From ZPD to WAGR: An Activity Theory Primer

An Activity Theory Primer


I recently gave a talk to members of Frontera Retorica, a graduate student chapter of the Rhetoric Society of America at the University of Texas at El Paso (and also my grad school alma mater!). They asked me to talk a bit about activity theory basics and some things that researchers in writing and rhetoric might consider when using AT to design a study.

What follows is a written version of my talk.

Tl;dr: a very basic overview of activity theory and why it’s useful, a perspective on why AT and rhetorical genre studies go together like PB&J, and some brief thoughts on deploying AT in studies of writing and rhetoric. If you’re an AT veteran, there’s nothing new here; if you’re new to AT, this may be useful!

AT as a theoretical frame

Nardi (1996) notes that activity theory is a “a research framework and set of perspectives,” not a hard and fast methodology or single theory (p. 7).

Another way of thinking about activity theory is as a particular governing gaze (Emig, 1982); it’s a way of viewing everyday human activity, with a corresponding framework and relatively stable nomenclature for understanding that activity.

Grounded in dialectical materialism, “activity theory focuses on practice, which obviates the need to distinguish ‘applied’ from ‘pure’ science—understanding everyday practice in the real world is the very objective of scientific practice” (Nardi, 1996, p. 7).

Activity theory, therefore, “is a powerful and clarifying descriptive tool rather than a strongly predictive theory. The object of activity theory is to understand the unity of consciousness and activity," (Nardi, 1996, p. 7) a very Vygostkian perspective (more on that below).

Activity theory is rooted in the phenomenological facets of lived experience: “consciousness is located in everyday practice: you are what you do” (Nardi, 1996, p. 7). And what you do, as Vygotsky, Lave and Wenger (1991), Nardi and O’Day (1999), and Kaptelinin and Nardi (2006), have pointed out, is “firmly and inextricably embedded in the social matrix of which every person is a part,” a matrix comprised of people, histories, genres, technologies, and material artifacts (Nardi, 1996, p. 7). Activity theory “incorporates strong notions of intentionality, history, mediation, collaboration and development in constructing consciousness” (Nardi, 1996, p. 7).

Indeed, mediation is perhaps the key theoretical idea behind activity. We don’t just use tools and symbol systems; instead, our everyday lived experience is significantly mediated and intermediated by our use of tools and symbols systems. Activity theory helps frame, therefore, our understanding of such mediation.

What mediates the everyday lived experience of contemporary individuals absent of writing and rhetoric? Almost nothing…

In this sense, we might view activity theory as a methodological foundation for studying lived experience, following Spinuzzi (2003): “a methodology is the theory, philosophy, heuristics, aims, and values that underlie, motivate, and guide the method[s]” (p. 7).

A Generational History of AT (aka “CHAT”)

Proto-First Generation

The work of Russian psychologist Vygotsky and his students in the early 1930s may be seen as the (proto)first generation of AT (though most everyone agrees that this wasn’t actually activity theory, as we’ve come to know it; instead, Vygotsky and his colleagues were exploring sociocultural psychology). His main works detailing some of the perspectives (particularly mediation) that would later come to be known as activity theory are:

  • Vygotsky, L. (1934/1986). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.

Both books are accessible in translation, and contain many of the formative ideas that would later be developed by AT researchers. Key ideas include a strong focus on material and symbolic mediation, internalization of external (social, societal, and cultural) forms of mediation, and the zone of proximal development (ZPD)—the distance between what an individual (child, in Vygotsky’s work) can accomplish on her own, versus what she can accomplish with the help of another (more advanced or even expert) individual.

Vygotsky saw the past and present as fused within the individual, that the “present is seen in the light of history” (1978, p. 64). His cultural-historical psychology attempted to account for the social origins of language and thinking.

