[xmca] Activity theory and qualitative research

From: Mary van der Riet <vanderriet who-is-at ukzn.ac.za>
Date: Wed Nov 19 2008 - 05:04:33 PST

Activity theory as emblematic of qualitative research?

I have a question. Many studies which use cultural-historical activity
theory, do not explicitly identify a research design or paradigm (this
might be because activity theory operates on both methodological and
method levels, but that is another issue)

I have been trying to draw out some of the links between the qualitative
research paradigm and ‘activity theory’. There are elements of this
methodology that draw on different dimensions of qualitative research
and could be said to have allegiances to different paradigms/positions
and practices within the qualitative approach (interpretive,
hermeneutic, grounded theory, social constructionist).
Perhaps you have some ideas?

Broadly, qualitative research is defined (in the classic approaches) as

* an open-ended and inductive exploration of a phenomenon, rather than
providing causal explanations (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994).
* having a concern with making sense of/obtaining an understanding of,
human experience,
* broadly ‘interpretivist’ – this means:
* assuming that people’s subjective experiences, the meaning these
experiences have for them, and thus their representation of reality, can
and should be a focus of study (Kvale, 1996).
* and that it is a search for a detailed, ‘thick description’ (Geertz,
1973), of these experiences.
* and assuming that an understanding of human experience requires a
contextual approach (Schwandt, 1994; Denzin & Lincoln, 2005); that the
‘meaning’ of a phenomenon is indexical, and thus human experiences
need to be explored and examined in context, as they are lived. This, in
part, means understanding the social, linguistic and historical features
which shape human phenomena (Kelly 2006).

 [this bit seems to have the most synergies with CHAT – but I don’t
think it is meant in this way i.e. that there is a dialectical
interaction between social and individual ‘levels of analysis’]

And what about the ‘critique’ of the situated perspective which
predominates in ethnographic approaches? This is articulated as follows:
* there is a need to move beyond describing and ‘understanding’ human
experience in situ. Kelly (1994) argues that the participant, embedded
in his or her reality, perspective and context, does not possesses the
perspective necessary to provide a comprehensive account of an
experience or phenomenon. There is thus a need to provide an account of
a phenomenon which exceeds the self-understanding of the participants, a
distanciated account (Kelly, 2006). Thus description alone, and a
description in the participants’ words, is insufficient for an
explanation of a phenomenon. There is a need to provide an elaboration,
or expansion, of the participant’s account.

And what of the social constructionist perspective: which argues,
drawing on Terre Blanche, Kelly and Durrheim (2006), that participants’
thoughts, feelings and experiences are products of systems of meaning at
a social level (Terre Blanche et al, 2006). Constructionist research is
about “interpreting the social world as a kind of language; that is, as
a system of meanings and practices that construct reality” (p.280) These
“everyday actions or images create and maintain” the world in which we
live (Terre Blanche et al, 2006, p.280). They argue that interpreting
this social world means understanding and examining this system of
meanings, these representations of reality, practices, and physical
arrangements which “construct particular versions of the world by
providing a framework or system through which we can understand objects
and practices as well as understand who we are and what we should do in
relation to these systems” (ibid, p.282). When we act, they argue, what
we achieve is to “reproduce the ruling discourses of out time and
re-enact established relational patterns” (p.282).

Is Activity Theory just a social constructionist approach? It might
emphasize the historical trajectory ofand dilemmas, but it seems to be essentially concerned with the same

Has anybody been writing about this?


Mary van der Riet; School of Psychology; University of KwaZulu-Natal
Private Bag X01, Scottsville, 3209

email: vanderriet@ukzn.ac.za
tel: 033 260 6163; fax: 033 2605809

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Received on Wed Nov 19 05:06:10 2008

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