Re: [xmca] Sawchuk and Stetsenko article

From: Andy Blunden <ablunden who-is-at>
Date: Fri Nov 28 2008 - 18:30:49 PST


I think CHAT has both the need and the possibility to
benefit from an engagement with theories of sociology, and
like you I think sociology could more than benefit too, but
I think that CHAT will have little or no impact on sociology
until problems in the second generation, to which Anna and
Peter allude, are dealt with. But Anna and Peter do not
address these problems, and while I agree that the necessary
concepts are there in "1st generation" CHAT, they are
undeveloped in the sociological domain, for the reasons that
Anna and Peter mention, I think.

I really welcome Peter and Anna’s work, reflected in this
paper. It is vital for CHAT to work through all the most
powerful approaches to sociology, critique them from the
standpoint of CHAT, appropriate the insights that they have
to offer, and in the process, transform CHAT. It is to be
hoped that Peter and Anna will be able to recruit others to
this project so that the critical approach emanating from
CHAT can have an impact within the various sociological

Peter and Anna recognise that CHAT offers the potential for
an interdisciplinary approach to human development, but that
for historical reasons, the development of the sociological
aspects of CHAT was stunted. In my opinion, subsequent to
the first generation, CHAT actually fails in the domain of
sociological enquiry. The fact that “Leontyev made a
significant step in developing CHAT by distinguishing
between collective activity and individual action through
emphasis on division of labour,” (p. 342) lies, I believe,
at the root of this failure, which Peter and Anna correctly
trace to its socio-historical origins in the mid-20th
century. The kind of broad-ranging critique proposed by
Peter and Anna is the only way of overcoming this deficit.

On p. 342-3, the authors say: “At the core of the original
CHAT was the notion that human nature is a sociohistorical
project and a collaborative achievement by people acting in
collectivities ...” and they conclude that “the process of
changing the world – that is, the practical, collaborative
endeavour of people who create themselves as they create the
world – was understood as the foundational reality for human
development and human nature as well” and “Demystifying
human subjectivity by showing how it ensues from practical
collaborative activities ... instead of it being a
mysterious mental realm, is the true staple of CHAT.” These
formulations I heartily agree with and they are I think the
key to the approach needed in the development of the
sociological side of CHAT. The authors go on to characterise
aspects of subjectivity as “ways of acting in ... the
pursuit of transformative changes through collaboration with
other people.” The combination of the central notion of
collaboration – rather than ‘division of labour’, with the
focus on human transformation – rather than ‘material
production’, I think creates a ground upon which the
necessary critique can stand.

This theme is clearly present in the first generation of
CHAT and it disappeared after Vygotsky’s death. I agree with
Peter and Anna that it is this concept which must be taken
as the basis for further development. In this context, I
can’t agree with idea repeated at several places in the
article of “the threefold dialectics of material production,
intersubjective exchanges, and subjectivity.” This is not
the place to pursue this, because I think this article goes
beyond this proposal with the turn to collaborative projects
as the key concept for the elaboration of sociological
aspects of CHAT.

The “rotation” (a nice turn of phrase!) of the triad used to
represent the space of sociological literature in “Figure
1”: Activity/Structure – Operations/Enactment –
Goal/Meaning” seems a very promising approach. I think we do
need a map of this kind to organise the program of
sociological critique implied in this paper, and in my
opinion the proposal is in line with the comments I made in
2007/4 issue of MCA.

