In spite of the wealth of theoretical contributions in terms of conceptualizing learning as participation, there have been less empirical and methodological contributions to aid researchers attempting to characterize a participatory unit of activity.
This re-conceptualization of knowledge as a contextualized act, while attractive in theory, becomes problematic when attempting to describe one’s functioning in a particular context. Of core consequence is the question: What is the ontological unit of analysis for characterizing activity? Defining the participatory unit is a core challenge facing educators who wish to translate these theoretical conjectures into applied models.
In my work, I have leveraged Activity Theory (Engeström, 1987, 1993, 1999a; Leont’ev, 1974, 1981, 1989) as a theoretical and methodological lens for characterizing, analyzing, and designing for the participatory unit. Activity Theory is a psychological and multidisciplinary theory with a naturalistic emphasis that offers a framework for describing activity and provides a set of perspectives on practice that interlink individual and social levels (Engeström, 1987, 1993; Leont’ev, 1974; Nardi, 1996). Although relatively new to Western researchers, activity theory has a long tradition as a theoretical perspective in the former Soviet Union (Leont’ev, 1974, 1981, 1989; Vygotsky, 1978, 1987; Wertsch, 1985) and over the last decade has become more accepted in the United States.
When accounting for activity, activity theorists are not simply concerned with “doing” as a disembodied action, but are interested in “doing in order to transform something,” with the focus on the contextualized activity of the system as a whole (Engeström, 1987, 1993; Holt, & Morris, 1993; Kuutti, 1996; Rochelle, 1998). From an activity theory perspective, “the ‘minimal meaningful context’ for understanding human actions is the activity system, which includes the actor (subject) or actors (subgroups) whose agency is chosen as the point of view in the analysis and the acted upon (object) as well as the dynamic relations among both” (Barab, 2002, p. 533). It is this system that becomes the unit of analysis and that serves to bind the participatory unit.
As such, activity theory has much potential as a theoretical and methodological tool for capturing and informing more complex and transitive units of analysis. It is in making clear the theoretical assumptions and the applied value of activity theory for research and design that this chapter is targeted. In terms of instructional design, assumptions underlying activity highlight the need for a more participatory unit of analysis, thereby, complicating design in that the design process is recognized as involving much more than simply producing an artifact. A key concept underlying this perspective is the notion of transaction, which has as its base assumption the interdependency and interconnection of components—components that only remain separate in name or in researchers’ minds, for in their materiality they change continuously in relation to other components. ur designs must be understood in situ, as part of a larger activity system. It is here, in providing a characterization of the larger activity through which our tools transact, that Activity Theory can serve as a useful tool for designers.
- Using Activity Theory to Conceptualize Online Community and Using Online Community to Conceptualize Activity Theory
- Using Activity Theory to Understand the Contradictions Characterizing a Technology-Rich Introductory Astronomy Course
- Activity Theory as a Lens for Charactering the Participatory Unit.
About Sasha A. Barab PhD
Sasha Barab is a Professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, where he co-founded and serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Games and Impact.
Dr. Barab is an internationally recognized Learning Scientist who holds the Pinnacle West Chair of Education, and who has researched, designed, and published extensively on the challenges and opportunities of using games for impact.