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Activity theory


Ken Friedman <[log in to unmask]>


Ken Friedman <[log in to unmask]>


Wed, 11 Oct 2000 18:18:14 +0200





text/plain (622 lines)

Activity theory

Lubomir's recent post mentions activity theory. This topic has come up
before, notably on DRS, but there has been little information available to
those who want to know more.

The La Clusaz conference was fortunate to have an expert on activity
theory, Judith Gregory of University of Oslo. Prof. Gregory earned her own
Ph.D. at the University of California at San Diego, working with the
renowned Phil Agre. Following the La Clusaz conference, she offered a
workshop that some conferees had the opportunity to attend.

Because her conference paper summarizes many of the essential aspects of
activity theory, I am taking the liberty of posting it here. It also
contains a useful reference list.

-- Ken Friedman

If you wish to use or cite this paper, please cite:

Gregory, Judith. 2000. "Activity theory in a 'trading zone' for design
research and practice." In Doctoral Education in Design. Foundations for
the Future. Proceedings of the La Clusaz Conference, 8-12 July, 2000. David
Durling and Ken Friedman, editors. Stoke-on-Trent: Staffordshire University


Activity theory in a "trading zone" for design research and practice

by Judith Gregory

University of Oslo



This paper addresses the role of social science theory in bridging
relationships between practice and research in design. I briefly introduce
core concepts and methodological principles for research and interpretation
in activity theory. I discuss my recent case study and concept of
incomplete utopian projects in electronic health record invention. From
these, I offer generalizations for design practice and research, and point
to compatibilities with other perspectives for formulating critical design
practices and doctoral education in design.


Activity theory in a "trading zone" for design research and practice

Design embodies ideas about the world, yet the nature and provenance of
these ideas may not be obvious either to designers or users. In computer
systems design, for example, these ideas often presuppose impracticable
utopias. A critical design practice necessarily straddles the material and
conceptual domains, and recent ethnographic and participatory design
research suggests how this hybrid practice can be given a principled basis.
The challenge for design education is to create a "trading zone" (Galison
1997) among the various disciplinary traditions that converge on the
contemporary practice of design.

"I intend the term 'trading zone' to be taken seriously, as a social,
material, and intellectual mortar binding together the disunified
traditions of experimenting, theorizing, and instrument building [in
subcultures of physics]. Anthropologists are familiar with different
cultures encountering one another through trade, even when the significance
of the objects traded-and of the trade itself-may be utterly different for
the two sides" (Galison 1997: 803).

"The point is that the dispersion of instrument knowledge follows no
univocal pattern. More constructively, one could say that the diversity of
technical and laboratory traditions [in physics] suggests that knowledge
diffusion is going to depend crucially on the volatile intersection arenas
of physics-the sites where chemical engineer and nuclear physicist meet,
where electronic engineer and mathematician work on the computer-in short,
on the "trading zone" between groups with different technical traditions.
For it is there that we can begin to capture the inevitably incomplete, but
essential coordination between the different subcultures of physics"
(Galison 1997: xx1).

Galison writes of the importance of heterogeneity in the material culture
of the laboratory as it moves through branches (subcultures) of physics.
Analyzing how extraordinarily diverse scientific subcultures form a culture
as a whole, he employs the metaphor of trading zones to discuss how "finite
traditions with their own dynamics  are linked not by homogenization, but
by local coordination" (Galison 1997: 803). Galison argues that "science is
disunified, and-against our first intuitions-it is precisely this
disunification of science that brings strength and stability.  Different
traditions of theorizing, experimenting, instrument making, and engineering
meet-even transform one another-but for all that, they do not lose their
separate identities and practices" (Galison 1997: 781-782).

Trading zones are useful for thinking about the heterogeneity of design
traditions and practices, and how we may collaborate in shared projects.
Trade does not require equivalences in meanings but rather partial sharing
of meanings; nor do trading zones have or require permanency but rather
specific joint purposes. Galison's metaphor of trading zones extends the
concept of a boundary object (Star 1989) and suggests how a design space
may be constituted for what I call incomplete utopian projects in design
and invention (Gregory 2000).

