Re: [xmca] Activity Systems, Time, and a shared semantics

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Mon Oct 17 2005 - 18:47:44 PDT

I view the extended triangle diagram as a device to help one get
started. Offhand I can think of, roughly speaking, three kinds of
activities of interest to activity theorists and researchers that the
diagram can be quite useful for getting started in.

First, it is a capable pedagogical device to begin an explanation of
certain aspects of activity theory to someone new to these ideas -
for example, the notion of mediation, of subject/object, of artifacts
(tools, signs, etc.), and the social relations that are inherent in
all human activity. The diagram makes it easier to explain and
visualize some of these concepts. It is a delightfully simple
introductory device to point out various complex ideas with.

Second, it is a good way to *begin* an analysis of an activity or
activities - the triangle in effect asks pertinent questions like who
is doing what? what artifacts are being used? what is the intended
outcome? what is the physical/etc. object being worked on? what
social rules are in force? what community or communities are
involved? what divisions of labor are operative? These questions
are a place to start, a way to rough a few points out on paper at the
outset and get headed in the right direction. I am doubtful,
however, as are others, that the triangle diagram is very useful as a
way to conduct or especially finish an analysis.

Third, it is a creative device for beginning to graphically portray
theoretical thinking about human activity. I have also asked some of
the questions about social relations that Martin asked quite
eloquently. What about a shoemaker working for a capitalist? I
found Yrjo's diagram intriguing and conducive for creative thinking
about such social relations. For example, I have played around with
drawing another triangle around the usual one, with points
representing property, the state, and class surrounding the activity
diagram - representing a class society as the social system that is
the context of any particular activity system or activity such as
shoemaking. I then found myself playing around with some of the
intriguing "breakthrough" animation concepts on the Finland site (where the toolmaking/social
rulemaking/labor divisionmaking system of human existence breaks out
of the individual/species/environment domain of animal
existence). What would it look like in this graphical form to break
through the main institutions of class society (class, property, the
state) and rise to a new society, in an analogous way that animal
life broke through to human life? And what would it look like, using
these techniques, to show how class society rose in the first
place? I've played with these and various other ideas and found the
triangle diagram helpful and stimulating to clarify my thinking about
ways to explain and diagram these kinds of concepts.

In this vein of using the triangle to stimulate creative theoretical
thinking and diagramming, I remember really enjoying a presentation
Carol Lee made about human cultural activity using triangles and
levels. She offered this at a meeting of the CH-SIG at the AERA
convention in San Diego a couple years ago. I believe many have
similarly found Yrjo's activity triangle intellectually and
theoretically stimulating.

As long as we keep in mind a very important point Bill (bb)
emphasized recently, that a map is not the terrain, and a diagram is
not the thing it is portraying, I think we can find all kinds of
creative uses for devices like the extended triangle diagram. My
suggestion, as I have been emphasizing here, is that this device, and
devices like it, be seen above all as a possible place to start.

- Steve

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