Re: [xmca] Sawchuk and Stetsenko article

From: Jennifer Langer-Osuna <jmgdo who-is-at>
Date: Thu Dec 04 2008 - 06:49:45 PST

Thanks all.

Helena, when you say to show how I would do it, do you mean
empirically? The first example, of the classroom students, is
currently from my dissertation project and so I'd be happy to share
how I'm trying to capture some of the structure-agency type relations
in that study. I think that's what you are asking of me, but was
unsure when you said that maybe I'd already done it "by going into
the ...'complex, but ultimately more or less united effort by the

Let me know so that I can respond appropriately!


On Dec 4, 2008, at 8:12 AM, Worthen, Helena Harlow wrote:

> Jenny --
> In your two desriptions, the one of the classroom students learning
> in the classroom context, and the one of Cuban emigres in Miami
> during the 2008 election, you give lovely clear examples of a
> situation sthat could be studied through the lens of either CHAT or
> sociology. I think that Sawchuk and Stesenko are arguing that
> sociology alone won't be able to capture the rich dynamics of this
> situation, but that with the assistance of a CHAT perspective, it
> could do it better. Is that how you understand what they're
> suggesting?
> If it is, do you want to take a shot and showing us how you'd do it?
> I can see that this is what you're trying to do; actually, maybe
> you've done it by going into the ..."complex, but ultimately more or
> less united effort by the individuals."
> I'd like to hear from Peter or Anna in response to the example you
> give us, Jenny.
> Helena
> ________________________________________
> From: [] On
> Behalf Of Monica Hansen []
> Sent: Thursday, December 04, 2008 2:12 AM
> To: 'eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity'
> Subject: RE: [xmca] Sawchuk and Stetsenko article
> Hey, Jennifer--thanks for the brave stab. I suffer from the same
> kind of
> deliberation about posting, being a novice (and stressed and
> overworked
> graduate student), but my isolated and sometimes inept forays into the
> discussion have always been received. Keep asking the questions--
> that's what
> keeps all of us lively.
> Monica
> -----Original Message-----
> From: [mailto:xmca-
>] On
> Behalf Of Jennifer Langer-Osuna
> Sent: Wednesday, December 03, 2008 12:05 PM
> To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
> Subject: Re: [xmca] Sawchuk and Stetsenko article
> Ok, here's my stab at it...
> The focus on collaborative projects (same as joint activity?) does
> seem promising as a way to capture the dialectic of structure and
> agency. For example, in a reform-oriented algebra classroom students
> take up the classroom resources for particular task-related functions
> that are largely defined by the norms of the classroom, which are
> largely defined by the goals of this particular, new, reform-oriented
> school. And yet the students have a great deal of agency not only in
> terms of whether they engage in, merely comply with, or resist the
> tasks but also in using those same classroom resources for other,
> unintended (by the teacher) functions. For example, students use the
> internet both to research task-related topics, but also to download
> music (however, even this function of downloading music comes from the
> norms of another "collaborative project" in youth culture - that of
> collecting and sharing valued songs). In any case, students' agency
> feeds back to the classroom itself, such that it is certainly a
> negotiated, emergent, co-constructed relationship. Say, if many
> students resist the task, the teacher may start to focus more on
> disciplinary issues which may change the form of the classroom as a
> whole, or perhaps a more sensitive teacher may respond to this
> resistance by shifting the tasks such that they are of more interest
> to the students, and so on.
> However, this paper focuses largely on sociology, not so much
> anthropology, which says to me that the importance here is on the
> dialectic between the agency of people and the larger, broader social
> structures that go beyond, say, a particular classroom or school. This
> is where I stop being able to follow the argument and need
> clarification (if indeed what I wrote earlier is actually a sensible
> interpretation). Take, for instance, the recent U.S. presidential
> elections. There is the larger political body of the nation and there
> are the individual people in an arguably collaborative project to
> elect a President. We could look at this process through what I think
> the paper is offering. That is, the political structure constrains
> people's participation in several ways: what parties are available,
> which candidates we have to choose from, the legal process and
> existing political system, the responses and policies of the current
> administration that have shaped how we make meaning of this election,
> and so on. There are also larger structures of media and so on that
> have powerful institutional roles in shaping this dialectic as well.
