Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Reading :: Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design

Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design
Edited by Jesper Simonsen and Toni Robertson


This 2013 collection does a nice job of pulling the history, theory, ethics, methods, and applications of participatory design together into a single volume. It draws from PD stalwarts such as Kensing, Greenbaum, Bannon, Ehn, Blomberg, Trigg, and Bratteteig (although, regrettably, not Susanne Bodker!) to provide a PD reference of sweeping scope. Although it won't substitute for the friendly case studies of, say, Design at Work: Cooperative Design of Computer Systems, it covers the past, present, and future of PD in great detail.

For me, the history chapters were the most helpful. I've studied PD history fairly thoroughly, but still learned many things from Robertson and Simonsen's "Participatory design: An introduction" and Kensing and Greenbaum's "Heritage: Having a Say," both of which emphasize PD's focus on practice's epistemological and ethical roles.

Bannon and Ehn's chapter "Design: Design matters in Participatory Design" was similarly useful, situating PD in relationship to various design traditions and examining the design challenges facing PD, specifically as it refocuses on infrastructuring.

Robertson and Wagner's "Ethics: Engagement, representation, and politics-in-action" clearly states PD's differentiator: "people have a basic right to make decisions about how they do their work and indeed any other activities where they might use technology" (p.65).

I've written a very short review for this thick, detailed book. But if you're interested in PD—either in itself or in relation to design or research ethics—it should be on your shelf or in your hands.

Reading :: Self-Regulation and Autonomy

Self-Regulation and Autonomy: Social and Developmental Dimensions of Human Conduct
Edited by Brian W. Sokol, Frederick M.E. Grouzet, and Ulrich Müller


Although I'm calling this a "book review," I'm really just going to discuss one chapter: Challis J.E. Kinnucan and Janet E. Kubli's "Understanding Explanatory Talk through Vygotsky's Theory of Self-Regulation."

In this chapter, the authors are specifically interested in explanatory talk and "explanatory competence": "Indeed, it has been said that individuals' everyday cognitive functioning might be impossible without explanations," the authors add, citing Keil & Wilson (1998) (p.231). The authors "consider explanatory talk as one aspect of children's developing capacities for self-regulation" (p.231) and "ground our discussion of self-regulation and explanatory skills in a sociocultural perspective" (pp.231-232).

As readers of this blog know, self-regulation—typically termed "self-mastery"—is a major theme in Vygotsky's works, and self-talk is for Vygotsky a critical pathway for achieving it. The authors draw from sociocultural researchers such as Diaz & colleagues and Daniels, Cole & Wertsch to ground their discussion of "the development of self-regulation as an outcome of both social and individual processes" (p.232).

Self-regulatory processes as higher mental functions. The authors first discuss self-regulatory processes as higher mental functions (here, we'll call them HMFs), drawing on Mind in Society (which itself incorporates a part from Vygotsky's History of the Development of Higher Mental Functions) as well as commentary by Meshcheryakov to define HMFs as
guid[ing] and controll[ing] both thought and action and distanc[ing] humans from the control of environmental stimuli. Ultimately, the operation of higher mental processes yielded self-regulated action and adaptation. In Vygotsky's theory, the key process that produces higher mental functioning, or regulatory skill, is internalization. Internalization is both a developmental outcome and the primary mechanism by which interpersonal activity (e.g., dialogue, shared practices and strategies) is transformed into inner, self-regulating thought processes. (p.233)
HMFs contrast with lower mental functions (LMFs), which have developed "along a strong biologically based trajectory and included what cognitive scientists today classify as basic sensory, perceptual, attentional, and memory processes" (p.233). The HMFs, according to Vygotsky, were uniquely human. "Among higher mental processes, Vygotsky included voluntary attention and sustained concentration, concept formation, planning, and problem solving. In Ferryhough's (2010) view, components of executive function and forms of regulatory behavior are contemporary examples of what Vygotsky categorized as higher mental processes" (p.233).

(Note that Vygotsky's work on HMFs, described here, was subsumed by his later work on psychological systems — see chapter 6 in the linked review. Here, Vygotsky argued that the mental functions remain more or less the same, but their relationships change. That is, things that were counted as HMFs are actually effects of relationships or "constellations" of lower mental functions. I see an analogy to how neuropsychologists now regard executive functions as constructs for describing emerging relationships among neurological functions.) 

The authors add that "among Vygotsky's most powerful insights as that sociocultural processes forged new intermental or interfunctional links among higher mental functions" (p.234).

