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Engeström’s model of object-oriented collective activity system

Leading the development of modern activity theory over the past thirty years, Engestrom, Director of the Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE) at the University of Helsinki in Finland, is currently one of the world’s pre-eminent activity theorists. By developing Leont’ev’s theory of activity structure, he has succeeded in systematically modeling an object-oriented collective activity as the unit of analysis of human practice and development. This is the model of a collective activity system proposed in Learning by Expanding (Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. 63), as shown in Figure 2.2.

This model holds the notion that a subject’s collective activity is motivated by and oriented toward objects-, these objects are, in turn, mediated by instruments, community, rules, and the division of labor. The activity that activity theory tries to grasp is distinct from discrete, individual actions intended to accomplish a pre-defined, short-term goal, but rather collective activity with a shared, long-term object. As in the activity system model mediated by instruments (e.g., cultural artifacts such as tools and signs, words and symbols, concepts and models, ideas and visions, technology), it is a concept of activity that evolves historically and is motivated by the object. At the same time, as a deep layer of social infrastructure, activity is also mediated by essential components as the rules of participation, the specific community, and the division of labor among participants.

Model of a collective activity system (adopted from Engestrôm, 1987/2015, p. 63)

Figure 2.2 Model of a collective activity system (adopted from Engestrôm, 1987/2015, p. 63)

In this model, a system of object-oriented activity is depicted in which subjects (individuals or groups) use cultural artifacts as instruments to work on objects, transforming them into the required outcome. For example, the activity system of a learning environment is oriented toward the object of encouraging learners to produce the desired learning outcome.

The object is a critical factor in decisively characterizing the activity system. This is because the object is the purpose and motive that collective activities aim for, and it is transformed into outcomes through these activities. The object in the activity system is the material or problem that peoplework on collaboratively through social practical activities. Through participating in such activities, individuals generate both personal sense and objective meaning. When the subject acts on the object, the artifact used to mediate this effort is the instrument. Activities arc carried out through the mediation of artifacts such as material tools or resources, technology, symbolic signs, words, concepts, ideas, models, visions, theories, and the like (this is not limited to material artifacts; it also includes ideal artifacts). Thus, the activity system model is indicative of a system where the activity is mediated by culture.

Regarding artifacts, that is, the cultural instruments that mediate activities, Marx Wartofsky (1979) points out that “the artifact is to cultural evolution what the gene is to biological evolution” (p. 205). It is noteworthy that he distinguishes between three levels of artifacts: “primary ” (p. 202), “secondary” (p. 202), and “tertiary artifacts” (pp. 208-209). On this point, Engestrbm (1987/2015) also states that perceptions regarding the nature of these artifacts are of utmost importance. The primary artifact is a tool and repetition of its operations. The secondary artifact, which is based on the primary artifact, is a tacit representation, image, or model of the way of action and mediates the context of how to accomplish the action well. Artifacts at a higher level than the primary and secondary artifacts Engestrbm described as follows: “Wartofsky’s tertiary artifacts are actually methodologies or visions or world outlooks that serve as guidelines in the production and application of secondary artifacts, that is, models” (p. 121).

However, the small triangle composed of the subject-instrumcnts-object, as shown in the upper part of the collective activity system model, merely shows the inter-relationship between elements that make up an individual action. If we compare it to an iceberg, the triangular part at the top of the model is only the tip. To capture the idea that human activities are being created at a social, collective, and collaborative level that transcends the level of individual action, we must recognize that invisible social elements such as rulcs-community-division of labor at the bottom of the activity system model arc the essential foundations of activities, and that the activity system is multidimensionally mediated by these social factors.

Engcstrom (1993) himself explains the model of a collective activity system and its elements (components) as follows:

In the model, the subject refers to the individual or subgroup whose agency is chosen as the point of view in the analysis. The object refers to the “raw material” or “problem space” at which the activity is directed and which is molded or transformed into outcomes with the help of physical and symbolic, external and internal tools (mediating instruments and signs). The community comprises multiple individuals and/or subgroups who share the same general object. The division of labor refers to both the horizontal division of tasks between the members of the community and to the vertical division of power and status. Finally, the rules refer to the explicit and implicit regulations, norms and conventions that constrain actions and interactions within the activity system. Between the components of an activity system, continuous construction is going on. The human beings not only use instruments, they also continuously renew and develop them, whether consciously or not. They not only obey rules, they also mold and reformulate them—and so on.

(p. 67)

In this way, a certain activity is carried out by a specific community as a social and collective activity, and it can only be performed by the division of labor between the members of the community, that is, by both the horizontal division of tasks and the vertical division of power and status between the members. The activity is also mediated by rules that serve to regulate and constrain the exchanges and interactions between actors engaging in the activity. In the case of schooling, for example, instructional practice at school is mediated by a community of teachers and children, parents, and outside stakeholders gathered at a particular school, and it can only be accomplished by a division of labor among members, for example, the sharing of different roles and actions, such as cooperation and collaboration between teachers and students. Moreover, this practice requires rules governing school fife that regulate and constrain the exchanges and interactions between participants.

These components (rules-community-division of labor) can be seen as a deep layer of the socio-institutional infrastructure of the activity system.

The collective activity system model in Figure 2.2 shows that human cognition, learning, emotion, and volition are socio-historical processes that occur in the context of a culturally mediated activity system, and that the human mind and consciousness arc situated and distributed in an activity' system. Therefore, the model of the activity' system “makes visible the context of the educational processes under investigation” (Engestrom, 2016a, p. vii). In other words, this model is usefill for analyzing the implementation of reforms, for example ICT integration in education, in “systemic rather than singular terms” that enable “a systemic examination of contexts” (Karasawidis & Kol-lias, 2017, p. 119). Furthermore, it offers a relevant framework to allow us to discover and map inner contradictions and structural tensions as driving forces for transforming activity systems. Thus, the activity system model can serve as a potential instrument for redesigning future innovative practices.

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