CSTT Workshop, "Actor Network and After"; July 1997
By Reijo Miettinen
Centre for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research,
Department of Education, University of Helsinki
The activity theoretical (AT) approach that I elaborate in this paper holds in common several methodological endeavors with the Actor network theory (ANT). They include avoidance of monocausal explanations, an attempt to find a non-dualist account of society and nature, taking seriously the significance of material artifacts and studying the concrete networks of actors instead of interrelationships between macro- and micro-phenomena. Both theories stress that resources for doing and acting are distributed and redistributed between man, artifacts and environment. Both underline the significance of the independent activity of objects. However, because of their different histories and theoretical backgrounds they also propose different solutions to studying these issues. These provide, nonetheless, complementary points of views and create a basis for dialogue.
I will proceed in this paper in the following manner. First, I will briefly introduce the Activity theory. Second I will compare some of the central concepts of the AT and the ANT1. I will argue that the concept of nature/society production in the ANT and the concept of activity of the AT have much in common as attempts to transcend the dualism between subject and object, nature and society. I proceed by comparing the concept of the symmetrical (ANT) and the dialectical (AT) interpretation of the concept of mediation. In the third part of the paper I discuss some of the problems of the ANT used as an approach in the empirical studies of innovations. Fourth, I will elaborate the activity theoretical approach to analyzing an innovation process by studying an empirical case, an attempt to construct a method of producing ethanol from wood by using cellulose degrading enzymes. In the discussion part of the paper I will compare the use of symmetrical vocabulary and dialogue as research strategies.
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The background of cultural historical theory of activity
The history of the ANT in the social studies of science and technology is well known among this audience. Cultural historical theory of activity stems from different background. It was formulated by the Russian literature scholar and psychologist Lev Vygotsky (Vygotsky 1982) as an antidualist solution to the crisis of psychology during the first decades of this century. In those days psychology was characterized by two opposing conceptions. On one hand, human consciousness was studied as an autonomous agent independent of and opposed to the material environment. The method used in research was introspection: an individual observed his/her inner world and stream of consciousness. On the other hand, psychological processes were studied as an epiphenomenon of biology and physiology. Reflectology and behaviorism tended to explain consciousness in terms of elementary nervous mechanisms, using the concept of reflect or stimulus-response connection.
In the 1920s Vygotsky formulated a completely new solution to how to transcend these two opposing but equally unsatisfactory explanations: the concept of mediated action (Vygotsky 1979)2. A human individual never reacts merely directly (or merely with inborn reflects) to the environment. The relation between the human agent and the object is mediated by cultural means or artifacts. The basic types of these means are signs and tools. During socialization, an individual internalize, by participating in common activities with other humans the means of culture: language, theories, technical artifacts as well as norms and modes of acting. Thus consciousness doesn't exist situated inside the head of the individual but in the interaction - realized through material activity - between the individual and the objective forms of culture created by the labour of mankind. Vygotsky applied to psychology the philosophical concept of mediation formulated by Hegel and further developed by Marx on an a materialistic basis (Vygotsky 1979, 54). Marx's idea of labour activity was an important starting point for Vygotsky's analysis of artifact mediated activity (Davydov & Radzikhovskii 1985).
During his short career Vygotsky concentrated on studying how a child internalizes the most important of all cultural means, language (1987). He formulated "the genetic law of cultural development", according to which child's cultural development takes place twice, or on two planes (Vygotsky 1981, 163). First, it appears interpsychologically, in interaction between people and secondly, within a child as an intrapsychological category. "Social relations or relations of people genetically underlie all higher (psychological R.M) functions and their relations" (ibid). This law has a great significance outside the sphere of language learning and ontogeny. It is a general formulation of the mechanism trough which the forms of material culture are internalized by an individual due to the participation in collective material activities in the society.
Later Activity theory developed further the ideas of Vygotsky. A.N. Leontjev, a disciple of Vygotsky stressed that activity is also socially mediated: consciousness and meaning are always formed in joint, collective activity (Leontjev 1978). As a result, the unit of analysis in studying human mediated activity, is an activity system, community of actors who have a common object of activity (Engeström 1987, Cole & Engeström 1994). In this model social mediatedness is characterized by division of labour and rules mediating the interaction between the individuals in the activity system. The collective activity system as unit of analysis connects the psychological, cultural and institutional perspective to analysis. The study of activity ceases to be psychology of an individual but instead focuses on the interaction between an individual, systems of artifacts and other individuals in historically developing institutional settings.
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Production of nature/cultures and coproduction of object and subject in activity: parallel solutions to the problem of dualism.
According to Latour, the modern constitution or world view uses one dimensional language operating in the framework of opposite poles of nature and culture. Knowledge and artifacts are explained either by society (social constructionims) or by nature (realism). In order to transcend this dualism a second dimension is needed. It is the process of nature/society construction that results in the stabilization of a strong network. By selecting this process as a unit of analysis, it is possible to understand the simultaneous construction of culture, society and nature (Latour 1992a, 281): "Instead of being opposite causes of our knowledge, the two poles are a single consequence of a common practice that is now the single focus of our analysis. Society (or Subject, or Mind or Brain ...) cannot be used to explain the practice of science, since both are results of the science and technology making." The fact or artifact is transformed into a black box, once the network of many actors has been stabilized. "The reason why we went to study the laboratories, active controversies, skills, instrument making, and emerging entities was to encounter unstable states of nature/society and to document what happens in those extreme and novel situations (Latour 1991, 287)." The concept of "science and technology making" is - in my opinion - parallel to the concept of object-oriented, environment transforming human activity developed by materialistic dialectics and the Activity theory. The ANT raises the challenge of studying reality as transitional in its becoming, and as trajectories of creation. This idea of becoming and change is one of the central methodological ideals of dialectics as well.
In the thesis of Feuerbach and in several other works Marx formulated the idea of object-oriented (Gegenständliche), material, practical activity as a solution to the controversy between old materialism and idealism. Marx presented in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 a materialistic interpretation of the idealistic Hegelian conception of objectification of mind in material. According to Marx both subject and object are produced in work, in transformative interaction with nature. Man actually produces himself by transforming nature in production, by construction and use of artifacts. Both the world of objects and subject owe their very possibility to exist to activity.
