activity theory, affordances and tools

July 26, 2007

I made an effort to conceptualise initially on the figure what i believe happens in activity settings, what are affordances and how they relate with mediation and emergence of tools.


This theoretical framework is based on the neurobiological findings of embodied simulation of humans (see Gallese et al.; Iaccoboni), ideas of mediation and tools and imaginations expressed by Vygotsky, ecological psychology conceptualizations of affordances, events and meanings (Gibson; Heft; Chemero), conceptualizations of affordances from computer-based action (Gaver; Wiredu; Vyas et al., etc.; Arminen & Raudakoski), activity theory and activity systems (Leontjev; Kuuti; Engeström), cultural semiosis (Lotman; Stecconi), psychology (Neisser).

I believe that we can look at the affordances as the constraints we create for ourselves in the functioning of the current activity system. Both observation of this activity system elements in action and embodied simulation of actions, emotions of others from the system, as well as, the imaginatons we create internally for explaining systems and externalise in the course of action or by mediational means are sources of constraints of the activity system. Activity is always mediated by the tools we create in the process of actualizing affordances – when making something from the environment into our own or when bringing something of our own into the environment.

Basic arguments, my ideas rely on are:
Tools and signs always mediate the relationship between human agent and objects of environment (Vygotsky).
How tools appear is by embodiment of external environment or externalization of imaginations. Both processes are based on affordance perception.

Events are changes in the perception of affordances (Chemero).
Affordances point to percepual meanings (Heft).
Affordances emerge in the process of goal-directed action (Heft).
The object’s meaning derives from a particular set of intrinsic properties that it possesses in relation to the perceiver and is perceived in the context of a goal-directed action (Heft).
Affordances must be actualized, they are meaningful potentialities for action (Arminen & Rautakoski).
Affordances change dynamically (Vyas et al.,).
Neisser elaborated Gibson‘s concept of affordance and distinguished three perceptual modes:
– Direct perception/action, which enables us to perceive and act effectively on the local environment;
– Interpersonal perception/reactivity, which underlies our immediate social interactions with other human beings, and;
– Representation/recognition, by which we identify and respond appropriately to familiar objects and situations. Neisser’s interpretation introduces the interpersonal perception of subjects in action as an additional source of affordances in the social and regulative domain. Another type of affordances relates with learners‘ familiarity of perceiving certain aspects of the environment certain ways, which is culture-dependent.
The culturally defined affordances or canonical affordances exits (Heft).
From an interaction-centred view (Vyas et al.) affordances are the perceived possibilities for both thinking and doing, what learners perceive and signify during their actual interaction with an artefact or tool.

There are some aspects of cognition related to awareness caused by mirror-neurons the Activity Theory might consider.
Simulation mechanisms of action, language and emotion constitute altogether a shared manifold of intersubjectivity (Gallese).
Any intentional relation can be mapped as a relation between a subject and an object (Gallese).
To observe objects is equivalent to automatically evoking the most suitable motor program required to interact with them (Gallese).
A common functional mechanism, embodied simulation, is the basis of both body awareness and basic forms of social understanding:
– unconscious modeling of our acting body in space
– our awareness of the lived body and of the objects that the world contains (Iaccoboni).


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