One of Yrjö Engeström’s major theoretical contributions is Developmental Work Research which is an interventionist methodology. Engeström did not use chains to describe his model. However, we can find the element of chain from his concepts and diagrams for Developmental Work Research.

Source: Yrjö Engeström (Workplace Studies, 2000, p.159.)

The above diagram is quoted from Yrjö Engeström’s article From individual action to collective activity and back: developmental work research as an interventionist methodology (2000). From the diagram, we can confirm that the triad of “past activity — present activity — possible activities” forms a chain of activity in the context of developmental work.

There are four pairs of concepts behind the above diagram. These concepts are key for understanding the developmental work and Engeström’s activity theory system model.

  • action v.s. activity
  • goal v.s. object/motive
  • present v.s. possible
  • expanded and contracted

A major aspect of Activity Theory is the distinction between individual goal-directed action and collective object-oriented activity. We have learned the hierarchy of “operations — actions — activity” from A. N. Leontiev.

According to A. N. Leontiev, The main thing that distinguishes one activity from another, however, is the difference of their objects. It is exactly the object of an activity that gives it a determined direction… the object of an activity is its true motive. It is understood that the motive may be either material or ideal, either present in perception or exclusively in the imagination or in thought. The main thing is that behind activity there should always be a need, that it should always answer one need or another.” (1978, p.98)

The relationship between actions and activity is flexible. As Engeström highlighted, “It is important to realise that one and the same goal-directed action may accomplish various different activities and transfer from one activity to another. On the other hand, the object and motive of a collective activity may typically be sought after by means of multiple alternative goals and actions.” (2000, p.156)

Goal v.s. Motive

There is an obvious issue within Activity Theory, since the goal is located at the individual action level and the object/motive is located at the collective activity level, how to handle the contradiction between one person’s goal and other people’s goal in the context of activity?

For example, one of Yrjö Engeström empirical studies is the Helsinki University Central Hospital (HUCH) Hospital for Children and Adolescents. He pointed out, “The object of hospital work is the patients, with their health problems or illness…This is not to say that the very object of hospital work would be harmonious in itself…In capitalism, the pervasive primary contradiction is that of commoditisation: between the use value and the exchange value of object. In medicine, this takes the form of patient as person to be helped and healed versus patient as source of revenue and profit.”(2000, p.156)

Developmental Work Research

Engeström’s own solution to the issue leads to the Developmental Work Research model which is based on the concept of  Zone of Proximal Development. According to Engeström, “The notion of zone is crucially different from the notion of goal. While a goal is a fixed end-point or end-state, a zone is the distance or the area between the individually experienced present and collectively generated foreseeable future (Engeström, 1987). If such a zone is not worked out, specific goals are built on sand, or pinned onto thin air.” (2000, p.157)

From the perspective of chains, the past activity is the previous piece, the present activity is the current piece, and the possible activities are a net of pieces. Thus, the Zone of Proximal Development is the connector between the current status and with next status. However, from the current time point, the next is the future which is not real, only possible. From the perspective of Developmental Work Research, the future of activity has two types of possibilities, one is expanded activity and another is contracted activity.

The expanded activity refers to the foreseeable activity in which the contradictions are expansively resolved, while the contracted activity refers to the foreseeable activity in which the contradictions have led to contraction and destruction of opportunities.

Engeström claimed that the Zone of Proximal Development can be crossed only by means of new kinds of concrete actions. He said, “This calls for a move back from activity to actions, a move of design and implementation…Modelling the possible expanded activity requires yet another kind of groundwork from the researcher. Alternative models of the future must be brought to the table, to be debated, analysed and compared. These alternative visions are available among competitors, managers, and design experts.”

Return to Lev Vygotsky

To be honest, I personally believe that Engeström's reconception of Zone of Proximal Development is too radical. However, this is the logic of collective activity and organizational innovation.

If we return to individual development, then we should look at the original meaning of Zone of Proximal Development. The concept is defined as a space between actual development and potential development.

  • Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) : “…the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86, originally Vygotsky, 1935, p. 42)”

Jaan Valsiner and Rene van der Veer share a story of the development of ZPD in their article Encountering the border. The authors use ZBR (zona blizhaishego razvitia) which is the original Russian of ZPD. They points out, “Around 1931, Vygotsky had reached the theoretical necessity to conceptualize the “making of the future” in human ontogeny (Zaretskii, 2007, 2008, 2009)…The earliest documented mention of ZBR can be found in a lecture in Moscow, at the Epshtein Institute of Experimental Defectology on March, 17, 1933…The third relevant presentation involving the introduction of the ZBR concept took place two months later — when Vygotsky gave a presentation on the development of everyday and ‘scientific’ concepts at Leningrad Pedagogical Institute on May, 20, 1933 (Vygotsky, 1933/1935e)…with in the two-month period (March — May, 1933) Vygotsky was observed to pick up the concept of ZBR and use it actively in different contexts. In all of these uses the concept remained a descriptive one — marking the emphasis on the study of developing (as opposed to already developed) psychological functions. In the final fifteen months of his life, Vygotsky made numerous (but often passing) use of the ZBR concept. The surviving texts of Vygotsky provide us with a potpourri of examples of the use of the ZBR concept. ”

According to Jaan Valsiner and Rene van der Veer (2014), “the idea in ZBR — conceptualizing the processes of emergence of novelty in field terms — has had a recent parallel in the Trajectory Equifinality Model (TEM — Sato, 2009; Sato et al., 2007 2009, 2010, 2012). TEM grows out of the theoretical need of contemporary science to maintain two central features in its analytic scheme — time and (linked with it) the transformation of potentialities into actualities (realization).”

Trajectory Equifinality Model, TEM (Source: Sato, 2009; Sato et al., 2007 2009, 2010, 2012)

The above diagram represents the Trajectory Equifinality Model. The uniqueness of the model is that it includes both “real” (actual developmental trajectory up to the present) and “ir-real” (possible trajectories that existed in the past and are assumed to exit for the future). Jaan Valsiner and Rene van der Veer said, “TEM thus transcends the preponderance of psychology to include in its schemes only real phenomena, and treats reconstructions and imaginations as equal to the former.”

A Diagram for ZPD

I consider TEM is a general model of the “Actual — Potential” of individual development. The diagram below is a generalization of ZPD. While the “Teacher — Student” is replaced by “Self — Other”, the “Actual — Develop — Potential” is remained.

From the above diagram, I consider Development can be defined as the transformation between potential self and actual self by interacting with other.

This is a new starting point for re-considering the concept of Development.