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Thank to Dartmouth, workshop participants, and respondent.
A little about me. For the last 20 years, I’ve been conducting workplace research (brief description). And I’ve been doing this with cultural-historical activity theory, or CHAT—a theoretical framework that comes out of Soviet psychology. It has been a good framework for guiding these case studies of labor in bounded workplace contexts. And it’s also been useful to many others working in professional communication studies and other subfields interested in writing.
But a couple of years ago, I thought about applying this Soviet framework to my new research on entrepreneurship. The irony is obvious, but it also got me thinking about the limitations and mismatches between CHAT and the studies I had been conducting.
Warning: This talk will deal with some inside baseball. I’ll start with why CHAT was methodologically attractive to us when we picked it up 20+ years ago. I’ll discuss its fit, but also its methodological problems. Finally, I’ll give the briefest sketch of a proposal for doing something about it.
please allow me a personal milestone. In 1996, 20 years ago, I published my first article on CHAT (Spinuzzi 1996). No, please don’t read it. It’s not particularly good work and it gets some things flat wrong. But it does reflect early interest in CHAT in rhetoric and writing circles.
Why did we become interested in CHAT? It’s not just because of our well-known love for triangles (cf. Kinneavy 1971). Rather, it solved a methodological problem that we faced. To understand that methodological problem, let’s recall the writing studies milieu in the mid-1990s—and the crisis that we faced at the time.
In this milieu, composition studies in the US was struggling to define itself as a field. Recall that through most of the 20th century, composition in the US was generally not considered to be a field of study—rather, it was considered to be a pedagogical specialization, and an uninteresting one at that.
James Kinneavy: “Composition is so clearly the stepchild of the English department that it is not a legitimate area of concern in graduate studies, is not even recognized as a subdivision of English ... , in some universities is not a valid area of scholarship for advancement in rank, and is generally the teaching province of graduate assistants or fringe members of the department" (p.1).
Over a decade later, Kinneavy’s colleague Maxine Hairston, CCCC’s chair for 1985, delivered a fiery speech in which she hailed composition’s gains, but argued that those gains would be minimal as long as compositionists remained bound to their colleagues in literature, the “intimate enemy” they faced. Hairston exhorted us to enact that separation by developing our own theories—and by doing research that could support and extend those theories.
That is, for writing studies to emerge as a discipline, it needed to develop a research orientation. To extend Hairston’s point, composition studies had a broad research object, which was composition. But a research object was not enough to anchor a field. It also needed a paradigm within which to understand its research object and the boundaries of its investigation. It needed one or more methodologies that could underlie, motivate, and guide research. It needed rigorous methods that fit within those methodologies and that could lead researchers to investigate phenomena consistently. And it needed rigorous techniques for implementing those methods.
Unfortunately, there was no unanimity about what this research field should look like. Several research agendas sprang up, drawing from different bodies of knowledge but without an agreed-upon paradigm for validating and connecting research. Not coincidentally, a rash of framework essays appeared in the composition literature (e.g., Berlin 1988; Faigley 1986; Kent 1993), each attempting to categorize different schools of thought in composition studies.
To understand these schools of thought, let’s look at the framework essay by Hairston’s colleague Lester Faigley (1986). Like the others cited here, Faigley sums up three competing camps: expressivists, cognitivists, and social constructionists.
The expressivists, who focused on individuals’ authentic expression of their innermost feelings, had a comparatively thin, anecdotal research tradition.
The cognitivists, in contrast, systematically investigated and compared individuals’ writing processes, drawing on information-processing cognitive psychology; they tended to draw on experiments and think-aloud protocols to map out processual structures that writers had in common.
Finally, the social constructionists applied the proposition that “human language (including writing) can be understood only from the perspective of a society rather than a single individual” (p.535). They drew from social sciences such as sociology and anthropology as well as humanities disciplines such as philosophy.
The struggle for a research paradigm, then, had been joined by the mid-1980s. Expressivism, which lacked a strong external empirical tradition, was an early casualty. That left two contenders, each of which drew from established research traditions rooted in other fields.
