Learning as New Social Forms of Cultural-Historical Activity

Dr Clive Kanes
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This paper considers recent developments in cultural-historical activity theory and seeks to analyse and reposition these against the agenda of critical social science. Activity theory is an attempt to mobilise L.S Vygotsky’s primary theses concerning the sociogenesis of concept formation and the mediation of the development of higher order mental processes by artefacts (physical and psychological), together with the work of subsequent psychologists who re-situate “learning” in, what Yrjö Engeström calls, ‘object-oriented activity’. The paper outlines the development of activity theory and some recent developments – in particular its move to a full-blown theory of collective learning in workplaces, educational institutions, etc. It is an implicit assumption of recent activity theory studies that learning be identified with site-specific developmental processes such as professional development, workplace reforms, policy development, service provision, etc. Thus, ‘learning’, in this theory, is seen as more than conceptual and/or skill development; it is seen as the cultural-historical development of activity systems. As such, so the paper notes, it represents, interestingly, an example of a non-psychological theory of learning.

In more recent times, building on this and its system descriptive tools, activity theory has moved towards interventionary practice under the rubric of ‘developmental work research’. These developments, and others referred to in the paper, suggest there is an urgent need for the clarification of what key elements within the theory amount to, and also the formation of a critique around the new practice of developmental intervention put forward. Concerning the later, the questions characteristic of critical social science can be asked, such as: In whose interests are interventionary changes? With what overriding view in mind are they advanced? In response, I take Jürgen Habermas’ notion of communicative competence to activity theory, and argue that this provides a normative framework against which “the processes of enlightenment” are carried forward, leading to, as Habermas argues, “true statements”, “authentic insights” and “prudent decisions” within and around the life of activity systems under development. This theoretical move, when fully worked out, will have the practical consequence of setting out norms for the conduct of dialogue and communication within developmental work research. This paper argues the need for and suggests how such a development may come about.

Keywords: Activity, Vygotsky, Fichte, Habermas, System, Development, Practice, Science, Social Science, Enlightenment, Mediation, Learning, Transformation, Dialogue, Communication, Norms
Stream: Other or Stream Unspecified
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: New Directions for the Theoretical Development of Activity Theory

Dr Clive Kanes

Department of Education and Professional Studies, King's College London
London, UK

Ref: I06P0316