Given the interdisciplinary nature of design, how can doctoral programs in
design create trading zones for artfully integrative work? How may we
create theoretical and methodological toolkits that are open,
heterogeneous, flexible to multi-disciplinary and situated practices yet
coherent and analytically powerful? What does activity theory offer in the
way of analytical tools for understanding changing contexts of design,
methods of field research (ethnography, video documentation),
interpretation of qualitative case studies, methodologies for intervention
(action research, developmental work research), and reflection on design
practices in relationships with the worlds for which design interventions
are intended? How may compatible and complementary theories, methods,
traditions, and perspectives be productively combined?

My discussion draws from the findings of my recent doctoral research in an
ambitious electronic health record design project during its early
iterative prototyping phase (1993-98), my current work in the System
Development (Systemarbeid) group in the Department of Informatics,
University of Oslo, and my doctoral training in the Department of
Communication, University of California-San Diego. The extended
ethnographic study about which I write was situated in the early
prototyping phase (1993-98) of a large-scale co-development project between
a major U.S. health care company and a state-of-the-art clinical
informatics software company (Gregory 2000). My doctoral research is framed
primarily by an activity theoretical perspective, with influences from
situated action, science and technology studies and feminist critiques of

I begin by briefly introducing core concepts and methodological principles
for research and interpretation in activity theory. I discuss my recent
case study and concept of incomplete utopian projects in electronic health
record invention. From these, I offer generalizations for design practice
and research, and point to compatibilities with other perspectives for
formulating critical design practices and doctoral education in design.

Activity theory: core concepts. How is activity theory distinguished as a
theoretical framework? The importance of the activity theoretical stress on
expertise as collaborative activity, the fundamentally collaborative nature
of work and expertise, teams and networks (in which individuals
collaborate), and "cognition in the wild" (Hutchins 1995) should not be
underestimated in contrast to mainstream stress on the psychological states
of individuals (the dominant frame in organizational psychology), cognition
as a matter of mind to be studied in controlled experiments (a dominant
frame in medical informatics, for example), object-oriented software
programming, and abstract "logical" modeling (simulation modeling,
enterprise and data modeling of business practices).

Among core concepts, activity theory emphasizes: situated
activity--collaborative nature of human activity in situated contexts
(activity systems, organizations and institutions, communities of
practice); artifactual resources and material-semiotic mediation; detailed
internal structure of activities; objects of activity (motives);
dialogicality and voice, sense and meaning; "free play" qualities of ideas
in arts, sciences, and technological invention; emerging activities,
novelty and envisioning; continuous learning and cycles of expansion
(expansion transitions).

Situated activity: collaborative human activity in cultural-historical
contexts. Through the concept of activity, activity theory organizes
attention differently than in either structuralist or individualist
theories. Activity constitutes and is constituted by social individuals
acting within the lifeworlds of communities of practice (Lave and Wenger
1991; Wenger 1998). An activity system always involves communities of
practice, within larger communities and networks of activity systems (e.g.,
Korpela, Olufokunbi and Sorian 1998). Contexts of activities may be
conceived as organizational context, sociohistorical context, situated
contexts-or all of these.

Artifactual resources and material-semiotic mediation. Activity theory
emphasizes mediated action and mediation by signs, symbols and artifacts.
Mediation and technological change are situated within a practice-based
sociohistorical framework that sustains analysis of interacting dimensions
of continuously changing activity. When activity theorists stress the
material, objectified form of artifacts, they presuppose that all human
artifacts are idealized (Ilyenkov 1977). By saying that human activity
"idealizes nature," human activity "means not the projecting activity of
individual minds, but 'real, sensuous, social, object-oriented' activity"
(Bakhurst 1991: 190).

Internal structure of activities. Leont'ev (1979), delineating the concept
of activity and the internal structure of activities, schematizes
activities, actions, and operations oriented respectively by objects of
activity (motives), goals, and conditions-all of which are dynamically
interrelated. Leont'ev's point is important regarding analytic
representations of an activity or activity system: "the analysis that leads
to distinguishing these units is that it does not rely on separating living
activity into elements. Rather, it reveals the inner relations that
characterize activity" (Leont'ev 1979: 65, emphasis added).