Cognitivism drew empirically from cognitive psychology, while
social constructionism drew empirically from sociology and anthropology.
Exchanges grew more heated, leading to fights across the two camps (Berkenkotter 1991) and even “sweeping generalizations about the character or ethos of researchers in general,” as Faigley’s colleague Davida Charney put it (1998).
Meanwhile, writing studies began to develop research methods textbooks, but these textbooks tended to be paradigm-agnostic, presenting different methodologies as legitimate but paradigmatically separate ways to investigate research questions (Kirsch & Sullivan 1992; Lauer & Asher 1988). The methodologies sat uneasily next to each other, barely interacting, like shy teenagers at a dance.
This state of affairs was problematic for a lot of scholars, including Charney’s future colleague—me. As a brand new PhD student in 1994, I read the framework essays and the exchanges in our field’s journals, and I felt torn.
I was intrigued by the cognitive approach. It seemed critical to examine the development of individuals as they learned and integrated writing skills.
But I also recognized the wisdom of the social constructionist perspective. We also needed to understand how people use shared language to meet social objectives.
If only we could put these two together, yielding something …
It was at about this point that David R. Russell visited a graduate seminar in which I was enrolled. He discussed a paper he had been working on, which was about CHAT.
CHAT, of course, was and is sociocognitive. That is, it theorizes and investigates cognition as thoroughly social. In doing so, it offered one solution to the tangled methodological problem that composition studies faced: It addressed the social-cognitive divide by presenting a dialectical synthesis of the two. It was oriented toward individual and social development, making it a strong contender not only for pedagogical research but also for research into writing in other contexts (such as the professional contexts I wanted to investigate). It provided a way to integrate different methodologies. Thus it also allowed a way to reinterpret and integrate previous work in both paradigms.
CHAT began to be taken up by a variety of composition scholars, including Bazerman (1997), Berkenkotter & Huckin (1995), Haas (1996), Russell (1995, 1997a, b), and Winsor (1999). It wasn’t the only one. But CHAT gained ground, especially in professional communication studies.
Why was CHAT such a good fit? It’s a very long story, but here’s the Cliff’s Notes version, courtesy of Yrjö Engeström (1996).
1GAT In the first generation, in the early years of the Soviet union, Lev Vygotsky developed the idea of mediation (Vygotsky 1978, 2012; cf. Engeström 1996, p.132), in which an individual could control her own actions using physical or psychological tools. NEW SOVIET MAN
2GAT As the Soviet Union slid into Stalinism, A.N. Leontiev shifted the unit of analysis to the cyclical mediated activity (LABOR) of a collective. He also developed the levels of activity (Leont’ev 1978; Leontyev 1981).
3GAT Here, AT migrates out of the Soviet Union to the West. It’s taken up by Finnish work researcher Yrjo Engeström, who provided a graphical heuristic (and added a component, rules). he integrated contradictions, making them crucial to CHAT analysis. he expanded the analysis to activity networks, that is, two or more interacting activity systems. Simultaneously it’s taken up by Danish HCI researcher Susanne Bodker, who uses it to theorize participatory design methodology.
The result of this third generation of activity theory was a more focused examination of interpretation; interactions, especially disagreements; and a link to existing hermeneutic theory that had already been taken up in writing studies.
Again, CHAT was not the only way to skin this cat. But it worked.
But keep in mind that CHAT was attractive to us because it solved a particular methodological problem well. Now, over 20 years later, our methodological landscape has changed. We have other problems—and CHAT is arguably not as well equipped to solve them.
First, some background.
in its third generation, activity theory migrated out of the Soviet Union and was reoriented from general psychological problems (consciousness, personality) to design research. This shift has been underexplored in the literature, yielding confusion at different points. For instance, David Bakhurst complains that third-generation activity theory has strayed from “a fundamental explanatory strategy” to “a method for modelling activity systems with a view to facilitating not just understanding, but practice. Activity theory in [this] sense is, among other things, a way of modelling organizational change” (p.205). And “What we have is a model or a schema that has minimal predictive power” (p.206).
