First Monday

Contradictions, transitions, and materiality in organizing processes: An activity theory perspective by Kirsten Foot and Carole Groleau

This article develops the concept of multilevel contradictions in organizing processes, from the perspective of cultural–historical activity theory. In most activity theory–based scholarship, systemic contradictions are collapsed into a singular, generic construct, and the generative force of the different levels of contradictions in socio–organizational relations is overlooked. In contrast, we explicate when, how and why four distinct layers of contradiction precipitate one another, provoke distinct epistemic actions from different sets of organizational actors, and catalyze the development of organizing processes.


A brief overview of cultural–historical activity theory
CHAT in organizational scholarship
Explication of multilevel contradictions and epistemic actions
Methods employed in studying the EAWARN
The EAWARN as an activity system
The EAWARN’s first expansive cycle
The EAWARN’s systemic contradictions




Organizational scholars have been challenged to engage in contextually–situated, multilevel research and theorizing, and to account for multiple voices in conceptualizing organizing processes (Ashcraft and Mumby, 2004; Jones, et al., 2004; Kuhn, 2011; Putnam and Fairhurst, 2001). Longitudinal studies, particularly of organizational development, have also been called for repeatedly (c.f., Allen, et al., 1993; Lewis and Seibold, 1998), along with greater attention to materiality in organizing processes (Groleau, 2008; Kuhn, 2011; Leonardi, et al., forthcoming). This article responds to such challenges by developing the concept of contradictions in sociomaterial organizing processes that develop over years, from the perspective of cultural–historical activity theory (CHAT). Several aspects of CHAT have received attention from scholars of organizing and technology. We seek to advance this growing literature by interrelating the CHAT concepts of tool–mediated activity, multilevel contradictions, and epistemic actions as a framework for analyzing complex, socio–material organizing processes. We begin with a brief description of these core CHAT concepts as a foundations for examining how they have been developed and used by organizational scholars. We then explicate the relationship between multilevel contradictions and epistemic actions as catalysts for organizing processes in an attempt to clarify, formalize, and extend this vital aspect of CHAT. We present a CHAT–based analysis of organizing processes in a geographically-distributed conflict monitoring network to illustrate our argument, and conclude with the potential contributions of this explication for scholarship on organizing that takes into account both materiality and multiple voices.



A brief overview of cultural–historical activity theory

The cultural–historical theory of human activity was originally developed in the early 1900s by Lev Vygotsky and his student A.N. Leont’ev. In this article we base our argument largely on the revised version of this framework proposed by Yrjö Engeström (1987) and developed further by scholars in a variety of social research fields. Activity systems are the foundational unit of analysis in CHAT, and are defined as “systems of collaborative human practice … the generator[s] of a constantly and continuously emerging context” [1]. Activities take shape through a series of sociomaterial mediations depicted originally by Engeström (1987) as relations between nodes in a multilevel triangle.

The concept of object is central to the activity system, representing the orientation of collective action towards an outcome. Specific activities can be identified and differentiated by their objects. Like a project under construction, the object unfolds as individuals interact with tools and other human beings. It cannot be reduced to a goal or to rational motives; rather, “the object is both something given and something anticipated, projected, transformed, and achieved” [2]. Subjects are individuals or groups striving to attain or engage the object. To engage their object, subjects use mediating tools and rely on the rules and division of labor of the community in which they are integrated. The concept of tool in CHAT groups together elements of various natures. It refers not only to what we traditionally understand as tools, i.e., material entities which we manipulate, transform and create, but also includes signs, language, symbols, and abstract constructs such as models and epistemologies — all of which mediate the subject–object relationship. In some phases of activity, the discursive production of a particular text, such as a model of ethnic conflict indicators, may be the object of an activity system — mediated intangibly by language, concepts about and experiences with conflict, and ideologies, and tangibly by a whiteboard and markers. In other phases, that same text may be employed as a tool mediating the engagement of some actors with some other aspect of the object of conflict monitoring. The community of significant others comprises the multiple individuals and groups who share an orientation to and engagement with a common object. The community includes actors with different points of view and interests. As such, activity theory describes a multi–voiced system. As various members of the community take the subject role alone or collectively through actions, they proceed in their overarching activity of engaging their shared object. The division of labor — what is done by whom — describes how the community structures its efforts to engage the object. It refers more explicitly to the allocation of tasks and responsibilities as they have been negotiated and distributed by the members of the community, including both the horizontal division of tasks and the vertical division of power, positions, access to resources, and rewards. Moreover, the rules, whether explicit or not, regulate the subject’s actions toward the object and relations between members of the community.

The concept of communication implied by CHAT is resonant with Ashcraft and Mumby’s (2004) definition of communication as “the dynamic, situated, embodied, and contested process of creating systems of (…) meanings and identities by invoking, articulating, and/or transforming available discourses (…). [It] is in the act of communicative praxis that identities and meaning structures are enacted, maintained, and transformed within the context of organized relations of power and resistance” [3]. However, in contrast to Ashcraft and Mumby’s emphasis on the constitution of subjectivities and settings in and through communication, CHAT emphasizes the sociomaterial, tool–mediated nature of communication within and between activity systems, highlighting the various kinds of tools entailed in communicative actions such as particular forms of talk and texts, along with culturally–historically shaped notions about and artifacts of interpretation and knowledge.

Although activity systems are the primary units of analysis in CHAT, they are not conceptualized as autonomous, nor intended to be studied in isolation. Activity systems are intertwined; each node in one activity system is the object or outcome of another system. For example, the outcome of one activity system might be a text or technology that is used as a tool within another activity system (Hasu and Engeström, 2000). This interrelatedness of various activity systems allows us to make sense of complex organizing processes such as those evident in the case presented later in this article, involving how a conflict monitoring network emerged and evolved over several years.

We conclude this brief overview by summarizing one of the key propositions of CHAT: that changes within activity systems are triggered by multilevel contradictions as they surface in daily settings. Individuals attempt to change the activity system in order to alleviate tension as it surfaces in disturbances, conflicts and various forms of problems that originate in contradictions.

Engeström (1987; 1999c) argues that four levels of contradictions are present in every collective activity. He contends that by identifying the tensions in interactions within and between activity systems illuminated by all four levels of contradictions, it becomes possible to reconstruct the system in its concrete diversity and richness, and thereby anticipate its likely trajectory of development in what he terms “expansive learning cycles”. Holland and Reeves (1996) concur on the value of contradictions in illuminating the development of activity systems, stating that “Contradictions … are the key to understanding shifts in activity systems. The working out of multilevel contradictions … drives change” [4]. More than a decade after Engeström’s (1987) initial proposal of expansive learning cycles as a way to understand the development of activity systems, he observed: “For the historical understanding of activity systems, expansive cycles are of crucial importance. We know little of the dynamics and phases of such cycles. It seems promising to analyze these cycles in terms of the stepwise formation and resolution of internal contradictions in activity systems” [5]. Engeström’s notion of contradiction–driven expansive learning cycles catalyzing the development of activity systems over time is arguably the most germane aspect of CHAT for organizational communication, but it remains under–explicated.