Feuerbach's anthropological materialism conceived man as a thinking body, an organism, that faces the resistance of natural objects in trying to satisfy its needs. In his critique, Marx argued that this concept implies a receptive, a contemplative conception of sensuousness. He suggested instead that man's relation to nature should be analyzed as practical activity, i.e. a co-operative transformation of the world (as production, as construction of objects). This conception does not imply a Prometheus myth. It does not explain nature by intentionality or consciousness of a subject. On the contrary. It explains the subject and nature in the context of activity, the history of nature transformation realized by humanity. The result is a humanized nature, the world of artifacts as a precondition for human subjectivity3. On the other hand, man is naturalized. By using "the mechanical, physical, and chemical properties of objects (...) as forces affecting other objects" (Vygotsky 1979, 54) man also appropriates and internalizes these properties. Alfred Schmidt summarizes Marx's concept of nature as follows (1972, 79 and 30):
"Marx-the nature-dialectician did not limit himself to contemplating pre human nature and its history, view reality 'only in the form of the Object', nor despite of his admiration to Hegel, did he view reality 'in the form of Subject'. He insisted instead the indivisibility of the two moments. The awareness of this indivisibility lies in the core of the Marx's materialism."
The nature/culture production of the ANT and the concept of work and object-oriented activity of the Activity theory are methodologically parallel basic solution to the problem of transcending dualistic oppositions between nature and society, between the subject and the object: how to find a second dimension, an explanatory principle reaching outside the dichotomy4. Within this parallellism there are differences, illustrated by Latour's strong critique of dialectics. Latour regards dialectics as an attempt to rescue "with dialectical tricks, arrows and circles" the Great Divide, the distinction between the subject and the object. By this attempt they were proved to be the modernist of all. In the rescue process they postulate mediations, that only, however, transmit pure ontological qualities of either spirit or mater (1993a,57). Latour does not resort to references in his critique nor does he specify the content, what the "tricks" of dialectics are. To shed some light on this problem I will compare the concepts of mediation and object as elaborated by the ANT and the AT.
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The concept of mediation in ANT and AT
The Actor network theory has developed the concept of mediation on several levels. First, it has been elaborated on the philosophical and the methodological plane, as a critique of "modern constitution", realism and social constructivims. Second, Latour has developed the concept of mediation by "thought experiments" by analyzing examples of common technical artifacts. It would be reasonable to expect that the concept also developed through empirical research on innovations. However, it seems to me, the ANT has an increasing number of difficulties in applying the symmetrical version of mediation when analysis moves away from the methodological plane towards empirical analysis. In empirical research the symmetry tends actually to be converted to a radical assymmetry, Machiavellism. I will proceed in my analysis to compare the symmetrical and dialectical conceptions of mediation, point out their common features, their differences and their potentialites.
The concept of mediation has a central role in the ANT's metatheory (Latour 1993b 113): "Nothing is, by itself, reducible or irreducible to anything else. Never by itself, but always through the mediation of another." In Latour's analysis of modernism, the concept 'work of mediation" is an event or a process that gives birth to and explains both nature and culture. It is a new focus of studies, the Middle Kingdom (1993a, 87-88): "Nature and Society are not two opposite transcendence but one and the same growing out of the work of mediation." Where an intermediary simply "transports energy from one of the poles of the (Modern Constitution) (...) , "a mediator is an original event and creates what it translates as well as entities between which it plays a mediating role (ibid., 77-78). This could be interpreted by saying that instead of a monocausal explanation, a relational, interactional causality is needed. This definition of mediation resembles very much the basic principle of Hegelian dialectics, "the relationship to oneself through another". In Hegel the mind develops trough material and is mediated by it.
According to Latour dialectics imply the social constructivist reduction in the form of the Prometheus myth: an all-powerful human agent imposing an arbitrary form on shapeless matter. In the Homo faber myth, we are viewed as sons and daughters of our own works (ibid, 35). In reality nonhumans also act, displace goals, and contribute to their redefinition (1994, 38). This critique may be hitting of Hegelian dialectics which postulates that nature is socially constructed, reduced to form given by human mind and activity (Ilyenkov 1977, 82). The Marxian concept of work and the concept of activity, does not, however, necessarily imply any such an relationship5.
Latour is right that Marx's conception of work is asymmetrical. Although man as a biological organism is a part of nature, he also diverges from nature and positions himself against nature as a subject. This kind of subject-object relation should not be interpreted as postulation of distinct ontological spheres. It a relationship developed in the course of human evolution. The early activity theorists, especially A.N. Leontjev, took great pains to studying how forms of consciousness little by little developed within the increasing complexity of interaction between organisms and environment (Leontjev 1979). This interaction developed from a simple metabolism to more complex forms of perception and orientation. This implies a gradual braking of direct, immediate, impulse based relationship to the objects of environment. With the cultural development - characterized by communication, construction and the using of tools - specifically human type of orientation and consciousness emerge. It also implies the capability of imagining and planning what the future may hold i.e. intentionality.
According to the Activity theory specifically human type of consciousness is needed in order to make sense of the relationship between man and his environment. It is needed, when the aim is to analyze, in a sensible way, the work of constructing associations between heterogeneous entities, the work of creating new assembles of materials and humans. Although all entities of the assembly do have influence, in other words "act", they are asymmetrical in regards to taking the initiative in the construction of associations. This does not mean that "subjectivity" is a causal, explanatory principle. It is something that is explained through mediation, artifact mediated collective activity. It is a moment in material activity, a mediator of activity.
In the Activity theory the subject-object relationship is a historical phenomenon, one that came to exist as a result of biological and cultural evolution. The ANT postulates a general theory of association of forces, regardless to what they are. Symmetry is sought by describing all entities with same semiotic vocabulary. I am not sure, as I will point out, whether this might be a fruitful enterprise or not.
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Mediation in analysis of technical artifacts: substitution or delegation or what?