When Bakhurst complains about 3GAT being descriptive but not predictive, he is half correct. 2GAT was oriented toward prediction, but 3GAT is oriented toward deliberation. What are our shared problems? How can we adequately describe them? How can we, as researchers and participants, address them to improve our shared lives?
This orientation was just what was needed in studies of work organization and human-computer interaction. (See the retrospectives in Engestrom and Glaveanu 2012 and Bodker 2009.) But it also made sense in studies of writing, especially professional writing: like work org and HCI, writing studies involve both examining and facilitating participants’ work, exploring their tacit knowledge along with them, and (frequently) deliberating with them about how to better improve their writing practice. That is, in developing to become a basis for design research, 3GAT became a suitable framework for researching writing as design work: work in which individuals and groups cyclically take up, apply, iterate, and innovate cultural tools to meet recurrent objectives.
The reorientation leads us to fundamental changes—and methodological problems.
The first methodological problem, application, is also the simplest. CHAT was attractive to us in the mid-1990s because it offered a sociocognitive framework, one that unified both social and cognitive concerns under one framework.
But in the intervening years, the “socio” has overshadowed the “cognitive.” in practice, it’s most frequently being used as a social framework.
In rhetoric and composition research, we have attempted to synthesize activity theory with, or at least bring it into dialogue with, other theories, including dialogism (e.g., Russell 2010). Yet the tension between dialectics and dialogics, monoperspectivism and multiplicity, modernism and postmodernism, remains latent in CHAT’s theoretical apparatus: deeply embedded concepts such as objective, contradiction, activity system, and activity network are arguably problematic.
second-generation activity theory was built around the cyclical transformation of an objective that, although it could be perceived differently, really had just one true essence. Third-generation activity theory adapted the approach, but in applying it to networks of intersecting activities, it legitimized objectives with multiple valid perspectives. As it was applied to further and broader cases, the shared objectives became further blurred and harder to describe using a single definition.
With 3GAT’s shift to design research comes the concept of activity networks, i.e., networks of activity systems. It is necessary when analyzing design within interconnected systems of expertise.
This interconnection of activities leads to three related subproblems.
4a. a participant in a given activity must engage in horizontal learning, learning enough to coordinate, cooperate, and collaborate with those in interconnected activities.
4b. since activities are dynamic, their connections must change and impinge on each other constantly. quaternary contradictions (Engestrom 1987/2014) The individual’s learning looks less like a steady spiral or cycle (Engestrom 1996) and more like eddies (Spinuzzi 2008).
4c. interconnected activities may not follow the same transformational cycle. cycles can interfere with each other, producing interrupted or multisided development as well as erratic or stochastic contradictions between the activities. This issue has not been discussed in the CHAT literature, but it is discussed extensively in the warfare theory of John Boyd (e.g., Osinga 2007).
I’ve noted here that the shift from 2GAT to 3GAT involved a repositioning to design research and other changes. But more broadly, each generation of AT had to respond to changes in the rhetorical environment—that is, because of some shift in the environment, an argument that was once persuasive suddenly became less persuasive. To keep going as an enterprise, AT had to change up its argument. An argument that worked in the USSR of 1926 no longer worked in 1936; one that worked in the USSR of 1970 had to be repositioned for Finland in 1986.
When we consider the development of CHAT in this way—as an often-idealistic, often-opportunistic argument unfolding across time, developing cultural psychology across different rhetorical environments—we should consider that we are nearing yet another pivot point. the question is no longer that of whether we can stick with CHAT. It’s how we might participate in that ongoing argument in a changed rhetorical environment.
AT is being applied to field studies without also being applied to smaller-scale studies of defined sociocognitive phenomena.