CHAT in organizational scholarship

CHAT has been explored empirically and contrasted conceptually with other approaches such as conversation analysis, critical discourse analysis, and structuration theory to better grasp its specific affordances. We review some of these studies to demonstrate gaps in the literature to which we aim to contribute in this article by explicating relationships between concepts that surface in all of these works but have yet to be leveraged for their fullest analytical power. On the basis of this review, we contend that in most CHAT–oriented articles by organizational scholars (e.g., Canary and McPhee, 2009; Foot, 2001; Hong and Engeström, 2004), as well as in many of the works published by activity theorists in other fields (e.g., Blackler, et al., 1999, 2000; Jarzabkowski, 2004; Prenkert, 2006), contradictions are collapsed into a singular, generic construct, and the generative force of the different levels of contradictions in socio–organizational relations is overlooked. In contrast, we return to Engeström’s (1987) original proposal of four distinct levels of contradictions in and between activity systems, and explicate when, how and why layers of contradiction precipitate one another and catalyze the development of organizing processes. In other words, we focus on the relationships between the levels of contradiction as they surface and unfold to provide a more elaborated framework for understanding how organizing processes take form and evolve through communicative interactions. We then demonstrate the utility of this framework by employing it to analyze the emergence and coalescence of a conflict monitoring network in the post–Soviet sphere.

Engeström (1999b) characterizes his formulation of CHAT–based analysis of what he terms “productive” activity as focused on “the intertwining of instrumental–productive and influence–power aspects of communication in organizations” [6]. He draws contrasts to conversation analysis and to critical discourse analysis, highlighting what he sees as some of the distinctive aspects of CHAT, including a differentiation between productive activity and discourse. By productive activity Engeström refers to an object–oriented collective endeavour producing “goods, services, or less–clearly definable outcomes” [7]. Although he does not explicitly define discourse, Engeström’s uses of the term imply two of the four meanings identified by Ashcraft and Mumby (2004) in their review of literature on discourse, organizing, and gender: discourse as mundane interaction and discourse as organizational form, i.e., the “productive, promiscuous, and fleeting site where structure and practice meet” [8]. Communication in all its forms is integral to Engeström’s notions of productive activity and the collectivities that engage in it, but he argues that although “organizations may emerge through conversation, they do not emerge for the sake of conversation” [9]. Although in some settings productive activities and discourse merge, such as for preachers and auctioneers, in most cases productive activity cannot be equated with discourse. He contends that “activity is [typically] accompanied and complemented but not replaced or accomplished by talk” [10], yet, here and elsewhere, argues that both tool mediation and linguistic mediation are employed in and sometimes constitute productive activities. His formulation seems consistent with Ashcraft and Mumby’s (2004) observation that although “communication constitutes, (…) it is clear that all acts of communication are not equally constitutive, certainly not in any kind of enduring way” [11]. Ashcraft and Mumby as well as Engeström point to a dialectic between materiality and discourse: they argue (in different ways) that materiality enables and constrains the constitutive-ity of discourse, and that over time discourse shapes material conditions, settings, and embodied human order.

Engeström critiques conversation analysts’ reliance on discursive fragments that become objects of inquiry on their own terms. He notes that “organizations are not reducible to small fragments of discourse” and agrees with critical discourse analysts that these fragments must be situated in “longer–term threads in the broader argumentative social fabric” [12], but he distinguishes CHAT from critical discursive approaches that view discourse as “ambiguously–global social fabric” [13]. Engeström’s critique of these approaches is similar to (albeit sharper than) Ashcraft and Mumby’s (2004) later assessment of the analytical vulnerabilities that result from defining discourse as societal narrative. Both point to the need to account for materiality in organizing processes; both argue that through attention to materiality along with discourse, local and sociohistorical frames of analysis can be bridged. However, Engeström argues that a broad yet boundable and theoretically structured unit of analysis is necessary to capture the complex dynamics sustaining human practices, and that the activity system is such a unit. He grounds his understanding of discourse, materiality, and productive activity in the CHAT conceptualization of an activity system, bounded by a shared object that is engaged through socially and materially mediated action, precipitated by systemic contradictions. He thus argues that CHAT affords more robust interpretations of the development of organizing practices over time than either the conversation analytic or critical discursive approaches he critiqued.

The transformative logic of the CHAT framework is also identified as a distinctive feature of CHAT in Groleau’s (2006) comparison of Engeström’s approach to the works of Taylor and his colleagues from the Montréal School. She contends that although Engeström and Taylor are both committed to study “object–oriented human practices and their social dynamics” [14], their approaches stem from very different premises using contrasting frames to examine language, materiality and action. On one hand, Taylor investigates organizational dynamics as humans act upon and on behalf of one another mostly discursively, while Engeström interprets them through constantly evolving human practices grounded in socio–historical formations in which contradictions continually surface and provoke discursively and materially mediated attempts at resolution.

The few comparative analyses found in extant literature allow us to better identify the specific affordances of CHAT. As Engeström argues, CHAT’s focus on practical activities requires analysts to examine not only how humans transform their relations with each other but also how they engage in transforming their environment by acting with and upon material entities to produce an output. Even if some outputs are not manifested in material form, the collective orientation of subjects toward a productive activity is central in this framework. This characteristic distinguishes CHAT from structuration theory (Giddens, 1984), which has been compared to CHAT by several scholars (Blackler, et al., 2000; Canary, 2007, 2010; Groleau, et al., in press; Groleau and Engeström, 2002). Structuration theory concerns how human actions create patterns of interactions that are reproduced in time and space to constitute structural properties. These structural properties issued from interactional patterns subsequently frame upcoming interactions. Consequently, the structural properties are simultaneously the output and the medium of human action. In these interactional patterns resulting from and creating structural properties lies the essence of structuration. Because of that, we perceive Giddens and Engeström as having distinct theoretical projects originating in different disciplines and implying particular types of analysis and contributions. More specifically, structuration theory exposes how we come together through action more clearly than how we collectively take part in productive activities. Engeström presents a different take on human practices in his formulation of CHAT. His model rests on social mediation and proposes concepts such as community, rules and division of labor which have been borrowed by Canary (2007; 2010) to overcome some of the limits of structuration, especially in the operationalization of modalities. However, in Engeström’s (1987) original presentation of CHAT, his explanation of social mediation is subordinated to his core argument on human activity. Kuutti (1996) thus describes activity within CHAT as “a form of doing directed toward an object” [15] that takes place within and through social mediation. We find that this focus on productive activities offers a different and promising lens to examine collective human practice which has not received as much attention as other approaches, such as structuration theory, within organizational communication.

Another important theme surfacing in these comparative analyses of theory is the role of contradictions in energizing constantly evolving activities. Numerous organizational scholars have investigated contradictions and paradoxes from a variety of theoretical perspectives. For example, Putnam (1986) and Stohl and Cheney (2001) draw on Krippendorf’s definition of paradox: “to think twice; to reconcile two apparently conflicting views” [16]; Stohl and Cheney further define contradiction as situations of directly opposing ideas, principles, or actions. In contrast, CHAT theorists along with other critical theorists (c.f., Mumby, 2005) view human activity and social order as interpenetrated with systemic, irreconcilable contradictions between inherently oppositional forces, and contend that the concrete manifestations of such constant contradictions drive organizational development. In CHAT terms, the constant tension within the activity system is the motor of its transformation. We turn now to explore some uses to date of this conceptualization of contradiction by reviewing CHAT–based empirical studies conducted by communication scholars.

