RE: [xmca] Emotion at Work

From: Helena Harlow Worthen <hworthen who-is-at>
Date: Fri Aug 03 2007 - 17:04:52 PDT

Hello -- I'll try to respond to Wolff-Michael, Andy and Paul all together, since all three are picking up on my claim that two, not one activity systems are taking place in the fish hatchery where the employees that Wolf-Michael observed are working. I especially want to reply to Andy's question, "If someone were to deny that, say, earning and living and producing a product, were two different activity systems, how would you go about justifying that?"

It has to do with what you're trying to do, what you need the theory to be able to show or explain.

Wolff-Michael's discussion article is an effort to enrich and expand the theory itself, and I thank him for doing that. He is writing "as part of an effort to develop third-generation-historical activity theory," and to incorporate emotion, motivation and identity into that theory. If you picture his audience, he's speaking to other researchers and the academic community generally. His data contributes to this effort.

I'm dealing with a different problem. I'm trying to explain something that is going on in my classes. However, I can't do it without ALSO speaking to the same audience as Wolff-Michael and engaging with theory. This is because theory is an indispensable tool for successful practice. But I'm trying to answer the question, "How do we explain the intense emotion with which the learning produced at work is charged?"

In my job as a labor educator for the University of Illinois, I teach people about work from the point of view of workers. This means everything from labor history, labor law, basics of representation and bargaining to job design, including safety. Just as in any teaching, I have to find out what my students, most of whom are working adults, already know in order to figure out how and what to teach them. This is axiomatic in teaching kids and undergraduates -- you build on prior knowledge, right? But when I start to investigate what my adult students know, I find it charged with strong -- sometimes extreme -- emotion. It has other characteristics as well, but the one that surfaces immediately in the classroom is this emotion. It can run the gamut from despair to pride to gratitude to bitterness. Whatever it is, that's what a teacher has to build on. For my practice as a teacher, I need theory that can account for this. As Wolff-Michael shows, this emotion is integral to the cognitive activity going on. The cognitive activity is not "cool," it's hot. Where does this emotion come from? Thus my investment in seeing CHAT developed to account for emotion.

Sociocultural learning theory generally assumes that social context has a powerful, if not fully determinative impact on learning. The Engestrom model -- the famous triangle -- gives us a representation of what we mean by "social context." Andy, since you ask about "unit of analysis," I'll respond by saying that I'm happy with the concept of "unit of analysis" and furthermore, I like Engestrom's model as an image of the unit of analysis of an activity system. It's a concise way to visualize all the things you have to think about when you ask, of a situation, "What's going on here?" or of a person or group of people, "What are they doing here?" The Engestrom model leads me to ask, "What's the nature of the division of labor that I'm looking at?" "Who is the community out of which these people have been selected?" "What are the history, the traditions, the customs, the rules of this activity?" "What are they using -- what material or cultural tools, what resources or equipment?" and most important, "Why are they doing what they're doing?"

One of the things you can do with that model is talk about how it transforms and expands, moves via contradictions from one activity to another, is part of a network of activity systems or is nested in other activity systems (I'm looking at Engestrom 1987 Figure 2.11 and 2.12, here). All I've done is place one activity system opposite another activity system to represent that there is a conflict between the two activity systems. One is the activity system of production, the other is the activity system of earning a living.

This is the image I propose to represent the difference between the kind of learning activity that workers engage in when learning how to do the work they are hired to do, as opposed to the kind of learning activity that workers engage in when they are learning how to survive at their job or how to protect or improve their working conditions. These two activity systems are driven by different motives. Sometimes there is no conflict between them but sometimes the conflict is extreme. Either way, we need to be able to theorize what's going on. Either way, the social relationships of those activity systems impact the learning activity and leave their mark on it. It seems reasonable to me that that is where the emotion comes from.

