By Andy Blunden
Andy Blunden has been involved in activity theory circles for a long time. He has been a frequent contributor on xmca and has transcribed innumerable important works on Marxists.org (such as Vygotsky's Thinking and Speaking) as well as posting his own work.
This deep familiarity has given Blunden a familiarity of activity theory that is hard to match. But that means that he sees its drawbacks as well as its advantages. In this book, he traces its development, then critiques it, then proposes some changes to activity theory to make it truly interdisciplinary. This proposal is intriguing, and to my mind persuasive—in part.
Blunden lays out the book and its proposal in the introduction. "This work is a friendly critique of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT)," he says in the first sentence (p.3). CHAT should be interdisciplinary: "It was the difficult conditions in the Stalinist USSR which restricted the scope of CHAT to psychology, and it is the aim of this work to resolve those features of CHAT which have prevented it from fulfilling its potential as an interdisciplinary approach to the human sciences in general" (p.3). To resolve those features, Blunden attempts an "immanent critique" (p.4), one that is conducted solely through the voice of the subject matter—that is, one that offers a critique solely on the terms of the subject matter being critiqued. Based on this critique, Blunden promises, he will offer a proposal for iterating CHAT. The proposal offers these changes:
First, replace the ambiguous term activity with the concept of project:
something projected ... by the subject, rather than an object to which the subject is drawn; the subject may be an individual or many people who are united precisely in that they are pursuing the same project. A project is an on-going collection of actions and is both the aim of the actions and the process of attaining that object. A project is a concept, but every individual has a different concept of the project, these constituting the various shades of meaning and connotations to be found in representations of the project. (p.9)Second, add the concept of collaboration:
The notion of collaboration is to give definite conceptual form to the notion of 'joint' when CHAT theorists talk about 'joint activity'. Collaboration is always and essentially working together in a common project. (pp.9-10)Collaboration includes two limiting cases: management and cooperation (p.10).
Together, project and collaboration (which are "mutually constitutive") form "project collaboration as a new unit of analysis for activity. ... Nothing is changed here; only the conception of the whole, that is, the context of action" (p.10).
So this is Blunden's proposal for CHAT: replace the unit of analysis (activity) with a similar one, one that is grounded in the coincidental but not identical concepts of an ongoing shared project undertaken by different participants. It's a relatively modest proposal, but one that redirects CHAT from a Stalinist concept of a shared objective world to a more intersubjectivist stance.
As Blunden reminds us in Chapter 2, CHAT's gestation during the Stalinist period led it to suppress its "revolutionary Marxist character" (it was too revolutionary for the Stalinist milieu):
After 30 years in hiding, it escaped only to take root in the bastion of capitalism and anti-communism, where in order to survive it had to keep its Marxism under wraps. But in a double irony, the crisis which befell Marxism in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union left CHAT largely unscathed, because of the non-political shape it had adopted for the purposes of survival in the past. (p.21)To get us to his proposal, Blunden must review this history. He reviews the intellectual foundations of CHAT in Goethe (Ch.3), Hegel (Ch.4-9), and Marx (Ch.10-12), then turns to the contributions of Vygotsky (Ch.14-18). From there, he reviews the development of activity theory in the USSR (Ch.19-24) and the development in the West under Engestrom and Cole (Ch.25-26). That's a lot to cover—it's a long book, and the above is just the history review, not the later part of the book where Blunden makes his proposal—so I'll just hit the highlights here.
In Ch.7, Blunden reviews the Hegelian contrast between the abstract and the concrete. "By 'abstract' Hegel means undeveloped, lacking in connections with other things, thin in content, formal; as opposed to 'concrete', which means mature, developed, having many nuances and connections with other concepts, rich in content. He does not use the words abstract and concrete to indicate anything like the difference between mental and material" (p.62). (This passage helped me to better understand the notion of ascending from the abstract to the concrete.)
In Ch.11, Blunden notes that Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach" was "surely the founding document of Activity Theory, even though it remained unknown until after the author's death" (p.94). Later in the chapter, Blunden notes that according to Marx, "Social activity is possible only thanks to the use of artifacts of some kind (including words and images, but also land, etc.) with which people identify themselves and each other. Symbols and icons are invariably used in this way to constitute social groups; there is no 'natural' form of political association. All these symbols are meaningful because of their connection with certain concrete concepts, associated with certain modes of life. Just as Feuerbach demonstrated in relation to Christian imagery, all social formations represent themselves symbolically" (p.101).
