RE: [xmca] Emotion at Work

From: Andy Blunden <ablunden who-is-at>
Date: Sat Aug 04 2007 - 00:38:40 PDT

That's fascinating Helena. I feel I've got to know you for the first time.
Thank you.

Just to clarify: you are saying that conflict (interpreted as conflict
between activity systems, endowing actions with conflicted motivations,
significance, etc.) is *the key* fact about emotion. yes? Would you go any
further than this? Or is this too narrow?

At 07:04 PM 3/08/2007 -0500, you wrote:
>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
>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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