Sunday, November 7, 2010

The self in cultural historical activity theory (CHAT)

Stetsenko, A. & Arievitch, I. M. (2004) The self in cultural historical activity theory. Theory and Psychology, 14 (4): 475-503.

This paper explores how cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT), initially formulated by Vygotsky, Leontiev and their collaborators in the 1920s and 1930s, can be employed as a foundation for conceptualizing the self as an important agentive dimension within a profoundly social and relational view of human life and development.

Re-conceptualized and expanded in a number of ways, the authors use CHAT to address both individual (agentive) and social dimensions of the self in a non-dichotomizing way and thus provides grounds for integrating progressive conceptual shifts in newly evolving conceptualizations of the self.

Views of the self

  • Self as a Mental Construct: the self is presented as being profoundly shaped by social factors such as interactive experiences with significant others and group membership, along with the roles and positions each individual occupies in society. However, perhaps most characteristic of these approaches, the self is implied to be exclusively a mental phenomenon, reducible to self-concept, self-perception, self-esteem and other similar strictly cognitive and individual constructs.
  • Self as Fused with Context/Practice: human development is conceptualized by Vygotsky and others as located not ‘under the skull’ but in the processes of ongoing social transactions. Another approach (e.g. Lave, 1988; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Rogoff, 1990, 1994) addresses the relational character of human subjectivity as being produced by participation in a community. Learning and development are conceptualized as evolving through the dynamics of such participation: for example, as movements from the fringes of a community to more centralized performances in that community. Unlike social constructionism, the transactional processes are conceptualized not as discourse but as the shifting and moving patterns of participation, drawing attention to the actual social practices and material sites of action as important sources of development.
  • Dialogical Approaches: like transactional approaches, it also challenges the dichotomous notions of cognitivism and proposes to conceive the self not as a phenomenon of individual minds but as a relational dialogical process between individuals.Specifically, the sense of self is postulated to be produced in the flow of rhetorical actions as these incorporate signs, providing individuals with terms for talking about themselves, and thus essentially constituting the self; selves are essentially constructed in the profoundly relational processes of speaking and listening to others.

Grounding Assumptions of CHAT: The activity theory perspective fully acknowledges the sociocultural origin and nature of human subjectivity (i.e. broadly conceived human psychological processes that include cognition, self-regulation, emotion and self).

Activity theory states that each living organism exists only as part of a dynamic system that connects it with the environment and with other organisms (note some similarity with the recently influential dynamic systems theory, e.g. Thelen & Smith, 1998).

Transformations are achieved through human labor, that is, a collective and collaborative (i.e. social) use of tools, in which individual efforts are necessarily blended to produce, deploy and preserve the efficient tools, as well as pass them on to new generations.

Tools reflect ways of mastering specific classes of tasks discovered in collaborative practices. For example, language represents a tool par excellence as it emerges out of and serves the purposes of coordinating, planning and organizing the complex processes of collective production and deployment of tools.

In the course of human evolution, the tools come to reify the collective experiences (e.g. knowledge, memory, skills) that can be passed to subsequent generations, not through genetic mechanisms but by means of specially organized teaching and learning processes in which these tools are re-introduced to and re-discovered by each succeeding generation.

In these socially and historically specific cultural processes, people not only constantly transform and create their environment; they also create and constantly transform their lives, consequently changing themselves in fundamental ways and, in the process, gaining self-knowledge.

The self originates in actual processes of human activity and develops within transformations of its structures, including prioritization among various elements of object-oriented activity.

According to activity theory, the self is profoundly sociocultural and historical. Leontiev conceptualized the self as an integral moment within activity processes. What Leontiev likely wanted to achieve by introducing the notion of object–motive was to convey the idea that human activities are always driven by something objectively existing in the world, rather than by some events and occurrences in the hidden realm of mental processes or human soul.

Leontiev saw the self as being a moment in the dynamic flow of activity that connects individuals to the world around them and to themselves. [similar to Kierkegaard]

Leontiev’s theory of self revolves around the notions of individuals acquiring cultural norms and experiences of previous generations

The authors assert that that Leontiev did not seem to emphasize enough (and perhaps to fully appreciate) is that human subjectivity, the collective processes of material production and social interactions all co-evolve as parts of a unified system constitutive of human social life, interpenetrating and influencing each other, while never becoming completely detached or independent from each other.

The authors propose a concept of the self as a leading activity, namely as a process of real-life activity that most explicitly positions individuals to meaningfully contribute to the ongoing social collaborative practices in the world.

This view of the self as a leading activity also upholds the view that the self represents a moment in ongoing social activities that is not stored somewhere in the depths of a human soul, but is constantly re-enacted and constructed by individuals anew in the ever-shifting balances of life.

Understanding that people always contribute to social practices, rather than merely participate in or sustain them, places activities that allow individuals to purposefully transform the world at the very core of the self.

One interesting caveat is that individuals might not always be aware of how exactly their activities contribute to the world, or they might be in a constant search for such activities, struggling to make sense of their lives through internal dialogues and personal narratives. However, the lack of awareness and the often continuous struggles to find a meaningful leading activity notwithstanding, people always do contribute to something that goes on in the world, even if only on a small scale, and even if by doing nothing (because the latter type of a 'contribution' often helps to perpetuate the existing status quo and to stifle changes in society).

The leading role of the self as organizing and directing all other pursuits and activities of a person is yet another meaning conveyed by the notion of self as a leading activity.

The arguments advanced by the authors of this paper continue Leontiev's account of the self and the overall gist of the culturalhistorical activity theory, especially in (a) seeing activity as the foundation of the self and (b) overcoming the ego-centered stance in favor of viewing the self as incorporated into a general system of social relations.

The concept of the self as a leading activity is grounded on the premise that uniquely contributing to social life is the essence of humanness and human individuality.

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