Re: [xmca] units of analysis

From: Carol Macdonald (
Date: Wed Mar 07 2007 - 01:26:15 PST

Hello Chuk

This is just a small contribution, given your articulate statement below.
Last year I wrote an article in Theory and Psychology on *Mediated Action in
Three Different Educational contexts. *I used a cross classification of
Brice Heath for the three contexts, but used most of the criteria from
Wertsch (1998) on mediated action on the other axis. He said that we can
only use two aspects of Burke's pentad at a time, because otherwise the
description becomes unmanageable. However, I needed to implant the types of
mediated action into contexts, because there was much about the contexts
that were an "outcome" of the mediated action and on the other hand, much
about the mediation that "generated" the context. Until I wrote that paper,
I had happily accepted *mediated action* as a viable unit of analysis.

What do you think? Please let me know if the logic is fallacious.


On 07/03/07, 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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