Re: [xmca] Re: Questions - People as mediators

From: Mabel Encinas (
Date: Thu Oct 20 2005 - 06:52:52 PDT

Hi, again.

I said:

I have been wondering if, when in the activity system we look at others as
I think that it is important not to consider people as tools, but as active others that negotiate with the subjects we study. Do I narrow too much the meaning of tools? But aren't we narrowing too much the meaning of other people when we think about them in an instrumental way?

Mike, you answered:

Long ago, Leontiev wrote: With all its varied forms, the human individual's activity is a system in the system of social relations. It does not exist without these relations.
Many people, myself included at an earlier time, believed that Leontiev did not pay sufficient attention to social relations and in terms of the way activity theory was actually implemented in the USSR I think this is true. The emphasis was on production, modes of production, rather than relations of production. But "theoretically", I have come to believe, that he and his colleagues understood perfectly well that mediated JOINT activity implies always a double articulation of subject-non human world with subject-human world. It is unfortunate that this gets reduced to subject-subject and subject-object relationships. One affordance of Yrjo's expansion of the mediational triangle is to represent this double articulation, and multiple forms of mediation, in the basic abstraction.

These same issues come in another way when you are uneasy about talking of other people as tools. It seems inhumane. But when a mother helps her newborn to reach a teddy bear, or a father helps his daughter learn to ride a bike, they are mediators. -

I have been thinking then:

However, when both the father and the mother help their children, their intentions have a place in the relationships (apart form their habits, or habitus). And in these relationships, the mother can say, "I have given the teddy bear twenty times, and every time you through it, so I will leave it there for a while"; or possibly the father can say "We will not have dinner until you can ride", of if any of them cheer up or scold or, "enjoy" or "suffer" doing this things, things might happened differently. With the two teachers I presented before (cfr. subject: Questions), Sophia's students wrote metaphors in the Spanish class, and they gave conferences about sexuality, and they dared to teach her some tricks at using Power Point. Possibly in relationship to Sophia's openness to listening to them. With Ricardo, students did not want to collaborate. So even the construction of the object took other paths. Maybe in Ricardo's class . I consider that the mediational functioning of teachers in this case passes even by the social relationships and the negotiated construction of the object. The artefacts are used as well for meditating these relationships, not only the relationship between subject (let's say the teachers) and object.

I will draw the triangles to be more explicit in my following note.

And you continue saying: . of their children's experience and their children are active subjects, seeking that mediation, seeking to use their parents as "tools".

So, yes, I think we are narrowing the meaning of other people when we speak of them as tools in the everyday sense of tools, but I think we do ourselves a big disservice by using the term tools in this way. Luria spoke of "mediational means" as well as tools. Perhaps that would help us avoid dehumanizing each other and forgetting the duality of human action and experience.

I continue thinking and I consider that even though children could be using the parents as "tools", parents seem to decide the level and the direction when becoming tools. And more than interchanging the idea, as we could emphasize that parents use their children, and in the same way children seam to decide to a certain extent the level and the direction they take as tools, the most important thing is that these social relationships are constructed as power relationships and as affective relationships. For example, at wanting to make our own perspective prevails over the other's perspective, or we compromise or postpone our objects in the interest of others (generosity?), like the father that wanted to be reading the newspaper but decides to help the daughter to learn to ride a bicycle. Or the daughter that accepts playing with other toys while the father finishes reading the newspaper.

Additionally, there seem to be like "dead times" (more perspectives on time?) in which there seem not to be a clear object that directs the action, but that is directed (apparently) or at least priories the relationship in itself. For example at playing with children. or other activities, both at leisure ones (baking pays, playing soccer, hugging a friend whose relative died or arguing with the grandmother about religion), at working times (answering customer phone calls, co-writing articles, packaging glasses or feeding the animals). I do not denied that in some of them seem to have a clear object, but not all of them, although we could always try to map an object, even in the leisure time activities.

All these things make me think that people, even if they mediate others' activities, are qualitatively extremely different from tools or artefacts. Because part of the indeterminacy and openness of the activity takes place precisely because the behaviours in a concrete relationship are unpredictable as they have: and ill-defined object, (although possibly in quantitative terms we could say something like 60 percent of such and such people would do this, etc. etc.), and power and affective relationships that enter in the game. I remember that Bateson recalled Alice in Wonderland's game of croquet (1972, pp. 30 and 31). The metalogue recounts about the unpredictability of the game due to the fact that the mallets and balls were animals:

"Father: . this is the thing that I would not have expected. That animals, which are themselves able to see things ahead and act on what they think is going to happen -a cat can catch a mouse by jumping to land where the mouse will probably be when she has completed her jump-but it's just the fact that animals are capable of seeing ahead and learning that makes them the only really unpredictable things in the world".

Am I going to far away to the extreme of being a little bit (or a lot) lost or simplistic or mixing all kind of things in the same note?

I still have to answer to Elaine, and draw my unresolved triangles, Mike.

See you soon,


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