Mind, Culture and Activity

June 16, 2009

In the edited volume Mind, Culture and Activity (1997), 33 articles on cultural psychology and social studies are presented. For my own purposes, the most interesting of these related specifically to explaining, extending and updating Activity Theory, which stems from Vygotsky’s work by the way of later Russian theorists such as Leont’ev. The Vygotskian paradigm (as Minick’s (1997) article in the volume refers to it), along with seminal work by Bakhtin, Leont’ev and others, arrived in the West decades after the original works were published in Russia, however became very influential in the study of culture, psychology and activity since the later 1970s.

Vygotsky’s views on the relationship between thought, language and development (which I have previously discussed) essentially place goal-oriented activity as the starting point for psychological (and therefore, by extension, linguistic) development in humans. As Minick’s (1997) summary of his work suggests, Vygotsky’s approach refutes the Behaviourist distinction between mind and behaviour, suggesting that the two are inseparable: “Vygotsky argued that units of analysis in psychological theory must be defined such that they are at one and the same time units of mind and units of social interaction.” (122). His approach to language focused on unit analysis, which is reflected for instance in his focus on “word meaning” as a bridge between linguistic, psychological and social analysis – “since “word meaning” is at one and the same time a unit of abstraction or thinking (i.e., a unit of the mind) and a unit of communication or social interaction (i.e., a unit of behaviour).” (122). On a broader level, Vygotsky refused to isolate language, thought and (social) behaviour as independent elements for analysis – his work suggests that all of these exist in overlapping or partially-overlapping realms of human activity and can never be properly analyzed in isolation.

Activity theory, as presented in Mind, Culture and Activity (1997), looks specifically at how human behaviour and communication come together and are mediated through action. Activity, as mediated through culture, psychology and language thus becomes the primary unit of analysis for activity theorists. Cole, Engestrom and Vasquez (1997) summarize the basic premise of Leont’ev’s Activity Theory as follows:

“Activity here is seen as a collective, systemic formation that has a complex mediational structure. Activities are not short-lived events or actions that have a temporally clear-cut beginning and end. They are systems that produce events and actions and evolve over lengthy periods of sociohistorical time. The subject and the object are mediated by artifacts, including symbols and representations of various kinds. The activity system incessantly reconstructs itself through actions and discourse.” (4)

There are some implications to this theory which Cole, Engestrom and Vasquez (1997) seek to address in the volume. For instance Activity Theory seems to cast some doubt on the value of analyzing individuals, favouring cultural psychology that originates from much wider social analysis. Is there, however, a place for the individual in this analysis? (Unfortunately, at least my reading so far has left this question largely unanswered). Methodologically, the approach certainly poses challenges, and much of the work in the volume essentially argues for and applies a variety of ethnomethodological, naturalistic approaches to gathering data and producing accounts of activity and behaviour, in contrast to the traditional Behaviourist reliance on experiments. This is something which I welcomed after Vygotsky’s work, which to a large extent seemed to rely on data that could be considered experimental – if only he ever clarified his methodology in any detail. Although I honestly have not yet had a chance to look through many of the studies presented in the volume in any great depth, it was somewhat reassuring at least to see solid discussions of methodology and clear use of data. Certainly the importance of examining practices and activities as the primary objects of study when approaching genre or culture, as opposed to their artifacts (e.g. purely linguistic data), is argued convincingly in a number of articles in the volume. For example, I was impressed with a (somewhat lengthy) passage from Scribner’s (1997) article on pp.357-358, where she defines practice (“a socially constructed activity organized around some common objects” (357)) and suggests that it is practice that needs to be the focus of study, as opposed to the objects surrounding it (357). She also suggests a place for both observational and experimental methods in establishing the (socio-cultural) characteristics of these practices, as well as cognitive/material skills and knowledges involved in reproducing them.

One interesting theme that recurred in some of the articles in the volume is perhaps best phrased as a question – “how do people recognize an activity/context/genre and how do they orient/situate themselves within it?” This is interesting for me for several reasons and from several perspectives. In terms of my work on multimodal discourse of war in mass media and entertainment, better understanding of how to approach this question would firstly allow me to deal with the notion of not only multimodality but trans-modality – how do people identify and distinguish discourses of war in different contexts (e.g. television news vs. online news vs. film vs. video games), and how do they make sense of transitions and common territories between them. As a functional linguist (and visual analyst), it may also help me better contextualize identifying/defining features of a discourse and setting, framing them in social and cognitive, as opposed to simply linguistic (or more broadly, semiotic) terms. In theoretical terms, this also speaks to a certain applied understanding of ‘chronotope’ as a unit of context and an underlying factor in any genre (although I really need to go back to Bakhtin and get a better understanding of chronotope in the first place at this point).