> Then there are the people who, with their agency, aligned with, merely
> complied with, or resisted the electoral process. This is where I get
> confused. When I read these more sociological (and especially those in
> a liberatory political vein) arguments, I find myself imagining some
> complex, but ultimately more or less united effort by the individuals.
> Yet the individuals themselves live in such varied and hybrid spaces
> that, while they may all working be on the collaborative project of
> electing a president, are also in strong and often opposing conflict
> with one another. That is, their positionality in the process differs.
> Take, for instance, the Cuban-American community in Miami. Many
> members of this community, due in large part by their history in the
> Castro-led Cuban revolution and their subsequent exile to Miami, took
> on positional identities with respect to the U.S. elections that
> interpreted Obama's popularity, charisma, and rhetorical style to be
> very similar to that of Fidel Castro's back in 1959. As Obama's
> popularity increased, as his beloved speeches became more popular, and
> so on, many in this community saw it only as increased evidence that
> Obama was indeed a socialist/communist revolutionary. What was hope
> and excitement for many in this country was a sense of dread for
> others, based on differing personal histories, and in this case in an
> almost inverse linear relationship. Technically, as American voters,
> the Miami Cubans were afforded no less power than the Miami liberals
> living just down the street. Their positional identities were not
> simply constrained by a sense of oppressor/oppressed with respect to
> their roles as American citizens, but rather how they made sense of
> the elections due to their histories and the other socio-political
> worlds that have shaped them. In this sense, the participants in this
> collaborative project were being shaped by an almost endless hybridity
> of socio-cultural practices past and present. The agency of the Cuban
> Americans' participation in the presidential election was also shaped
> by their past trauma in Cuba. Its as if agency can be seen as the
> degrees of freedom inherent in the inevitable plurality of structural
> forces that act upon us and our ability therefore to choose among them
> how to frame each situation. I suppose in this way, I'm agreeing with
> Goffman. Yet I'm not sure how much neutrality Goffman places in what
> "frame" we enact. In the case of the Cuban Americans, many of them
> framed Obama in this way due to a very strong, visceral reaction to a
> past experience. Those who had lived in the U.S. long enough were
> certainly also conflicted, but ultimately couldn't get past that fear.
> Others, such as those from my generation who had never actually
> experienced Castro's Cuba but were certainly indoctrinated into the
> anti-Castro perspective were much too "American" to choose that same
> "frame" in viewing the elections. That fear, and that history, was not
> sufficiently ours.
> And so, I guess to sum this long mental outpour, I am wondering how
> hybridity of practices and of histories is embedded into this
> discussion. No collaborative project is purely of a particular
> structure nor of a homogenous people and their histories. And how is
> this hybridity captured in the structure-agency dialectic? (P.S. This
> brings to mind Dorothy Holland's (and colleagues) work on figured
> worlds and am wondering if anyone else feels that her work is very
> pertinent to this discussion.)
> Jenny
> On Nov 28 2008 - 18:30:49 PST, Andy Blunden wrote:
>> From: Andy Blunden <ablunden who-is-at>
>> Date: Fri Nov 28 2008 - 18:30:49 PST
>> Helena,
>> I think CHAT has both the need and the possibility to
>> benefit from an engagement with theories of sociology, and
>> like you I think sociology could more than benefit too, but
>> I think that CHAT will have little or no impact on sociology
>> until problems in the second generation, to which Anna and
>> Peter allude, are dealt with. But Anna and Peter do not
>> address these problems, and while I agree that the necessary
>> concepts are there in "1st generation" CHAT, they are
>> undeveloped in the sociological domain, for the reasons that
>> Anna and Peter mention, I think.
