Annotations | Nardi, 1996: Studying Context

Annotations | Nardi, 1996: Studying Context

[ NB: “Annotations” are occasional posts that explore selections from my research reading—articles or books—in rhetoric, technical and professional communication, and related fields. ]

Nardi, B. (1996). Studying context: A comparison of activity theory, situated action models, and distributed cognition. In B. Nardi (Ed.), Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction (69–102). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

In my last post, I considered how and why human beings become attached to particular artifacts and technologies. Trauman offered a compelling response in the comments area, and I thought I’d respond to at least part of his query here: how to get started with activity theory…

This semester, I’m teaching a special topics graduate seminar exploring activity theory and writing technologies. I’ve posted the syllabus for the course on Scribd, but the actual reading list is hardly innovative—it’s all the usual stuff to get one primed on the basics of AT and its application in rhetoric and writing studies. For deeper reading, have a look at Clay Spinuzzi’s list of activity theory sources on Mendeley.

But I thought I’d address some of the basics of activity theory by considering one of its primary applications: studying particularized contexts and situatedness by deploying a methodological framework (activity theory) that moves a given researcher beyond an overdetermined particularity. This is actually one of Nardi’s (1996) goals in her excellent chapter comparing activity theory to situated action models and distributed cognition.

I thought I’d kill two birds here by exploring some AT basics through an annotation of Nardi’s chapter.

This chapter of Context and Consciousness is, like the one before and the one that follows, essential reading for the budding activity theorist. Nardi explores the notion of context in a given research site by considering perspectives from three similar methodological/theoretical approaches: activity theory, situated action models, and distributed cognition. In this chapter, she asks:

  • What exactly is context?
  • What is the correct unit of analysis if the individual is no longer the primary locus?
  • What are the relations between artifacts, individuals, and social groups?

Nardi begins by making the argument (drawing on several other studies) that it is simply not possible to understand how people learn or work when the unit of analysis is “the unaided individual with no access to other people or to artifacts” (p. 69). In other words, artificial lab settings are no longer sufficient for truly approximating the complexity of human beings acting with technology. She also asks, crucially, how we might study complex, situated contexts while still producing research findings that are generalizable (p. 70).

Essentially, Nardi’s goal is to explore the three approaches noted above to see how each deals with the problem of research contexts, considering the benefits and drawbacks of each for studying HCI in particular.[1]

A situated action model, Nardi argues, “deemphasizes study of more durable, stable phenomena that persist across situations” (p. 72). Situated action models, therefore, are highly particularistic: “These analyses offer intricately detailed observations of the temporal sequencing of a particular train of events rather than being descriptive of enduring patterns of behavior across situations” (p. 72). She adds that situated action models suggests that the structuring of activity emanates from the immediacy of a given situation. This is extremely problematic, of course, because it essentially elides cultural-historical factors that surely impinge upon how a human being uses a particular artifact, for example.

Nardi moves next to a discussion of activity theory, where activity systems are the unit of analysis, comprised of “subject, object, actions, and operations,” and where the object held by any one subject “motivates activity” and gives it shape and direction (p. 73).[2] “Actions are goal-directed processes that must be undertaken to fulfill the object,” she states. Actions are conscious, and different actions may be linked in the service of the same goal. Chains of actions work in support of the more complex activity.

Objects, Nardi notes, are not immutable structures, but they also don’t change on a moment-by-moment basis, thus offering some stability (p. 74). Actions also have operational aspects—routinized, unconscious operations (such as accelerating and breaking while driving a car). Nardi points out that “Activity theory holds that the constituents of activity are not fixed but can dynamically change as conditions change. All levels can move both up and down” (p. 75).

Nardi then describes mediation as a key notion in activity theory approaches. “Artifacts carry with them a particular culture and history,” she argues, drawing on Kuutti (1991), and they are “persistent structures that stretch across activities through time and space” (p. 75). Activity theory, she argues, has a very strong notion of context: “the activity itself is the context. What takes place in an activity system composed of object, actions, and operation, is the context” (p. 76, emphasis in original). Moreover, “People consciously and deliberately generate contexts (activities) in part through their own objects; hence context is not just ‘out there’” (p. 76).

Nardi takes us next through the particulars of the distributed cognition approach, where the representation of knowledge is both in the head and in the world, that is, in and between individuals and artifacts (p. 76–77). For distributed cognition, “we cannot understand how a system achieves its goal by understanding ‘the properties of individual agents alone’” (p. 77). Distributed cognition “moves the unit of analysis to the system and finds its center of gravity in the functioning of the system” (p. 77).

