RE: [xmca] Helena on Negotiating Knowledge

From: Worthen, Helena Harlow <hworthen who-is-at>
Date: Sat Dec 20 2008 - 15:05:10 PST

Hello --

Here are a couple of quick responses to the comments that have been made so far.

First, thanks to people for tackling this. It isn't the typical MCA article, I know.

Maybe it's obvious, but this article is written to explain something that I encounter all the time when doing labor education, which means teaching workers (nurses, custodians, clerical workers, truck drivers, railroad workers, operating engineers in power houses, etc etc). Namely, that their knowledge about their work has a particular character: it is broad (they know what others in their line of work at their workplace are doing); it has a perspective that is different from the perspective of someone on the street, or in management -- it not neutral; it's collective (meaning both generated collectively and shared in the present) and it has a strong emotional charge. I'm sure all of us have encountered people who possess knowledge like this. If you encounter one or twenty, maybe you don't remark on it. If you encounter hundreds, year after year, you want to think about where it comes from, how to explain it. If you have to design and present classes that address this kind of knowledge, you need to go get so
me kind of theory that enables you to hold what you're looking at steady long enough to think about it.

Activity theory works for me for this purpose because unlike other theories of learning that we talk about on xmca, it locates the contradictions that are experienced as conflict (or double binds, if you will) which I argue shape the emotional character of this knowledge. Locates them specifically, not just generally in the contradictions of capitalism.

I'm not as careful as I probably should be about choosing words, except to try to be consistent -- as long as I mean x, I'll use the same word to refer to x. Therefore I wouldn't quibble about whether something is "learning" or "the production of knowledge." Except that, isn't learning actually the production of knowledge? Isn't that what's happening when someone learns? I know that this question can be expanded and developed almost infinitely -- but try claiming the opposite: Learning is not the production of knowledge. How could you defend that?

So if we think of an activity system as something that produces something (acts upon an object in the name of an outcome in order to cause or produce that outcome), then we ought to be able to look and see what constitutes that system. Then we can ask other questions -- what's missing in this system? What is distorted? Why is the result (outcome, product, result) so embittered, so rigid, so angry, so unforgiving? We can look back and see -- the contradictions in the system are severe and painful -- is it any surprise? If the social conditions of the production of knowledge are abusive or extreme, is it any surprise that the knowledge that is produced shows the marks of those conditions?

I'm talking about workers, but I'm sure the same kind of thing applies to the learning (or knowledge, whatever) that is created in schools.

David comments on my use of "goods and services" and suggests "profit" instead. I'm fine with "profit," but that concept is many steps down the road from "goods and services" which is why I didn't use it. When someone is making a bed in a hotel, or sewing a dress, or serving a meal, etc, the immediate object in front of that person is the bed, dress or meal. This is where the road forks. What I'm trying to look at is why, from the point of view of that person, the person is making the bed, etc. Yes, from one point of view (one perspective) the person is making the bed in order to get the bed made (which will contribute to the overall profit of the enterprise). But from another point of view (the employee's) the person is making the bed in order to get paid, to earn a living. He or she could be making a bed or laying bricks -- it doesn't matter. They've got a job that brings home a paycheck is what matters. That's why I didn't say "profit." Moment to moment, one fork in the road leads to productivity and the
other to earning a living.

I have an ongoing conversation with Paul Dillon about whether it adds anything to the analysis if I claim that there are two activity systems, not one. He wants everything to show in one activity system. I think that making one system show everything makes it harder to see what's going on. Of course, one activity system implies two, of course -- or three or twenty. But I need to get it down to where the activity system that I'm raising shows the thing that I want to study.

Paul, you're right to ask about Figure 1 and Figure 3. Figure one just lays out the operations/actions/activity differentiation, which is then repeated in Figure 2. I would have skipped it but I wasn't sure that everyone would be familiar with it. The point of Figure 2 is that the same operations become different actions depending on the motive for which they are done. You can walk past a group of people loading pallets and, unless you know what to look for, you won't be able to tell whether they are cooperating or competing, trying to control the work or trying to beat a productivity standard.

Geoff, in response to your comment about "motive" versus "use" -- the difference is in the perspective. Compare "What is his action motivated by?" with "What is his action used for?"

My work, and therefore the stuff I write about, is very practical. Often the opportunity to figure out what is going on goes past very quickly. Therefore I need an analytic framework against which I can sort out the critical elements of the situation fast, but still go back and check on them as the data accumulates.