To begin, Hong and Engeström (2004) provide an interesting application of activity theory concepts by investigating two Chinese organizations and their management style following either Confucian authority or Guanxi principles. We concur with Canary (2010) that Hong and Engeström’s study helps develop the under–investigated communicational dimension of CHAT. In this research, the authors studied work meetings, as experienced by workers and managers, to characterize communicative patterns associated with both management styles. Their analysis suggests reframing activities by identifying contradictions and attempts to resolve them by bringing together what seem to be two mutually exclusive management styles.

Canary (2007) and Groleau, et al. (in press) are among the only organizational scholars to date to employ all levels of contradictions proposed by Engeström (1987). In a recent study, Canary (2007; 2010) brings together structuration theory and CHAT to propose what she terms structurating activity theory. She integrates concepts from each to establish four theoretical constructs characterizing her new approach. One of her theoretical constructs draws on the concept of contradictions in CHAT, borrowing the framing of them as generative mechanisms. In this construct we think she captures the essence of CHAT concerning the development of activities by integrating within her proposed theory the multiple levels of contradiction. Her contribution highlights how the transformation process is punctuated by the different levels of contradiction as individuals face these contradictions and attempt to resolve them within the context of policy development. She also adds her own layer of explanation by formulating a series of stages to describe the organizational learning process as policy knowledge takes form. In doing so, she builds on Boer’s (2005) study of organizational knowledge exploring activity theory concepts. Groleau, et al. (in press) employed the CHAT construct of multilevel contradictions to better understand organizational change within the practice–based studies tradition. They used the various layers of contradictions to frame change as a process, through which situated and socio–historic institutionalized practices confront one another as members of the organization come together to question and transform their activity system. More specifically, they investigated the integration of a new computer software in an architecture firm to study the reconfiguration of various social and material mediations following from technological change as well as the ruptures and disturbances punctuating this change episode. Their analysis identifies various patterns through which emerging situated practices reproduce and challenge socio–historically grounded institutionalized practices. In their study, they also examine the power dynamics sustaining the transformative process as organizational members experience the different levels of contradiction.

Foot’s (2001) article on CHAT as practical theory mentions the general concept of contradictions, suggesting that they were the catalysts for development in an organization she studied through longitudinal participant observation. She explains the general dynamic of contradictions, characterizing them as “growth buds” rather than as point of failure, deficits or even problems to be solve, and arguing that “contradictions reveal the growing edges of the activity system” where development is possible and likely to take place [17]. Employing Engeström’s (1987; 1999d) model of expansive learning cycles, she also explains how contradictions lead to an outwardly expanding spiral in which participants in organizing processes are called upon to reflect, analyze and implement new forms of practice. Her 2001 study is the most explicit to date on the organizational development triggered by contradictions, employing Engeström’s (1999d) typology of epistemic actions in her explanation of this activity reconfiguration, but does not employ the multiple levels of contradictions proposed by Engeström, nor explicate the catalytic relationships between them.

In this article, we seek to extend Foot’s work on epistemic actions as well as build on Canary’s (2007; 2010) and Groleau, et al.’s (in press) investigations of CHAT’s four level of contradictions to clarify the complex process through which activity systems transform themselves, as this has been too rarely analyzed in empirical settings. More specifically, we aim to further explore Engeström’s multilevel contradictions to develop a better understanding of the particular dynamics they create, especially as one layer of contradiction triggers the manifestation and/or aggravation of another within or between activity systems. We also formalize the correspondence proposed more generally by Engeström (1987) between these different levels of contradiction with epistemic actions, in order to better grasp the interactional patterns that sustain development as participants in an activity system attempt to resolve these contradictions and redefine their collective practice.



Explication of multilevel contradictions and epistemic actions

In this section we develop Engeström’s (1987) presentation of the four levels of contradictions in correspondence to his later (1999d) definition of epistemic actions to, with particular attention to how they relate to one another as activity systems develop and evolve. Kuutti (1996) explains that “Activity theory uses the term contradiction to indicate a misfit within elements [of an activity system], between them, between different activities, or between different developmental phases of a single activity” [18]. Each of the elements of this explanation corresponds with a different level of contradictions, as initially articulated by Engeström (1987) and elaborated below. In order to deeply understand how, when, and why an activity system develops, close attention to all four levels contradictions is essential. Engeström’s use of the terms layers or levels to characterize contradictions emphasized the interrelatedness and functional correspondence between the four. However, there are also substantive differences between them, which suggest that they should also be explained in distinction from each other. In the rest of this section we summarize definitions of each that have been published previously, and elaborate both correspondences and distinctions between them that have not been formalized before.

The primary contradiction reflects the fundamental tensions in the general realm/society, which stem from the opposition between use value and exchange value in capitalist political economies. Primary contradictions between use value and exchange value occur within each node of the activity system, manifested in tensions that arise from the dual construction of everything and everyone as both having inherent worth and being a commodity within market–based socioeconomic relations. For example, doctors working within health clinics in the United States experience the primary contradiction as they provide treatment to their patients as a means to heal them as well as a source of income. Doctors do their utmost to relieve pain and heal sick people. However, in the U.S. they practice medicine within a socioeconomic system which exchanges this service for a financial compensation that enables the clinic to sustain its (increasingly costly) operations. Thus the object of a typical U.S. health clinic’s activity system is inextricably dual: fostering health and increasing revenue.

Even if attempts to resolve the other levels of contradictions are temporarily successful, the primary contradiction remains. The primary contradiction is not only continually present, it is also foundational to the other levels of contradiction. While this fundamental tension conceptualized as a primary contradiction keeps the activity system in constant tension, it surfaces in everyday contexts in various forms and in the other levels of contradiction.

The secondary, tertiary and quaternary contradictions form a sequence that explains the process of cyclical development characterized in CHAT. Secondary contradictions take place when two nodes of the activity system conflict with one another. This type of contradiction prompts the latent primary contradiction in the activity system to surface and take the form of a specific problem as tension builds between different parts of an activity. For example, the primary contradiction faced by doctors’ need to earn a living as well as heal patients might be exacerbated in the current organizational setting through the imposition of a rule that allows doctors to spend only 15 minutes per patient — implemented to ensure that doctors see the number of patients necessary to pay for the expenses related to running a medical clinic. In this situation, the primary contradiction is translated into a secondary contradiction in which the rule and the healing part of the object are opposed. Although in this example, the source of the change that precipitates a secondary contradiction within the activity system is endogenous, i.e., the doctors themselves, it may also be exogenous to the central activity system. For instance, the 15–minute rule may be been introduced in regulations established by an insurance company with the motive of keeping their costs down by reducing the amount of time doctors may bill for time spent per patient. Regardless of the source, the pressure of this aggravated contradiction might lead these doctors to rethink their practice to alleviate the tension it creates.