Latour elaborates the concept of mediation in his sociology of technical artifacts and "technical mediation", mediation in the realm of technique (1991, 1992, 1994). He develops his conception by using several simple and convincing examples of technical artifacts such as weight of a key, the road bump, the automatic groom and seat belt of the car. With these examples he shows how the human and the artifact are determined and transformed by each other. Technical artifacts have a script, an affordance, a function, or a program of action and goals (1994). Consequently action and agency must be explained by the combination or association of human and nonhuman actors. They also have a moral, being able to carry norms and by influencing the behavior of humans. "We have been able to delegate to nonhumans not only force as we have known it for centuries but also values, duties, and ethics (Latour 1992, 32)". Latour analyzes how skills and competencies are distributed among people and artifacts. He analyzes how contradictory interests and expectations of the different social groups are inscribed in the design of an artifact. In the analysis of introducing a weight to a hotel key, all the elements of the network are transformed and something new emerges (1991, 195). This analysis is - to my mind of - a nice piece of dialectics.7
"The program. 'Leave your key at the front desk' which is now scrupulously executed by the majority of the customers is simple not the we started with. Its displacement has transformed it., Customers no longer leave their room keys: instead, they get rid of an unwieldy object that deforms their pockets. If they conform to the manager's wishes, it is not because they read the sign, nor because they are particularly well-mannered. It is because they cannot do otherwise (..). The statement is no longer the same, the customers are no longer the same, the key is no longer the same - even the hotel is no longer quite exactly the same."
Latour, while speaking of how engineers delegate norms and programs of action to artifacts, renounces the concepts of production, embodiment, objectification and materialization and reification, because these words would imply the Prometheus myth. Instead, he adopts from Michael Serres the concept of substitution in analysing mediation (1993a, 84). He also uses the words displacement, transaction or exchange of properties. Mediation can also be characterized as distribution of competencies between humans and nonhumans (1990, 235).
Using the language of substitution and displacement he states (1991,110): "We simply ask: has a human replaced a non-human? Has a non-human replaced a human? "An automatic door closer, a groom, replaces a porter or a gatekeeper. An unreliable human is replaced by a reliable nonhuman. The traffic light replaces the police-officer. The road bumper is a sleeping policeman, so we are told. However, porters or gatekeepers were never hired to keep the door closed. They were hired for a variety of aims and tasks such as protection of private property, reception of guests, informing the masters of the house and a variety of other concrete actions. In Finland porters of restaurants select the right customers- by closing the door selectively - and throw out the wrong ones. In Latour's examples only simple operations are replaced, not the policeman or the porter. Latour also holds a similar view when analyzing the groom. An unskilled nonhuman groom presupposes a skilled human user (1992b, 232). This can surely be seen as asymmetrical distribution of skills and competencies.
In order to better understand the mediation, the nature of different kinds of mediating artifacts, their functions, and interrelationships in activity need to be analyzed In the Activity theory such an attempt has been made by studying the functional, historically evolving interrelationships between different kinds of artifacts and their relationship to the structure of activity. A.N. Leontjev defined three interrelated levels of activity: collective activity driven by a complex social motive, individual goal oriented actions and operations, routine ways of doing things and using tools. Operations are easily transferred to machines and artifacts. Actions presupposing the use of conceptual tools or imagination are already much more difficult to delegate to nonhumans, as experiences of expert systems demonstrate. The "skill" of finding and inventing new associations between entities is a collective enterprise, analyzable in terms of an assembly of mediating cultural resources of the participants and in terms of special symbolic artifacts that make orientation to the future possible.
The Activity theory agrees with the ANT in emphasizing the significance of the active nature of artifacts and objects. As a cultural historical approach it sees the artifacts as created by human history, by collective material activity. An individual meets these constructed artifacts as an objective and given world of things. The extremely slow development of tools in human phylogenesis illustrates that their creation was not a Prometheus story, but a complex evolutionary process related to changes in human biology and social relationships. However, as a result of this evolution, cultural artifacts as specific kind of objects used as mediational means, carry objectified norms of cognition, object hypothesis and purposes of use.8
Artifacts are not only constructed but they also have their natural properties contributing to the program of action. Marx, for instance, was very clear about this point: "The form of wood, for instance is altered when one makes a table out of it, Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, sensuous thing, wood."9 In the case presented in my paper. The micro fungus Trichoderma Reesei, producer of cellulose degrading enzymes is a central entity. The strain of fungus used was mutated dozens of times by radiation and chemicals. As a result of this manipulation, it tripled its cellulase production compared with a natural strains. Still its function of cellulase production is a natural, species function having its unanticipated limits as the researchers bitterly experienced. Trichoderma Reesei contributed to the construction of ethanol production with its evolution based natural function. What the geneticists and fermentation engineers had done, was an attempt to transform this capability, understand it in order to be able to associate it to a new kind of hybrid constellation, ethanol production from wood.
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Mediation in empirical studies of innovations: the three problems of generalized symmetry
The central methodological principle of the ANT is the principle of generalized symmetry. However, in empirical analyzes of innovations another, chronologically preceding principle, the principle of Machiavellism, seems to dominate.10 These principles contradict each other. According the principle of Machiavellism the actor, the Prince, the innovator, the spokesman is human. According to the principle of generalized symmetry the actor can be either human or non human. Why does this kind of "shift of principles" take place? I think the reason lies in the limitations of the symmetrical version of mediation. I see three interrelated problems in the use of symmetrical language in the analysis of innovations: the problem of structuring the analysis of the network and selecting the relevant elements or actors, the problem of silent actors, the problem of human capability or intentionality in explaining the establishment of network associations.
The first problem concerns the delineating and structuring of the description and analysis of heterogeneous networks. Due to heterogeneity of networks and the principle of generalized symmetry no criteria for defining the nature and scope of actors can presented in advance. Latour says that the concept of network "is also a way of getting rid of system and structure (Crawford 1993,20)."11 No theoretically relevant elements of the network can be discerned in advance. The other side of the approach is the goal of complete description serving as an explanation (Callon 1991,155): "the description has to cover all details, since every details counts". If the object of research is an innovation process, the task seems hopeless. In any innovation network the number of potential elements is almost unlimited and the Actor network theory has difficulties in selecting the relevant actors and structuring the analysis of relationships between them. At this point, I think, the ANT faces the same problem as positivistic empirism did: how is it possible to decide what is important and essential, and what is not, without theoretical preconceptions?
This problem lead us to an ether one, the problem of silent actors. This is comprised of two interrelated parts: the human asymmetry and the generalized asymmetry that omits the analysis the nonhuman elements. It seems as if in empirical accounts of innovations the most prominent actors, those speaking most loudly, tend to be selected: innovators, managers, politicians, the Princes of network construction. The empirical accounts seem to resort to Machiavellism i.e. to extreme asymmetry instead of generalized symmetry.12 The work of engineers and users remain marginal. This human asymmetry is problematic, since the work of actual construction of associations between human and nonhuman is omitted with it (Button 1993). Consequently, the contribution and resistance of non human elements also remain marginal and are involved in the analysis mainly as a rhetorical resource used by human actors in their controversies.
