Re: [xmca] Activity theory and qualitative research

From: Jay Lemke <jaylemke who-is-at>
Date: Tue Nov 25 2008 - 08:03:27 PST

Obviously this is a big topic. Alina's symposium, which I participated
in, was very helpful on many issues, and I hope those papers are
available somewhere.

I think it is helpful to distinguish somewhat different levels and
functions of the theory-methodology-methods complex. CHAT is, at least
in some research centers' actual practices, a model for all three. I
take the functions of these levels to be: Theory: saying how we
understand human action to happen as it does and to change its
patterns over time. Methodology: providing criteria for choosing
theoretically appropriate research methods across a range of possible
questions, contexts, and interests. Methods: specific procedures that
are expected to be useful across a range of different projects or

Social constructivism, or constructionism, is not the third of these,
and probably not very much the second. It is a bit of the first, and
more generally, it is a set of epistemological propositions about how
people know and what we can know, through action and social
interaction. It is a very broad framework, more a philosophy than a
theory or a method.

Many versions of social constructivism do include some account of the
relationship between individual knowing or ideas and collective,
social, or cultural ways of knowing. Those that pay a lot of attention
to the culture of a community as a basis for individual knowledge
through action tend to also produce more specific theories of how this
happens, and get labeled, broadly, sociocultural theories of ....
something. (e.g. learning, education, development, etc.)

Qualitative research comprises a wide range of methods (at least as
many and probably more diverse than those called quantitative
methods), as well as some methodological principles or advice. The
methodology is grounded in an epistemology which shares many features
with social constructivism, but is generally more interpretivist or
hermeneutic. That is, it is more about how to make useful sense of
experience/data, rather than about how people learn through social
interaction, though there are overlaps in many cases.

Qualitative research methods is an oddly named category. It presumes
that quantitative research methods are the norm, if not the unmarked
case, which in many research programs they are not. Nor do all non-
quantitative methods have anything interesting in common just because
they are not quantitative. And in fact it is possible to count
features and compare counts within almost any sort of "qualitative"
data, even ethnographic fieldnotes or videos.

The more significant contrast is at the level of epistemology and
methodology. Quantitative methods are generally chosen when the
research paradigm assumes that there are causal relationships at work
which produce quantitatively distinct degrees of effects, and that
what is of interest in how much of x produces how much of y. If the
interest is rather in exactly how it happens that any x produces any
y, then you need a qualitative theory of what's going on. In natural
science you tend to start with such a theory first, and then test it
quantitatively. In social sciences either one does not have much of a
theory to start with, just some expectations about causal connections,
or you have a theory that tells you that quantitative differences are
not what really matters for your research interests. Many disciplines
such as quantitative sociology or experimental psychology try to
develop theories by doing lots and lots of experiments. Personally, I
think this is a hopeless approach. Theories come from prior theories
and new ideas. The trajectory of theory-building can be constrained by
empirical findings, and even inspired by them, but trying to put
theory together out of networks of weak causal connections suggested
by experiment is the naivest empiricism; or so my experience tells me.

CHAT for me is like a theory, but not quite a theory. Its object is
too general to make a theory about. There are just too many kinds of
activity systems and relations among them, in too many different sorts
of cultural and material contexts, to have one theory. Instead, CHAT
is a starting point, a starter kit, for creating theories about
activity systems without having to start from zero. It embodies a lot
of conceptual insight into what matters when studying an activity
system, etc. I agree with what some others have said that it's most
unique feature is its emphasis on history, on the dynamics of change
across multiple timescales, and its assumptions, derived from Marx
that concrete material contradictions (and depending on your version,
their manifestation as or the relatively autonomously emergent "ideal"
or semiotic-discursive-ideological contradictions) are the primary
engines of change.

CHAT methods seem to have been developed in the course of long-term
research programs in various places (e.g. Moscow, Helsinki, San
Diego), but they are far from identical. CHAT as proto-theory does not
determine specific research methods, though it favors some over others
(which gives it methodological force, in my terminology). Many
research methods can be adapted or used in a way that is faithful to
the intellectual program we trace back to LSV and Leontiev, and that
includes, I think many that are called "qualitative" ... such as
interviews, focus groups, ethnographic observation, participant
ethnography, discourse analysis, multimedia semiotic analysis, video
ethnography, biographical studies, case studies, historical studies,
longitudinal developmental studies, tracking or trailing studies,
tracing network connections (ala Latour's ANT), etc. Each must be
transformed in some ways to be most consistent with CHAT. But then
each must be transformed in any case to fit the needs of a particular
research effort.

I know that some people like to develop specific methods and refine
them for re-use in many similar studies. This is a productive
approach. But it can sometimes lead us to forget that the real work of
research is its creative dimension: coming up with new ways of
figuring things out, building on what we and others have done before.
If our interests are theoretical and broad, then we are likely to find
ourselves participating in a wide range of different kinds of studies
over a research lifetime, and we need to be prepared to reinvent our
methods, our theories, and even our epistemologies as we go.


Jay Lemke
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

On Nov 19, 2008, at 2:04 PM, 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
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