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Sawchuk, Peter H., Duarte, Newton and Elhammoumi, Mohamed, (Editors). Critical perspectives on activity theory: explorations across education, work, and everyday life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xv, 295 pp. ISBN 0-521-84999-3 £50.00 $80.00

The main thrust of this volume is to address 'the relevance of Marx’s ideas for the further development of the cultural-historical tradition' (p. xii). Seth Chaiklin, who writes these words in the foreword, also notes, 'I think the cultural-historical tradition is part of a dialectical tradition synthesized by Hegel and further developed by many others...' (p. xiii). The debt to Marx (and those others) is explored in the introduction by the editors: they note that the contributions to the volume are built 'more or less explicitly on the writings of Marx' (p. 2). However, the use of these ideas is not uncritical, rather, the authors offer critical perspectives on such ideas from Marx as alienation, labour process and theories of value, in contexts as varied as pre-school education, primary care clinics and everyday life. The editors comment that the 'unique contribution' of this collection, 'lies in its interest to express a type of "critical" perspective on activity an to recover, express and press forward many of the original Marxist elements of the Cultural Historical tradition' (p. 4).

One must be aware, however, that critical has a technical meaning in this area of discourse: again, the editors provide the definition:

' ‘critical’ we mean approaches that ultimately have an interest in describing, analyzing, and contributing to a process of historical change and human betterment along the lines of Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, that is, an emphasis on change with a clear-eyed understanding of the social, political, economic, and historical bases of material reality.' (p. 5)

Clear-eyed here means, obviously, a view through a Marxist pair of spectacles.

The book is divided into four sections: critical perspectives on theory; education; work; and everyday life, with a cumulated set of references running to twenty-four pages, and an adequate index. The authors represent the current global spread of work on cultural-historical activity theory (or CHAT as it is known), but it is a little surprising that only two are from Europe (Finland and Germany); five are from the USA, three from Brazil, two from Canada and one from Saudi Arabia.

The comments in the introductory paragraphs of this review will probably suggest to the reader than not all of the content is likely to be a) understandable without some knowledge of Marxist philosophy and b) relevant to the information sciences. However, some chapters are at least interesting to me and I shall concentrate on these. The Introduction itself is essential reading, for it not only introduces the papers but, as the quotations above indicate, it also provides an overview of the cultural historical tradition, of which activity theory is a part.

The paper, The cultural-historical activity theory: some aspects of development, by the late Joachim Lompscher, is of considerable interest to anyone who is beginning to grapple with activity theory. The author outlines the three stages of CHAT as he sees them: the origins with Vygotsky, Leont’ev, Luria and their co-workers (some writers argue that the first phase was that dominated by Vygotsky, when Leont’ev and Luria were first his students and then his co-workers, and that Leont’ev initiated a second phase, but Lompscher argues that, in spite of occasional disagreements, the three continued to work together, along with their own, individual followers); the second stage was associated not so much with specific individuals (since the same people continued to work in the field) but by the expansion of CHAT to domains outside of psychology and by increasing international interest in the area. Lompscher notes here the development of the second and third generations of the Leont’ev family, with A.A. Leont’ev (A.N. Leont’ev’s son) and D.A. Leont’ev (his grandson) developing CHAT into fields such as communication theory and the analysis of sense. Lompscher suggests that the third phase of CHAT was begun by the work of Engeström and that the five principles of activity theory presented by this researcher defined the key elements of the third phase. Finally, Lompscher argues that the development of the computer has brought about a need for a fourth phase of CHAT, in which the computer is not seen simply as a tool or instrument, but as a medium of communication. His words are particularly relevant for those who wish to apply activity theory in information science:

Principally differing from other new technologies playing role of tools in human activity, computer technology is in fact without any alternative, unavoidable, irreversible, general, and even universal. It changes not only one specific concrete activity but revolutionizes the societal activity structure as a whole and the complete relations of activity and consciousness (i.e., the economic, social, and psychic status of any tool available). It really integrates every existing communication technology without any exception. (p. 50)

In Section II, Education, Estranged labor learning, by McDermott and Lave, is based upon a fascinating idea; the authors took Marx’s essay, Estranged Labour, and rewrote it:

