Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A framework for analysis?

I must confess that I had a hard time managing all the content in this book. Because much of the writing is very dense, many of the concepts unfamiliar, and the book long, I’m only about half-way through at the time of this posting. (I said *most* of the writing was dense, because not all was, for example, Hutchins was delightfully clear to read. Maybe I lent him a more favorable ear because I’m from Point Loma!) This seems to me to be a book that I could spend a semester on, and as I think much of this will be important to my own research, I believe I’ll be coming back to it.

I think that there is a wonderful recurring problem in the book of how to think about context that we can use to create a spectrum and place each theorist on it. They all pretty much dispense with the “bowl” theory of context, that is, it is not useful to consider context as a fixed entity that gives shape to action. However, there is still more work to be done and more conversation needed about the subject. There are those who think that context is something that needs to be theorized in some fashion. For example, Lave writes on page 17, that this camp “argues that the central theoretical relation is historically constituted between persons engaged in socioculturally constructed activity and the world in which they are engaged.” In plainer language, when we talk about context, we are talking about relationships between constructed activity and some “world,” this thing in quotes that has a dialogue with activity, this thing in quotes that we need to theorize. The other “camp,” or other way of thinking about context is that there is no such thing, it's a "fetish," and we should look for “the construction of the world [only]in social interaction...activity is its own context.”

This question is not “resolved,” but is the framework for scrutiny...or the leitmotiv. To try to get at this reading, my strategy was to try to place the theorists on a spectrum between these two camps (i know this is linear and all that. but i had to work with something!). They all agree on the socially situated nature of learning, and that it is possible to view most human activity under the umbrella of “learning.” (12) However, each theorist comes at the central problem of how to theorize context from a different perspective. For example, Hutchins is interested in exploring what he describes as the traditional anthropological binary of internal and external activity. I think I would place him closer to the first “camp” because when he talks about new quartermasters inheriting a “history,” he seems to be saying that there is historical knowledge and there are artifacts that are isolatable outside of activity? That when we look at situated cognition, we consider the relationship between the seamen and the artifacts and the seaman and each other, and it these relationships that we should consider as the “context” of activity. (yes? No? might be wrong) On the other hand, Engestrom is closer to the opposite “camp,” as he asserts that “for activity theory, contexts are neither containers nor situationally created experiential spaces.” (I have to admit that I found Engestrom extremely hard to comprehend.) I think Keller and Keller argue for a tension between these two camps that represents, for them, itself a valid way of theorizing context (they use very different terms, however). They write, “there is a tension....between knowledge and the unfolding experience. Knowledge as organized for a particular task can never be sufficiently detailed” (127). On the same page, they describe knowledge as “simultaneously representational and emergent.”

I don’t really have a question to post for discussion. Possibly, just, did you read these the same way?

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