>> I really welcome Peter and Anna's work, reflected in this
>> paper. It is vital for CHAT to work through all the most
>> powerful approaches to sociology, critique them from the
>> standpoint of CHAT, appropriate the insights that they have
>> to offer, and in the process, transform CHAT. It is to be
>> hoped that Peter and Anna will be able to recruit others to
>> this project so that the critical approach emanating from
>> CHAT can have an impact within the various sociological
>> currents.
>> Peter and Anna recognise that CHAT offers the potential for
>> an interdisciplinary approach to human development, but that
>> for historical reasons, the development of the sociological
>> aspects of CHAT was stunted. In my opinion, subsequent to
>> the first generation, CHAT actually fails in the domain of
>> sociological enquiry. The fact that "Leontyev made a
>> significant step in developing CHAT by distinguishing
>> between collective activity and individual action through
>> emphasis on division of labour," (p. 342) lies, I believe,
>> at the root of this failure, which Peter and Anna correctly
>> trace to its socio-historical origins in the mid-20th
>> century. The kind of broad-ranging critique proposed by
>> Peter and Anna is the only way of overcoming this deficit.
>> On p. 342-3, the authors say: "At the core of the original
>> CHAT was the notion that human nature is a sociohistorical
>> project and a collaborative achievement by people acting in
>> collectivities ..." and they conclude that "the process of
>> changing the world - that is, the practical, collaborative
>> endeavour of people who create themselves as they create the
>> world - was understood as the foundational reality for human
>> development and human nature as well" and "Demystifying
>> human subjectivity by showing how it ensues from practical
>> collaborative activities ... instead of it being a
>> mysterious mental realm, is the true staple of CHAT." These
>> formulations I heartily agree with and they are I think the
>> key to the approach needed in the development of the
>> sociological side of CHAT. The authors go on to characterise
>> aspects of subjectivity as "ways of acting in ... the
>> pursuit of transformative changes through collaboration with
>> other people." The combination of the central notion of
>> collaboration - rather than 'division of labour', with the
>> focus on human transformation - rather than 'material
>> production', I think creates a ground upon which the
>> necessary critique can stand.
>> This theme is clearly present in the first generation of
>> CHAT and it disappeared after Vygotsky's death. I agree with
>> Peter and Anna that it is this concept which must be taken
>> as the basis for further development. In this context, I
>> can't agree with idea repeated at several places in the
>> article of "the threefold dialectics of material production,
>> intersubjective exchanges, and subjectivity." This is not
>> the place to pursue this, because I think this article goes
>> beyond this proposal with the turn to collaborative projects
>> as the key concept for the elaboration of sociological
>> aspects of CHAT.
>> The "rotation" (a nice turn of phrase!) of the triad used to
>> represent the space of sociological literature in "Figure
>> 1": Activity/Structure - Operations/Enactment -
>> Goal/Meaning" seems a very promising approach. I think we do
>> need a map of this kind to organise the program of
>> sociological critique implied in this paper, and in my
>> opinion the proposal is in line with the comments I made in
>> 2007/4 issue of MCA.
>> However, there is one serious problem in the exposition of
>> Activity Theory as developed by AN Leontyev which the
>> authors of this paper havepassed over, which actually
>> contradicts and undermines what I take to be the most
>> important proposal in this paper. What I have in mind is the
>> top level of AN Leontyev's "three level" categorisation of
>> operation, action and activity, namely "activity," which
>> makes the connection of the CHAT with the sociological
>> domain. Whereas operation and action refer to finite,
>> "countable" units, there is no clarification by Leontyev or
>> anyone else of what is a "unit" of activity. "Activity" is
>> taken as a "mass noun" referring to an "uncountable"
>> continuum. References to "system of activity" do not
>> overcome this problem, but simply sidestep it. I base myself
>> on English translations, and the Russian language deals with
>> the mass/countable and definite/indefinite distinctions
>> quite differently, so perhaps something has been lost in
>> translation? Nonetheless, this deficit, in my opinion,
>> causes little difficulty so long as it is used in the
>> narrower context of psychology and individual
>> transformation. But when, as these authors propose, the
>> concept is taken into the arena of sociology, then such a
>> formulation of CHAT is obviously inferior to almost any
>> competing theory, all of which have some conception of what
>> constitutes a fact or unit of analysis in the domain of
>> sociology.