One such phenomenon has been core to CHAT since the initial work by Vygotsky and his colleagues: mediation. Those researchers explored phenomena such as memory aided by cultural tools, including texts. Today, when we are arguably surrounded by more texts and genres than ever before, how might we reimagine these early, focused studies of mediation in a setting that is more controlled than a field study? Even those of us who are interested in workplace research might consider sustained focus on text-mediated actions such as reading a document, scheduling a week’s work, or brainstorming.
Bazerman has discussed ...
As mentioned, Engestrom interprets Bakhtinian heteroglossia as a variation of dialectic that can help us understand expansive transitions in social terms rather than in terms of individual thought (1987/2014, p.248). But Bakhtinian dialogism is substantially different from the dialectic on which Leontiev’s work is based: it is unfinalizable; it resists the monologism implied in 1GAT and 2GAT; it acknowledges different understandings without validating one over another. It is, in short, a better fit for addressing emergent object(ive)s in multi-stakeholder deliberations. It is also a better fit with the concept of multiplicity. (More on this in a moment.)
As researchers in a field that makes textual interpretation central, a field that has deep familiarity with Bakhtin, we should find this shift easy in practice. A harder proposition is that of rethinking activity theory around this new core. In this undertaking, we might look to the analogous work of Andy Blunden (2010), who has proposed rebuilding CHAT around the unit of collaborative projects.
Each object(ive) in an activity network is multiple. And that means more than multiperspectival or polycontextual, terms that have been used in 3GAT to address the inevitable differences in understanding that different research participants have. I use the term as it has been used by researchers such as de Laet and Mol (de Laet and Mol 2000; Mol 2002): object(ive)s are not only taken up in different ways in different activities, but they are ontologically different things. Mol (2002) shows that one object, atherosclerosis, is defined, detected, measured, and treated in radically different ways by specialists, even though the specialists use the same term for it and it retains enough relative coherence that they can coordinate their work. Such object(ive)s are not “out-there,” but they are also not “in-here,” in the imaginations of individual practitioners; they are “among-us,” made coherent enough and stable enough to ground interactions within a network of activities.
The multiple object(ive) makes sense in a dialogic CHAT—in theory. But in practice, it represents a sharp about-face from Leontiev’s 2GAT understanding of activity. Again, we might look to Blunden’s (2010) proposal as a model for discussing the changes we might need from a 4GAT.
Finally, I mentioned that one outstanding problem of 3GAT is the question of how networked activities’ cycles interfere with each other. As Blunden (2010) complains, Leontiev’s activity theory provides us with a single managerial viewpoint, one in which all participants’ labor is bent toward a single, monoperspectival object(ive). Once we give up on this single managerial viewpoint, and once we acknowledge the interactions across activity systems, we raise the issue of quaternary contradictions across networks of activity. Left relatively unexplored is the question of whether the activity systems in a network might contradict each other by transforming a common object(ive) with varying cycles.
Such interferences are central to the work of John Boyd, an autodidact military theorist whose legacy is composed almost entirely of slide decks. Boyd argued that each entity, from individual organisms to armies, interacts with its environment through a cycle in which it observes, orients, decides, and acts (the so-called OODA loop). If that entity is an adversary, one can interfere with its OODA loop by isolating it physically, mentally, or morally. (Intriguingly, Boyd cites Lenin as one source for his argument.)
Boyd focused on exploiting the dissonance of cycles to gain competitive advantage. But we might instead explore how cycles become synchronized to reinforce beneficial interactions across linked activities. My colleagues and I glancingly addressed this issue earlier this year (Spinuzzi et al. 2016) by exploring how entrepreneurs were selected to enter an entrepreneurial training program in part because they could be synchronized with multiple cycles: a local government, a university-led entrepreneurial training program, and an applicable business sector. But much more must be done to theorize and explore this question of development in activity networks.
People have pivoted CHAT before. Let’s pivot it again.
What’s wrong with CHAT?
What’s wrong with CHAT?
Clay Spinuzzi, firstname.lastname@example.org
3GAT was applied
to design research
And consequently changed in
From research subjects to
From individual to collective subjects
From prediction to description (and
From individual activities to