It is important to note that secondary contradictions exist a priori to and independently of tertiary contradictions. Tertiary contradictions within an activity system arise when the object of a more “culturally advanced” activity (Engeström, 1987) is introduced into that system [19]. The motive for introducing a new object to an activity system is typically to find relief from one or more secondary contradictions and the tensions stemming from them. The introduction of a new object possibility also triggers the developmental phase through which the activity system will be redefined and reconfigured.

When the object from another activity system is introduced by one of the actors within the activity system, this sets in motion a very different dynamic in which power relations become central (Groleau, et al., in press; Groleau and Mayère, 2009). More specifically, we contend that power relations (as manifested in the division of labor) within the activity system determine whether the alternative object catalyzing a tertiary contradiction results in a change in the central activity. This is not articulated in Engeström’s various presentations of tertiary contradictions; perhaps because most of the cases he presents are drawn from interventions in which the researcher has been invited into an organization that is seeking intervention to help it develop.

Within our previous example, one way to solve the secondary contradiction would be if the clinic doctors all agreed that they should hire a nurse to help them assess their patients’ situation before they meet the patients. As an example of a tertiary level contradiction — imagine if the nurse hired to help keep the doctors’ time with their patients to 15 minutes had had prior experience in another clinic that was more oriented toward providing equitable access to healthcare than to providing efficient healthcare as defined by insurance companies. If she talked positively about equitable healthcare access to staff at the clinic in our example, the possibility of equitable healthcare access as an alternative to the current object of efficient healthcare provision could precipitate a tertiary contradiction between the existing object and the new possibility, perhaps resulting in rifts among clinic staff who wanted to retain the status quo and those interested in a change.

Triggered by a ripple effect from efforts to remediate a tertiary contradiction, quaternary contradictions arise between the central activity and its neighboring activity systems when a new form of practice is employed based on a reformed and/or expanded object. In other words, transformation of the central activity system’s object catalyzes disturbances in that system’s relations with the other activity systems with which it interfaces. These disturbances may be especially significant between the central activity and other systems that relate to the object of the central system in some way, such as the recipients of the output of the central activity system, or a system whose own object is intertwined with the object of the central activity system. To illustrate the latter, we again imagine the activity system of a U.S. health clinic, this time in its relations with a health insurance company. The clinic has received better than average terms from the health insurance company due to its compliance with the 15–minute rule and correspondingly the large number of patients it treats. But over several months, the nurse that was hired to help resolve the secondary contradiction between the doctors’ 15–minute rule and the patients’ expectations for more in–depth consultations succeeds in persuading the health clinic doctors to decide to remediate the tertiary contradiction by reorganizing the clinic as a non–profit — in order to use its resources to provide basic healthcare for a greater number of uninsured patients. This transformation of the clinic’s object leads to substantive changes its relations with the insurance company: as the proportion of uninsured patients grows at the clinic, it loses its favored status with the insurance company. This hypothetical disruption of relations between the clinic and the insurance company exemplifies a quaternary contradiction. Quaternary contradictions can emerge between a central activity system and any/all of its neighbors.

Engeström (1987) proposes a set of relationships between collective epistemic actions that constitute what he terms an expansive cycle, and the contradictions through which activity systems evolve by expanding (or, we suggest, contracting). More specifically, each of the four contradiction levels corresponds to particular epistemic actions that drive the activity through distinct phases of the development cycle. We paraphrase his later (1999d) formulation of the sequential epistemic actions in an expansive learning cycle as: 1) questioning: criticizing or rejecting some aspects of the accepted practice and existing wisdom; 2) analyzing the situation in order to find out causes or explanatory mechanisms; 3) modeling the newly found explanatory relationship in some publicly observable and transmittable medium; 4) examining the model in order to grasp its dynamics, potentials, and limitations; 5) implementing the model through practical applications, enrichments and conceptual extensions; 6) reflecting on and evaluating the process; and, 7) consolidating its outcomes into a new, stable form of practice. The characterization of these actions as epistemic does not imply that they are purely cognitive. To the contrary, as collective actions, they are necessarily constituted in and through communication. Moreover, labeling particular collective actions as epistemic and significant to the learning cycles of an activity system does not preclude the existence of an epistemic dimension in everyday human practice. Multiple kinds of actions may take place at any time; this set of epistemic actions simply facilitates the identification and analysis of the dominant type of action during particular phases of activity. More specifically, since activity systems are multi–voiced and multi–layered, these epistemic actions do not reflect the spectrum of actions being undertaken by all actors within the activity system at a particular moment in time. As each of these epistemic actions is initiated by some set of actors, there are likely to be actions of resistance on the part of some other actors happening simultaneously. Power relations within the activity system influence whether actions of initiative or resistance prevail.

Although Engeström’s (1987) early work did not yet specify this particular sequence of epistemic actions, his original articulation of CHAT did suggest that the different layers of contradictions provoke particular learning actions in a cyclic pattern, and that each cycle of development in an activity system is contingent upon, and somewhat overlapping of the previous cycle. Combining ideas from several of his publications, we infer that primary contradictions precipitate the epistemic actions of questioning, and, when aggravated, lead to the emergence of each of the other types of contradictions. Secondary contradictions provoke analyzing actions among participants in the activity system. Emerging with the implementation of a new model of the activity, tertiary contradictions catalyze examination of the new model and evaluation of the process. Quaternary contradictions are often manifested in the process of consolidating the practice of an activity. This last type of contradiction typically precipitates a new round of questioning actions. Table 1 provides a summary of the four types of contradictions and the epistemic actions each type of contradiction provokes.


Table 1: Types of contradictions and corresponding epistemic actions.
Type of contradictionCharacteristicsCorresponding epistemic action(s)
PrimaryOccurs between the use value and exchange value of any corner of an activity system.Questioning
SecondaryDevelops between two corners of an activity system.Analyzing
TertiaryArises when the object of a more developed activity is introduced into the central activity system.Examining model
Implementing model
Evaluating process
QuaternaryOccurs between central activity and neighboring activities.Consolidating new practice


Next we demonstrate empirically the relationships between each type of contradiction and epistemic actions, and the analytical purchase they hold for illuminating socio–material organizing processes, through an analysis of the development of a transnational, non–governmental conflict monitoring network in the post–Soviet sphere called the Network for Ethnological Monitoring and Early Warning (EAWARN).



Methods employed in studying the EAWARN

The utility of case studies in various aspects of theory building has been discussed extensively in recent years, across the social sciences (c.f., George and Bennett, 2005) We employ a case study for three reasons: 1) to establish an empirical foundation for exploration of the relationship between multilevel contradictions and epistemic actions; 2) to provide a model of how analyses of organizing processes can be conducted employing multilevel contradictions; and, 3) to test the general robustness and particular affordances of the CHAT framework in the complex context of the EAWARN.

