Cultural-historical activity theory and the zone of proximal development in the study of idioculture design and implementation

Robert Lecusay, Lars Rossen, and Michael Cole’s intro:

The absence of context and culture from the early history of the cognitive sciences was, according to Gardner (1987), the result of a general attempt by cognitive scientists to “factor out these elements to the maximum extent possible,” (p. 41). The traditional vision of cognition framed human thinking as the manipulation of inner mental representations of an external world (the central processing unit metaphor). Computational models were viewed as a key way to study cognitive phenomena thus interpreted. These models assume cognitive processes that are invariant across contexts, cultures, and history. This theoretical vision set the agenda of cognitive science as a project of explaining the mind from the inside out. From this perspective the external/internal distinction is clear: processing goes on inside the head.

Over the past several decades approaches challenging these foundational assumptions have emerged or been rediscovered within the cognitive and social sciences (Cole, 1996, Engeström, 1987 and Hutchins, 1995). These alternatives approach the problem of cognition from the outside in, bringing us to reevaluate the importance of culture in our theories of cognition (Hutchins, 2001). In this paper we focus on one such approach: Cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT). Rather than conceptualizing culture and cognition as two separate phenomena that interact in a manner akin to stimulus and response, CHAT argues for a view of culture and cognition as co-constituted in socially organized, culturally mediated, historically conditioned forms of activity. This move broadens the unit of analysis beyond the individual to include the development and deployment of the mediational means through which humans coordinate with one another and their multifaceted environments; it places particular focus on the dynamics of change over time.

In this article we seek to accomplish two goals. First, we present a brief overview of CHAT sufficient to permit analysis of a real-world example of change in joint mediated activity that reveals the dynamics of cognitive change in a theoretically fruitful manner. Second, we present the example and its analysis. The example is presented in two forms: as a printed transcript with interspersed interpretive comments and as a videotaped archival record available on the internet. We return at the end to examine the impact of this approach in relation to other efforts to understand cognition as a socio-culturally constituted process.