Re: [xmca] units of analysis

From: Andy Blunden (
Date: Tue Mar 06 2007 - 19:22:56 PST

Good work Marisa.

Tell me. It always seemed to me that it is important, not just to drag
together a list of all the things which are essential to a research topic,
but *to form a concept* of the smallest unit which displays the properties
of the whole. A triangle of triangles is all very well, but what is it? I
mean, the "it" is what it's all about.

What do you say to that Marisa?

At 07:05 PM 6/03/2007 -0800, you wrote:
>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,
>>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
>>arbitrary, but is culturally, socially, and historically specific.
>>three terms are important, and excluding any one of them can invite
>>a major
>>oversight.) In contrast to Vygotsky's word_meaning, activity
>>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,
>>original structural form, as the smallest unit that still preserves
>>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
>>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
>>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
>>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
>>theses, the point is that sensuous objects have specific meaning
>>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
>>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
>>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.
>>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
>>for such things. If it is not a person, a tool, or the objects of
>>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
>>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
>>to instate that social world in the work of theory.
>>In this sense, Vygotsky's unit of analysis, mediation, is neither
>>to, nor merely in a supplementary relation to, activity theory.
>>theory imagines the entire triangle of the social. With rules,
>>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
>>structures of society implicit in activity theory need to be
>>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
>>xmca mailing list
>xmca mailing list

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