The case study we employ is based on extensive fieldwork conducted by Foot on the development of the EAWARN. Data for this study were collected through participant observation between 1994–1999, as well as through multiple interviews with all the network coordinators and members, archiving of all postings to the EAWARN e–mail discussion list, and the archived correspondence, funding reports, and publications produced by the network between 1990–1999. Most of the data were in Russian, since that is the working language of the EAWARN. To ensure accurate understanding, Foot worked closely with three native Russian speakers unaffiliated with the EAWARN to transcribe and translate the data, and checked her interpretations with several members of the network regularly. Although fieldwork–based argumentation typically relies on the presentation of numerous data excerpts, the need for brevity in this article required us to paraphrase instead.

Our analysis focuses on manifestations of contradictions as catalysts of development within the EAWARN between 1990–1999. As explained above, contradictions can be seen as the “sites” in an organization from which innovations emerge, and the precipitators of their emergence. As would be the case with many organizations, contradictions became apparent in the data on the EAWARN through discursive, behavioral, organizational and/or material disturbances in the EAWARN’s actions. We examined the data for dilemmatic statements and patterns in participants’ articulations of their satisfaction level with the Network, their likes and dislikes about the functioning of the EAWARN Project, and their representations of the Network’s “effectiveness.” To analyze the developmental trajectory of the EAWARN, we first identified decisive actions within the EAWARN in each phase of its first expansive cycle. We then correlated these actions with manifestations of the EAWARN’s systemic contradictions, to explore how analysis of the internal contradictions of an organization affords understanding of its developmental trajectory.

Our analysis indicates that the development of the EAWARN was driven by contradictions precipitated by tensions between two sets of concerns in the post–Soviet sphere, sociopolitical concerns surrounding the politicization of ethnicity, and economic imperatives created by the introduction of market relations. Many studies documented and analyzed both the politicization of ethnicity in the latter years of the Soviet Union and especially since the Union’s dissolution in December, 1991, and the economic crises experienced in all of the post–Soviet states (c.f., Warhola, 1996). Our focus in this analysis is how competing concerns arising from these political and economic forces permeated the network’s organizing processes, creating systemic contradictions, and thereby shaping the ways in which the EAWARN participants envisioned and enacted the network as one of an emergent genre of transnational, non–governmental organizations oriented around the monitoring of ethnic relations in a particular geopolitical region.



The EAWARN as an activity system

The EAWARN, otherwise referred to as the Network, is a loosely affiliated group of knowledge producers attempting to monitor sociopolitical relations between ethnic groups on the territory of the former Soviet Union (FSU) in order to predict, intervene in, and ideally prevent the escalation of conflicts into violence. During this study, the Network was funded largely by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and had about 30 members. The Network spanned the Russian Federation and other newly independent states of the post–Soviet sphere; its members lived in vastly differing material conditions. Most Network participants were multi–lingual — they worked in Russian in order to collaborate. Apart from an annual weeklong seminar, the EAWARN functioned largely in a virtual form, its communication mediated through electronic and printed texts. It was in the vanguard of a type of distributed organization that conducts much of its work online. During the main period of this study, the Network’s activity system could be generally analyzed as oriented toward the dual object of conflict monitoring and management. Employing the CHAT concept of community, the Network’s community consisted primarily of its coordinators and members, but also included its funders, and the recipients of its knowledge products. A clear division of labor and power hierarchy existed between the Network’s coordinators and members. Relations between them were mediated by a participation agreement the coordinators required each member to sign, as well as by implicit rules of conduct and the control the coordinators exercised over the provision of Internet access to some members who did not otherwise have it, and payment of honoraria to all members. The primary actions of the members centered on the generation of quarterly reports for the Network’s serial, called the Bulletin. The coordinators’ actions were more diverse: along with general coordination tasks, organizing the annual meetings of the Network, and securing funding for it, they were responsible for editing the members’ reports, translating them for publication in Russian and English versions of the Bulletin, and distributing the Bulletin within the post–Soviet sphere, and in Europe and North America. Members and coordinators employed a wide array of tools (material and immaterial, concrete and abstract) to accomplish these actions.

In the following two sections, we analyze the first developmental phase of EAWARN, focusing on the catalysts of its emergence and coalescence. Because of the complexity of the case study, we first present key events chronologically to highlight how the EAWARN developed through successive epistemic actions. We then summarize data showing how these epistemic actions were intertwined with and catalyzed by each of the four levels of contradictions explained above.



The EAWARN’s first expansive cycle

The EAWARN’s development between 1990–1996 corresponded broadly to the sequence of epistemic actions described above. Initial publications and proposals by those who became the founding members centered on questioning and criticizing the accepted practices formed during the Soviet era for conceptualizing and researching ethnicity and ethnic relations, and for “managing” tensions between ethnic groups.

During 1991 and 1992, founding members began discussing some of their questions and engaged in jointly analyzing ethnic relations in the Soviet/post–Soviet sphere. Analyses of relevant issues such as the Soviet “theory of nationalities,” the Russian Federation’s “nationality policy,” and current events in ethnic relations were conducted during several meetings and conferences they organized. These analyzing actions were documented in an update report to Carnegie in June, 1992, and continued to dominate the Network’s activity through September, 1992, when it organized a large conference in Moscow titled “Nationality Policy in the Russian Federation.”

Concurrent with this conference were a series of “working group” meetings, during which participants began to model their analyses and proposed solutions for managing the ethnic conflict situation in Russia. While these modeling actions were not directly observable, they were evidenced in the proceedings of the working group meetings. The creation of an “information–gathering network” for monitors/managers of ethnic relations in Russia was first mentioned in this report as one “model” for addressing the problems that had been identified by the working groups.

By the beginning of 1993, the network–concept had become the focal point of the EAWARN’s founding members’ modeling actions, and it evolved through several formulations during the modeling phase. This evolution resulted from epistemic actions of examining the model of the network–concept. Examining actions took place through correspondence among the emerging coordinator group of the Network during the end of 1992 and through the middle of 1993.

In October 1993, the “inauguration” of the Network took place, beginning a phase of actions directed toward implementing the model — moving from the abstract to the concrete by actualizing the network–concept. The focus was on working out in practice what had been agreed upon in principle between the coordinators of the Network. Participant selection and training, the assimilation of new members into the system, and operationalizing the actions of “ethnological monitoring” became the dominant actions of implementation within the activity system during this phase. These actions are evidenced in correspondence between the coordinators throughout 1993, five “circular letters” sent by the lead coordinator to the EAWARN participants between the fall of 1993 and the spring of 1995, and in progress reports to the Carnegie Corporation during this period.

By the fall of 1995, the coordinators and some members of the EAWARN had already begun to engage in reflecting on and evaluating the activity in which they were engaged. For the coordinators at least, evaluation of the EAWARN took place in part through the pursuit of outside assessment, and in view of the EAWARN’s ongoing and increasing need for funding. The grant from Carnegie was due to expire in October, 1995, and while they were applying for another year of funding from Carnegie, there was no guarantee that the request would be approved.

Evaluation actions during 1995 were apparent in the data in several ways. For example, in January, 1995, a consultant associated with a London–based conflict monitoring organization was hired to assess the EAWARN. Several of her critiques and recommendations were brought up in the EAWARN’s internal discussions during its October, 1995 annual meeting — some were dismissed, others accepted.