Other major theories of learning do not have the potential to be developed in this direction. Some theories of learning are individual (Kolb). But even among theories that treat learning as a collective activity -- distributed cognition, legitimate peripheral participation, communities of practice, human capital theory -- we don't hear about conflict. Sometimes this doesn't matter. When we're talking about school learning or informal learning such as second language acquisition outside school, we may not need to be able to talk about the conflicting purposes of the site where the learning is being produced. But if we're talking about working adults (of whom there are a lot), we do need to be able to surface the reality that what people learn in order to meet the demands of production is sometimes in conflict with what people learn in order to survive their jobs, and that this conflict generates emotions which, as Wolff-Michael puts it, "are integral to the cognitive activity."

The easiest stories to elicit from students that illustrate this conflict are stories about safety incidents -- accidents, near misses, etc.


Helena Worthen
Chicago Labor Education Program
Suite 110 The Rice Building
815 West Van Buren Street
Chicago, IL 60607

-----Original Message-----
From: [] On Behalf Of Paul Dillon
Sent: Friday, August 03, 2007 5:56 AM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] Emotion at Work

  As I read your comments I found the first activity system described/named but not the second except insofar as you identified it's object: making a living, which you contrasted to the object of the first activity system: being a fish culturist. But the first activity system, the focus of the discussion paper, was also clearly identified in other activity theoretic categories in your comments. Perhaps Wollf-Michael is right in saying there is only one activity system. But if we, adopting Marx's categories as Engestrom applied them, consider that the use-value of being a fish-culturist is doing the best job and getting the biggest and healthiest fish as a member of the entire team, while the exchange-value of that job is for each member of the system "making a living", the fundamental condition of wage labor, is the problem resolved? I don't remember any analysis of the contradictions between use value and exchange value of the fish culturist's labor in the paper.
 Not too sure about this expanding power stuff either.
  I don't know if Engestrom has changed his position about the contradictions between use and exchange value in activity systems but perhaps that would account for your concern which seems to be addressing the class character of all labor in capitalist economies. Our ability to participate in "this or that activity" is a function of the market for the labor commodity, no matter how skilled. Certainly,when one does the best job they can but still gets laid off, frustration and resentment arise. I'm not sure whether the term "wage-laborer", someone who haas to "make a living", as opposed to someone who inherited a lot of money for example, is a category of a specific activity system or one of the principles of all activity systems in capitalist economies. The latter is how I understand Engestrom when he evaluates how ithis contradiction works itself out in the different vertices.
  As far as production, distribution, exchange, consumption in the Grundrisse, Marx's analysis in that work showed how production was determinant of the of the others despite their ability to be analyzed in terms of each other. Hence commodity production as determines the specific characteristics of the other elements of the economic system as a whole.
  Paul Dillon
Wolff-Michael Roth <> wrote:
  Hi Helena,
I am sure all appreciate your extensive comments as much as I do. The
one question I have is about the two activity systems and how you see
them as operating in the hatchery.

I think if you took Marx's Capital, or perhaps rather Klaus
Holzkamp's extension of Leont'ev, you would think of one rather than
of two systems. As individuals, we expand our own room to maneuver---
control over our life situation---if we contribute to the collective
control over life conditions. By participating in this or that
activity (Tätigkeit, deyatel'nost'), we expand our person control---
we buy food, clothing, a roof over our head, etc.

Now you COULD see it as two systems, but the second would be an
integral and constitutive part of the first, just as Yrjö (1987)
cites the GRUNDRISSE, where Marx writes how production can be
analyzed in terms of consumption, exchange, distribution, and
production; and each of these terms in turn can be analyzed in terms
of production, consumption, distribution, and exchange. Thus
productive activity, such as working in a fish hatchery, involves
exchange processes---but whether these constitute activity
(Tätigkeit, deyatel'nost') is another question, which is answered
when you ask, so what is societal about this?

Thanks again for your careful reading,



On 1-Aug-07, at 9:20 AM, Helena Harlow Worthen wrote:

Hello, xmca --

I hope this response is not too late to re-engage in the discussion
of Wolf-Michael's paper "Emotion at Work." It always seems to take me
a while to work my way through a paper. By the time I get through it,
and then read through the discussion, the discussion has started to
fade. In addition, I tend to write pretty long responses because I
come to these discussions as a labor educator and therefore imagine,
rightly or wrongly, that I have to load up my contribution with some
explicit explanations. So apologies for the long post and the late
contribution, but I'm very interested in hearing anyone's reply.