However, there is one serious problem in the exposition of
Activity Theory as developed by AN Leontyev which the
authors of this paper havepassed over, which actually
contradicts and undermines what I take to be the most
important proposal in this paper. What I have in mind is the
top level of AN Leontyev’s “three level” categorisation of
operation, action and activity, namely “activity,” which
makes the connection of the CHAT with the sociological
domain. Whereas operation and action refer to finite,
“countable” units, there is no clarification by Leontyev or
anyone else of what is a “unit” of activity. “Activity” is
taken as a “mass noun” referring to an “uncountable”
continuum. References to “system of activity” do not
overcome this problem, but simply sidestep it. I base myself
on English translations, and the Russian language deals with
the mass/countable and definite/indefinite distinctions
quite differently, so perhaps something has been lost in
translation? Nonetheless, this deficit, in my opinion,
causes little difficulty so long as it is used in the
narrower context of psychology and individual
transformation. But when, as these authors propose, the
concept is taken into the arena of sociology, then such a
formulation of CHAT is obviously inferior to almost any
competing theory, all of which have some conception of what
constitutes a fact or unit of analysis in the domain of

I also continue to find the distinction between “local” and
“extralocal” exchanges suspect. I presume we are not making
a distinction between electronic and face-to-face
communication? The phenomena of society cannot be sustained
or transformed other than by the same use of cultural
products in communication with other people that are in play
when two individuals talk or otherwise communicate with one
another. Personally, I think this distinction has no place
in CHAT and is transcended by the idea of collaborative
transformation that the authors chiefly rely upon.

I do believe that Peter and Anna’s article in fact shows the
way forward by focussing on collaborative projects as the
central notion for the solution of problems of human
transformation, whether taken on the domain of sociology or

Worthen, Helena Harlow wrote:
> Hello -- So here's my first response to Peter and Anna's article.
> This article explains what two traditions of sociology try to do, where CHAT stopped when the revolutionary potential of the first generation chilled under Stalin, and how re-introducing these three to each other might revive and fulfill that potential.
> I think that Peter and Anna mean us to take that first generation of CHAT, particularly in its revolutionary, transformative, critical form, to be what they call "non-canonical activity theory." Non-canonical activity theory is CHAT in the form that undertook "radical reconceptualization of all spheres of human development" (342) and was driven, both theoretically and (because of contemporary social necessity) by a vision of ongoing, creative, collaborative historical change.
> However, it's not clear to me why CHAT would turn out to be the main beneficiary of an engagement between CHAT and sociology. I can see that CHAT, depending on what it's being used for, often steps away from its revolutionary roots and becomes a technique for sorting out a puzzle, but even when that happens it is essentially dynamic and dialectical and available, if not actually employed, to reveal contradictions and track change. Peter and Anna DO say, however, that if you're using CHAT, it's non-canonical CHAT that is most likely to be capable of absorbing the insights and resources of sociology (357). Among these insights would be "social action" oriented theories of conduct, ethnomethodology, conversation analysis, theories of enactment, socially constructed meaning, norms/rules/conventions and structuration. I am just making this list by scanning the two sections in Peter and Anna's article about the two traditions of sociology that they describe.
> So, what would a problem look like that, if you're working with CHAT, could be worked with more effectively if you could pull in these concepts from sociology? Would they fit in neatly, or would there be rough edges? What would they contribute to the solution of a specific problem? What are the gaps in CHAT that in practice these concepts would bridge?
> I am pretty sure that both Peter and Anna have actual examples of problems to which they have brought resources from sociology and probably from other disciplines as well. Peter's 2003 book (in the list of references) "Adult Learning and Technology..." is probably an instance.
> On the other hand, sociology, it seems to me, would definitely benefit from a good dose of CHAT. You need the dynamism of CHAT to get social facts moving on the three legs that Peter and Anna name: material production, subjectivity (the view from the self), and intersubjective exchange. Although I've read limited amounts of sociology, I always feel as if I'm reading an autopsy report, not something that's describing a wave, big or small, in the river of history.
> Could you make the argument the other way -- to sociologists, suggesting that they need CHAT? What would happen? I'll bet the answer would vary depending on who you're talking with, and where....
> Helena
> Helena Worthen, Clinical Associate Professor
> Labor Education Program, School of Labor & Employment Relations
> University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
> 504 E. Armory
> Champaign, IL 61820
> Phone: 217-244-4095
> _______________________________________________
> xmca mailing list

Andy Blunden +61 3 9380 9435 
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Received on Fri Nov 28 18:31:37 2008

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