'Wherever the word labor occurs, with occasional exceptions, it is replaced by the word learning. Marx’s argument and imagery stay intact, and we get to approximate his opinion on an issue of moment over a century later... This method of ‘reading’ has led to a deepened understanding of Marx’s essay with unanticipated ideas about the relations between estranged labor and estranged learning.' (p. 92)

Of course, it is not just a matter of translating labour into education: other transformations are also necessary, so capital becomes academic success and profit from capital becomes credentials, but the re-writing (or re-reading) presents forceful conclusions on the nature of education in today’s society and the Marxist analysis (in a very real sense!) is telling. The following piece of re-written Marx will strike a chord with many an academic today (the emphasised words are the authors’ replacements for the Marx originals):

Learning under capitalist production is not merely about the production of knowledge; it is, by its very essence, about the production and distribution of assessed knowledge. The learner produces not for himself, but for his or her place in the system. It is no longer sufficient, therefore, for him simply to learn. He must produce knowledge appropriate to his situation. (p. 119)

A second essay by Worthen and Berry, 'Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions': a CHAT analysis of college teachers, is also of interest as a kind of reflection on Estranged labor learning – in fact it might almost have been called Estranged learning labour, since it is on how the used of measured quality criteria by educational administrators is used as a tool against non-regular college teachers (i.e., part-time, non-tenured, etc.) whose fight to improve their conditions involves demands for improvements that would actually increase the quality of their teaching.

In Section III, Work, the most interesting piece for me is Engeström’s, Values, rubbish and workplace learning. Engeström’s thesis is that objects (including persons) in an activity system move through a life cycle at the end of which they may be categorized as of no value to the system; that is, they constitute rubbish. That rubbish may include persons is evident in the author’s choice of activity syste: that of primary health care clinics in Finland. As a result of the way cases are handled in this system, that is, as priced objects depending upon the nature of the care required, persons become commodities. There are three ways in which these patient commodities can become categorized as rubbish: through being too poor to afford the care; through being too old to be considered worth caring for; and through the illness being perceived as trivial and wasteful of health care resources. In all cases, the patients will be discarded as quickly as possible, the minimal level of care (or none at all) being applied. Engeström’s answer to the problem of dealing with rubbish in this context is that three strategies can be applied, all of which involve workplace learning: the first is playful conversion, that is, to take, for example, all of the patients suffering from a rubbish illness and use them (with their approval, of course) as subjects in a research programme to determine the demographic and other factors that distinguish this group from others. Through playful conversion the patients cease to be rubbish and become important participants in the research; the second strategy is described as caring revitalization, but salvaging is also used and is closer to the notion of rubbish. Salvaging would involve identifying a particular rubbish patient and presenting his or her case to a group of colleagues, one or more of whom might find in the patient something of interest within their own sphere and, thereby, redefine the patient as of value to them. The final strategy is engrossed appropriation or, simply put, making the rubbish case of interest to oneself by engaging with the person and listening to the stories they have to tell about their lives and the impact of the illness on their lives. By doing so the physician may learn something of diagnostic interest and, as a result, be able to specify new forms of treatment.

What of the connection to learning? Engeström notes:

The three expansive actions identified earlier – playful conversion, caring revitalization, and engrossed appropriation – are actually demanding actions of learning. The expand the ‘normal’ life process of the object, adding a reflective and creative layer to it. This is the very meaning of learning... (p. 206)

Perhaps enough has been said about this selection of chapters from the book to suggest that the whole is worth reading. There are other chapters of great interest, such as Duarte’s on Education as mediation and Adler’s From labor process to activity theory, but to deal with this in a review of this kind would add significantly to its length; so I leave the reader to make his or her own selection.

The Marxist origins of activity theory appear to be neglected by many who adopt the framework as a heuristic device in the development of a research project or the analysis of data and this volume is a timely and useful reminder of those origins.

Professor T.D. Wilson
Publisher/Editor in Chief
March, 2007

How to cite this review

Review of: Sawchuk, P.H., Duarte, N. and Elhammoumi, M. (Eds). Critical perspectives on activity theory: explorations across education, work, and everyday life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.    Information Research, 12(3), review no. R262  [Available at:]