Helena Worthen

Comments on Wolf-Michael Roth's paper, Emotion at Work (MCA14, 1-2)

Wolf-Michael follows the work experience of two employees at a
federal fish hatchery in Canada over a period of five years, with a
return visit one year after the five-year period. In this article, he
is concerned with investigating the relationship between emotions and
motivation and identity for the purpose of incorporating these into
activity theory, which he says has tended toward being a theory of
"cold cognition." He compares the emotions, motivation and work
identities of two employees, Erin and Jack, to show how their
feelings about their work relate to their motivation and identity -
or more specifically, how their emotions about their expertise at
work and the degree to which it is valued in the workplace affect
their motivation to do their work and consequently, their identity as

Bringing emotion into the discussion of the production of knowledge
at work is very important, and this ethnographic study provides
plenty of material. As someone whose job (labor education) consists
of teaching employees about the social relations of employment from
the perspective of workers, I appreciate attempts to approach the
profoundly important question of how people feel about what they know
and how this affects what they learn on the one hand and what they do
with what they know on the other hand. Since learning goes on all the
time at work, and since the success or failure of both workers and
workplaces is tightly related to what is learned and what is done
with that knowledge, this is a question of general interest to both
employees and management.

However, I would argue that Wolf-Michael's study would benefit from a
step which would have to be taken early in the analysis. I would like
to see the comparison of the emotional valence of Erin and Jack's
deployment of their expertise framed in terms of not one activity
system but two. First is the activity system of production and second
is the activity system of earning a living. Through the division of
labor of the first system, Jack and Erin are fish culturists, engaged
in fish feeding, ordering feed, cleaning the fishpond and other
actions that contribute to the overall activity of fish hatching (p.
45). In this first system, their goal-directed actions are consistent
with the collective motive of the hatchery: hatching fish. But
through the division of labor of the second, they are employees who
are trying to earn a living. Not always, but sometimes, these two
activity systems conflict, with resulting tensions between the
emotions, motivations and identities associated with them. Wolf-
Michael notes that Jack and Erin could be doing the same actions in a
backyard fish pond, where they would also be engaged in a different
activity system (motivated by recreation, not production or earning a
living), but he doesn't distinguish between the two activity systems
that are taking place at the workplace - fish hatching and earning a

For example: Wolf-Michael's description of Erin's voice pitch as she
analyses the computer generated plot of fish length and weight
(rising pitch, positive valence of emotion) is taken from a moment
when she is talking about her work in the activity system of fish
hatching. He does not provide a description of her voice pitch when
she is talking about the changes undertaken by the new management or
the impending layoffs, although he does report that at the time when
she is being laid off, the emotions expressed through voice pitch (p.
50) are wider in range and there are "many more emotional outbursts
with large differences" (p 52). I would have said here that we're
looking at the emotional tension between Erin's pride in her
expertise as a fish culturist and her anger as an employee at being
laid off - one activity system (fish culturing) is going well and the
other (earning a living) is going badly. If we are looking at two
systems, we can understand why Erin, for example, might feel proud
and committed with regard to her work as a fish culturist but anxious
and even bitter with regard to her job, and that these two emotions
would be in tension with each other.

Similarly, Wolf-Michael's description of Jack's emotional state could
also benefit from being understood as the tension between being
engaged in two conflicting activity systems at once. Wolf-Michael
gives us more information about Jack. Although he is a gifted and
conscientious fish culturist who developed some original experiments
and did research that at first got some recognition, the hatchery is
now under the new management and support for his professional
development has evaporated. He is seeing doors of opportunity
closing. He's understandably angry and cuts back on his investment in
the fish hatchery beyond what he has to do to earn a living: he re-
calibrates his commitment to being just an employee.

Separating out these two activity systems early in the analysis
allows us to see how the knowledge or expertise produced within each
of them becomes charged with emotional valence. Wolf-Michael proposes
"positive" and "negative" labels for this valence, which we might
expand by proposing pride, enthusiasm, elation, curiosity, anxiety,
disappointment, fear, anger, bitterness, etc - some of these are Wolf-
Michael's. This separation would open the door in two directions.
In one direction we would look outward to the pressures on that
workplace from society which are typically transmitted through
management into a workplace. In the other direction we would look to
see the relationship between individual workers and the collective of
workers. Activity theory helps us hold these two perspectives steady
while we investigate what is going on in each of them.

