SV: [xmca] Correct unit of analysis for human activity (in games)

From: Patrik Bergman (
Date: Tue Mar 14 2006 - 10:56:25 PST

Thank you all for your contributions on this topic. You all gave me
something to think about, and now I plan to see what I myself mean by the
"smallest bundle of things" when studying learning in World of Warcraft.


-----Ursprungligt meddelande-----
Från: [] För
Mike Cole
Skickat: den 11 mars 2006 02:07
Till: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Ämne: Re: [xmca] Correct unit of analysis for human activity (in games)

Interesting comments from all to your question, Patrik.
This topic has been taken up in the mediational theories of mind class as
well in
recent weeks.

Helena's way of responding ("I take the idea of the "prime" or "correct"
unit of analysis to mean the
smallest bundle of things that you'd want to be sure you were keeping in
mind when thinking about something.") is pretty nearly exactly what Ed
Hutchins says when asked
this question, but he deals with some of the sub-parts differently. And that
is how I view Yrjo and
Jim's approaches.

Yrjo is asked, " But what about individual subjectivity, what do you have to
say about that"?
Jim is asked " What do you mean by context"
Yrjo says "the activity is the context"
Jim says "history is carried in the mediational means"
Yrjo asks if "situation" in Burke's pentad is a sufficient inclusion of
Jim worries that using the terms cultural-historical instead of
socio-cultural commits one to a Marxist progressivist interpretation of
Mike worries that leaving out history denudes culture of its historical
LSV says that the unit of analysis for understanding the relationship
between language and thought/speech and thinking/ is word meaning.
Many worry that something closer to discourse is the appropriate unit of
analysis for THAT topic.
Many question if Vygotsky was an activity theorist at all, or just a
semiotic idealist, or too micro in his analysis, or.......

Mike ends this note by saying that he would like to meet an expert with the
right answer and joins bb and masked lp in disclaiming any
appropriate training. I am just a student of WK Estes and AR Luria who is
seeking to understand the nature of human experience(s)
and who sure does like that nice exposition of the interleaving of material
and ideal in human experience from Dewey that Matt Brown

Got some rain here in So Cal. Whew. We need it!


On 3/10/06, Helena Worthen <> wrote:
> Hello, Patrik (and Bill, and others):
> Yes, it can have a large effect on a study if one chooses to shine the
> light
> on a whole activity system as compared to the activity of a few
> individuals.
> It can, for example, have the practical effect of expanding your research
> so
> your work becomes unmanageable.
> But if you are working from the premise that all activity takes place
> within
> a system, you don't have to shine the light on all parts of the system.
> You
> can choose the part of the system where what is most interesting to you is
> happening. Your research, after all, is also object-oriented (purposeful)
> human activity, and you need to keep your eye on your purpose.
> When I read the three definitions of the unit of activity that you list
> below (Mike's, James Wertsch's, and Yrjo's) they all sound as if they're
> talking about the same thing. That's remarkable, I think, considering how
> differently they are expressed. But when I read them all, I nod and say,
> "Yep!"
> Actually, Mike's is kind of a cadenza played on the other two.
> I take the idea of the "prime" or "correct" unit of analysis to mean the
> smallest bundle of things that you'd want to be sure you were keeping in
> mind when thinking about something. Like a molecule: "the smallest
> particle
> of a substance that retains all the properties of the substance..."
> Here's yet another description of the unit of analysis for understanding
> human activity. It's from the introduction to Sawchuk, Duarte, and
> Elhammoumi's new book, Critical Perspectives on Activity: Explorations
> across education, work and everyday life. (Disclosure: I've got a chapter
> in
> there, as does Yrjo and Paul Adler and others.)
> "Activity in this tradition is not used in the everyday, common-sense way,
> however. Rather, it is a specialized and, in fact, highly contested
> concept.
> To begin with, it is defined as the minimal unit of analysis for the
> understanding of cognitive development, human participation, and change.
> It
> inherently contextualizes practice in cultural and historical terms. It
> is,
> in our view, the most comprehensive analytic framework for analyzing human
> practice and learning currently available. At its heart it affirms that
> all
> human practice is mediated by symbolic, cultural and communal, as well as
> material, resources or tools: It is through these forms of mediation that
> human practice is understood as both dynamic and historical. This
> conceptual
> approach allows important, integrated forms of analysis (p2)"
> Note the emphasis on the purpose of an analysis. If you are interested in
> studying change (for example, how some people learn something) you need a
> minimal unit of analysis that conjoins practice (what is being done), and
> culture and history. That doesn't mean that you have to do a full
> ethnography or write the history of what you're looking at into your
> dissertation. But if you skip an important aspect of either one of those,
> your research will come out looking funny.
> In my opinion, the aspects of culture and history that are most frequently
> skipped are power imbalances related to race, gender and economics.
> Helena Worthen
> Chicago Labor Education Program
> University of Illinois
> -----Original Message-----
> From: [] On
> Behalf Of bb
> Sent: Friday, March 10, 2006 10:13 AM
> To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
> Subject: Re: [xmca] Correct unit of analysis for human activity (in games)
> I could argue that, given the multiple timescales of the human condition
> (lemke), and how culture plays a role in psychology, crossing timescales,
> (e.g. the description of prolepsis in 'cultural psychology"), and the
> description by Leont'ev of the "hierarchical structure of activity", plus
> the
> historical analysis included in Engestrom's expansive methodology, that
> one
> would abductively think multiple units of analysis, crossing at least many
> timescales, if not also some scales along other dimensions, could be
> desireable and even practicable. This methodological potential seems
> embedded in the CHA of CHAT.
> Practically, multiply scaled units of analysis are useful only if such
> methods coincide with the goals of the intended study.
> I'm sorry I cannot add more -- it's just a passing thought, a humble
> opinion.
> And I have no formal training, so take it for what it's worth.
> bb
> On Friday 10 March 2006 3:55 am, Patrik Bergman wrote:
> > Hi,
> >
> >
> >
> > Perhaps you have all gone through this debate before, but I will give it
> > try: What do you consider being the correct unit of analysis for
> > understanding human activity? I am reading the works of Yrjö Engeström
> > quite a lot now and he states that the prime unit of analysis is a
> > collective, artefact-mediated and object-oriented activity system.
> Others,
> > such as James Wertsch, state the correct unit is an individual acting
> with
> > mediational means. Meantime, Mike has for example stated that "Mediated
> > action and its activity context are two moments of a single process, and
> > whatever we want to specify as psychological processes is but a moment
> of
> > their combined properties.", which to me sounds like something in the
> > middle of Engeström's and Wertsch's descriptions.
> >
> >
> >
> > PhD student that I am, I might be totally off track here, but it would
> be
> > interesting to hear your views on this since I am thinking about this in
> > relation to studying the online game World of Warcraft as a learning
> > environment. As far as I can see, it can have large effects on a study
> if
> > one chooses to study individuals and their meditational means, compared
> to
> > also incorporating the whole activity system (including its history).
> >
> >
> >
> > Best,
> >
> > Patrik Bergman
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