Second Generation

One of Vygotsky’s students, A.N. Leontiev, may be seen as the founder of AT proper. We can consider his work the second generation of activity theory (though this is sometimes seen as the first generation AT; see Engeström, 1999, for more details on the “generations” of AT). His main works include:

  • Leontiev, A.N. (1978). Activity, consciousness, and personality. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Leontiev, A.N. (1981). Problems of the development of mind. Moscow: Progress.

Several of Leontiev’s most important works, translated into English, may be found online, here.

Leontiev’s breakthrough was primarily twofold: first he theorized activity as resulting from the confluence of a human subject, the object of his/her activity (predmet in Russian—“the target or content of a thought or action” (Kaptelinin, 2005, p. 6)), and the tools (including symbol systems) that mediate the object(ive); second, he saw activity as essentially tripartite in structure, being comprised of unconscious operations on/with tools, conscious but finite actions which are goal-directed, and higher level activities which are object-oriented and driven by motives (Leontiev, at times, seems to conflate object and motive, which is potentially problematic).

Third Generation (3GAT)

The work of Michael Cole and Yro Engeström in the 1970s and 1980s—mostly in parallel, but occasionally in collaboration—brought activity theory to a much wider audience of scholars in Scandinavia and North America. Engeström (1987) in particular is credited with expanding Leontiev’s model of activity, particularly via expansion of the basic activity triangle, an example of which may be found here.

Engeström re-envisioned Leontiev’s basic model of activity to account for assemblages of artifacts and tools and collectives of people working together to accomplish objectives. 3GAT, therefore, adds rules/norms, intersubjective community relations, and the division of labor to the basic model of activity. More importantly, Engeström theorized how multiple activity systems could share an object.

Around the same time that cultural-historical activity theory was becoming increasingly deployed as a way to understand complex human interactions in a variety of empirical and theoretical studies, other, very similar approaches were also coming to prominence, including situated cognition and situated action models (see Suchman, Gibson, Norman, Lave & Wenger, Lave, Wenger), and distributed cognition (see Hutchins, Norman).

In addition, AT was picked up by scholars in the emerging fields of human-computer interaction, interaction design, computer-supported cooperative work, and related areas to both study and theorize how technologies mediate human work, learning, and play. Sometimes scholars used AT alongside approaches like distributed cognition, and sometimes instead of those approaches (because AT was believed to offer something better). Nardi (1996) is a good place to start if you’re interested in digging into this body of work.

The majority of research in rhetoric and writing studies that calls upon an AT framework is 3GAT.

Genre as Social Action—An Interlude

In 1984, Carolyn Miller published “Genre as Social Action,” calling on ethnomethodology and social science research to see genres as “typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations” (p. 31). Miller argued that we needed to explore genres in contexts of use, and that we consider how they are developed within complex social and cultural histories, how they regulate those histories in the present, and how they situate human subjects. Genres, in short, mediate human experience. Sound familiar?

Miller wasn’t the only scholar in our field working on new approaches to (especially everyday and professional) genres around this time. Foundational work in what has been called “North American Genre Theory” or “Rhetorical Genre Studies” was developed by the following scholars in the 1980s and 1990s:

  • Bazerman
  • Schryer
  • Freedman
  • Smart
  • Devitt
  • Swales
  • Yates & Olikowski (and vice versa)
  • Berkenkotter & Huckin
  • and many, many others

Bawarshi & Reiff (2010) argue that RGS “has tended to focus more on how genres enable their users to carry out situated symbolic actions rhetorically and linguistically, and in so doing, to perform social actions and relations, enact social roles, and frame social realities” (p. 59). Genres, as Schryer (1993) has famously argued, are only stable-for-now; they change and develop, they carry along cultural and institutional histories, and yet they seem solid, stable, and even permanent in actual practice. Their use within a given workplace, classroom, discipline, culture, etc., helps maintain, reproduce, and frame the social realities of lived experience.

