Re: Activity theory, ontology and critical realism(!?)

From: Mike Cole (
Date: Tue Jun 14 2005 - 16:14:00 PDT

A very interesting topic to me, Mike J, but one I do not feel competent to
answer. While it may be that individual people who are committeed
to cultural-historical activity theory have strong ontological committments,
I doubt if your question (Does Activity Theory have a particular answer to
these questions?) is answerable. No 1 speaks for AT, but the study of a
number of people who use those ideas might turn up some kind of
agreement. I really don't know. If you find out, by all means tells xmca
about it!

On 6/14/05, Michael JOHNSON <> wrote:
> 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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