Wertsch, Mind as Action

James. Mind as Action. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Sociocultural analysis is best understood by taking into account "mental
functioning" as it relates to "cultural, institutional, and historical context[s]"
(3). Toward an integrative methodology for the human sciences (set against
the APA’s 49 divisions and much disciplinary wrangling), Werstch proposes
mediated action
as a the pervasive object of study: an agglutination of
(subject/person) and agency (instrument/mediational
means/cultural tools). Furthermore, he draws on Burke’s pentad and urges us, as
Burke did, to think in terms of ratios, rather than reducing any element
to isolated treatment (15). The pentad provides a method, a "tool for
conducting inquiry about human action and motives" (14). Like Bronfenbrenner,
Werstch is concerned with the "individual-society antimony"; he responds
to a similar problem in the tendency of controlled inquiry to sequester
individuals from contexts
("there is a general tendency among many
psychologists to focus exclusively on what Burke would call the agent" (16)).

Next, Werstch sets out ten properties of mediated action. It is
especially important to him that "analyses of action not be limited by the
dictates of methodological individualism" (23). The analytical framework
focuses on three central considerations: 1. agents and their cultural tools,
2. mediated action or "agent-acting-with-mediational-means", and 3.
the link between action and broader cultural, institutional, and historical
. The ten basic claims or properties of mediated action (25):

  1. Mediated action is characterized by an irreducible tension between
    agent and mediational means
    (25): agent is redefined. Ex. pole vaulting
    Like Latour’s hybrid, no?
    Also, Werstch introduced "semiotic mediation," like a multiplication problem.
    ^See problem below.
  2. Mediational means are material (30). Even when spoken (acoustic
    "sign vehicles"), mediational means are material.
  3. Mediated action typically has multiple simultaneous goals (32).
  4. Mediated action is situated on one or more developmental paths
  5. Mediational means constrain as well as enable action (38).
  6. New mediational means transform mediated action (42).
    From Vygotsky: "by being included in the process of behavior, the
    psychological tool alters the flow and structure of mental functions" (43).
  7. The relationship of agents toward mediational means can be characterized
    in terms of mastery (46). W. prefers "mastery" and "knowing how" over
    "internalization." ^Consider this alongside Nardi and O’Day’s emphasis
    on both know-why and know-how (IE 70).
  8. The relationship of agents toward mediational means can be characterized
    in terms of appropriation (53).
  9. Mediational means are often produced for reasons other than to facilitate
    mediated action (58). Spin-offs.
  10. Mediational means are associated with power and authority

Werstch goes on to explore the function of narrative as semiotic
mediated action that represents the past (ch. 3) (W. is especially interested in
turning this toward constructions of national history). In chapter four,
he takes up mediated action that is more socially involved (unlike pole
vaulting, multiplication, and recounting past events). For this, he suggests the
co-presence and co-evolution of intersubjectivity (shared
perspective) and alterity (generative digression).

Finally, because Werstch expands mediated means to encompass language (like
Bruner’s "instruments of thought", the combination of tools and language) and
also contends that mediational means are always material. Because he also
invokes Gibson, this brings up a quandary rel. to affordances, which Gibson says
must be substantive. That is, how does language as a mediational means
work relative to the concepts of affordance and constraint? It’s not clear
to me that language as a mediational means can yield affordances in quite the
same way Gibson sets it up.

Key terms: connectionist (8, 51), individual-society antimony (10), dramatism
(12), circumferences (14), mediated action (17), ratio (17), mediational means
and cultural tools (interchangeable) (17), appropriation (25, 53), anti-reductionistic
stance (26), semiotic mediation (28), affordances (29), illusion of perspective
(41), internalization (48), utterances (73), narrative (78), social
interactional and intermental (interchangeable) (109), individual and
intramental (interchangeable) (109), intersubjectivity (111), alterity (111),
reciprocal teaching (124), microdynamics (167).

"People often seem to think of the environment as something to be
acted upon
, not something to be interacted with" (21).

"The major point to be made here is that mediated action can undergo a
fundamental transformation with the introduction of new mediational means (in
this case the fiberglass pole)" (45).

"In contrast to the univocal function, which tends toward a single, shared,
homogenous perspective comprising intersubjectivity, the dialogic function
tends toward dynamism, heterogeneity, and conflict among voices"

"The general point to be made about intersubjectivity and alterity,
then, is not that communication is best understood in terms of one or the other
in isolation. Instead, virtually every text is viewed as involving both
univocal, information-transmission characteristics, and hence intersubjectivity,
as well as dialogic, though-generating tendencies, and hence alterity" (117).

"In reciprocal teaching, students as well as teachers take on the role
of guiding other members of a group through the processes required to understand
texts (usually written texts)" (125).

"In the terminology of Burke’s pentad, social reductionism amounts to
focusing exclusively on the scene and failing to take the agent
into account" (141). ^This is a reversal of the methodological trap concerning

"So in the end, the discussion of the microdynamics of appropriation
in this case draws on at least three pentadic elements: agent,
(i.e., cultural tools), and scene (i.e., context)" (176).

"Methodological individualism assumes that cultural, institutional,
and historical settings can be explained by appealing to properties of
individuals, and social reductionism assumes that individuals can be understood
only by appealing to social fact" (179).

"Indeed, one of the reasons for choosing mediated action as a unit of
analysis is that it does not carve up phenomena into isolated disciplinary
that cannot be combined into a more comprehensive whole" (180).