Activity theory, ontology and critical realism(!?)

From: Michael JOHNSON (
Date: Tue Jun 14 2005 - 14:34:30 PDT

Dear XMCA community,

Without wanting to stir up a hornets nest or sound stupid (fat chance) I have been trying to work out my ideas about the philosophy of science - shouldn't be too difficult ho-ho! Not that I presume that my ideas should or are likely to remain fixed. I am just seeking a modest level of working knowledge about ontology and epistemology (Masters dissertation deadline looms - not to mention turning up at Seville and not being able to understand a word of what is said!!). Does Activity Theory have a particular answer to these questions? Pardon my ignorance for not even knowing whether these are important questions for Activity Theory! My main source so far has been Perspectives on Activity Theory. Yrjö Engeström quotes Roy Bhasker with approval (p. 10). So does AT admit a (critical) realist ontology as asserted in the paper by Jason Ferdinand (faculty staff at Liverpool Management School)?
where he says (on page 14):
"To enable our discussion of objects dialectical critical realism offers a different discourse if you will, one where we may differentiate different modes or moments of reality within a stratified ontology where change is fundamental. This overcomes the limitations of discourse phenomenalism yet avoids positivistic epistemic commitments. Furthermore what dialectical critical realism brings is an alternative but complementary approach that may be employed in connection with the four research traditions mentioned earlier.This could resonate with Activity Theorists who's work is predicated on Vygotsky's psychology, for as both Ilyenkov and Bakhurst note Vygotsky's dialectical method resonates with Marx's as does dialectical critical realism. By making the commitment to rejecting scientism's fixed entities, and by rejecting positivism's notion of direct and unmediated knowledge of reality dialectical critical realism could be developed in harmony with postmodern and social constructionist accounts by means of a clearly articulated ontological stance. The focus for subsequent research could remain in discursive debate but would be ontologically grounded, allowing researchers to explore not only the discourse but factors that influence discursive formation."

Also Jörgen Hansson's Phd proposal combines AT and critical realism

[Thinks: "Is there any relationship between Ethel Tobach's Integrative Levels and items 1, 2, 3 in the list at the bottom of this message?"]. I have just cantered through Mind and Society and there were one or two implicit references to ontology there but I may be hunting in the wrong haystack or looking for something I wouldnt even recognise if I saw...

Thanks for listening,

Mike Johnson, Cardiff Uni, Wales, UK

PS - Sorry to Phil - hope this doesnt distract too much from the LCA discussion...

PPS - I collected the fundamental assertions of critical realism from Archer, M., Sharp, R., Stones, R., & Woodiwiss, T. (1998). Critical realism and research methodology. Retrieved 18th May, 2005, from
1. That the world is a stratified open system.
  a. the empirical (experiences)
  b. the actual (events)
  c. the real (structures and causal powers)
2. 'Independently existing reality of social objects or relations' (p14), but it is comprehensible and not forever lost to us (p16).
3. Social structures and human agency exhibit causal powers - sociologists explore their interaction.
4. The World's openness, and the plurality and contingency of causes and effects in different circumstances.
5. Research is obligatory because 'reality exists independently of our thought about it.' Requiring dialogue between theoretical and empirical work but because there is 'an irreducible difference between our thought and that which it seeks to comprehend' (p15), realists' 'work cannot be taken as the truth', thus realism is always affected by a scepticism.
6. Research methods are interdisciplinary. They attempt 'reference' with as much rigor as possible. Acknowledging that all they do is fallible, they must ensure it is also corrigible.

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