Contribution to an xmca discussion on CHAT and sociology

Response to “Sociological Understandings of Conduct for a Noncanonical Activity Theory: Exploring Intersections and Complementarities,” by Peter Sawchuk and Anna Stetsenko, Mind Culture and Activity 15(4), October 2008.

I really welcome Peter and Anna’s work, reflected in this paper. It is vital for CHAT to work through all the most powerful approaches to sociology, critique them from the standpoint of CHAT, appropriate the insights that they have to offer, and in the process, transform CHAT. It is to be hoped that Peter and Anna will be able to recruit others to this project so that the critical approach emanating from CHAT can have an impact within the various sociological currents.

Peter and Anna recognise that CHAT offers the potential for an interdisciplinary approach to human development, but that for historical reasons, the development of the sociological aspects of CHAT was stunted. In my opinion, subsequent to the first generation, CHAT actually fails in the domain of sociological enquiry. The fact that “Leontyev made a significant step in developing CHAT by distinguishing between collective activity and individual action through emphasis on division of labour,” (p. 342) lies, I believe, at the root of this failure, which Peter and Anna correctly trace to its socio-historical origins in the mid-20th century. The kind of broad-ranging critique proposed by Peter and Anna is the only way of overcoming this deficit.

On p. 342-3, the authors say: “At the core of the original CHAT was the notion that human nature is a sociohistorical project and a collaborative achievement by people acting in collectivities ...” and they conclude that “the process of changing the world – that is, the practical, collaborative endeavour of people who create themselves as they create the world – was understood as the foundational reality for human development and human nature as well” and “Demystifying human subjectivity by showing how it ensues from practical collaborative activities ... instead of it being a mysterious mental realm, is the true staple of CHAT.” These formulations I heartily agree with and they are I think the key to the approach needed in the development of the sociological side of CHAT. The authors go on to characterise aspects of subjectivity as “ways of acting in ... the pursuit of transformative changes through collaboration with other people.” The combination of the central notion of collaboration – rather than ‘division of labour’, with the focus on human transformation – rather than ‘material production’, I think creates a ground upon which the necessary critique can stand.

This theme is clearly present in the first generation of CHAT and it disappeared after Vygotsky’s death. I agree with Peter and Anna that it is this concept which must be taken as the basis for further development. In this context, I can’t agree with idea repeated at several places in the article of “the threefold dialectics of material production, intersubjective exchanges, and subjectivity.” This is not the place to pursue this, because I think this article goes beyond this proposal with the turn to collaborative projects as the key concept for the elaboration of sociological aspects of CHAT.

The “rotation” (a nice turn of phrase!) of the triad used to represent the space of sociological literature in “Figure 1”: Activity/Structure – Operations/Enactment – Goal/Meaning” seems a very promising approach. I think we do need a map of this kind to organise the program of sociological critique implied in this paper, and in my opinion the proposal is in line with the comments I made in 2007/4 issue of MCA.

However, there is one serious problem in the exposition of Activity Theory as developed by AN Leontyev which the authors of this paper havepassed over, which actually contradicts and undermines what I take to be the most important proposal in this paper. What I have in mind is the top level of AN Leontyev’s “three level” categorisation of operation, action and activity, namely “activity,” which makes the connection of the CHAT with the sociological domain. Whereas operation and action refer to finite, “countable” units, there is no clarification by Leontyev or anyone else of what is a “unit” of activity. “Activity” is taken as a “mass noun” referring to an “uncountable” continuum. References to “system of activity” do not overcome this problem, but simply sidestep it. I base myself on English translations, and the Russian language deals with the mass/countable and definite/indefinite distinctions quite differently, so perhaps something has been lost in translation? Nonetheless, this deficit, in my opinion, causes little difficulty so long as it is used in the narrower context of psychology and individual transformation. But when, as these authors propose, the concept is taken into the arena of sociology, then such a formulation of CHAT is obviously inferior to almost any competing theory, all of which have some conception of what constitutes a fact or unit of analysis in the domain of sociology.

I also continue to find the distinction between “local” and “extralocal” exchanges suspect. I presume we are not making a distinction between electronic and face-to-face communication? The phenomena of society cannot be sustained or transformed other than by the same use of cultural products in communication with other people that are in play when two individuals talk or otherwise communicate with one another. Personally, I think this distinction has no place in CHAT and is transcended by the idea of collaborative transformation that the authors chiefly rely upon.

I do believe that Peter and Anna’s article in fact shows the way forward by focussing on collaborative projects as the central notion for the solution of problems of human transformation, whether taken on the domain of sociology or psychology.