One of the consultant’s recommendations, to arrange a conference to explore the possibility of establishing a wider early warning network for conflict monitoring in the post–Soviet sphere, was implemented shortly after her report was published — although her recommendation may not have been the main precipitator. In May, 1995, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) convened a meeting in Moscow called “Early Warning Work Covering the CIS Region”. Two of the EAWARN’s coordinators attended, along with scholars and conflict monitoring experts affiliated with the U.N. The rapporteur’s report on that meeting indicated that a number of significant evaluation actions regarding the EAWARN occurred. One such evaluation noted in the UNHCR report was that:

At present the Network does ethnological monitoring and does not provide early warning per se, but rather the raw material for early warning. The Network will have to be better organized if it is to take on this role. Currently the information provided by the monitors cannot be used in a comparative way. Other issues that need attention are the quality of information coming to Moscow, and the means to provide horizontal communication between the monitors. This last point needs immediate attention so that the network is not fragmented. [20]

This comment pointed toward a mismatch that existed between the EAWARN’s tools of narrative reports and its object of ethnological monitoring in order to provide early warning — an example of a secondary contradiction — as well as the complexity of communicative relations within the Network.

The UNHCR’s meeting also prompted the Network’s coordinators to evaluate the compatibility of its monitoring system with monitoring and early warning efforts in other regions of the world. One recommendation of this meeting was that the UNHCR’s list of 41 “indicator” categories of “population movements” be tested, assessed and modified for use in the post–Soviet sphere. The UNHCR’s hope was that by standardizing and coordinating the categories in which “early warning” information was collected within the FSU, and between the FSU and other regions of the world in which U.N.–related conflict monitoring networks operate, “strategic liaison and coordination between networks” would develop [21].

The fact that the Network coordinators had engaged in evaluative actions prior to the EAWARN’s annual meeting in October, 1995 on Cyprus was evidenced by the textual materials they had prepared for each participant, and their introductory comments in which they laid out their aims for the seminar, including reflection on the work of the EAWARN. During the course of the seminar, each of the five Network coordinators shared their evaluations of the Network’s activity to date, focusing on developments of the previous year. Criticisms raised by the coordinators included the irregularity in both timing and content of many Network members’ reports, issues of objectivity and impartiality in the reports, and the infrequency with which some members accessed their e–mail accounts.

At several points in these discussions various Network members raised their own concerns, which varied widely and included: a) the discomfort several felt as academics being asked to write brief “journalistic” reports for the EAWARN and their dissatisfaction with the truncated versions of their lengthy analytical reports in the Bulletin; b) malfunctioning computers and e–mail connections; c) their desire for greater amounts of “honoraria” payments; and, d) the suspicions some encountered from local authorities because of their work in the EAWARN.

The coordinators’ introduction of a list of “conflict indicators” based on the UNHCR’s “41 indicator list” to the EAWARN midway during this seminar represented a decisive action of innovation that arose from the evaluations of the Network. The reflections of several Network members in interviews a year later, in October, 1996, conveyed their perception that the EAWARN coalesced as a collaborative activity after the 1995 annual meeting.

While the interviews from 1996 revealed that the introduction of the indicator model catalyzed the consolidation of the existing activity of the EAWARN, they also demonstrated that not all participants accepted the indicator model as a tool for standardizing the practice of ethnological monitoring, as we discuss next. Such resistance is predictable in view of the tensions entailed in initiating any of the epistemic actions.

The introduction of the indicator model occurred in the evaluation phase of the EAWARN’s first cycle of development. It is important to note that in activity theory terms, what was being initiated by the indicator model was a newly expanded object for the Network — which included a significantly transformed awareness of its English–speaking audiences. The consultant’s assessment of the Network and the UNHCR’s evaluation of the EAWARN’s practices had raised the consciousness of the Network’s coordinators regarding the agendas of potential funding sources such as the UNHCR, the practices of other conflict monitoring organizations with which the EAWARN both collaborated and competed for funds, and the preferences of potential “users” of the EAWARN’s information products.

Lengthy discussions over two days followed the lead coordinator’s introduction of the indicator model, during which the EAWARN participants argued over the terminology and parameters of each category. In Engeström’s typology of expansive development, these discussions represent the epistemic actions of analyzing the new indicator model tool, and thus, the current practice of ethnological monitoring/early warning, and the beginning of actions modeling a new form of practice. During these discussions, some Network participants’ comments demonstrated a growing appreciation of the multilevel benefits that the coordinators saw in the indicator model. However, other EAWARN participants did not seem to grasp the significance the indicator model posed for re–orchestrating the activity of the Network, and still others simply rejected it. When one Network member questioned the significance of the model, he suggested it could be an optional tool which some members may choose to employ. In contrast, the lead coordinator’s response conveyed his view that a single, shared model was necessary for the Network, and his desire that every Network participant complete an analysis of the model during the coming year, to serve as a baseline for tracking changes in the future. Further comments from other members following the lead coordinator’s explanation suggested that some Network members were unable or unwilling to appropriate the indicator model as he envisioned.

The data summarized above indicate that a significant shift in the EAWARN activity system’s development began to take place during these analyzing discussions, in which a subgroup of Network members began to orient around the elaboration and implementation of the indicator model — thereby beginning the process of creating a new model of the EAWARN itself. One member, noticing the potential for this shift, asked during a discussion of the indicator categories for a metalevel discussion of the implications the model posed for the Network’s overall activity.

The lead coordinator’s response to the Network member’s question revealed his awareness of the indicator model’s potential to divide the EAWARN — its capacity to springboard at least a subgroup of the Network participants into a new form of activity. This evidences some of the tensions between initiative and resistance entailed in epistemic actions, as we suggested above. The lead coordinator’s responses were early actions of modeling the EAWARN itself in a new way, as having two “regimes.” While acknowledging that not all members would appropriate the indicator model, the lead coordinator attempted to reassure those members who perceived themselves as unable to conduct the breadth and depth of analysis required by the indicator model that they would not be excluded from the EAWARN. However, he also suggested several ways in which those members who felt that the model required expertise or simply time that they did not have could negotiate help from others in their region.

Clearly, the introduction of the indicator model into the EAWARN during the evaluation phase of the Network’s first expansive cycle was not coincidental. We argue in the next section that in dialectical terms, the Network’s ever–present primary contradiction between socio–political and economic concerns, modulating and manifesting itself in a secondary contradiction — the mismatch between the object and the tools evident in the implementation phase of the first cycle, were the precipitating forces for this innovation.



The EAWARN’s systemic contradictions

What follows in this section is by no means an exhaustive survey of all possible manifestations of the contradictions in the Network’s activity, but instead a focused analysis on some of the most clearly apparent ones. Our intent is to illustrate the relationships between the epistemic actions of the EAWARN described above and multilevel systemic contradictions within the Network.

Primary contradiction

The primary contradiction driving the emergent Network’s actions of questioning the Soviet government’s nationality policy in the early 1990s was between the use value of questioning for improving the ways in which ethnicity was conceptualized and expressed in the Soviet Union and its successor states, and the potential exchange value such questioning held for the Network’s partner institutions. While the questioning of the Soviet policy could contribute to actual change in how ethnic relations were managed, it could also enable the founding members to strengthen their own institutions through acquiring grant funding and expanding the scope of their activities. This contradiction was ongoing and apparent in the data on the EAWARN in each “node” of its activity system. As the EAWARN coordinators and members discussed, created, appropriated and enacted their object, tools, rules, division of labor, and relations as actors and co–participants in a community, the tension between competing concerns over socio–political events and institution–building was manifested frequently, and precipitated numerous secondary contradictions.

