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January 25, 2008

Prior, Paul. "Literate Activity and Disciplinarity: The Heterogenous (Re)production of American Studies Around a Graduate Seminar."

Prior, Paul. "Literate Activity and Disciplinarity: The Heterogenous (Re)production of American Studies Around a Graduate Seminar." Mind, Culture, and Activity 4.4 (1997): 275-295.

Taking up a sociohistoric approach to writing as literate activity in functional systems and to disciplines as dynamic heterogeneous networks, I examine writing in graduate education as a key arena of disciplinary enculturation. Through an ethnographic analysis centered on the literate activity of students and a professor in an American Studies seminar, I work to integrate participants' situated activity around a field research and writing task with the historically sedimented affordances of key mediational means. The analysis particularly foregrounds heterogeneity, as multiple trajectories are woven together in the deeply laminated functional systems that (re)produce American Studies and its interdisciplinarity. "


"Over the past century, disciplines, subdisciplines, and interdisciplines have proliferated, producing a dense jungle not only of texts, technical objects, and practices, but also of enculturated persons. These social formations have co-evolved with, and exist within, thick institutional networks, linking everything from university departments and corporate laboratories to international associations and public or private grantors" (275-6).

"Everyday tropes for, and structuralist theories of, discourse and society further encourage us to imagine disciplines as discourse communities, as autonomous social territories to be mapped in detemporalized spaces, as abstract systems of rules and knowledge to be diagrammed" (276).

"Sociohistoric theories point toward alternative notions of communities as concrete, dynamic, and heterogeneous" (276).

Lave & Wenger
Engestrom on activity systems

"However, subsuming all of the heterogeneity in the image of one activity system could lead to a kind of creeping spatialization, a view in which activity systems become the kind of autonomous, discrete territories that discourse
communities have been" (277).

Goffman on laminated activity

"Disciplines are typically figured as unified territories or systems of knowledge, whereas research on disciplines (e.g., Becher, 1989; Crane, 1972; Foucault, 1972; Harding, 1991; Klein, 1990; Pickering, 1995) has instead pointed to complex configurations and relationships as practitioners are situated by such factors as objects of study, methodologies, instruments, theories, institutional sites, audiences, social identities, interpersonal and institutional relationships, and broader sociocultural discourses and ways of life. Disciplines in these accounts seem more like heterogeneous networks than stable social objects. Thus, it seems important to move from a discourse community notion of disciplines as unified social andor cognitive spaces to a notion of disciplinarity as the ongoing, mediated constitution of a kind of sociomaterial network" (278).

Moving from audience abstractions to studying writing in laboratory contexts to observing functional systems

"Hutchins (1995) identified three lines of development in any moment of human practice. In the most immediate sense, the moment of practice traces the ongoing flow of a situated functional system. A second line represents the development of persons, their learning through participation in practice. The third line represents the development of the practice itself, of its material and conceptual tools and forms of social organization. Although these lines of development are fused in situated activity, Hutchins noted their distinctive heterochronicity" (279).

"Typified functional systems would emerge in intersections of Hutchins's second and third lines of development (i.e., of persons as well as of practices). If functional systems are constituted by the coordination of different types of elements with different properties, then a finer grained model of those elements could be useful. Tentatively, I identify five elements composing functional systems: persons, artifacts, practices, institutions, and communities" (279).

An "adequate account" of writing = 3 fundamental axioms:

  • writing is situated in the moment-to-moment flow of activity
  • writing is mediated
  • writing is dispersed

Strategy for Research:

"The strategy each displays could be seen as an expansion of Vygotsky's genetic methodology from ontogenesis to the sociogenesis of functional systems and their diverse elements. It involves (a) a close, usually situated, study of the activity, identifying the elements of its functional systems; (b) an attempt to trace histories of some key elements, especially to recover particular motives, values, and practices interiorized in material and semiotic artifacts and practices as affordances; and (c) the reanimation of artifacts, treating them as participants with a voice in constituting contexts of activity" (281-2).

Affording American Studies: Building Typified Functional Systems

Study of Kohl's American Studies course (282-293)


I'm more interested in the vocabulary here than the study itself, which operates at a finer grain than my own work most likely will.

I'm conscious of the "creeping spatialization" critique on 277, but I can see ways around it. Main thing will be to resist the impulse towards the One, True map, I think.