The third problem concerns analyzing of the role of human cognition, intentionality and learning in the innovation process, the Ant's "complete indifference of providing a model of human competence" (Latour 1997). Even if we don't give any privilege causal role to cognition and intentionality, the conscious human anticipation plays a crucial organizing role in the innovation process. As a matter of fact, the ANT does have a theory on human competence based on the idea of a Prince. It is that of competence in negotiating and of exercising of power, (enlisting, mobilizing ect.). Although power is an important aspect of networking, this is an unilateral conception. It does not study the mediating cultural resources from the basis of which the actors participate, formulate plans and contribute to the network construction. It ignores such phenomena as learning, development of expertise, complementarity of resources and know-how in network construction.
In the following I will study how an activity theory approach would solve these three problems. I will do it by analyzing a case of an unsuccessful innovation, an attempt to develop an ethanol production systems based on enzymatic hydrolysis of wood. It was realized in 1986-1992 in the collaboration of a research laboratory, the Biotechnology Laboratory (BIO) of the Technical Research Centre of Finland, an ethanol and enzyme producer, ALKO, and a pulp and paper producer, Metsäliiton teollisuus. I will study the process as on object and artifact construction, as a trajectory. I will analyze it as a process in which a subject (in this case a cellulase research group), an object (production of ethanol by enzymatic degradation), means and tools of construction (microbes, methods, apparatus and models), and social relations (network of activity systems participating in the construction) are simultaneously constructed and transformed.
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How to structure the analysis of a heterogeneous network I: object and activity of the initiator, the VTT Biotechnology Laboratory
How would the Activity theory structure the analysis of the innovation network? The activity theory regards a historically formed local activity system or a community of practitioners as the basic unit of analysis (Cole & Engeström 1993). Correspondingly, it studies an innovation network as a network of activity systems. An activity system is itself a hybrid comprised of the subject, object, signs and tools, the community, rules and division of labour.14 The nonhuman elements of the network are integrated in the analysis as objects (like funds of raw materials) and historically formed systems of tools (such as a fermentor system) of the activity systems. The interrelationship of the systems of tools and knowledge as the object to be constructed is essential.
The development of the network is not analyzed primarily in terms of persuasion and power, but in terms of the cultural resources the participating activities mobilize in the construction process and in terms of learning associated to this collaboration. According to the Activity theory, the interests of the actors are also based on their historically formed cultural resources. In order to study the significance of non-human elements, the concrete process of design- and engineering work, as well as the use of the artifact, must be included in the analysis. I suggest that an activity system, local community of practitioners and a network of activity systems offer sensible units of analysis in structuring the study of the co-evolution of 'cognitive', 'material' and 'social' in innovative activity.
I will start the analysis by studying the construction of a new object in the VTT Biotechnology Laboratory, the initiator of the development project.15 The energy crisis began in 1973. The rising price of oil caused a strong interest in alternative fuels. One option was to produce ethanol from wood or other cellulolysic materials. In 1974 the VTT Biotechnical Laboratory turned to the Finnish National Fund for Research and Development (SITRA) for the financing for an ethanol project. The project was started with the participation and financing of two Finnish companies, Alko, the Finnish alcohol monopoly and Metsäliiton Teollisuus, a pulp and paper producer. This research, 'The hydrolysis of cellulose and the production of ethanol,' lasted from 1975 to 1981. Ethanol was the main application of the cellulase research until 1983.16
The production system to be constructed was composed of three main processes: the production of enzymes by microbes, the use of enzymes to degrade cellulosic materials into fermentable sugars and fermentation of sugars into ethanol or other chemicals. These processes were also the central phenomena studied in the laboratory (see Fig. 1). The research community and the means of construction were established together with the new object. Relatively autonomous project groups including researchers with different disciplinary backgrounds, were formed to construct the key parts of the projected production system: the development of microbial strains, the optimization of the fermentation process and the degradation of cellulose (see Table 1).
Each groups acquired and developed instruments, materials and methods to construct and develop their subobject. The researchers in charge of the projects represented different fields of science and technology. Each group also had in some respects its own network of collaboration. The optimizing of the fermentation process of the pilot fermentor for instance was carried out together with the process engineers of the Helsinki University of Technology. Full-scale hydrolysis and production experiments were carried out with the raw materials and fermentors of the industrial partners.
Research enterprise Subgroup
Disciplinary background of the researcher in charge Network of collaboration
Instruments and methods for the construction of the forthcoming system
1. Cultivation of highproduction microbial strains
Group headed by a geneticist Collaboration with researchers of enzyme producer , ALKO
1.1 Methods of mutation and selection of strains
2. Production of cellulases and hemicellulases and optimizing the fermentation process
Group headed by a biochemical engineer Collaboration with process engineers of the Helsinki University of Technology
2.1 A new pilot fermentorand an automatic enzyme analysis
system for it
3. Laboratory, pilot and mill scale hydrolysis experiments and production of ethanol
Group of hydrolysis and further processing of the
resulting sugars headed by a biochemical engineer
3.1 Cumulative knowledge of the conditions of hydrolysis
and of the effects of enzymes on different substrates
The development of the pilot fermentor and the fermentation process at the laboratory is a good example of the construction of a hybrid object. The production process is composed of a fermentor, a metal container with pipelines, valves,, moving mechanical parts and sensors. The group developed a computer program for the automatic control of the enzyme production. The program is based on the knowledge of microbe behavior and the process conditions. A mathematical model of enzyme production was constructed to make the computer program. A pilot fermentor is a complex system comprised of mechanical equipment, living organisms, organic materials, chemicals, meters, sensors, a computer and a computer program. On the other hand this object was a tool for producing cellulases for the hydrolysis experiments and a means of simulating the enzyme production for a mill scale .The construction of the experimental procedures and enzyme production was at the same time the construction of the tools of research and development work. An object (a microbe, an instrument, a theoretical model, a sample of cellulose substrate) can be either a means or an object in research activity. Nothing in the physical constitution of an object can determine whether it is a means (tool) or an object of activity. When being an object of cognition and transformation, it is an object of activity. Once stabilized, it is transformed into a means of activity.17
These transitions can be characterized by studying the research on the fungus Trichoderma reesei. The method of developing high production microbial strains was the object of activity in this first phase of the Trichoderma studies in 1976 and 1977. It soon turned into a tool for developing Trichoderma strains. When a stable high production Trichoderma reesei strain was reached in 1978, it turned into a means of producing enzymes, first for hydrolysis studies in the laboratory, and later as a means of industrial production of cellulases. When recombinant DNA technology was later used to modify the production profile of Trichoderma, the fungus turned again into an object of research and development.18
The interactive co-evolution of 'cognitive' (vision and hypothesis of ethanol production based on enzymatic hydrolysis of wood), 'material' (substrates, raw materials, organisms) and 'social' (division of labour, project groups and their networks) can be clearly seen. The object to be constructed is the organizing principle. The research community was organized according to the main elements and processes of the hybrid object. In the first phases of the project it created the material, methodological an theoretical means to construct the main elements of the forthcoming hybrid system.