While the theme of context/activity recognition recurs in many of the articles in the volume, I would highlight three that struck me as a particularly interesting, due to the different angles from which they approach the issue. From a purely conceptual standpoint, the most directly relevant article is Erickson and Schultz’s (1997) When is a context? It approaches social contexts as “interactionally constituted environments” (22), and discusses ways in which people detect changes in social situations and adjust to them. The view of context in this article is essentially chronotopic – where contexts shift and change over time, and detecting this change is an integral part of socialization in people. Cueing or reflecting these shifts is likewise an important semiotic function. There are two aspects of these cues discussed by Erickson and Schultz that are particularly interesting to me – modal redundancy and prosody. The first essentially refers to the notion that in any structured communicative situation, shifts are usually cued multimodally, with more than one ‘hint’ being given by/to participants simultaneously to ensure that they ‘get’ that the situation is now changing or has changed (indeed Erickson and Schultz stress that situation shifts are always detected in hindsight – according to them one can never pinpoint an exact moment of situation change until a participant has had a chance to process the cues). The latter, prosody, refers to the fact that in many cases situational shifts cannot be pointed out via single specific semiotic features, but are rather ‘textured’ in communication. In other words, both of these properties suggest that situational shifts in activities are rarely cued through simple, easily-pinpointed semiotic devices – rather, information on the situation is usually presented in several different modality layers, within which this information is generally diffused. For my own research, this provides an excellent way of approaching multimodal texts as part of social situations and yet another application for the notion of prosody, which I previously considered in terms of textured evaluations – but textured context information is no less, if not more important if I am to consider war discourse not only multimodally (i.e. visual, verbal and other modes in the same types of texts/situations for a particular discourse) but also transmodally (i.e. visual, verbal and other modes across different types of texts/situations for a particular discourse).

The second article of interest in regards to this theme is Wertsch’s (1997) Collective memory, which provides an interesting perspective on Vygotskian thinking in regard to the ways in which people situate themselves towards a particular situation or context. Wertsch (1997) considers people’s positioning in society in terms of ‘collective memory’, a sociohistorically-formed collection of ‘mediational means’ for particular kinds of situations, which, following from Vygotsky’s “tool” analogy (228) in terms of understanding semiotic means for mediating situation, he extends to a “tool kit” analogy, suggesting that collective memory (which includes language, culture, history etc.) is essentially a tool kit by means of which members of a culture orient themselves towards situation. He certainly does not rule out that as individuals, people possess their own ‘tool kits’ of mediational means, but suggests that ways in which individuals acquire these ‘tool kits’ are firmly embedded in culture and history, which need to be understood when considering any situation and the positioning of participants within it. It is a fact, he suggests, that in any given situation or context, there is a tendency for members of a community to privilege certain mediational means over others. For me, this is an integral notion in studying war discourse in mass media and my field of study generally. Systemic-functional analysis and its application towards discourse analysis is largely fixated on dissecting mediational means and determining the order in which they are privileged. Here I can certainly see how an activity-oriented approach (such as the one suggested by Wertsch) could also assist me in providing a more systematic account of the logic behind the way in which mediational means are chosen and approached in a situation.

Finally, I also found some interesting insights towards orienting oneself in a situation or towards an activity in Sayeki’s (1997) “Body Analogy”, which is a study of how spatial and visual analogies may be used for helping orient people. This provides some interesting considerations for looking at visual discourse and analysis, and could be of value in approaching visuals and especially (if I do end up working with it) video games as discourse. Essentially, the article shows how understanding certain visual and functional constructs relies on (and can be assisted by) a viewer/participant projecting a body analogy and essentially situating themselves inside an image. While the study itself is relatively abstract, Sayeki’s (1997) more applied example which he uses to start the article is easy to understand – he shows how he learned to operate a turn indicator on a moped (which initially confused him) by imagining himself holding a steering wheel, something he already had tactile familiarity with. This has some interesting implications towards analyzing visual design (for instance I could see applying this in my thesis work when dealing with abstract/diagrammatic imagery relating to war discourse and how it invites positioning by the viewer), but more broadly also suggests something which I have previously had a sense of but could not find a way to empirically ‘pin down’ – that visual discourse situates the reader not only conceptually, but also frequently (and sometimes by purposeful design) by analogy to concrete, physical body positioning. The viewer thus, in a sense, may become an active participant through this analogy, something which is of no little relevance when examining ideologically-loaded discourse (such as what I have worked with).

Thus, the volume has certainly provided me with some interesting methodological ideas for further consideration, and a fairly coherent extension (and update) of Vygotskian thought, which I already was impressed with. It certainly does not resolve all of the questions in regards to approaching social situations that are posed in its introduction, but it does provide some practical ways to move forward in considering context. With some of these ideas in mind, I would actually like to revisit Bakhtin again, in particular since some of the questions the articles have raised for me are to do with chronotope as a concept/unit.