Everyday contexts, therefore, are viewed by RGS scholars “as an ongoing, intersubjective performance, one that is mediated by genres and other culturally available tools” (Bawarshi & Reiff, 2010, p. 59). Again, this should be sounding very familiar, and very congruent with the general framework of 3GAT. “RGS scholars,” Bawarshi & Reiff argue, “have tended to understand genres as sociological concepts mediating textual and social ways of knowing, being, and interacting in particular contexts” (p. 59).

Proto-WAGR and WAGR

David Russell’s work represents the most comprehensive and salient attempts at synthesizing rhetorical genre studies and activity theory. By now, it should be plain to see that activity theory provides a framework and model for understanding how genres and the artifacts of particular genres and assemblages of genres (read “writing and rhetorical work!”) mediate human activity. Russell’s work is the reason why this synthesis seems obvious, in hindsight. Some of his key works include:

  • Russell, D. (1995). Activity theory and its implications for writing instruction. In J. Petraglia (Ed.), Reconceiving Writing, Rethinking Writing Instruction (51–76). Mahwah, NJ: LEA
  • Russell, D. (1997). Rethinking genre in school and society: An activity theory analysis. Written Communication 14(4), 504–54.
  • Bazerman, C, & Russell, D. (2002). Writing selves/writing societies: Research from activity perspectives. Ft. Collins, CO: WAC Clearninghouse.
  • Russell, D. 2009. Uses of activity theory in written communication research. In A. Sannino, H. Daniels, and K. D. Gutiérrez (Eds), Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 40–52.

Russell’s 1997 Written Communication article is magisterial, fusing Bakhtinian dialogism, dialectical materialism, rhetorical genre studies, and activity theory. I am calling these early works proto-WAGR, for in 2009, Russell would call the fusion of activity theory and RGS “writing, activity, and genre research,” or WAGR. From a WAGR perspective, written communication genres, Russell contends, are “arguably the most powerful mediational means for organizations and institutions” (2009, p. 40). Genre, therefore (and as we have seen), is a unit of social action; “the object of activity,” Russell argues, “can be seen to attain its stability, reproduction, and continuity through genres,” such that genres then serve as “crucial links between subjects, tools, and objects” (2009, p. 45).

Clay Spinuzzi, one of Russell’s most important students, has continued to develop and refine the scholarly confluence of RGS and AT. Some of his most important works include:

  • Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: A socio-cultural approach to information design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Spinuzzi, C. (2004). Four ways to investigate assemblages of texts: Genre sets, systems, repertoires, and ecologies. In SIGDOC ’04: Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Conference on Design of Communication. New York: ACM. 110–116.
  • Spinuzzi, C. (2008). Network. Cambridge: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Spinuzzi, C. (2010). Secret sauce and snake oil: Writing monthly reports in a highly contingent environment. Written Communication 27(4), 363–409.
  • Spinuzzi, C. (2011). Losing by expanding: Corralling the runaway object. Journal of Business and Technical Communication 25(4), 449–486.
  • Spinuzzi, C. (2012). Working alone together: Coworking as emergent collaborative activity. Journal of Business and Technical Communication 26(4), 399–441.

In short, activity theory is an incredibly useful and malleable framework for understanding and exploring complex, intersubjective, historically and culturally-conditioned, object-oriented human work and learning and the genres and artifacts that mediate such work and learning.

The final two Spinuzzi articles actually take us toward fourth generation activity theory…

Fourth Generation AT (4GAT)

The rise of distributed work environments and the dominance of knowledge work has made it difficult to clearly bound new kinds of activity systems and activity theoretical objects. Engeström (2009) calls for a fourth generation of activity theory; as Spinuzzi (2012) explains, knowledge work is potentially problematic to investigate with a 3GAT approach, but “4GAT understands internetworked activities by examining the interorganizational collaborations to which they contribute” (p. 404). Because 4GAT responds to the same kinds of features that have led to the coworking movement that Spinuzzi investigates in his 2012 JBTC article, he adopts a 4GAT approach, seeing coworking as “an interorganizational, collaborative object” (p. 404).