In Ch.12, Blunden gets to Marx's critique of political economy. Marx notes that, in Blunden's words, "Abstraction is not just a process of thought reflecting upon activity, but a product of activity itself" (p.107). As Blunden says, this insight went relatively unnoticed until Ilyenkov picked it up and developed it within CHAT. Another, more well known insight supplied in Marx's Capital was that "All interactions between people are mediated by artifacts" (p.111, Blunden's italics). So those artifacts become vested with meaning and value. And value is not subjective, it is "embedded in real social relations sustained by the market. Value adheres to products, while at the same time, value expresses nothing more than the relation between the consumer and producer of the commodity" (p.112).
In Ch.13, Blunden asserts that "Marx was able to appropriate Hegel's Spirit through the notion of activity" (p.113). He also notes that Marx, like Goethe, developed tools to support holistic analysis. Goethe uses the figure in which "'the light of the Sun is reflected in every droplet of water'" (qtd. in Blunden p.115), a figure that Vygotsky later used when arguing that word meaning should be the unit of analysis.
Vygotsky, at long last, is discussed in Ch.14, which focuses on his critique of behavioralism. As Blunden notes, Vygotsky's 1924 speech to the Congress of Psychoneurology—the speech that brought him to Luria's attention, resulting in his job in Moscow—was an immanent critique of reflexology: "Without disturbing the universal claim that 'everything is a reflex', Vygotsky had turned the concepts and methods of reflexology against themselves and proved that reflexology, that is to say, the study of the physiology of the nervous system, must merge itself with the methods and concepts of subjective psychology, its opposite" (p.122). Moreover, he demonstrated that the characteristics of behaviorism are incompatible with emancipatory human science, which was Marx's aim (p.127). Vygotsky pointed to alternatives to physiological behaviorism, including social behaviorism in the works of William James (p.128).
In Ch.15, Blunden elaborates on the "romantic science" of Vygotsky and Luria, which heavily involved collaboration "at three levels: amongst the research team, between researcher and experimental subject, and in relation to other researchers in the field. As we shall see, collaboration was not only central to their way of working, but also to the content of the theory of psychology that they developed" (pp.137-138). (I am skeptical of this point, given the fact that Luria repeatedly used subjects who were unable to decline their participation, who participated under what could be construed as implicit cultural threat, or who were too young to give informed consent. Similarly, Vygotsky primarily wrote about children in classrooms, who by definition had unequal power relations with teachers and researchers.)
In Ch.16, we read about Vygotsky's thoughts about units. This was one of the most rewarding parts of the book for me: Blunden carefully discusses what Vygotsky meant when he proposed word meaning as a unit of analysis. First, Blunden separates "unit of analysis" from "microcosm."
- Microcosm. Vygotsky says that word meaning is a "microcosm of human consciousness," that is, a phenomenon that if studied to the end (just as Pavlov did for the salivary reflex) can "unlock the entire domain of human consciousness for analysis" (pp.144-145).
- Unit of analysis. Vygotsky says that word meaning is also a "unit of verbal thinking"—not a unit of analysis for consciousness in general (p.145). Blunden quotes Vygotsky: "Word meaning is nothing other than a generalization, that is, a concept" (quoted on p.145; Vygotsky's italics). Blunden notes that here Vygotsky is in agreement with Hegel (p.145). Vygotsky's "claim is that verbal thinking, the highest development of human consciousness cannot be understood through phonetics and semantics, the 'elements' of verbal thinking" (p.146), but instead is "a unique conjunction of two distinct psychological functions" (p.146; cf. my review of Thought and Language 2ed).
At any given moment, the social situation in which the child finds themself [sic] constitutes a predicament, a predicament from which the child can only emancipate themself by making a development, that is to say, by a qualitative transformation of their own psychological structure and the structure of their relationship with those who are providing for their needs, a transformation that frees them from the constraints in which they were trapped. ... (p.154)
This is the basic concept of the social situation of development: a predicament from which the child emancipates itself by making a development. Note that this concept is radically different from the conception of social advantage/disadvantage used in positivist social science, made up of a list of factors to be added up for and against development. Rather than a list of attributes, Vygotsky gives us the concept of the social situation. (pp.154-155)In Ch.18, "The Significance of Vygotsky's Legacy," Blunden argues that "Vygotsky's greatest methodological virtue was that he always posed very specific problems entailing quite specific functions of individual human beings; he never operated with abstract generalizations. His is a cultural psychology, but he used no abstractions to represent culture; we hear nothing of 'social norms', 'social class', or 'the dominant ideology'; he just deals with two people using an artifact together" (p.164). This parsimony intrigues Blunden—and me as well. But it has drawbacks: "Without further qualification, the picture of society that Vygotsky leaves us with is that of a mass of dyads or small family groups, using a common resource of artifacts, but we have no way of conceptualizing how those dyads and groups interact with one another to form a social formation. Nor actually do we have any idea of the source of motivation for the actions individuals carry out, and this is the most serious problem" (p.164). With this insight, Blunden takes us to the discussion of activity theory.