Cole, M., Engestrom, Y. and Vasquez, O. (1997). Introduction. In M. Cole, Y. Engestrom, O. Vasquez (Eds.). Mind, culture and activity. (pp. 1-21). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Erickson, F. and Schultz, J. (1997). When is a context? Some issues and methods in the analysis of social competence. In M. Cole, Y. Engestrom, O. Vasquez (Eds.). Mind, culture and activity. (pp. 22-31). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Minick, N. (1997). The early history of the Vygotskian school: The relationship between mind and activity. In M. Cole, Y. Engestrom, O. Vasquez (Eds.). Mind, culture and activity. (pp. 117-127). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sayeki, Y. (1997). “Body analogy” and the cognition of rotated figures. In M. Cole, Y. Engestrom, O. Vasquez (Eds.). Mind, culture and activity. (pp. 90-99). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scribner, S. (1997). Mind in action: a functional approach to thinking. In M. Cole, Y. Engestrom, O. Vasquez (Eds.). Mind, culture and activity. (pp. 354-368). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wertsch, J. (1997). Collective memory: Issues from a sociohistorical perspective. In M. Cole, Y. Engestrom, O. Vasquez (Eds.). Mind, culture and activity. (pp. 226-233). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Course Outline

May 5, 2009

ENGL 795 – Spring 2009
Instructor: Dr. Catherine Schryer
Student: George Ross

Texts in Their Social Contexts: An Investigation into Social Theories that Assist in Discourse Analysis

Language researchers invested in examining texts in their social contexts need a strong background in the social theories that work well with discourse analysis. This course intends to compliment text analysis methodologies and genre studies by providing a broader framework for conceptualizing social activity. The goals of the course include providing ways to incorporate notions of intertextuality, ideology and activity systems into research grounded in linguistic analysis. The material covered will focus on social development theories, social constructionism and activity theory, featuring the work of theorists such as Volosinov, Vygotsky, Bourdieu, Engestrom and Latour.

The student and the instructor will meet once a week for the first six weeks of the course to discuss the readings.  Thereafter, they will meet once every 2 weeks.


1. An online journal or blog which will summarize some of the key ideas in the weekly readings and relate those ideas to the student’s initial dissertation planning.  The posting ( approx 800-1,000 words) must be completed prior to the weekly meeting and shared with the instructor: 20%
2. A mid-term paper (3,000 words) in which the student assesses the course readings to date as to their value for his dissertation interests. 30%. Due week 7
3. A final paper (5,000 words) in which the student provides a brief outline of a possible dissertation project and links this project to a literature review of the social theories that could assist in framing that project. 50%. Due 2 weeks after end of classes.


Volosinov, V.N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Trans. L. Matejkao and I.T. Titunik. Cambridge: MA, Harvard University Press, 1973.

Vygotsky, L. S. Thought and Language. Trans. E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar. Cambridge: MA, MIT Press,1962

Engeström, Y., Miettinen, R., Punamäki, R.-L. (Eds). 1999. Perspectives on activity theory. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Selections from Chaiklin, S. Hedegaard, M. & Jensen, U.J. (Eds.) Activity Theory and Social Practice: Cultural-Historical Approaches. Aarhus University Press, 345-374. 1999.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Language and Symbolic Power. Trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson. Ed. John B. Thompson. MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Harker, R., Mahar, C., & Wilkes, C. eds. An Introduction to the Work of Pierre Bourdieu. London: Macmillan, 1990.

Latour, Bruno. Aramis, or, The love of technology. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Law, John. (1992). “Notes on the Theory of the Actor-Network: Ordering, Strategy and Heterogeneity.” Systems Practice 5: 379-393.

Selections from Law, J. (Ed.) A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination. London & New York: Routledge, 1991

Choice of

Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar. Laboratory life: the social construction of scientific facts. Beverly Hills, Sage Publications, 1979.


Latour, Bruno. Pandora’s hope: essays on the reality of science studies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Weekly Schedule

Week 1 (May 4)
Volosinov – Marxism and Philosophy of Language

Week 2 (May 11)
Volosinov – Marxism and Philosophy of Language
Vygotsky – Thought and Language

Week 3 (May 18)
Vygotsky – Thought and Language

Week 4 (May 25)
Chaiklin, Hedegaard, Jensen – Activity Theory and Social Practice
Engeström, Miettinen, Punamäki – Perspectives on activity theory

Week 5 (June 1)
Engeström, Miettinen, Punamäki – Perspectives on activity theory

Week 6 (June 8 ) Mid-term paper due
Introduction to Bordieu

Week 7 (June 15)
Bordieu – Language and Symbolic Power

Week 8 (June 22)
Bordieu – Language and Symbolic Power

Week 9 (June 29)
Latour – The Love of Technology.

Week 10 (July 6)
Law – Technology and Power
Law – Notes on the Theory of the Actor-Network

Week 11 (July 13)
Latour – Laboratory Life / Pandora’s Hope

Week 12 (July 20)
Latour – Laboratory Life / Pandora’s Hope

Week 13 (July 27) Final paper due