Objects of activity (motives). In activity theory, object has particular
theoretical meanings that are difficult to translate into English. I choose
teleological objects and motives as working translations in order to avoid
confusion with goals or objectives from which objects in practical
object-oriented activity should be distinguished. "Goals are primarily
conscious, relatively short-lived and finite aims of individual actions.
The object is an enduring constantly reproduced purpose of a collective
activity system that motivates and defines the horizon of possible goals
and actions (Engestroem 1995)" (Engestroem 1999a). In research, one needs
to gain a thorough understanding of the object of the activity. For this,
ethnography and phenomenology are important in combination with systemic
analysis and sociohistorical contextualization.

Dialogicality and voice, sense and meaning. Bakhtin's concepts of the
dialogicality of texts, polyphony, and heteroglossia which infuse different
interpretive readings emphasize the multiplicity of contexts through which
meanings are refracted, and the ironic, contradictory, and indeterminate
discursive layering of utterances, voices, different social languages and
genres, sense, and meanings not only between but within historic moments
(Bakhtin 1981). "Voice is further defined as communicative 'action' ...
Communicative actions bear practical activities of which they are a part"
(Engestroem, R.1995: 199). "Sense" prevails over meaning in imagination,
literary and creative thinking, and in the persistence of concepts and
visions (Vygotsky: 1986; see also Bakhtin). The prevalence of sense
contributes to the persistence of imagination over time in design and
invention of new artifacts. Conversation analysis and discourse analysis
are primary methods for gaining understandings of externalized joint
activity and for providing windows onto cognitive processes.

"Free play" qualities of ideas in arts, sciences, and technological
invention. Wartofsky suggests that resources of individual and collective
imagination have some autonomy in that they are derived from but not
bounded by the world "as it is" (as it confronts individuals, as
individuals experience the world) but also as it is thought of and
imagined. "The activity of imagination is a mode of alternative perceptual
praxis." Because new representational forms in the arts, technology and
science have "off-line" qualities, they become especially important for
feedback and for change (Wartofsky 1979).

Emerging activities, novelty and envisioning. An appreciation for an
activity system's history makes possible to discern emerging activities and
to envision potential transformations. Activity theory shares with science
studies an appreciation of anomalies as instances of difference,
disturbance, and novelty. Alertness to novelty, "listening to the
material," and "engaging in a conversation" in which we let the data speak
are important principles for the conduct of research (Keller 1985).

Continuous learning and cycles of expansion (expansive transitions).
Engestroem (1987) articulates a methodology for organizational "learning by
expanding" in which envisioning and proposals for new ways of working are
important as lenses for critiquing the present and for bringing about
systemic change. Engestroem (1987, 1991a, 1991b) provides a methodology for
exploring expansive transitions, for analysis of emerging activities, and
for action research interventions.

Developmental work research is the application of activity theory to work
domains. Important themes in activity theory and developmental work
research include: communicative activity understood as labor and invention;
the collaborative and interactive nature of expertise and distributed
teamwork; the organization of work in relation to skills, learning and
power; communication, cooperation and collaboration within and between
multi-disciplinary multi-professional teams and networks (Engestroem,
Brown, Christopher and Gregory 1991); envisioning design and use of new
tools and experimentation with new ways of working.

Methodological principles. How, then, does one conceive and carry out
research within such an ambitious multi-level and multi-dimensional
framework? Research from activity theoretical perspectives entails close
analysis of practices and interactions (e.g., interaction analysis,
conversation and discourse analysis), linked with larger concepts. Among
methodological principles, activity theory emphasizes: delineation of units
of analysis; intermediate concept construction (between theoretically
informed concepts and field data); and "looking for trouble"--regarding
discoordination, dilemmas, breakdowns, and contradictions as opportunities
for creative problem-solving and innovation.

Units of analysis. Kuutti proposes an activity theoretical framework for
determining units of analysis for computer-supported cooperative work
(CSCW) design and analysis. He regards determination of a unit of analysis
as a fundamental research question: "One should be able to delineate the
object of research and to draw a boundary between the object and the
background, and one should be able to find an entity to which all the
threads of research can be conveniently connected" (Kuutti 1991: 249). In
activity theory, the basic unit of analysis requires "an intermediate
concept--a minimal meaningful context for individual actions ... an
activity. Because the context is included in the unit of analysis, the
object of our research is always essentially collective, even if our main
interest lies in individual actions" (Kuutti 1991: 254).

