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Designing Activity Systems Research Essay

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The greatest challenge facing an Activity-Theory-based approached to researching interconnected networks and activity systems is the tension between the necessarily holistic view of “better contextuality” suggested by Kuuti, and the need for an appropriate level of analytic abstraction and “generalizable” research results required for the research to have utility across disciplines (as cited in Nardi, 1996, p. 22; Nardi, 1996, p. 70). This tension can be partially mitigated by focusing simultaneously on object/motive-oriented research of individuals and on community-object-oriented research of larger subject communities.

Thus in a research setting, the object, activity, and operation levels of each individual subject would be documented, both as subjectively articulated in interviews, and as prescribed in that individual’s task description. The overarching community object, activity, and operation levels of the various interacting subject communities would also be documented, in terms of a written prospectus of the group’s initial goals and any obtainable data regarding any sub-group’s particular objects, either explicitly or implicitly stated.

Because of the magnitude of data likely resulting from such research techniques, trends from the collected data are probably best analyzed through statistics-based computer modeling. Any truly contextual understanding of activity systems requires researchers to pay close attention in particular to what Kuuti calls action-operation dynamics, noting when and how, for individual subjects, the orientation phase of a given action has passed and the action has been internalized as operation (as cited in Nardi, 1996, p. 31).

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This phenomenon could be identified in a number of ways. For instance, when individuals begin to elide unnecessary orientation-phase-steps in a process, or when they have re-articulated their objects to indicate a broadening of scope, it is likely because they have moved beyond the orientation phase for a given action and internalized it as operation. Research into interrelated activity systems and networks also requires a nuanced understanding of how community subjects interact, both which each other and with individual subjects.

Documenting these interactions through research would require a thorough enumeration of how both formal and informal subject groups affect one another, and the specific “contradictions” that they exhibit through their objects (Kutti as cited in Nardi, 1996, p. 34). For example, to fully define and therefore research the activity of a software company working on a new database platform, researchers would need to understand the myriad goals of each sub-group and engineer within the company, as well as the company’s larger goals, and the intentions of competing companies.

This would require ongoing observation and interview data, and given the vast amounts of data likely to be mined in this process, a computer-based, statistical approach would likely be most effective. Situated Action vs. Activity Theory Because Situated Action Models explicitly reject an intention or goal-based definition of action, they do not lend themselves well to analytical abstraction. Each model being “inextricably embedded in a particular situation,” no two models are likely to offer enough commonality to allow comparison across situations, let alone across disciplines (Nardi, 1996, p. 1).

Activity Theory, by contrast, offers its fundamental tenet as its organizing schema: consciousness and intent are the defining the elements of all activity (Nardi, 1996, p. 11). This perspective has several benefits. First, since Situated Action refuses to consider a subject’s intent in its analysis, “the activity can only be known as it plays out in situ” (Nardi, 1996, p. 82). This means that Situated Action researchers must posit their own interpretation of a subject’s actions, and ignore the subject’s stated intention.

Such “constructed rationalizations” are more the province of speculative psychology than observational science (Nardi, 1996, p. 82). This view appears even more absurd in light of the fact that Situated Action offers no explanation as to why, despite its guiding premise, human subjects invariably do explain their actions through their intentions, and often “demand or believe” such explanations from others (Nardi, 1996, p. 81).

Second, Activity Theory, by starting from the premise that intention and consciousness are fundamental elements in the definition of action, immediately offers a means of demarcating and understanding activity that Situated Action Models lack (Nardi, 1996, p. 83). As Nardi points out, two subjects in identical environments may display disparate actions that can only be parsed in light of each subject’s intent or object (Nardi, 1996, p. 83). Using the “object” as the organizing rinciple further allows Activity Theory to maintain a consistent analytical schema across disciplines and at varying levels of generality.

For instance, both individual subjects and subject communities can be parsed according to the subject/object and object/action/operation paradigm. Lastly, Activity Theory allows research to continue over a “longer time horizon” because, while the situations examined in Situated Action Models tend to be quite ephemeral, the objects of Activity Theory may persist for months or years (Nardi, 1996, p. 3). This allows research of a given subject to proceed cumulatively, and not be wasted as soon as a given situation expires. It further allows researchers to focus on a higher level of abstraction, recurrence, and commonality than Situated Action Models, and to avoid the “claustrophobic thicket of descriptive detail” that becomes necessary when disregarding intentionality (Nardi, 1996, p. 92).

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