One of the reasons that 4GAT is needed is to better understand what Edwards (2009) calls multiactivity interagency. As work becomes more complex, more internetworked, and distributed across more (and different) professional domains, the utility of 3GAT becomes problematic and will need to adapt. But as several AT researchers have argued over the years, AT is not a monolithic approach; instead, it is dynamic and adaptive.

So Why Use AT/WAGR?

Different scholars will have different reasons, to be sure, but for my money, AT (and ANT, but that’s for another day) provide rich frameworks for exploring and understanding the true complexity of writing and rhetorical work in everyday practice. WAGR helps us, as researchers of writing and rhetoric, to explore, document, and understand many of the situational variables (Faigley & Witte, 1981) that impact and influence how people write and communicate, and how their written and rhetorical genres help mediate the things they do in the world.

Indeed, as Faigley & Witte argued so many years ago, “Perhaps what we need now are more observational studies of writers revising [and simply working] in nonexperimental situations rather than more studies of student writers in contrived situations” (1981, p. 412). Amen.

The Wikipedia article on AT actually answers the “so what” question well:

“AT is particularly useful as a lens [or framework] in qualitative research methodologies (e.g., ethnography, case study). AT provides a method of understanding and analyzing a phenomenon, finding patterns and making inferences across interactions, describing phenomena and presenting phenomena through a built-in language and rhetoric. A particular activity is a goal-directed or purposeful interaction of a subject with an object through the use of tools. These tools are exteriorized forms of mental processes manifested in constructs, whether physical or psychological.”

Clay Spinuzzi has started a Mendeley Group on Activity Theory, and there are hundreds of articles listed there!

Designing an AT/WAGR Study

It must be said that AT can be productively applied to many forms of inquiry. Most forms of AT scholarship, however, fall into one of two strains: empirical or theoretical. Most of the theoretical work has been developed by folks who have done lots of empirical work, or who are/have been affiliated with the Vygotskian school. Empirical work, then, is a key to AT/WAGR approaches.

Empirical studies of activity must be well-designed in terms of protocol and research questions, and well-triangulated: collecting multiple forms of data across multiple instances of collection with (preferably) multiple participants is key to understanding complex mediation. It’s nigh impossible to understand activity if you expect only one form of data to carry the weight of your inquiry…

Systematic qualitative case studies and ethnographies are common approaches. The more that a given activity system may be clearly defined, the easier it will be to apply 3GAT. The more that a given activity system is distributed, internetworked, and interorganizational, the more you will need a 4GAT approach.

Above all, you will want to understand the collective object (or at least the assumed or stated collective object) of an activity system as soon as possible; without a shared and understood object, understanding activity becomes very, very difficult (if not impossible).

What kinds of methods work best in WAGR?

  • Observation, observation, observation
    • I can’t stress enough how important extended, in situ observation is to understanding activity
  • Interviews, questionnaires, and/or surveys
  • Visual research methods where ethical, feasible, and appropriate
  • Participant-produced artifacts
  • Audio recordings (including ambient and non-obvious audio)

Participants are object-oriented, but researchers should be project-oriented. In other words, in what seem to be clear 3GAT scenarios, try to follow participants through a clearly defined project, if possible. Some examples from my own work:

  • I and R — visual ethnography, clear participant-defined work object, 8.5 months, solo
  • VBC — visual ethnography, clear participant-defined work object, 16 weeks, 4 field researchers
  • TM — systematic qualitative case study, assumed collective object, two weeks, solo
  • TM IN — visual ethnography, clear participant-defined work object, 10 months, 2 field researchers
  • Eucharist — multi-sited visual ethnography, assumed individual objects, 2+ years and counting, solo

Memo, read, code, compare, document, trace, theme. Standard qualitative research practices framed by WAGR will bear fruit and answer many potentially interesting research questions about how people use writing and rhetoric in their individual and collective activities…


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