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Structuring the network II: the network of activity systems constructing the ethanol production
The ethanol production was studied in two projects in the years 1974 1981 with participation of three partners. An ethanol production system was the object of the innovation network (Figure 2).
Why did the partners of the innovation network participate in the object construction? The ANT focuses on the process of mobilizing and enrolling actors in the network by translating their interests and goals. This is evidently an essential process. It remains, however, unclear where the goals and interests to be transformed come from.
I suggest that an explanation of the motives for participating in a network presupposes an analysis of the history and dilemmas associated with the participating activity systems. The motive for participating in the construction of an object can be understood in reference to the participating activity system's attempt to expand, redirect or transform its historically formed basic activity. The emerging new motive can be characterized as an attempt to solve dilemmas and problems in the activity or to by find a new possibility for extending the basic activity. This can happen by creating a new product, by material or a more effective method of production. These kinds of motives can be characterized as transformative interests, because they are related to the transformation of a collective activity19 Consequently, they are not analyzable in terms of the goals of individuals.
Both of the firms participating in the ethanol research presented to the funding organization SITRA their long- and short-term goals related to the project in memos written in 1977 by the research managers of the firms (Table 3). Alko explained that in 1974 the supply of sulphite spirit, the raw material of ethanol, was sharply diminishing because many sulphite pulping mills were closed in Finland in the 1970s.
From Alko's point of view, the project focused on examining, whether it is possible for sugars obtained by enzymatic hydrolysis of cellulose to be used in commercial production alcohol in order to substitute the increasing import of sulphite spirit.
Alko resolved this problem by assisting the foundation of a new sulphite spirit plant in Finland. Secondly, Alko's fermentor at the Koskenkorva Plant had extra capacity calling for utilization. Mill-scale experiments during the projects showed that the fermentor could be used for the production of cellulases. Alko stated that it would not be feasible to produce cellulases for ethanol production only. But if they could be used in the pulp and paper industry as well, the production of cellulases may be a feasible option worth studying further.
Object and result of activity
Immediate applications and goals
Production of alcohol beverages and yeasts
New raw material for alcohol production
To replace the increasing import of sulphite spirit.
To replace molasses as cultivation media for yeasts
Beginning the production of cellulases
To utilize the extra fermentation capacity of the Koskenkorva plant
Production of pulp and paper products from wood
To find use for abundant sellulolysic waste materials (sawdust, branches, bark)
Hydrolysis of xylose-rich waste liquor of the Savon Sellu Mill and the use of the product as a raw material production of Pekilo-SCP the Äänekoski Mill
Decreasing energy use in the production of pulp
Use of cellulase in decreasing the viscosity by using enzymes of CMC (carboxyl methyl- cellulose)
Metsäliitto was interested in finding a use for its abundant cellulolysic waste materials from pulp and paper production. These materials are less valuable and difficult to dispose of. Metsäliitto wanted to turn them into valuable raw material. Metsäliitto was also a user of ethanol with its own ethanol production. Metsäliitto presented six possible uses for cellulases. Two of them concerned immediate problems in its production activity, for example the utilization of wastes of the Savon Sellu plant. Four of them were longer-term potential process innovations. The most important of these was the use of cellulases in mechanical pulping in order to save energy. In both cases the construction of the object can be characterized as a transformation or an extension of the present object of activity and the corresponding tools and know-how.
Industrial corporates are aggregates of activity systems. From ALKO and Metsäliiton teollisuus, four activity systems or communities participated actively in the ethanol project. The Central laboratory of ALKO and The Research Department of Metsäliiton teollisuus had a multiple role in the project. They acquired support from the corporate management, studied different potential uses of enzymes for the corporate activities (see Table 1) and planned and organized the research work. The Koskenkorva enzyme plant and the Äänekoski yeast plant participated in the work because of the raw materials pilot and industrial scale production facilities they could provide.
The object was not constructed only discursively. Enzymes for the hydrolysis experiments were produced by the fermentor of Alko's Koskenkorva plant. The waste materials of Metsäliiton Teollisuus from Äänekoski were used as substrates (or raw materials) in hydrolysis experiments. The mill-scale experiments were made with the equipment of the Äänekoski plant. The fermentation of the hydrolysates into ethanol, was made by the equipment of ALKO Central laboratory. The new object was literally constructed with the material resources and know-how possessed by the participants. It is also evident that these resources were complementary in relation to the object to be constructed.
The material elements of the network influenced the construction of the subject, the research community. The waste liquor of the Savon Sellu plant contained a considerable amount of hemicellulose, the second main fraction of lignocellulose. The enzyme mixes constructed to degrade cellulose rich substrates could not degrade these raw materials. It was, therefore, necessary and legitimate to redirect the research on the production and biochemistry of hemicellulose degrading enzymes. The VTT Biotechnical Laboratory was later (in the 1990's) known for its advanced know-how on the production and use of hemicellulases.
Other activities of the network also changed. The Koskenkorva fermentation plant's people learned how to produce cellulases. Alko Central Laboratory started to study cellulases and Trichoderma reesei-technology in the beginning of 1990's. Later it became into a producer of cellulose degrading enzymes. The ethanol production never started, but the means and know-how remained and developed further. The participants found other uses for the cellulolytic enzymes.
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The contribution and resistance of Trichoderma reesei and waste wood.
At the beginning of the 1980s the cellulase research programme, with its conception of the 'total hydrolysis' of cellulolysic materials into sugars, experienced a crisis. Several interrelated factors contributed to this.
