Re: [xmca] units of analysis

From: Marisa Brandt (
Date: Tue Mar 06 2007 - 19:05:51 PST

I, too, wrote an essay about units of analysis. I chose, however, to
compare the scope of the units of analysis for Wertsch, Engesterom,
and Leontiev in order to draw attention to what each chooses to focus
on or seems to elide from the discussion of activity when
circumscribing units of analysis out of all the aspects of human
life. Mike thought that it might make for good XMCA discussion, so
voila, I submit my essay for your perusal/scrutiny/maybe even enjoyment.


Units of Analysis in Three Theories of Activity
             The social scientists A.N. Leont’ev, Yrjö Engeström, and
James Wertsch have each developed methodological tools for studying
human activity. They share the view that activity is a complex
phenomenon involving relationships between the human actor/subject,
an object or artifact, and some form of mediation that makes sense of
that relationship. By “making sense” I mean that in order for the
interaction of the human and the object to be considered a meaningful
action that can be studied, the human must have some kind of goal in
mind when they make use of an object and some idea of what the proper
way of attaining that goal might be. In light of the goal, the object
gains a meaning greater than the mere fact of its existence. This
greater meaning and the method for extracting it are, more or less,
what is meant by mediation for all three theorists. Culture in the
broadest sense of the term, is for each theorist the origin of the
meaning behind mediation; only through interaction with other people
do individuals learn how to significantly interact with the physical
world. As Leont’ev puts is “the human individual’s activity is a
system in the system of social relations” (L, 47).

             Each theorist, however, has a different view of how many
realms of information a researcher of human activity must study in
order to create a meaningful unit of analysis. Leont’ev takes the
most conservative view, though, to be fair, he worked at a time when
the unit of analysis for studying the relationship between human
subjectivity and the object world entailed only “the two-part scheme
of influence of the objectàchange in the subject’s present state” (L,
46). Leont’ev believe that this linear relationship needed to be
expanded in a triangle that would also include “the subject’s
activity and its corresponding conditions, goals, and means” (L, 46).
In this Marxist formulation of human life, the object is
subjectivized (that is, given meaning) for the individual while at
the same time the individual is objectivized as his/her consciousness
is formed by the outside world. Activity is the process that enables
these transformations, thereby creating a meaningful world in which
humans can act, produce, and attain goals.

             Engeström agrees with Leont’ev, but sees his units of
analysis as incomplete because they do not account for all of the
elements that contribute to human interaction with the world and its
meanings. Engeström formally incorporates additional factors that
while they appear in Leont’ev’s general discuss of activity, do not
make it into his final unit of analysis. Engeström sees it as
necessary to divide activity into its three dominant forms—
production, exchange, and distribution—and their culmination,
consumption. He also sees the community in which the human subject
lives as an important element of the unit of analysis and adds both
the rules of the community and the division of labor within the
community as important for understanding the specific structure of
the social world in which the subject acts and what possibilities and
limitations it presents to activity. The complex interaction of these
elements in addition to Leont’ev’s original three creates a much more
complicated geometry of analysis, one much more rooted Marxist
theories about the structure of industrial societies and the place of
the individual human actor within them.

In Mind and Action, Wertsch appropriates Kenneth Burke’s “pentad”
from his “dramatistic approach to human actions and motives” (W, 13):
agent, act, scene, agency, and purpose. This unit of analysis
provokes the researcher to think about the local contexts of activity
(scene) and creates space for meanings to change over time and space
(as in the example of pole vaulting materials); he does not assume an
industrial society like Engeström. The pentad describes an
understanding of human activity in theatrical terms, which is very
different from that of the Marxist-materialist oriented ones of
Leont’ev and Engeström. For example, Leont’ev and Engeström elide
“purpose” from their formal units of analysis, even though they both
discuss this element (sometimes under the title “motive” or “goal”).
In contrast, Wertsch maintains Wertsch Burke’s elision of the object/
artifact, even though he frequently mentions it frequently in the
text (e.g. the pole vaulter’s pole). Wertsch shares with Engeström a
belief that the large number of constitutive elements in human
activity always confine researchers to a partial view; activity is
simply too complex. The researcher must only focus on the
relationship between a few elements at a time, resigning his/herself
to the fact that thorough and significant empirical analysis cannot
be done on a larger scale. Whereas Engeström “solves” this problem
through creation of sub-triangles within his general triangle of
human activity, Wertsch instead describes ten properties of mediated
action that govern the interactions between the elements in the
pentad, the understanding of which can aid analysis.

On Mar 6, 2007, at 5:55 PM, Chuk Moran wrote:

> 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
> objects.
> 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
> imagination.
> 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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