Cultural Historical Activity Theory

Cultural Historical Activity Theory

Faraja Teddy Igira (University of Oslo, Norway) and Judith Gregory (Institute of Design, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-659-4.ch025
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This chapter reviews the origins, approaches and roles associated with the use of cultural historical activity theory (CHAT) in information systems (IS) research. The literature is reviewed and examples are discussed from IS and related fields of human-computer interaction (HCI), computer supported cooperative work (CSCW) and computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL), to illustrate the power of CHAT in IS research as well as its link to appropriate research methods. After explicating the value of its use, the chapter concludes by discussing theoretical and methodological implications of applications of CHAT in examining real-world problems in IS research.
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Cultural Historical Activity Theory (Chat)

Cultural historical activity theory (CHAT) or Activity Theory as it is also known, traces its roots from the Soviet Union in the 1920s as part of the socio-historical school of Russian psychology. Its basic foundations were laid by the insights of Russian psychologists Vygotsky, Leont’ev and Luria into the dynamics of thought and consciousness (e.g. Leont’ev, 1978; Luria, 1976; Vygotsky, 1978). Their arguments arose in response to the need to transcend prevailing understandings of psychology, child development and learning studies that were then dominated by behaviorism (Skinner) on one hand, and psychological theories that they regarded as individually oriented rather than socioculturally oriented on the other hand, including Piaget’s developmental theory and psychoanalysis (Engeström, 1987). In doing so, they sought to go beyond the individual to the social. Engeström (2001), a leading contemporary theorist of CHAT, describes the theoretical tradition of CHAT as passing through three generations or phases: the first phase focused on mediated action, the second phase focused on the individual in collective activity, and the third phase which currently focuses on multiple, interacting activity systems and boundary-crossings between them. We provide a brief introduction to ‘three generations of activity theory’ in the following subsections.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Artifacts, Mediating Artifacts: Artifacts and mediating artifacts encompass tools, instruments, signs and all types of material, semiotic and conceptual means for accomplishing human activity.

Expansive Learning: Expansive learning is defined by Engeström as follows: ‘Expansive learning is initiated when some individuals involved in a collective activity take the action of transforming an activity system through reconceptualization of the object and the motive of activity embracing a radically wider horizon of possibilities than in the previous mode of activity’ (Engeström 2003, pp. 30-31).

Contradictions: Contradictions refer to tensions and disturbances that arise within and between constituents of activities, between different activities or different developmental phases of an activity, and within and between activity systems as they evolve over time. Analysis of contradictions is ‘a key to understanding the sources of trouble as well as the innovative and developmental potentials and transformations of activity’ (Engeström 2008, p. 5).

Information Systems: An information system is defined comprehensively as the use of information technology (manual or computer-based) in a collective work activity, either as a means of work or of co-ordination and communication (Mursu et al. 2007).

Activity System and Activity: An activity system is a collective formation with a complex mediational structure that serves as the primary unit of analysis in cultural historical activity theory. An activity is the engagement of individuals toward a certain goal or objective. Activities are not short-lived events or actions; rather, activities ‘are systems that produce events and actions and evolve over lengthy periods of sociohistorical time’ (Engeström 1987).

Social Practice and Praxis: Praxis, understood as practical wisdom that is grounded in particular, perceptual and concrete experience (phronesis), is inseparably complementary to theory, understood as scientific knowledge that is generalizable, conceptual and abstract (episteme). Research regarding social practice encompasses two senses — scientific focus on activity and interventive meaning related to developing the practice; these are understood as simultaneous and complementary.

Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT): Cultural historical activity theory offers a meta-theoretical philosophical basis and transdisciplinary perspective for analyzing diverse human practices in socio-cultural context and across multiple contexts and networks, as developmental processes in which individual, organizational, societal and cultural levels are dynamically inter-related

Object of Activity and Object-Oriented Activity: ‘Objects of activities are prospective outcomes that motivate and direct activities, around which activities are coordinated, and in which activities are crystallized in a final form when the activities are complete’ where is the start of the quote (Kaptelinin & Nardi 2006, p. 66). Object-orientedness characterizes all human activity in the sense of motive or desire, whether the object of activity is material or psychological, individual or collective.

Social Context: The social context passes an entire activity system in which the information systems (IS) operate. It includes the integration of the subject, the object, the tools, the community, rules and division of labor.

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): The zone of proximal development refers to transformational learning. Vygotsky (1978, p. 86) defined the zone of proximal development as ‘the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving in collaboration with more capable peers’ and with culturally produced artifacts.

Mediated Action, Mediation: The concepts of mediated action and mediation are grounded in the conceptual view that humans do not interact directly with their environments; rather their interactions are always mediated through the use of different types of tools, signs and material, semiotic and ideational artifacts that include culture and language and that are evolved over time.

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