First, the key elements of the process, enzymes and the substrate did not act as hoped and expected. The most promising raw material for enzymatic hydrolysis was the abundant waste wood from forest harvesting, saw and pulp mills. This material comprised bark, branches and sawdust. It was very resistant to hydrolysis. Enzymes could not enter the structure of the wood, and the structure had to be somehow broken in order to make it accessible to cellulases. The researchers tried to remove or eliminate the obstacle by studying pretreatment methods that would break the structure and make the wood accessible to enzymatic attack. One of the methods, steam explosion, was studied at the VTT Biotechnical Laboratory. This method, however, used a great deal of energy and was expensive, thus raising significantly the costs of enzymatic hydrolysis. The problem of pretreatment remained unsolved. In addition, it turned out that the intended main raw material, waste wood from harvesting, would cost too much. It is dispersed in the forests and its collection would presupposed the construction of a new transportation infrastructure.
An economically feasible utilization of wood presupposed an efficient hydrolysis of substrate. However, the cellulases did not function as expected. The capacity of one weight unit of enzyme to degrade a substrate in a given time is called the specific activity of the enzyme. Experiments at the VTT Biotechnology Laboratory revealed that cellulases had low specific activity. Amylases, enzymes used in the degradation of starch, were the natural frame for comparison. The specific activity of cellulases was hundreds of times less than that of amylases. Consequently, large amounts of cellulases would have been needed for the hydrolysis of cellulose. Moreover, cellulases were - and still are - relatively expensive enzymes. This made the possibility of a large-scale industrial process unlikely.
"Trichoderma reesei has played a central role in world-wide endeavours aimed at biotechnical utilization of cellulose materials. [...] A few general facts should be pointed out, both good news and bad news. First the good news [...]. Trichoderma reesei mutants are efficient producers of a variety of enzymes, including those necessary for the hydrolysis of cellulose and xylan [...] Then the bad news. The specific activity of T reesei cellulase is low."
However, the low specific activity of cellulases and the resistance of raw material to enzymatic hydrolysis were not as such - as biological and chemical processes - an obstacle to the system. The significance of the actions of the nonhuman elements - whether they were an obstacle or not - are definable only in relation to the usability and price of the commodity. In the case of ethanol production, the significance of the activity of enzymes and the structure of raw material gained their meaning trough their contribution to the price of ethanol in relation to the competitive product, oil fuel. Oil prices began to fall in 1983. Four Finnish companies interested in the production of ethanol from wood had made a feasibility study of an ethanol producing plant in 1982. The calculations showed that production would be unprofitable. As a result, the funding for ethanol production was cut.
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Intentionality mediated by models
The future -oriented human intentionality is not an internal capacity of an individual. Its is mediated by cultural artifacts and is characterized by constant transition between the subjective and the external forms of activity. This transition was analyzed by Vygotsky who used the terms internalization and externalization. Externalization implies the transformation of culturally given means and forms of action.
Marx Wartofsky suggests a three-level typology of artifacts to be used in such an analysis of activity (1979, 202). Tools are primary artifacts. Secondary artifacts, such as models are externally embodied or internal representations. They are used in the preservation and transmission of the acquired skills or modes of action. They synthesize ways and procedures of using instruments and materials.' Wartofsky's third level of artifacts consists of 'alternative imaginative perceptual models, that are representations of possibilities which go beyond present actualities" (ibid. 208.). Engeström regards the hierarchical relation between the three levels of artifacts essential. Secondary and tertiary artifacts are used as instruments for the co-operative, communicative and self-conscious shaping and controlling of the procedures of using and making technical tools (Engeström 1987, 61). They are therefore essential in analyzing the subjective and intentional as well as the collective and communicative dimensions of activity.
A model of ethanol production from birch chips was published in 1981 (Fig. 3). It is a model of a possible industrial-scale production system using a specific raw material. It is an example of a tertiary artifact. It has several functions in activity. It synthesizes and generalizes the modes and results of actions, carries and transmits purposes and thirdly orients to the future. The model summarizes what has been achieved in the research thus far (synthesizing). Parts of the model were successfully tested in laboratory experiments.
The model is also a working hypothesis and research plan: two problems remained to be resolved in the research. The structure of birch must be somehow broken to make it accessible to the enzyme attack. No feasible technology for this was available at the time. That is why a project on pretreatment was started in 1981. Furthermore, the hydrolysis of cellulose fraction of the raw material wasn't complete enough to allow an economically feasible industrial system. The research aimed to solve these problems and to transform the model into a new form of existence, into a pilot production system.21 The models also serves as a model for constructing a future industrial system and therefore has a social significance and motive: the idea of developing an alternative to a nonrenewable resource, oil. Having these properties the model serves as a bridge between the past and the future in activity. This model is a carrier of what John Law characterizes as a technological scenario, an imaginary sosio technical world, that suggests how the world should be, and how this might be achieved (Law 1988, 66).
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In this paper I suggest that the subject-object distinction and the methodological ideal of studying heterogeneous elements and their interactive co-evolution in science and technology are compatible - given that subject or object are not understood as something given, unchangeable or causally privileged. In the activity theoretical approach the object-subject is seen as a historically developed and constantly changing relationship between man and nature in which both are transformed and changed. Thus explained, the subject object relationship turns into a necessary conceptual tool for structuring the study of scientific and technical practice.
The Activity theory regards a historically formed local activity system or a community of practitioners as the basic unit of analysis. Correspondingly it studies the innovation network as a network of activity systems. An activity system is itself a hybrid comprised of the subject, the object, mediational means (signs and tools), the community, rules and division of labour.22 The nonhuman elements are of an innovation network are integrated in the analysis as objects (like funds of raw materials) or historically formed systems of tools (like a fermentor system) of the activity systems. The motives of activities are also based on the use to these cultural resources.
I believe that the attempt to create a semiotic symmetrical vocabulary is not a very promising methodological endeavour for two reasons. Latour and Callon say that they don't deny differences. They struggle against ahistorical, a priory, hierarchically given differences (Callon & Latour 1992, 356). It seems to me, however, that also historically formed differences between entities are left without proper attention. I believe that taking these differences into account is essential in the analysis even if monocausal explanations are renounced. This does not concern only the distinction between human and non-human. The acceptance of symmetry means, for instance, that the problem of historically changing relationships between science and technology is no longer interesting. I think this question remains interesting. I also think that the historical difference and interaction between everyday thinking and scientific thinking is a most interesting problem. A French social psychologist, Serge Moscovici, regards it a central key to understanding modern consciousness (1984). Here again the study of the interaction and fusion of different thought forms presuppose a distinction made on the basis of their historical origin.