Mediation of self-regulated thinking and behavior. The authors then turn to the question of mediation, drawing on Wertsch (p.235). They add that "Kozulin (2002) warned that the full range of mediational social interactions is still not fully grasped," in part because of "its necessarily context-specific nature" (p.236). Kozulin proposed "distinguishing between type of social mediation and the particular mediating techniques used by adults with children" (pp.236-237): types include scaffolding, approval, and encouragement, while techniques include localized implementation of each type (p.237).

The authors note that for Vygotsky, "self-regulative uses of external speech were ... the earliest manifestations of inner speech" (p.239), and cite Diaz in asserting that "private speech gradually 'takes on a planning and guiding function'" (p.239).

Developing explanatory competence. The authors then review the contemporary research on explanatory competence "with the aim of illustrating Vygotsky's ideas about the gradual shift from externally to internally mediated forms of self-regulated thought" (p.240).

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, I actually only read this one chapter in depth, so I can't review this book as a whole. But this chapter was really useful for me in thinking through how Vygotsky's contributions have been, and can be, taken up. Specifically, it allowed me to better consider how Vygotsky's "self-mastery" relates to contemporary considerations of self-regulation and to the construct of executive functions. And, more broadly, it allowed me once again to consider how Vygotsky's assertions interacted with his political milieu and ideology: self-mastery was, after all, a huge theme for Engelsian dialectics and a hallmark of humanity. In contemporary neuropsychology, self-regulation is understood as important but, I think, not absolutely central.

In any case, if you are interested in how Vygotsky's work can be taken up in contemporary neuropsychological discourse about self-regulation, check out this chapter.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Reading :: The Practical Essence of Man

The Practical Essence of Man: The 'Activity Approach' in Late Soviet Philosophy
Edited by Vesa Oittinen and Andrey Maidansky


As long-time readers of this blog know, activity theory was developed by A.N. Leontiev, a Soviet psychologist, building on acknowledged influences such as Vygotsky as well as unacknowledged or lightly acknowledged influences such as Rubinshtein and Lewin. It was picked up in the West in various manifestations, including by Finnish education researcher Yrjo Engestrom, who extended it to better account for organizational and cross-organizational interactions. Readers of this blog also know that AT was in many ways a product of its time and place — its tenets were, if not entirely based in orthodox Marx-Engels-Leninism, wrapped in that orthodoxy, and Leontiev in particular was sensitive and reactive to the political environment in both Stalinist and post-Stalinist USSR.

But AT was taken up beyond psychology, specifically in philosophy and most famously in Ilyenkov (from whom Engestrom borrows the implementation of “contradiction” that now characterizes Engestromian AT analysis). This collection explores that philosophical tradition.

(A brief aside here: I am generally uninterested in philosophy, which I find to be tedious, low-stakes, and uninteresting. But I am interested in how philosophy impacts other spheres of human activity.)

In the introduction, the editors acknowledge that although the psychological AT is now known globally, “its sibling, the philosophical activity theory, which arose among Soviet philosophers in the 1960s, remains virtually unknown outside Russia” (p.1). Partially, the authors say, that is because people inside and outside Russia have written off the entire 70 years of the Soviet Union as an intellectual loss, a period in which nothing of philosophical value could arise. But, the authors argue, thinkers such as Bakhtin and Ilyenkov have proven differently. The activity theory approach is similarly an “innovative undercurrent” that “is worthy of reception and critical assessment even today” (p.1).

The “scope of the activity approach is wider than that of Marxist philosophy, as it repeatedly contested the received ideas of Soviet Marxism-Leninism” (p.1). Specifically, the authors charge, the vulgarized Diamat (dialectical materialism) understanding of praxis was overly pragmatic, “de facto identified with ‘success’ in action” (pp.1-2). In reaction, the AT approach broke with these ideas, a “Soviet analogy to the Western ‘Praxis’ Marxism” (p.2). The AT approach developed “independently from Western theories of action” such as Weber’s, and consequently had a broader understanding of action: “they understood activity as the fundamental trait of man’s relations with the surrounding world” and thus as “forming the methodological basis of all human and social sciences” (p.2). The AT approach was based on Aristotelian praxis and poesis (p.3), but extended to other non-Soviets such as Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel (p.4).

Ilyenkov wrote “the first manifesto of the activity approach in philosophy” in 1962, in his discussion of the ideal, which in his estimation was not just a “reflection” but “an attribute of human activity; it is the special, cultural-historical dimension of man as an active being” (p.4). (I’ve reviewed Ilyenkov’s books elsewhere.) This concept of the ideal was taken up by other philosophers in the early 1960s, during the “short ‘thaw’ period of Khrushchev’s so-called de-Stalinization” (p.7). The authors provide summaries of some of these philosophers’ ideas.

“In the 1970s, the Soviet state became slack and inactive” and “the activity approach lost its popularity” (p.14). Yet some philosophers continued to develop it.