>> I also continue to find the distinction between "local" and
>> "extralocal" exchanges suspect. I presume we are not making
>> a distinction between electronic and face-to-face
>> communication? The phenomena of society cannot be sustained
>> or transformed other than by the same use of cultural
>> products in communication with other people that are in play
>> when two individuals talk or otherwise communicate with one
>> another. Personally, I think this distinction has no place
>> in CHAT and is transcended by the idea of collaborative
>> transformation that the authors chiefly rely upon.
>> I do believe that Peter and Anna's article in fact shows the
>> way forward by focussing on collaborative projects as the
>> central notion for the solution of problems of human
>> transformation, whether taken on the domain of sociology or
>> psychology.
>> Worthen, Helena Harlow wrote:
>>> Hello -- So here's my first response to Peter and Anna's article.
>>> This article explains what two traditions of sociology try to do,
>> where CHAT stopped when the revolutionary potential of the first
>> generation chilled under Stalin, and how re-introducing these three
>> to each other might revive and fulfill that potential.
>>> I think that Peter and Anna mean us to take that first generation
>> of CHAT, particularly in its revolutionary, transformative, critical
>> form, to be what they call "non-canonical activity theory." Non-
>> canonical activity theory is CHAT in the form that undertook
>> "radical reconceptualization of all spheres of human
>> development" (342) and was driven, both theoretically and (because
>> of contemporary social necessity) by a vision of ongoing, creative,
>> collaborative historical change.
>>> However, it's not clear to me why CHAT would turn out to be the
>> main beneficiary of an engagement between CHAT and sociology. I can
>> see that CHAT, depending on what it's being used for, often steps
>> away from its revolutionary roots and becomes a technique for
>> sorting out a puzzle, but even when that happens it is essentially
>> dynamic and dialectical and available, if not actually employed, to
>> reveal contradictions and track change. Peter and Anna DO say,
>> however, that if you're using CHAT, it's non-canonical CHAT that is
>> most likely to be capable of absorbing the insights and resources of
>> sociology (357). Among these insights would be "social action"
>> oriented theories of conduct, ethnomethodology, conversation
>> analysis, theories of enactment, socially constructed meaning, norms/
>> rules/conventions and structuration. I am just making this list by
>> scanning the two sections in Peter and Anna's article about the two
>> traditions of sociology that they describe.
>>> So, what would a problem look like that, if you're working with
>> CHAT, could be worked with more effectively if you could pull in
>> these concepts from sociology? Would they fit in neatly, or would
>> there be rough edges? What would they contribute to the solution of
>> a specific problem? What are the gaps in CHAT that in practice these
>> concepts would bridge?
>>> I am pretty sure that both Peter and Anna have actual examples of
>> problems to which they have brought resources from sociology and
>> probably from other disciplines as well. Peter's 2003 book (in the
>> list of references) "Adult Learning and Technology..." is probably
>> an instance.
>>> On the other hand, sociology, it seems to me, would definitely
>> benefit from a good dose of CHAT. You need the dynamism of CHAT to
>> get social facts moving on the three legs that Peter and Anna name:
>> material production, subjectivity (the view from the self), and
>> intersubjective exchange. Although I've read limited amounts of
>> sociology, I always feel as if I'm reading an autopsy report, not
>> something that's describing a wave, big or small, in the river of
>> history.
>>> Could you make the argument the other way -- to sociologists,
>> suggesting that they need CHAT? What would happen? I'll bet the
>> answer would vary depending on who you're talking with, and where....
>>> Helena
>>> Helena Worthen, Clinical Associate Professor
>>> Labor Education Program, School of Labor & Employment Relations
>>> University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
>>> 504 E. Armory
>>> Champaign, IL 61820
>>> Phone: 217-244-4095
>>> _______________________________________________
>>> xmca mailing list
>> --
>> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> Andy Blunden +61 3 9380 9435
>> Skype andy.blunden
>> Hegel's Logic with a Foreword by Andy Blunden:
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