Another problem of a symmetrical vocabulary is that it renounces the historically formed specific vocabularies. The attempt of creating a symmetrical vocabulary resembles the project undertaken by the behaviorists in the beginning of the century. James Watson boldly declared in 1913 (Watson 1913, 158): "The behaviorist, in his effort to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute." Behaviorists establishes a research program, in which the results of animal experiments were generalized and given the status of general laws of learning, including human learning. The program was a failure and it is has been used as an example of reductionism, of an attempt to explain social and cultural with the principles drawn from biology.
To development and use of "symmetrical vocabulary" implies of giving up of vocabularies particular to the different fields of science and technology. Such an attempt tends to result in a monological language of social scientists that ignores the rich conceptual culture and the knowledge base provided by scientists and engineers studying the different natural and technical entities and phenomena.23 The significance and contribution of nonhuman elements in object construction must be included in any analysis. There are no other option than to resort to the mediational means that the development of culture - results science and engineering work - can provide us. Consequently, when analyzing of the contribution and resistance of Trichoderma reesei, I spoke of specific activity, which is how biochemists defined the degradation capacity of the enzymes and also conceptualized its significance in the construction of ethanol production. I can't imagine any other sensible language used in this context than the one developed by biochemistry.
The absence of dialogue implied by a symmetrical vocabulary also hampers the relevance and pragmatic validity of the research. That is why I am interested in developing dialogue as an alternative (Miettinen 1993).24 In this paper I have dealt with a historical case study. During my research, I tried to use the interpretative resources of the informants in constructing the narrative and the analysis and I kept systematically asking comments on the results. The real challenge is, however, to develop dialogue in ongoing innovation activity, a dialogue that results in the re-evaluation and re organization of the process itself. This is a dialogue that grows into an intervention. This is the agenda our Centre and our group has been developing.25
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1 I am fully aware that it is problematic to speak of the Actor network theory in singular. In this paper I primarily deal with the version of the ANT that regards generalized symmetry as its central principle and tries to apply symmetrical vocabulary in science and technology studies. This version was conceived by Michel Callon (1986a and 1986b) and Bruno Latour (1987) in the 1980's and was elaborated further in 1990's by Latour (1993, 1994).
2 Three volumes of Vygotsky's work,
and "Thought and language" (1962),"Psychology of art" (1971) and a
collection of Vygotsky's essays "Mind in society" (1978) were
available in English already in the 1970s. The work of Vygotsky and
his followers in Soviet Union was made known by "Soviet Psychology",
review of translations of Russian texts from 1965. In the 1980s a
kind of renaissance of Vygotsky begun especially in the United States
with several important works on Vygotsky. Two important collection of
essays "The concept of activity in Soviet psychology" (1981) and
"Culture, communication and cognition: Vygotskian perspectives"
(1985) edited by James Wertsch were published. A new and complete
translation of "Language and though" was published in 1986. Important
historical and interpretative works on Vygotsky have been published,
among them James Wertsch's "Vygotsky and the social formation of Mind
"(1985) and "Understanding Vygotsky, A quest for synthesis" by Rene'
Van der Veer & Jaan Valsiner (1991).
3 On the Marxian and dialectical conception of Man and Nature see Schmidt 1971, Margolis 1988, Honneth and Joas 1988, Backhurst 1991.
4 Latour would regad the conception of "humanized nature" and "culture penetrated by nature" as as mixtures of two pure forms (1993a,78). For dialectics it is natural to reagard entities as contradictory unity of different deteminations. Man is a biological organism and a cultural beeing. An artifact is constructed, social and natural. This contadictory nature is understandable only trough their mutual determination trough activity. i.e. in constant mutual interaction and movement. Activity is a hybrid composed subjects, tools, object of activity, division of labour and rules. The hybrid character of entities is can well - in my mind - understood using these concepts.
5 Marx outlined his concept of man, nature and work and practical, object-related activity in Economical and Philosophical manuscripts of 1844, in the Thesis of Feuerbach, in Grundrisse and in the first brief Chapter of Das Capital. This theorizing remained without further elaboration. The volumes of Capital developed the idea of alienated work under the specific circumstances of capitalism. That is why also the creative and dynamic potential of concrete work process and the new technology remained underdeveloped. In his early works Marx do use enligtment jargon (with essences, human powers and domination over nature) which should not, however, let prevent of using the lasting kernel of Marx's anthropology and methodology.
6 I find a signal of acceptance of such an asymmetry in Latour's statement (1994, 35): "The attribution to one actor of the role of prime mover in no way weakens the necessity of the composition of forces to explain the action."
7 Here is another example of Latour's dialectics of the subject and the object ( 992b, 235): "The automatic groom is already anthropomorphic though and though. It is well known that the French like etymology; well here is another one: antropos and morphos together mean either that which has human shape or which gives shape to humans. The groom is indeed anthropomorphic, in three senses: first, it has been made by humans; second, it substitutes for the actions of people and is a delegate that permanently occupies the position of a human and third, it shapes human action (....)."
8 'The instrumental man-made objects function as objective forms of expression of cognitive norms, standards, and object-hypotheses existing outside the given individual. The mastering by the individual of these norms, social in their genesis, permits their functioning as structure-forming components of cognition' (Lektorsky 1980, 137).
9 Cited by Schmidt (1971, 66-67). Smith points out (ibid.): "Human productive forces stamp the material both intellectually and practically. This process, however completely confirms nature's independence of consciousness rather than destroys it."
10 In the early sosiology of translation, Callon and Latour defined translation in the following manner (1981, 279): "All nagotiations, (..) acts of violence thanks to which an actor or force, takes (...) authority to speak or act on behalf of another actor or force". What is important, is "the balance of forces" irrespective of the nature and origins of these forces" (Callon, 1980, 209) and transformation, getting the forces involved "as if they were identical" (Callon & Law 1982, 619). In first versions of generalized symmetry a spokesman is a mobilizer of all kinds of forces, (Callon 1986b, 22) EDF (Élecricite' de France), a prime mover of the actor-world "puts forward a list of entities and a list of what they do, think, want and experience."