Secondary contradiction

The secondary contradiction of the EAWARN’s first cycle emerged in the actions analyzing the Soviet “nationality policy,” as a tension between the primary tool for managing ethnic relations in the Soviet/post–Soviet sphere, and the object of mitigating the brewing tensions between ethnic groups that overflowed when the lid of the centralized Soviet government came off in 1991. The EAWARN was modeled as one attempt to re–mediate this secondary contradiction. The core elements of the primary contradiction continued to manifest themselves throughout the modeling of the EAWARN, in concerns for both the use value of the Network in relation to ethnic conflict management, and the institution–building exchange value of the Network for the founding members. The EAWARN was originally conceptualized as a vehicle for training local activists in Western practices of conflict management, and for supporting their interventionist endeavors through an “information–sharing network.” In this early conceptualization of the Network, the monitoring of ethnic relations was part of the object only to the extent and in the ways that it helped the Network participants–as–conflict–managers share their growing expertise.

Tertiary contradiction

In the implementation phase of the first cycle of the EAWARN‘s development, a tertiary contradiction emerged. Because the object had evolved from an interventionist focus on conflict management to include ethnological monitoring, a divergence resulted between the tools the EAWARN had employed since early in its implementation phase, and the expanded object. One example of this tertiary contradiction was that the way that Network members appropriated the narrative report tool diverged from the appropriation called for by the object–concept of ethnological monitoring and early warning. The reports created by the Network members varied widely in content and structure, and the frequency with which they were sent depended on the individual Network members’ allocation of time and energy, thus reflecting the relative priority of EAWARN report–writing vis–à–vis other activities in which they were involved. In contrast, the EAWARN’s object–concept of ethnological monitoring for early warning required the tracking, analyzing and reporting of continuously changing socio–political processes in ways that would be comparable over time and across regions. Thus the Network members’ appropriations of the “monitoring report” tool contradicted the needs of the expanded object.

The introduction of the indicator model during the evaluation phase of the first cycle further aggravated this tertiary contradiction. In tertiary contradictions, an oppositional pull results when a new object forms within the central activity being analyzed. While the new object may be related to the old, there is a collision between the two that is manifested in forms of resistance. Such resistance may lead to a defeat of the new, and thus a contraction of the activity system. Alternatively, it may lead to the gradual or abrupt triumph of the new, and thus an expansion. Or, resistance may lead to a bifurcation of the activity system — the emergence of a potentially separate new cycle. This was the result in the EAWARN.

The tertiary contradiction was aggravated during the evaluation phase of the EAWARN’s first cycle because the appropriation of the indicator model was a springboard in the expansion of the Network’s object to include a new consciousness of neighboring activity systems which had an interest in the outcomes of the EAWARN’s ethnological monitoring/early warning activity. In this way, the coordinators of the Network, by appropriating the indicator model of the UNHCR, introduced not only a new tool but also a new object–layer into the EAWARN’s system.

Although the UNHCR may have wanted the EAWARN to become more conscious of its neighboring conflict monitoring organizations, therefore employing the model to interconnect with them more fully, the EAWARN’s lead coordinator represented the rationale for the novel object–layer as the need for increased consciousness of U.N. affiliates as potential funding sources. This was clear in the way he introduced his adaptation of the indicator model to the EAWARN:

It is necessary for us that tomorrow and the day after tomorrow to work more fruitfully (…) try more seriously to concentrate (…) Because we want to work out our own models of our network — early warning. Considering the models existing in the world today, considering the big trust put in them from the side of different structures, especially those who give money, and who are enchanted by this certain situation, that buttons can be pressed and the conflict — a green light will switch on, blue or red, signaling to the whole world, where certain things can be done. Especially international structures, the U.N. and others are interested in that. [22]

Through several comments like this, the coordinators began to cultivate more awareness and concern among the Network participants regarding the compatibility of the work of the EAWARN with that of the U.N. and other conflict monitoring organizations.

As we demonstrated above, not all of the Network participants accepted the indicator model as a tool for engaging not only their current object–concept of ethnological monitoring, but also the new object–concept of orienting toward the information agendas of other organizations. Some participants expressed immediate, direct resistance to the indicator model during the 1995 annual meeting. Others expressed their resistance by simply not employing the new tool during the following year. The opposing pulls of initiative toward the new object–concept of interconnection with Western organizations and active or passive forms of resistance to it constitute the tertiary contradiction.

Discussions between Network members and interviews with them in October, 1996, revealed that by that time many members had internalized the new object–concept. They ascribed greater value to the English–language readership of the Bulletin than to its Russian audience, and several members expressed a desire for feedback from the readers of the English Bulletin regarding the usefulness of their reports. Underlying many, but not all, of these comments, was the concern of cultivating “users” who would be willing to pay for the Network’s “information products,” in order to become less dependent on “sponsors.” In summary, a tertiary contradiction emerged late in the first cycle of the EAWARN’s development through the introduction of a new object–concept — an orientation toward Western audiences — which was accompanied and symbolized for many participants by the introduction of the indicator model.

Quaternary contradiction

Quaternary contradictions arise between the central activity system and its neighboring systems. They emerge when the central activity moves into the phase of consolidation, as transpired in the autumn of 1996 with the EAWARN. The expansion of the Network’s object to include awareness of Western audiences during 1996 affected the nature of the EAWARN’s relationships with at least two kinds of neighboring systems. Academic institutions and policy–oriented organizations such as the UNHCR and the OSCE came to be seen as both “readers” of the Network’s materials and “orderers” of the Network’s products for their exchange value. As a result of the shift in the EAWARN’s object, other conflict monitoring organizations came to be viewed as both collaborators and competitors for external funding and human resources. The expansion of the EAWARN’s object resulting from the tertiary contradiction precipitated quaternary contradictions, transforming what had been info–communicative relations between the EAWARN and its neighboring activity systems into commercialized market relations.

In capitalist systems, knowledge–producing organizations such as conflict–monitoring networks and even universities simultaneously produce knowledge for the public good and for proprietary purposes that include seeking their own advancement as organizations. Reflecting the foundational contradiction of capitalism, conflict monitors such as the members of the EAWARN are simultaneously knowledge workers/information producers and a type of commodity themselves as labor. Well–funded conflict–monitoring organizations would seemingly have little difficulty attracting EAWARN members to produce information for their organizations, simply by offering them greater financial incentive.

Given the somewhat conflicted relations between individual participants’ goals of career development and the pursuit of the EAWARN’s object–concept of ethnological monitoring/early warning, the coordinators had reason to be concerned about one potential outcome created by this competitive/collaborative contradiction between the EAWARN and its object–sharing neighbors. The EAWARN’s investment in recruiting, selecting and training “local experts” as conflict monitors could be capitalized upon by other conflict–monitoring organizations. That is, experienced members of the EAWARN could be wooed by an object–sharing neighbor into producing information products for its benefit rather than the EAWARN.