Intermediate concepts are intermediate in that they are between concepts
(theories, theoretical principles, conceptual lenses) and empirical
observations, materials, and data. An intermediate construct is not given
at the beginning of research but rather is built from what researchers come
to know in the field-how concepts "live," how they are situated in multiple
contexts. Intermediate concepts are means for reciprocally making sense of
field research and making sense of concepts in relation to empirical
research and theory-building. With units of analysis, intermediate concept
construction contributes to the basis for generalization from
particularized qualitative case examples.

"Looking for trouble." In developmental work research, attention is
especially directed to systemic disturbances, discoordination, dilemmas,
breakdowns, and contradictions as they present opportunities for innovation
when people figure out how to overcome troubles that confront them. Because
dilemmas point to systemic tensions in activity systems that confront
individuals in their everyday activities, they are especially important,
not only for the analysis of everyday troubles, but also as clues toward
the analysis of contradictions. Breakdowns "offer models in which the
disruption of ongoing, nonreflective activity results in a shift to a more
deliberate form of practice" (Koschmann et al. 1998: 32). Because of this,
a breakdown "is more than a simple disruption of ongoing activity-it is a
vital precursor to productive inquiry and subsequent learning" (Koschmann
et al. 1998: 40). Trouble and opportunities for innovation are understood
to be related, both motivated by the dynamics of contradictions.
Contradictions must be analyzed and discovered, they are not "given" to a
researcher by practitioners or otherwise.

Methodological principles in activity theoretical research also lay the
basis for distinctive ways of working, particularly for: following complex
shared objects (motives) through time (developmentally); creating resources
for reflecting on practices, design, and other interventions; and
supporting multi-disciplinary teamwork in research practices (not only in
research foci of multi-disciplinary activities and teamwork in contexts of
use). The art of research is to recognize and listen to different voices
and perspectives, while following and realizing common objects, and
trajectories of instantiations of objects, in concrete situations and over
time. Activity theory offers resources "to defend one's design" in that
rationales for research and analysis are made explicit and visible, and are
meant as springboards (resources, prototypes, models) for reflective,
participatory discussion in multi-disciplinary collaborations with

What does activity theory offer to design research and practice? "Free
play" and autonomy afforded new representations and artifacts in the arts,
scientific discovery, and technological invention resonate with the
imaginative work of design. The emphasis in activity theory on
conceptualizing a unit of analysis for an activity and considering the
elements of an activity system as dynamic and perpetually open to change,
with its core emphasis on mediation and multiplicity of artifacts, provides
a useful starting point for analysis of work practices for information
systems design. The analytic toolkit that activity theory and developmental
work research provide can be used for quickly mapping the elements of an
activity system, and for developing shared understandings of object(s) of
activity motivating communities of practice. Institutional and
inter-institutional perspectives are included in analysis of activities in
organizational and sociohistorical contexts (activity systems and networks
of activity systems). Activity theory makes strong claims regarding
generalizability from qualitative case studies. This is in part related to
conscious selection and conceptualization of units of analysis and methods
of intermediate concept construction. Furthermore, activity theory
emphasizes learning in activity and change; developmental work research has
an explicit action research orientation.

Within the activity theory community at large, there is considerable work
in progress in relation to computer systems design and development as is
evident from the 1998 International Socio-Cultural Activity Theory Congress
(ISCRAT 1998), a forthcoming special issue of CSCW, and articles in Mind,
Culture, Activity (see, e.g. work by Bardram 1997, 1998; Boedker 1991;
Engestroem 1996b; Kaptelinen 1996a, 1998b; Korpela et al. 1998; Sjberg
1996; Smoerdal 1998). Interest in activity theory and developmental work
research is growing among researchers in the fields of organizational
communication and organizational learning (see, e.g., Engestroem 1990;
Taylor 1995). Generally, there is movement towards integrating
inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary approaches. Sjoeberg notes the
latter trend: "With the emerging third generation, activity theory is
moving from the starting point with development, history and 'zone of
proximal development' to also focus on cultural diversity,
multi-voicedness, dialogue, macro-level networks, networks of activity and
boundary crossing" (Sjoeberg 1996: 51).