In this chapter, we can see that Nardi establishes a continuum, with the constrained particularity of situated action models at one end, and the systems level approach of distributed cognition at the other. Activity theory, with its recognition of both individual particularity and collective sociocultural histories within a given context, sits somewhere in the middle of this continuum.

Nardi moves next to exploring the key differences between these frameworks, starting with how each structures or models human activity. In an activity theory approach, “activity is shaped first and foremost by an object held by the subject” (p. 79). Activity theory, therefore, emphasizes motivation and intentionality of the human or collective. This differs markedly from the situated action approach, where plans, and presumably intentions, are “retrospective reconstructions” (p. 79) that somehow justify an individual’s response to a given situation.

Nardi’s chapter is as much about research methods as it is exploring the three frameworks noted above. For example, she notes that interviewing is a way of bringing operations to a research participant’s “conscious awareness,” and that doing so can empirically demonstrate “the dynamism of the levels of activity as posited by activity theory” (p. 82). In a situated action model, Nardi argues, “what constitutes a situation is defined by the researcher; there is no definitive concept such as object that marks a situation” (p. 82). This is extremely important, methodologically: in activity theory, “the structuring of activity is determined in part, and in important ways, by human intentionality before the unfolding in a particular situation” (p. 82). So, for a researcher to identify an activity system, she can simply start with the object defined by a given research participant rather than imposing her own view (p. 82–83).

Nardi’s next section explores the important role of persistent structures. She notes that understanding the role played by persistent structures—“artifacts, institutions, and cultural values” (p. 83)—in the structuring and shaping of activity is crucial. Drawing on Leont’ev (1974), she illustrates how activity theory is “concerned with the historical development of activity and the mediating role of artifacts” (p. 83). Nardi then explores the ways in which each approach considers the mediating role of artifacts, suggesting that distributed cognition “has taken most seriously the study of persistent structures” (p. 85). In activity theory approaches, things like artifacts or the work practices in a given community are important “precisely because they span particular situations” (p. 86). In other words, the activity theorist looks for patterns that stretch across individual situations, since those patterns are indicative of larger contexts comprised of genres and norms (Engeström’s “rules”), collaborations and interactions (Engeström’s “division of labor”).

Despite the focus on artifacts, for activity theory, unlike actor network theory, “people and things are unambiguously asymmetrical” (p. 86). Nardi argues that, compared to distributed cognition’s tendency to overdetermine the cognitive properties of artifacts, “The activity theory notion of artifacts as mediators of cognition seems a more reasonable way to discuss relations between artifacts and people” (p. 87). “Activity theory says, in essence, that we are what we do,” she argues (p. 88).

One of the most important contributions of this chapter is Nardi’s argument that activity theory gives researchers a shared vocabulary and outlook on a given research site, and that this shared vocabulary and approach allows us to generalize qualitative research. She gives a compelling example of the three different walkers in a forest near the end of this chapter, and in so doing she provides an application of an activity theoretical lens—one that helps researchers see how situatedness constrains human beings, but doesn’t determine their agency.

Of activity theory, Nardi argues:

Aiming for a broader, deeper account of what people are up to as activity unfolds over time and reaching for a way to incorporate subjective accounts of why people do what they do and how prior knowledge shapes the experience of a given situation is the more satisfying path in the long run. (p. 94)

Activity theory, therefore, comes with the following methodological implications:

  1. It requires “A research time frame long enough to understand users’ objects”
  2. It requires “Attention to broad patterns of activity rather than narrow episodic fragments”
  3. It suggests “The use of a varied set of data collection techniques, including interviews, observations, video, and historical materials” (without an over-reliance on any one method)
  4. It suggests “A commitment to understanding things from users’ points of view” (p. 95)

Nardi concludes with the argument that “Activity theory seems the richest framework for studies of context in its comprehensiveness and engagement with difficult issues of consciousness, intentionality, and history” (p. 96). I would add, following Kaptelinin (1996) and Engeström (1999), the centrality of mediation (which is especially important for writing researchers), and following Tolman (1999), I would further stress the “societal nature of the human individual” (p. 71).

  1. I’m making the tacit assumption that we have much to apply from this approach to studying writing, especially as it largely occurs today, as technologically mediated human-computer interaction…  ↩

  2. If you are new to activity theory, the nomenclature can be a bit disorienting at first. “Object,” for example, refers not to an artifact, but is more akin to objective. The object is the thing motivating activity…  ↩


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