Looking outward, in order to really understand the social
relationships of a workplace and thereby to interpret how people are
behaving and feeling, we need to be explicit about the industrial
relations system within which that workplace is operating. We need to
look closely at the concrete reality of the division of labor that
has sorted some people into management, others into employees (or in
this case, two people into management, five into fish culturalists,
two into maintenance/administrative assistant staff workers, and
perhaps thirty into seasonal employees). Looking inward, we need to
understand what kind of solidarity (Michael's word in page 59,
although he notes it as something that "fuels invidiaul short-and
long-term emotional states") is available to the employees. These two
dimensions, both easily approached through activity theory, will give
us the concrete reality of the kind of control that the managers have
(or don't have) over the work done by Jack, Erin and the other
employees. How was this division of labor established and how is it
maintained? What are its edges and limits? What are the resources of
the employees? The answers to these questions would provide the
framework, or matrix, within which the emotions that Wolf-Michael is
writing about are generated.

Wolf-Michael tells us a few things about the concrete social
relationships of the hatchery, so that we can extrapolate what is
probably going on. There are 18 federal fish hatcheries in this
province and this one employs 2 managers, 5 culturists, a maintenance
person and an administrative assistant, and up to 30 seasonal temps.
This means that there are not a lot of alternative jobs for fish
culturists (especially for one like Jack who has only a high school
education) so that keeping one's job is very important. There is new
management and thus probably new employment practices on the agenda.
Costs are closely watched to the point of choosing what kind of feed
to give the fish and whether to drive 50 kilometers to exchange a set
of keys, and the survival of hatchery is always in question (p. 53).
We can't tell much more than this, except that "collectively, then,
there was a sense that things were going from bad to worse" (p. 56).
It would help if we knew what the overall agenda of the new
management was with regard to budget and target number of employees;
that, after all, is the overarching framework of the social
relationships of the workplace which are being experienced by the
employees. If we were looking at this material as an activity system
in which managers were trying to manage a workplace during a period
of budget cuts and downsizing, and employees were trying to earn a
living and protect or improve working conditions (including job
security and earnings) at that same workplace, we could understand
the emotional valence in which the knowledge of how to do these
complementary and conflicting activities becomes charged.

It's within the workforce, obviously, not between the two managers,
that the "sense that things were going from bad to worse" is
generated. Wolf-Michael notes this: "Interactions with the new
managers were laden with conflict" (p. 57). We are now looking at
Jack as a member of the workforce, and Erin as a member of the
workforce - them as employees, not as fish culturists. Not
surprisingly, Jack - who as an older employee (he was in fact once
Erin's mentor) has fewer options in case he is laid off - resorts to
his knowledge of how to behave as just an employee - not someone who,
as a fish culturist, gives 300%, but someone who as an employee
calculates how to invest the least effort for the highest return. He
works to rule and minimizes contact with the new management.

Finally, in the absence of making the distinction between the two
activity systems that are going among the workers at the fish
hatchery at the same time (hatching fish and earning a living), we
have a hard time making sense of what we're reading on several
accounts. The fish hatchery is referred to as a "collective."
Although we are not told much about the collective solidarity of the
workforce, it sounds as if Jack is pretty isolated in his withdrawal
into work to rule. When we get to the final section on page 59 where
Wolf-Michael is talking about the phenomenon of collective emotion
and its connection to individual emotion,it sounds as if he's saying
that everyone who works at the fish hatchery, the new management
included, is part of the collective. I would argue that the
collective is not the whole hatchery including the new management,
but that it's the employees for whom the hatchery is a way to earn a
living. This essence, which can be left in the background when
budgets are generous and jobs are secure, jumps into the foregrand
during a period of layoffs and budget cuts, which is what is
happening in this fish hatchery.

Helena Worthen

University of Illinois Labor Education Program

Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations

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