What else can I say? Thanks for your readings -- Helena

Helena Worthen, Clinical Associate Professor
Labor Education Program, School of Labor and Employment Relations, University of Illinois
504 E. Armory, Room 227
Champaign, IL 61820
Phone: 217-244-4095

-----Original Message-----
From: [] On Behalf Of Geoff
Sent: Friday, December 19, 2008 3:06 PM
To:; eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] Helena on Negotiating Knowledge

At the risk of bringing in the discussion from another topic... I
don't find the explanation within Helena's paper of motive useful. (!)

I dare say that if the word motive was replaced with use, the paper
would read just as well, and we'd not be searching for 'motivation'.

I find the Leont'ev example telling:
'the same behavior (lifting a tool) could produce a successful or
unsuccessful therapy depending on what motivated it. An exercise
performed merely as exercise (gymnastics) would be ineffective; the
same exercise performed for a purpose that made sense (carpentry)
would be effective.'

I'd suggest that the 'motive' in this example is actually derived from
different understandings (furnished by the therapist?) as to what use
the activity has. As such, motivation is a second order phenomenon, a
necessary by-product of activity, not its source.


2008/12/19 Andy Blunden <>:
> Paul,
> I will not think of responding to the questions about Helena's paper, but
> just briefly in relation to "need." I just saw for the first time, ANL's
> footnote to AC&P:
> "Such restricted understanding of motive as that object (material or ideal)
> that evokes and directs activity toward itself differs from the generally
> accepted understanding; but this is not the place to enter into polemics on
> the question."
> Yes, of course. I have tended to try to interpret the "object" as a state of
> affairs or the resolution of a problem. All of which is fine, but I still
> think it is insufficient.
> I presume that Leontyev's ideas can be traced back to Marx's comments about
> human needs, as in the 1844 Manuscripts particularly, though the
> observations that you quote as well. Also, Engstrom did resolve some of the
> difficulties in ANL's thinking that I am criticising. What I want to do
> though is to appropriate Hegel more directly for Activity Theory.
> Andy
> Paul Dillon wrote:
>> Andy,
>> Could you explain to me the difference between "producing knowledge" as
>> the object of an activity system, and "learning" as the transformation of
>> an activity system (Engestrom's interp. as I understand it). I have been
>> trying figure that out in relation to Helena's paper.
>> This is also related to the following: What is the difference between
>> Fig. 2 and Fig. 3? Where are the contradictions in the activity system,
>> i.e., lev 1 or 2 in terms of Engestrom's model that produce the "need",
>> generate the double bindf, etc.? I've laid them out side by side and can't
>> find them.
>> This goes to the motive/project discussion about "need". As I understand
>> it, a need is the awareness of a problem that "needs to be resolved" with
>> respect to some activity. Marx's discussion of photography (writing in
>> 1860) as the generator of new needs or how thieves are productive workers
>> because they generate a need for locks, cops, etc. are important.
>> Paul
>> Paul
>> --- On *Thu, 12/18/08, Andy Blunden /<>/* wrote:
>> From: Andy Blunden <>
>> Subject: [xmca] Helena on Negotiating Knowledge
>> To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <>
>> Date: Thursday, December 18, 2008, 8:51 PM
>> I think we can't delay any longer bringing into our discussions Helena
>> Worthen's article on using activity theory to study the development and
>> use
>> of Negotiating Knowledge in the world of
>> work.
>> So I have just scanned my copy of the article and it is attached for
>> you all.
>> Steve, with all your time in the labor movement, you'll like this one!!
>> as
>> I'm sure others
>> will.
>> Andy
>> --
>> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> Andy Blunden +61 3 9380 9435 Skype
>> andy.blunden
>> Hegel's Logic with a Foreword by Andy Blunden:
>> _______________________________________________
>> xmca mailing list
> --
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Andy Blunden +61 3 9380 9435 Skype andy.blunden
> Hegel's Logic with a Foreword by Andy Blunden:
> _______________________________________________
> xmca mailing list

Geoffrey Binder
BA (SS) La Trobe, BArch (Hons) RMIT
PhD Candidate
Global Studies, Social Sciences and Planning RMIT
Ph B. 9925 9951
M. 0422 968 567
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Received on Sat Dec 20 15:05:56 2008

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