[xmca] Is Activity Theory Reductionist?

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Sun Aug 26 2007 - 16:23:39 PDT

I just finished Professor Kozulin's book "Psychological Tools". Sure enough, on pp. 24-30, he reiterates his central criticisms of activity theory:
  a) That activity theory is revisionist, because it was developed in response to Stalinist pressure on the perceived "idealism" of LSV's emphasis on word meaning and semiotic mediation.
  b) That activity theory is tautological, because where LSV argues that consciousness cannot be both an explanandum AND and explanans, "activity" (in the form of operations and actions) is both.
  c) That actviity theory is reductionist, because activity is NOTHING other than its component actions and actions are NOTHING other than their component operations.
  I think a) is of historical interest only, and c) is really at the root of b). So I want to concentrate on c).
  Kozulin's basic idea, if I grasp it correctly, is that when ANL argues that if you take away actions from activity there is nothing left, he is basically saying that the whole is merely equal to the sum of the parts. There are no STRUCTURAL relationships between actions that would make the whole more than the sum of the parts (compare to LSV in Chapter Seven of Mind in Society, where he says that if we take away the imaginary situations from children's games, we find that abstract rules, a form of semiotic mediation, will remain).
  Unfortunately, the way my poor brain works, I need some data to go on from here. So here is a dialogue improvised by Korean third graders, who have had only seven weeks of English lessons, and that for only one hour a week. One team is creating utterances for Mina, and the other team is creating utterances for Mina¡¯s little brother Minsu:
  Minsu: Can you fly?
  Mina: No, I can¡¯t.
  Minsu: Can you skate?
  Mina: No, I can't.
  Minsu: What time is it?
  Mina: It's eleven twenty five.
  Minsu: How many cow?
  Mina: Two cow.
  Minsu: How old are you?
  Mina: I'm ten.
  Minsu: What day is it?
  Mina: Tuesday.
  Minsu: Can you ski?
  Mina: Yes, I can.
  Now, you can see that this is rather less than the sum of its parts: there is nothing in this text that suggests a brother and sister, and there is quite a bit to suggest that the children are simply vomiting up the poorly chewed contents of previous lessons in any order.
  Here are the same children one week later. For reasons I don't really understand they have now decided that Minsu is older than Mina. Mina has a crush on a boy in her class and is trying to dress in a way that shows off her figure, but Minsu has other ideas.

  Minsu: Put on your coat.
  Mina: No.
  Minsu: Outside, cold!
  Mina: No!
  Minsu: What!
  Mina: I'm sorry.
  Minsu: Put on your glove.
  Mina: Yes.
  Minsu: Put on your cap.
  Mina: Too big.
  Minsu: Put on your sweater.
  Mina: Too small.
  Minsu (holding beautiful scarf): Put on your scarf.
  Mina: Yes, please!
  Minsu: Put on your pants.
  Mina: No, I'm skirt. (i.e. I want to wear a skirt.)
  Minsu: You, inside, play! (i.e. You must stay inside and play and cannot go out.)
  Mina: No!
  It seems to me that there is a qualitative difference here. In the first dialogue, the children are basically orienting to the ACTIVITY, what Gordon Wells has called "The Practice of Education" and are trying to recapitulate all the curriculum they have experienced. But in the second dialogue they are actually orienting to the INSTRUMENTAL CONDITIONS, concentrating on the single teaching point "Put on your ..." and elaborating a context with it.
  Now, if it were really true that an activity is MERELY the sum of its actions, and that actions are MERELY the sum of operations, I'm not sure why this should make such a big difference; why the two types of dialogue should be mutually exclusive in their focus and in their results.
  It also seems to me that trying to describe activity by thinking in terms of operations is a little like trying to describe syntax by thinking in terms of phonemes.
  Saussure tries this (in the Cours General de Linguistique) with the horrendous example of "si je la prends" and "si je l'apprends" which he tries to reduce to phonological differences. It didn't work then, and it doesn't work now.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Sun Aug 26 16:25 PDT 2007

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