11 "There are neither wholes, nor parts. Neither is there harmony, composition, integration or system. How something holds together is determined in the field of battle, for no one agrees who should obey and who command, who should be the part and who the whole(Latour 1988,164)."
12 In their essay on how to study the force of science Callon, Law and Rip introduced the analogy of Machiavelli's Prince, "skillful in the art of managing unexpected social forces (1986, 7). In the same article they compared the scientist to the entrepreneur. Latour, as well, stated in "Science in Action" (1987,131) "The problem of the builder of the fact is the same as the builder of the 'objects': how to convince others, how to control their behavior, how gather sufficient resources in one place, how to have the claim or the object spread out in time and space." The metaphor of politics and power tends to turns the attention to negotiations in cabinets instead of engineering work.
13 This can be noted in two authoritative analyses, handling the combat aircraft TSR2 and the Aramis mas transit system. Law's analysis of the TSR2 includes a rich analysis of design process with engineering problems connected to the expectations of the Army, Navy and Treasury. Law, however, points out that story of rise and fall of the TSR2 is a story of "political and bureaucratic struggle"(1988, 47). The analysis of the nonhuman elements is not included in the story. Law's and Callon's analysis of The life and death of an aircraft: A network analysis of technical change (1992) of TSR2 the engine problem is mentioned and used in the analysis of network construction. In Latour's account of Aramis (1993b, 1996) the engineering work and -problems - let alone actions of the nonhuman elements are practically missing.
14 The ANT postulates a special methodological site between object and subject, in which the production of nature/cultures takes place: 'middle kingdom', or 'work of mediation' (see Latour 1993, 77.) Latour also speaks about 'collectives' saying (1994, 49): 'To view people and nonhumans as interacting within collectives, (....) we need to know what a collective, an institution, and corporate body are' The Activity theory proposes that the concept of object-oriented activity system and network of activity systems are promising tools for the purpose. The construction of nature-societies happens by historically formed local human activities, research-, productive-, design-, engineering and user activities that interact with each other.
15 For a more detailed account of the case, see Miettinen 1996a and 1996b.
16 Wood, cotton, straw and hay are lignocelluloses. The lignocellulose structure is composed of three fractions: cellulose (40-45%), hemicellulose (30-35%) and lignin (20-25%). Cellulose and hemicellulose fibres are composed of chains of sugar molecules. The trivial names of enzymes refer to the substrates in which the enzymes catalyze reactions. They are formed with the ending -ase. Enzymes that degrade cellulose are called cellulases, enzymes that degrade hemicellulose are hemicellulases.
17 Ian Hacking has elaborated the epistemological significance of this transition in dealing with the ontological status of theoretical entities. He uses the electron as an example: 'We regard electrons real when we regularly set out to build some new kind of device that use of various well understood causal properties of electrons to interfere to other, more hypothetical parts of nature' (1983, 265). It could be added that the properties of theoretical entities are used also in the construction of industrial processes and devices. Evidently their work within these systems equally convinces us of their reality.
18 About methodological significance of object-tool distinction, see Engeström & Escalante 1995.
19 The term transformation implies what the economists of innovation call "path dependency" and some sociologists as "dependency of decisions upon prior decisions". The term transformation expresses well the simultaneously culturally constrained and open nature of the construction of facts and artifacts.
20 Alko report for SITRA December 15, 1977, Metsäliiton teollisuus memos, August 30, 1977 and September 12,1977.
21 This never happened because the potential producers - after making cost estimation of an ethanol mill from wood - gave up ethanol research and also cut their funding of it. One of the Finnish firms, Cultor Ltd, tried to construct the critical element of the system described in Figure 3, a pretreatment system. It constructed a pilot pretreatment mill in order to utilize the xylan of the birch. The mill never worked as expected and it was closed down two years after its implementation.
22 Latour postulates a special methodological site between object and subject, in which the production of nature/cultures takes place: 'middle kingdom', or 'work of mediation' (1993, 77). Latour also speaks about 'collectives' and states (1994, 49): 'To view people and nonhumans as interacting within collectives, (....) we need to know what a collective, an institution, and a corporate body are'. The Activity theory proposes that the concept of object-oriented activity system and network of activity systems are promising tools for the purpose. The construction of nature-societies happens by historically formed local human activities, research-, productive-, design-, engineering and user activities that interact with each other.
23 A tradition of monologism is connected in science studies to laboratory ethnography. It implied the principle of not becomes native, and not accepting the language of the 'research object'. Consequently, the voice of the researchers, oriented to a radical reformulation in sociology of science, dominates. Jonas Salk's comment in the introduction of laboratory life describes well the reactions of 'objects' to this methodological approach (Latour & Woolgar 1979,12): "He has cast what he observed into his own concepts and terms, which are essentially foreign to scientists. He has translated the bits of information into his own program and into a code of his profession."
24 The elements of the idea of the research process as a dialogue have emerged from different traditions. The founder of modern sociology of knowledge, Karl Mannheim, presented the idea, the monoperspectival picture where objectivity should be replaced by a dialogue, "by juxtapoxing the various points of views, each perspective may recognized as such and thereby a new level of objectivity attained"(1936, 296-297). The standpoint theory of knowledge maintains that objectivity can be optimized by dialogue between different points of views (Harding 1993). The concept of dialogicity in has also been developed by social psychologists (Markova´ & al. 1990, Sampson 1993), philosophers and antropologists (see e.g. Megill 1996) with the aim to find an alternative to the monoperspectival view of objectivity. In the theory tradition of Activity theory the conceptulization of multivocality is insprired by work of Bakhtin. Multivoicedness is connected to the historical change of activities and social languages. The evolving, historically changing social langauges are combined and used situationally by individuals connected to different activities (Bakhtin 1981, Engeström 1995).
25 The Centre for Activity theory and Developmental Work Research develops interventions based on the use of historical analysis of activity and use of the empirical data an essential part of the method (Engeström 1991, Engestöm & al. 1996). In the projects on research work and innovations we have not decided in advance for such an intervention. Instead we have promised that when useful results and conceptualizations are attained they will be brought to the communities we study to help them solve the problems and contradictions of their activity. Its seems, however, that such interventions stem naturally from data collection and discussions (Miettinen & Hasu 1997).
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