The concept of contradiction in activity theory

The concept of contradiction serves as a foothold for activity theory because contradictions of human activity are the driving force for change and development. A contradiction is not the same as a problem or a conflict, but it is a structural tension historically accumulated within the activity system or between multiple different activity systems. In activity systems, people encounter contradictions between “multiple motives embedded in and engendered by their historically evolving communities and objects” (Engestrom, 2016b, p. 3). Therefore, contradictions are “a key to understanding the sources of trouble as well as the innovative and developmental potentials and transformations of activity” (p. 5).

The basic internal contradiction of human activity derives from the dual existence of activity, represented by the fact that immediate hcrc-and-now activities are actions with a concrete meaning and value for individuals, and at the same time, they compose “the total societal production” (Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. 66) in a way that completely covers up such actions. This dual existence signifies the fact that human activity is specific to relevant individuals while, when viewed from the perspective of society as a whole, it must be counted as one among many that constitute the totality. In other words, “any specific production must at the same be independent of and subordinated to the total societal production” (p. 66). The contradiction here arises repeatedly as “the clash between individual actions and the total activity system" (p. 66). To employ Engcstrom’s “model of a collective activity system” (Figure 2.2) as discussed earlier, the contradiction of human activity' can be said to be a ceaseless tension between individual action, as represented by the upper small triangle in the model, and the activity' system that encompasses these individual actions, that is, the cultural and historical activity' system multi-dimcnsionally mediated by social elements in the lower portion of the model.

To repeat, the contradiction of such human activity is a historically accumulated structural tension. Therefore, it “acquires a different historical form in each socio-economic formation” (Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. 66).

In other words, there is a difference in the underlying contradiction of human activity between pre-capitalist socio-economic formations and contemporary capitalist ones. The contradiction of capitalism emerges in the general form of a commodity in which all things, activities, and relations become commodified. It is a contradiction that any activity can be exchanged as a commodity to gain profits; that is, any activity can be reduced to a value (i.e., exchange value), and the effort to create a use value itself is downgraded as a mere means to this end. Hence, commodity form in the capitalist socio-economic formation has the dual nature of being a use value produced at the level of individual-specific action and production, and a value (exchange value) produced through exchanges at the level of collective activity and total production. Between these values, there is a tension that simultaneously allows mutual exclusion and mutual dependence.

For example, Engestrom (1987/2015) revealed that students’ activity of school going in contemporary society is determined by the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist socio-economic formation, that is, “the double nature of commodity' as a unity' of value and use value” (p. 81 ). In short, for students, elements that compose their activity system emerge in two competing forms.

The basic contradictions between use value and exchange value of school learning can be presented in Figure 2.4 using the activity system model.

This figure represents the inner contradictions of the activity' system of school learning from the student’s perspective, namely, the contradictions between two competing contexts and contents such as exchange value and use value. From the viewpoint of the history of the school, “[t]he inner contradiction of school going ... also continuously produces ‘deviant’ pupil

Atomized/fragmented subject curriculum

Step-by-step short-lived lessons

Standardized achievement tests




Daily assignments = a series of more or less disconnected though systematically repeated learning actions vs. deviant actions




rDivision of laborl

(Use value]

A living instrument of mastering one’s own ¿elation to society


Figure 2.4 Basic contradictions in the student’s activity system

Activity theory as a new framework for educational research 39 actions toward the use value aspect of this activity” (Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. 81). The problem, however, is that “deviant” student actions remain as “a series of more or less disconnected though systematically repeated learning actions” (p. 83), rather than expanding into new learning activities that transcend given contexts and move toward emancipatory actions.

The use value of learning refers to the usefulness that learning has for learners, that is, what concrete and unique meaning learning has for a learner. Engestrom (1987/2015) understands the use value oflcarning as highlighting an aspect of the learner in the process of obtaining “a living instrument of mastering one’s own relation to society outside of the school” (p. 81). On the other hand, the exchange value of school learning is associated with “gaining grades or other ‘success markers’ that cumulatively determine the future value of the pupil him- or herself in the labor market” (p. 81). It is an abstract value of learning, mediated by general instruments such as an atomized and fragmented subject curriculum, step-by-step short-lived lessons, and standardized achievement tests, and pursued by the totality of the activity system of schooling in society as a whole. Although every form of school learning is independent and concrete for teachers and children, it is at the same time only a part of the total school learning in society as a whole and is subordinated to abstract valuation.

From the teacher’s perspective of school learning, similarly, inside the teacher’s activity system, there is a sharp contradiction between exchange value and use value in the total activity system of school learning in a society mediated by the above-mentioned general instruments. For the teacher, it manifests as a contradiction between the standardized and fixed schooling dictated from the above and the creation of a new form of learning activity system from below by collaborating with children and colleagues and connecting with the world outside the school.