With that background in mind, let’s get to a selection of chapters.

David Bakhurst. “Activity and the Search for True Materialism.”
In this chapter, Bakhurst recounts how, when he began studying the USSR’s philosophical culture, his mentors told him the key concept was activity. Yet “I gradually began to realise that there was no settled view within the Russian tradition of what the so-called ‘activity approach’ amounted to” (p.17). Everyone agreed that the first of the Theses on Feuerbach was the starting point, but no one seemed to agree on what it meant (p.17). In psychology, Vygotsky’s followers used the concept of activity to insulate themselves from charges of idealism, “and thereby succeeded in saving much of Vygotsky’s legacy, albeit in transmuted form” (pp.17-18). In philosophy, it directed attention to philosophically interesting parts of Marx’s thought (p.18). “In this way the concept served as a conduit for philosophical creativity in a  difficult and repressive philosophical culture” (p.18).

But here, Bakhurst is interested in activity’s general philosophical significance beyond the Soviet milieu. He focuses on Ilyenkov, who argued that a relation between mind and world is only possible through activity (p.19). He summarizes Ilyenkov’s approach through ten theses (pp.19-21), then reviews some friendly objections. For instance, Batishchev characterizes the activity approach as “substantialism”: by elevating object-oriented activity to a supercategory, the approach becomes instrumental and fails to account for fundamental concepts such as communication and community (pp.21-22). He also claims that the approach as radically anthropocentric (p.22).

Bakhurst acknowledges that some activity theorists, such as V.P. Zinchenko, were vulnerable to the criticism, but Ilyenkov is not (p.23). Yet “the ‘environmental’ [anthropocentric] objection is spot on” (p.24). He thinks that this is a repairable problem.

Bakhurst then contemplates the question of normative authority in the activity approach, a “live philosophical issue” (p.27). He concludes with “a radical, even heretical, suggestion”: the activity approach’s problems generally “issue from the idea that activity is a category from which we can deduce the relation between subject and object, thinking and being”—but what if we instead construe our work as attempting “to express the terms in which we must think human activity, the terms in which human activity must understand itself” (p.27)?

Versa Ottinen. “‘Praxis’ as the Criterion of Truth? The Aporias of Soviet Marxism and the Activity Approach”
Here, the author argues that praxis is not the same as activity. Praxis was a cornerstone of Marxism-Leninism, and thus became “ideologically overcharged” (p.29), partially due to Plekhanov, whom Ottinen charges was “the real founder of dialectical materialism” (p.31). Plekhanov indiscriminately conflated the praxis arguments of the young Marx and the old Engels, and the result was that “the idea of praxis became a seemingly omnipotent argument” (p.31). Praxis in Soviet philosophy became “a confused concept” (p.33)

Andrey Maidansky. “Reality as Activity: The Concept of Praxis in Soviet Philosophy”
Maidansky also takes a crack at the concept of praxis. He notes that Marx and Engels considered themselves “practical materialists” and understood world history as built upon labor; “For Marx, every human thing is nothing other than objectified labour—the condensed and hardened lava of Action” (p.42). In contrast, the author argues, Lenin’s Materialism and Empirocriticism defines matter as “an objective reality given to man by sensations” (p.43)—the kind of materialism that Marx had criticized.

Following the Marxist rather than the Leninist understanding, the author further notes that according to Marx, nature is an acting subject. Ilyenkov, along the same lines, says that labor is the subject, thought is the predicate (p.45). And in the same tradition, Batishchev argues that “in the process of practical activity, a human being changes not only an object but himself as well, his own personality, and even human nature itself” (pp.46-47).

Sergei Mareev. “Abstract and Concrete Understanding of Activity: ‘Activity’ and ‘Labour’ in Soviet Philosophy”
Mareev argues that “activity” is too broad a concept to apply methodologically. He advocates replacing the abstract “activity” with the concrete “labour” (p.96):

In any case, we should start with the notion of labour, because only through labour can we explain the origin of all ideal senses and meanings that may be produced later in all fields of scientific and artistic activity. Evald Ilyenkov played an outstanding role here, showing how the ideal, as such, is produced directly within material activity, that is, in the labour-process. This link was missing in the works of A.N. Leontiev, the well-known psychologist, which is why he supported Ilyenkov so warmly. (p.97)

He also notes that “The essence of speech follows from the essence of labour, and it can be deduced from and explained by it only. This is the general idea and general method of the Vygotsky-Leontiev school” (p.99).



Overall, this book was helpful in understanding the uptake of the concept of activity from psychology to philosophy in the late Soviet Union. I found some chapters helpful, especially Bakhurst’s and the Introduction, but overall this book is more geared to those who have a more active interest in philosophy. If that’s you, certainly pick this book up.