Re: LCA: Toward another LCA

From: Gordon Wells (
Date: Thu Jun 23 2005 - 19:44:58 PDT

Ana and Others,

The discussion of the appropriate unit of analysis implies that there
is one answer to the question. I don't think that there is such a
universally appropriate best unit. Several suggestions have been
proposed, ranging from 'word', through 'utterance' to 'sound
envelope', and ranging in scope from the lexical item to the totality
of modes of communicative action employed. All of these are attended
to - at some level of conscious awareness - in the joint action and
interaction of the participants, But which of these 'units' is chosen
as the basic unit of analysis should depend on the question that the
researcher is asking.

I think this 'problem' and the varied solutions that have been
adopted can be seen, for example, in A.N.Leont'ev's ways of analyzing
'activity'. Leont'ev proposes a tristratal account, in which activity
(as 'motive') is realized in action (as a particular goal-oriented
instance) and action, in turn, is achieved through operations, which
are both relatively automatic and selected according to the
particular exigencies of the situation. But, an action typically
involves sub-actions, which involve further sub-actions... A vexing
question, then, is which of these actions should be taken as the unit
of analysis; another is, since operations equally consist of
sub-operations, etc. which is the appropriate level of operation to
focus on? And at what point does a particular form of 'behavior'
cross from being an action to being an operation? His answer, as I
understand it (or perhaps reconstrue it as) is that the way one maps
the three strata onto a particular event depends on the purpose of
the analysis. In spite of Engestrom's choice of 'action' as the
level/stratum focused on in his triangle diagram of an activity
system, I think he would give the same answer.

Another example is Rogoff's argument that there are multiple 'zoom
levels' that the researcher/camera can focus on in studying guided
participation - individual, dyadic interactional, local community of
practice, sociocultural - the choice on any occasion depends on the
researcher's question. However, she also points out that, whichever
zoom level is selected, the others are equally valid and are always
part of the total picture.

Ultimately, there is no best answer to the question. No one study can
do everything and a choice has to be made - while recognizing that
other choices afford alternative and equally valid perspectives,


Gordon Wells
Dept of Education,
UC Santa Cruz.

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