David R. "Rethinking Genre in School and Society: An Activity Theory
Analysis." Written Communication 14 (1997): 504-54.
Russell proposes that the convergence of activity theory and North American
genre theory (read largely through Bazernman’s genre systems) yields a useful
blend for researchers concerned with accounting for the ties between writing in
school settings and writing in the (mostly professional) world. In effect,
Russell is making a case for scalability in these systems. In other words,
to understand the dynamics involved in the writing classroom, researchers must
understand the various orders or spheres of discursive structures impinging on
the most local context: students writing in school. By connecting activity
theory and genre theory, Russell offers a framework for description and
analysis. Recognizing scalability in dialogism (metaphors of conversation)
helps us account for the mid-level relations in heteroglossia.
Russell begins by noting his concern about the limitations in dialogism’s
conversation metaphor (emph. utterances and oral language events) for its
neglects of "nonlinguistic tools." Dialogism also focuses perhaps too
locally on interactions between pairs of communicators at a local scale.
His version of activity theory prefers metaphors of interactivity and networks
over conversations. Also, it is not concerned as much with deep structures
to explain behavioral phenomena. Russell claims he is trying to build a model
for analysis of style and motivations. There are multiple
co-operating activity systems converging at a given site–the classroom.
Russell’s example’s include the biology classroom and the mundane genre of
the grocery list (in his interactions with his daughter, Madeline).
Activity theory’s basic units of analysis: individual, collective, and
Tools: mediational means.
Toward the merger of activity theory and genre theory, we must account for
1. go beyond the conventional notion of genre as a set of formally definable
text features that certain texts have in common across various contexts, however
defined, and consider genre in relation to social action and social motives;
2. see discourse (vocalizations and inscriptions) as one kind of tool among many
others and to relate genres to other kinds of material actions;
3. look at the ways written genres help mediate the actions of individuals with
others in collectives (activity systems) to create stabilized-for-now structures
of action and identity;
4. understand the concept of genre as operationalized social action helps
account for change as well as stability.
"In this article, I set out to synthesize aspects of Y. Engestrom’s
(1987, 1993) systems version of Vygotskian cultural-historical activity
theory with aspects of Bazerman’s (1994a) theory of genre systems to
understand the relation between writing in school and writing in other social
practices, particularly disciplines and professions and the powerful
institutions they serve" (para. 1).
"I suggest that this synthesis further expands in three ways what I believe
is the most elaborated current theory of context–dialogism. It provides (a)
a broader unit of analysis than text-as-discourse, (b) wider levels of
analysis than the dyad, and (c) an expanded theory of dialectic that
embraces objects and motives of collectives and their participants to
explain reciprocal interactions among people through texts, which dialogism
dialogism as the heteroglossic interpenetration of social languages. By tracing
the intertextual relation of a disciplinary or professional genre system to an
educational genre system, through the boundary of a classroom genre system, the
analyst/reformer can construct a model of the interactions of classroom with
wider social practices" (para. 2).
"These dialogic theories explain discourse, including writing, not in
terms of some bracketed underlying conceptual scheme but as a dynamic,
functional, intersubjective process of reciprocal negotiation among
writers and readers, in which discourse mediates interactions among conversants"
"By substituting metaphors of conversation and dialog for metaphors of
context and its contents, dialogism expands theories of writing to allow a more
dynamic and interactive–or ecological–approach, in which one can pursue a more
thorough and symmetrical analysis of the relation between writing in schooling
and society than is possible with theories that depend on some underlying
conceptual scheme" (para. 5).
"The ongoing social practices in which speaking and writing operate also use
a host of nonlinguistic tools: buildings, machines, demarcated
physical space, financial resources, data strings, and so on" (para. 5).
"I hope that analysis of genre systems may offer a theoretical bridge
between the sociology of education and Vygotskian social psychology of classroom
interaction, and contribute toward resolving the knotty problem of the relation
between macro- and microstructure in literacy research based on various social
theories of context (Layder, 1994)."
"Like social constructionism, activity theory traces cognition and
behavior, including writing, to social interaction."
"An activity system is any ongoing, object-directed, historically
conditioned, dialectically structured, tool-mediated human interaction."
"Tools (mediational means) refer to material objects in use by
some individual or group to accomplish some action with some outcome–that is,
tools-in-use, as I will sometimes refer to them, to remind us that a material
thing is not a tool unless it has been put to some use, and the uses of a single
material thing may differ over time and across different actions and activity
"The use of tools mediates the behavior of people in activity systems in
specific and objective ways that are realized historically, through a developing
cooperation and/or competition in the specialized use of tools arising from the
social division of labor (Leont’ev, 1981). Activity systems can stretch out in
space and time and multiply through social division of labor to become large,
powerful, and immensely varied, as their histories are played out dynamically
through the use of a vast range of tools–often including inscriptions as
"Genres predict–they do not determine–structure."
"The activity system of an intermediate cell biology course, like any
other course, forms a complex, stabilized-for-now site of boundary work (Gieryn,
1983) between the activity system of a discipline/profession (cell
biology) and that of the educational institution."
"If we have a principled way of tracing the dynamic circulation of genres,
the intertextual links between classrooms and families and ethnic neighborhoods,
disciplines and professions, business and government and advocacy groups, and so
on, then the role of writing in selection may be clarified."
"Bazerman (1994a) defines genre systems as "interrelated genres that interact
with each other in specific settings" (p. 80)."