the molar world of the mediated_action

Each of these methods of (something like) sociocultural analysis is a
prescription for analysis and an injunction on the imagination of
situations. All of these methods hope to be capable of being applied
anywhere, to anything. A child learning language. A girl on a bike. A boy
baking bread. A school of synchronized swimmers practicing a routine.
Something is done to them, just by being taken up as examples. Each of the
methods of sociocultural/historical analysis discussed here are universal
models of grounded human activity. If one implies an entire social world in
which a molecular moment of activity/action takes place, it is a commandment
to instate that social world in the work of theory.

In this sense, Vygotsky's unit of analysis, mediation, is neither equivalent
to, nor merely in a supplementary relation to, activity theory. Activity
theory imagines the entire triangle of the social. With rules, instruments
and division of labor in a big triangle. This rendition of the social is
taken as genetically given in the human species, and a situation that is
always in existence, whether we acknowledge it more or less. For me, this
is very much closed off to postmarxist work that criticizes such a
characterization of the social. Opportunities for an imagination of the
social outside of the economic terms of production and distribution
disappear in the big triangles of activity theory. Insofar as the essential
structures of society implicit in activity theory need to be constantly
reproduced, we're better served by leaving some recourse to units of
analysis open to producing other structures than we are by insisting on a
fundamental unity between mediation in word meaning with the wider
implications of activity theory. Activity theory is not the natural destiny
of a theory of Vygotsky's writing on mediation, although it can very well be
put to use there.

hope is of some interest to anyone!
 chuk moran
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