Case study: incomplete utopian projects in electronic patient record
prototyping. What explains the imaginative power of
innovation-in-the-making and the persistence of concepts in the face of
difficulties in practical realization? To think about
innovation-in-the-making, I devised a concept, the incomplete utopian
project, that is sociohistorical, heterogeneous and argumentative in
structure. An incomplete utopian project is an intermediate concept in that
it is simultaneously a grounded concept, actively informed by ethnographic
research and experience in fieldwork, and a generalizable concept,
characterizing other experiences in innovation. Through the substantive
constitution of the incomplete utopian project, competing agendas and
desires are introduced into the discussion. I schematize three substantive
dimensions--clinical, technical, and managerial--that are engaged in this
particular electronic health record effort. I am most interested in the
logics of clinical informatics and patient care interactions-but these
cannot be understood without appreciation of institutional and
organizational agendas that inform managerial, regulatory, intra- and
inter-institutional perspectives, and movements to assure quality and
access. The incomplete utopian project of electronic health record
invention draws from several utopias with long historical roots: the search
for a perfect language, the desire to eradicate mistakes, managerial
desires for intricate and far-reaching control over decision-making and
standardization of practices, the quest to rationalize and scientize
medicine, and, more recently, the idea that everything can be
electronically connected and traceable through software whose automata can
intelligently "read between the lines." (Lest these considerations seem too
abstract, we need only to turn to the user interfaces where they are
tangibly and immediately apparent in design.) These utopian projects are
not new; rather, it is how they come together that creates new
possibilities and circumstances for design.

The case study offers some general findings about design practices and
about challenges and complexities in design. First, we see that rather than
perceiving design and use as divided spheres, from the start of
prototyping, design and use were already intermixed, imagined together, yet
distinct in the demands each makes on each other in the form of demands on
human actors, practitioners in design and clinical practice joined together
in the work of innovation. Secondly, an important source of difficulties
confronting the work of design is that there are many more actors than
technical designers and clinical practitioners. A host of organizational
and institutional actors and a multitude of change agendas are directly and
indirectly engaged in the design, development, and deployment of electronic
patient records, clinical information systems, and clinical information
infrastructure building. Finally, we see the power and problems of
utopianism implicated in electronic health record invention. Heroic utopian
projects have tremendous imaginative power yet they risk imposing
impracticable burdens on both design and practices, and on both designers
and practitioners. Can we construct more modest, incremental design
strategies that are imaginatively powerful at the same time? Suchman
proposes, for example, that we strive for artful integrations rather than
heroic, tightly aligned, or paradigmatic change (Suchman 1994).

How may we interact in trading zones of doctoral education in design? I
will end by pointing to difficulties in design related to commitments to
different logics. In my case study of electronic health record invention, I
began by telling a story of two logics-the "beautiful logic" of the
electronic health record's design and the logic of patient care
interactions and clinical work practices. The design logic clearly stands
out as a powerful actor but we also see the power of multiple and diverse
logics as actors, that clinical logics and the logics of everyday work
practices and interactions can bring a powerful formal logic to its knees.
I believe that these logics are incommensurable but translatable. There are
certain obduracies that divide "the beautiful logic of design" and the
logics of everyday practices and interactions in clinical work.
Understandings can be reached through mutual respect and acknowledgement of
partial perspectives and what they bring to bear on achieving shared
motivations in design. I find an inspiring starting point in Verran's
(1998) proposal for working together disparate imaginaries that evoke and
constitute different rationalities expressed through cultural metaphors
enacted in embodied practices. Verran takes up the challenge of "how to go
beyond heterogeneity" without arriving at one homogenizing "translation" by
the dominant party (following Latour 1993). As in Agre's call for critical
practice in computer design (Agre 1997), self-awareness of one's design
metaphors and their consequences in re-imagining and re-shaping the world
in our respective practices and subcultures is a first step.

How may activity theory participate in a trading zone for design research
and practice? Activity theory has compatibilities with other theories and
conceptual approaches: theories such as actor network theory, critical
feminist theory, grounded theory, and structuration theory; working
concepts such as trading zones, boundary objects, situated action, working
together disparate imaginaries, heterogeneous ensembles; concepts in
science and technologies studies and information studies. By considering
selected recent cases of fruitful combinations, I also begin a critique of
gaps and weaknesses in activity theory for which artful integrations of
different disciplinary traditions that inform design-visual, artistic,
dramatic, literary--are needed.


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