Humans, Nonhumans, and Wicked Problems

Humans, Nonhumans, and Wicked Problems

Clay Spinuzzi, on the notion of symmetry in actor-network theory:

When Latour describes humans and nonhumans as symmetrical, he means that differences among actants (both human and nonhuman) are generated within a given actor-network rather than preexisting them; we can’t presuppose those differences.

Spinuzzi has initiated an insightful and entertaining series of posts exploring symmetry, which can be found here: Part I; Part II. It helps to have some understanding of ANT, but I think that even newcomers to these ideas would benefit from reading these posts.

In last night’s session of my grad seminar on activity theory we discussed Engeström’s final, reflective chapter from Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory. In exploring wicked problems and runaway objects, Engeström seems to be pushing the limits of where and how AT can work as an analytic frame and methodology. He asks

Are there objects without an activity? Whose object is global warming, for example?

I suggested that these (and other) questions might lead us to consider (in another seminar, of course!) the utility of ANT for approaching things like wicked problems.

More importantly, these discussions give us an opportunity to consider the potential and limitations of our research methodologies and analytic frames relative to our objects of study. As Spinuzzi argues:

what is treated as symmetrical in one network of meaning is not treated as symmetrical in other networks. [emphasis in original]

I’m really interested to see, in our final class of the semester, how my students will reconcile Engeström’s chapter, his 2010 book From Teams to Knots: Activity-Theoretical Studies of Collaboration and Learning at Work, and Spinuzzi’s 2011 JBTC article on runaway objects.

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