The contradiction between exchange value and use value in the activity system is, as it were, an expression of the inner contradiction of the system in the synchronic dimension. In reference to the diachronic dimension, the inner contradictions of activities emerge as contradictions between “new qualitative stages and forms” and “the preceding stage or form” (Engestrom, 1987/2015, p. 73).

Leont’ev (1981, p. 402) describes the contradiction between forms of activities that emerges on the diachronic dimension and its solution as a transition from the “only understandable motives” to “really effective motives.”

Human development, which refers to the generation and construction of the subject’s new relations with reality, is triggered by a change in the motive for activities. The key to this lies in “a particular relation between activity and action” (Leont’ev, 1981, p. 401). The relation between activity and action and its changes are what transform the activity structure. The transformation occurs as follows. When what is originally the goal of action gradually changes into the motive for activity, the action develops into a new activity. Most importantly, when an action turns itself into a new activity, there is always a new motive generated, and in response to it, the subject’s newrelationship with actuality emerges. In other words, the process of human development through the generation of motive to create new activities can be found here.

Leont’ev (1981, pp. 401-402) examines the mechanism of this process in reference to the case of a 1st grade child who cannot deal with preparatory homework. The child tries to delay working on homework as much as possible and is easily distracted by something else even after starting to work on it. Let us suppose the child is told, “You cannot go out and play until you finish your homework,” and assume the trick has been effective and the child starts working on homework. In this case, the child might have such a motive as, “I want to get a good mark, I want to do my duty,” but what is really effective is the motive “to get permission to go out and play.” Leont’ev terms the former type of motives “only understandable motives” and the latter “really effective motives” (p. 402).

The child suddenly stops working on homework and, starting to cry, stands up to leave the desk. When asked what is wrong, the child replies, “I’ll just get a pass or a bad mark. I’ve written very untidily.” It is in this encounter that Leont’ev (1981, p. 402) sees the emergence of “a new effective motive” to work on homework. Put another way, this motive takes on the true sense of solving a problem and carrying out learning actions, as exemplified by such comments as “I want to get a good mark.”

Previously “only understandable motives” have now been transformed into “really effective motives.” How did this transition of motives come to be? Leont’ev (1981) explains that “[i]t is a matter of an action’s result being more significant, in certain conditions, than the motive that actually induces it” (p. 403). The child conscientiously sets about working on homework, eager to go outside to play. However, paradoxically, this produces a more meaningful desire that goes beyond the mere act of playing. It is not simply to get the chance to go out and play but also to get a good mark. Here, a new objectification of needs occurs. This means that needs have changed and developed and are now understood at a higher level. From this, Leont’ev provides a suggestive view of “the art of upbringing and education.”

Does the art of upbringing and education not consist in general in creating a proper combination of “understandable” and “really effective” motives, and at the same time in knowing how, in good time, to attach greater significance to the successfill result of activity so as to ensure a transition to a higher type of the real motives governing the individual’s life?

(p. 403)

Thus, Leont’ev seeks the mechanism by which new activities emerge in the contradiction between the motives for the preceding activities and those of new, more advanced activities. However, Engestrom (1987/2015) is doubtful that such contradictions that drive new activities arc introduced from the outside, as claimed by Leont’ev.

The problem is the external character of this contradiction. It seems as if the seed of the conflict, the new motive, were “transplanted” from outside, by the wise men of the culture. In his account Leont’ev fails to penetrate the inner contradiction within the previous activity.

This problem is visible in the characterization of the new, more advanced activity of Leont’ev’s example. The new motive is supposed to be “to get a good mark.” This would correspond to the exchange-value aspect of the motive of school going. The whole inner contradictoriness of this motive is here set aside.

(p. 105)

Engcstrom (2016b) attributes such criticism to process theories of learning. Traditionally, process theories of learning have been defined as universal theories “aimed at disclosing and implementing the optimal sequence of learning” (p. 23). Therefore, Engcstrom considered building a process theory based on cultural and historical types of learning that would go beyond such universal process theories of learning to be a core issue of learning theory. A learning theory, which today Engcstrom recognizes as substantially proposing a process theory based on cultural and historical types of learning and as being a basis of his own learning theory, is Vasily Davydov’s (1990, 2008) theory of learning activity. Davydov’s theory can be summed up as “a particular type of learning, aimed at the formation of theoretical generalizations” (Engcstrom, 2016b, p. 27). However, Engcstrom points out that, similar to Leont’ev, the sequence of learning in Davydov’s theory, appears to have been “transplanted” from outside by the wise people of the culture, and criticizes the mechanism of transition from one learning action to the next one as being posited as instructors’ guidance in Davydov’s theory (pp. 26-27). Countering such a view that depicts the transitional mechanism as “rational and voluntaristic,” Engcstrom proposes the expansive learning theory as a new process theory that I will take a closer look at in the next chapter.

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