Re: [xmca] Activity theory and qualitative research

From: Mike Cole <lchcmike who-is-at>
Date: Wed Nov 19 2008 - 11:49:04 PST


Your note come at a time when a professor and group of students in Bogota,
Columbia, are, among other things, asking the same questions.

The topic seems so worthwhile of systematic co-reading and discussion in
order to create significant common ground that it seems unlikely we can get
a mutually satisfying grip on the issues in the helter-skelter of XMCA. But
we could create, within the existing XMCA framework, a focused
discussion on this topic which always had the same header and where
participants agreed to read together, discuss together, even do interactive
video discussions together.

It has worked in the past and our facilities are stronger, so it can work

I have written some on this issue and my very short answer is that depending
upon the purposes of the research, both what are considered qualitative and
quantitative methods
(under at least some of the desiderata that different people
focus on when discussing qualitative research) are appropriate within a chat

An example I use is one where we start with fieldnotes written by
undergraduates. On the basis of those notes we
are able to identify/classify/count various kinds of events
involving characteristic behaviors and artifacts. We then
can provide interesting evidence (quantitative) to justify claims for a
particular designed environment as increasing,
relative to relevant contrasting situation, behaviors we had hoped to
foster. But then, we also see trends (say, by age)
in the frequency of some one(s) of those countable categories and we are
driven back to the fieldnotes because the categories "lied." They lumped
together variations which,
as a first pass, we could pass over, but which we were pushed back to at a
later stage.

In so far as CHAT is interested in developmental transformations, and in so
far as the term, "developmental transformation" involves qualitative
variation, what would it mean to exclude qualitative methods? If it is
claimed that the use of the change laboratory has effects desired by postal
workers in Helsinki, what would it mean if there was no quantitative
evidence that they had achieved goals that were a part of the strategies
they had decided to implement, a process which is itself a process of
qualitative change?? Sure as hell their managers are going to do some

The above is by way of an unsatisfactory answer and a call for those who
have serious common interests in such complex problems to coordinate in an
effective manner to make headway on obtaining answers that they found
productive according to their local criteria

On Wed, Nov 19, 2008 at 5:04 AM, Mary van der Riet <>wrote:

> 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
> thing.
> Has anybody been writing about this?
> Mary
> Mary van der Riet; School of Psychology; University of KwaZulu-Natal
> Private Bag X01, Scottsville, 3209
> email:
> tel: 033 260 6163; fax: 033 2605809
> Please find our Email Disclaimer here:
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Received on Wed Nov 19 11:50:50 2008

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