In Ch.19, he begins the section on activity theory by arguing along with Davydov that activity should be an interdisciplinary area of study, not confined to psychology (by historical accident) (p.171). Beginning with AN Leontyev, Blunden discusses the basics of activity theory, including a discussion of Leontyev's take on Engels' origin story (p.175). After some discussion, Blunden concludes, "Human life is thus conceived as a system of needs and the means of their satisfaction. But it is striking that in this view, the human being is seen in continuity with the natural world, as just another organism pursuing the objects of its needs" (p.176).
Skipping to Ch.21: Here, Blunden discusses criticisms of Vygotsky's concept of activity. Summarizing the earlier discussion, Blunden says that a unit of analysis
- is a conception of a singular, individual thing
- exhibits properties of a class of more developed phenomena
- is itself an existent phenomenon (p.190).
The core idea here makes abundant sense, but its use without a realistic sense of social life in any epoch undermines its value. All that is required here is to detach this key idea from the Stalinist fairy tale. (p.218)(From a rhetorical perspective, I would argue that the fairy tale was what allowed AT to survive. Now its further survival hinges on how easily that fairy tale can be detached. And in another milieu, what other baggage will AT have to take on or shed? But that's a Latourean analysis, not an AT one.)
Blunden further argues that Leontyev's notion of the object is either tautological—"the object of activity is the outcome toward which it tends"—or "devoid of meaning," just a reification of the activity itself (p.219). Blunden wraps up by noting that "what is needed is a psychology which recognizes the diversity of real relations to be found in bourgeois society here and now"; "So as a theory of psychology Leontyev's activity theory still works, just so long as the content of 'activity' is not taken too seriously. But in that case, what does activity theory add to Vygotsky's original formulation?" (p.221).
Chapter 22 tackles the question of groups. Blunden argues that identity is central to the formation of social subjects, yet the problem of identity seems to have escaped Leontyev's attention; it is presumed rather than explained (p.223). Drawing on Lektorsky, Blunden argues that "identity is always contested, multiple, and conditional, but never individual" (p.225). Yet Leontyev's only mode of identity is group membership (p.226).
Chapter 23 gets to Engestrom's model, the famous triangle, which Blunden says "tackled a lot of the problems in Leontyev's model": specifically a "three-way relationship of mutual mediation" (p.229). Blunden notes that Engestrom presents the activity system as a "root model," but not a unit of analysis—and Blunden adds that it really can't be one, even though it is deployed as one (p.230). The triangle is a "handy pocket manual of social analysis," but not a concept per se (p.232).
Skipping ahead a bit, let's get to Blunden's wrap-up of his immanent critique. He argues that one cannot include context (open-ended totality) in a unit of analysis—doing so wrecks the unit of analysis (p.251). And this brings us to Blunden's proposal, mentioned in Chapter 1 and elaborated in Ch. 28-on.
In Ch.28, he proposes a new unit of activity: project collaboration (p.255). The rest of the chapter elaborates on the constituent elements, collaboration and project. (cf. my own All Edge, which discusses project collaboration but does not elaborate it theoretically to nearly the same degree). Here, artifacts are also projects; actions may belong to multiple projects (p.257). Collaboration in a project is active in contrast to object-oriented activity, which implies a passive response (p.257).
Blunden also discusses some limiting cases of collaboration: management (hierarchical cooperation) vs. division of labor, which itself can be subdivided into cooperation (divided labor, no mutual critique) and exchange of commodities (that is, a market) (pp.259-260).
In any case, the collaborative project is the unit of analysis for activity (p.260). (Here, Blunden is interested in bounding the context of the activity. For some parallel thinking on this problem, see my "Losing by Expanding.") Such projects can nest in each other. To identify such a project, Blunden says, we must start not with societal needs but with people's motivations (p.262).
In Ch.30, Blunden boldly argues that Leontyev's activity theory is incompatible with Marx's critique of political economy, since Leontyev insists that "each system of activity is objectively motivated by an object, which is a need of the whole society" and thus satisfies a definite social need (p.275).
Let's skip to the last chapter. Blunden ends by essentially saying that he has settled the unit of analysis: "This work has now been done, and the meaning and significance of the idea of unit of analysis has been settled. ... the proposal has to be responded to" (p.317). You have no choice, reader!
We always have a choice. But I am intrigued by this proposal—intrigued enough to spend three hours (!) writing this review. And as you may have noticed by my links to my own works, this book gets at some things that I have been trying to think through (although not nearly to the extent Blunden has). If you're also thinking through activity theory and its implications, I urge you to pick up this book. Even if you are not convinced of Blunden's critiques and proposal, you will find some valuable and thought-provoking work here.