While transactions between individual conflict monitors and the organizations which sponsor, publish, and or broadcast their work may not involve immediate or direct financial transaction, at some level they are based upon the exchange of a product for some form of compensation. Therefore, the conflict–monitoring organization with the best funding base would appear to have the greatest potential for attracting and retaining the services of conflict monitors. We did not have access for this study to budgetary data for conflict–monitoring organizations other than the EAWARN, so we could not compare the compensation rates. However, we suggest that in view of the EAWARN’s practice of paying its members what would have been considered a small amount each quarter (by contemporaneous salary standards in the U.S. and Western Europe), the EAWARN did not outpay its competitors’ for its monitors’ services during this study. Rather, from the members’ reports of what they liked about the EAWARN, the Network’s most valuable form of compensation for its participants was immaterial — the opportunity to participate in a Russian–language epistemic community.

On at least one occasion the lead coordinator took a more direct approach to countering perceived competition. In January, 1998, he sent an e–mail message to the EAWARN listserv explicitly discouraging Network members from agreeing to cooperate with a conflict monitoring organization based in Western Europe. Through this message he attempted to deflect what he anticipated would be an attempt on the part of a European conflict monitoring organization to recruit EAWARN members to generate information products for itself rather than for the EAWARN. This message pointed to one outcome of the quaternary contradiction between the EAWARN and other conflict monitoring organizations with which it had the potential of collaborating. The fact that the coordinator requested explicitly that Network members demonstrate their loyalty to him and the EAWARN by not interacting with another conflict monitoring group revealed how threatened he felt in the face of this competition. Because of the tension between sociopolitical and economic concerns, relations between the EAWARN and other conflict monitoring organizations became contradictory: relations between these neighboring activity systems were simultaneously collaborative and competitive.

In this section we have demonstrated the catalyzing role of multilevel contradictions in the emergence of an organization. The primary contradiction between the use and exchange value of the EAWARN’s activity drove actions of questioning. Secondary contradictions between the EAWARN’s tools and its object precipitated analyzing actions. Attempts to remediate the tool–object contradiction through the introduction of the indicator model catalyzed a tertiary contradiction between the expansion of the EAWARN’s object and accompanying resistance to the expansion. This contradiction drove actions of evaluation, and further innovation. Finally, the primary contradiction between use and exchange value of the Network’s activity modulated into a quaternary contradiction between the EAWARN and its neighboring activity systems. The use value for ethnological monitoring of collaboration with other conflict monitoring organizations was opposed by attempts to preserve and increase the exchange value of the Network’s activity, by discouraging EAWARN participants from producing information for any other conflict monitoring organization. In Figure 1 we provide a visual summary of this developmental process by placing the four kinds of contradictions in correspondence with the discursive actions of the EAWARN’s first cycle of development.


Figure 1: Correspondence of epistemic actions and contradictions in the EAWARN
Figure 1: Correspondence of epistemic actions and contradictions in the EAWARN.





As illustrated in the case we presented, the development of collective practice is not a smooth linear and consensual process. Employing all four levels of CHAT contradictions allows us to see the various forms through which these discontinuities took form in the EAWARN as members enacted their emerging practices within the network. Organizing was thereby rendered visible as a tension–laden process in which participants with varying degrees of individual and/or collective power employed a range of discursive and material resources and strategies in order to shape their collective practice and organizational form.

In addition to revealing the seven types of epistemic actions that constituted the EAWARN’s first expansive cycle, and some of the tensions that the enactment of each evoked, the data led us to observe that these actions were all performed discursively, yet not immaterially. They took on a variety of forms such as written official documents, exchanges within group meetings, correspondence, and verbal meeting reports made by network participants. In and through these discursive exchanges Network participants articulated, reflected on, and shaped their joint practice. Although some might be inclined to think that the emergence of a new organization, such as the EAWARN, naturally leads to interaction focused on defining the nature of the collective practice, this focus has also been observed in other CHAT–based analyses of organizing such as the study by Groleau, et al. (in press), which used the four levels of contradictions to study the evolving activity systems of a 25–year–old architectural firm.

That the EAWARN’s epistemic actions and organizational form were actualized through discourse is not surprising since its activity as a knowledge production network was necessarily communicative. However, although the epistemic actions of the EAWARN were discursive, its tools and productive activity outcomes were both material and immaterial. The EAWARN case study allowed us to analyze a variety of discursive exchanges linking local practices to a much broader socio–historical context as EAWARN’s productive activity took form and transformed itself. Because of CHAT’s emphasis on productive activity, as illustrated in our analysis of EAWARN and discussed above, we contend that CHAT offers a distinct reading of how collectives form through interactive patterns. Theoretically bounded yet context–rich analyses of organizing processes are potentiated by casting archival and ethnographic data on this CHAT–based model, beginning with the activity system as a unit of analysis.

In summary, others have argued that CHAT, although infrequently employed by organizational scholars to date, has affordances for organizational studies, and we have built on their arguments. However, the concept of multilevel contradictions — one of the intermediate theoretical constructs of CHAT that has significant analytical power — has been rarely used in prior literature. By further explicating the four levels of contradictions associated with CHAT and the relationships between them, we have increased its utility to scholarship on organizing beyond recognizing the existence of generic contradictions as catalysts of collective transformation.

The existence of the primary contradiction distinguishes CHAT from other paradox–based studies by anchoring contradictions within a socio–historical context and consequently extending our understanding of local evolving organizational practices within a much larger temporal and spatial realm. Furthermore, this primary contradiction, because of its foundational nature, transcends the whole developmental cycle and clearly is at the root of what became the EAWARN’s next developmental cycle as discussions on the indicator model within and outside the Network exacerbated the political and economic tensions in its activity system. We see the secondary, tertiary and quaternary contradictions as interlinked together. Their sequence might not always be linear, as, for example, attempts to solve the secondary contradiction through tertiary contradiction might in fact aggravate or create new secondary contradictions. Still, we concur with and extend Engeström’s (1987) original argument that the different levels of contradiction each contribute to the developmental cycle.

Our analysis of the relationship between the different layers of contradiction as well as the way we linked them to epistemic actions offers to organizational scholars an alternative route to explore organizing as a routinely ruptured process through which participants negotiate their collective activity. It also provides a significant elaboration on the various levels of contradictions and a model of their utility–in–action to activity theorists in other fields, who have tended to underuse these concepts. As analyzed above, the EAWARN’s development as an activity system was driven by shifts, disruptions, and remediations in participants’ engagement with their evolving object. This case demonstrates that the CHAT framework is particularly pertinent to research on complex organizing process. It is a robust theory grounded in interaction and materiality, that accounts for multiple actors’ perspectives in explaining disruptions and changes as collective practices emerge, coalesce, and evolve.

Finally, we have contributed to the more general, persistent problem in organizational scholarship of how to frame and study organizing processes that take place over years while holding together both the micro level of talk–action and more macro levels of power relations in socio–communicative activity, and while accounting for multiple perspectives. We have accomplished this through a more fully explicated conceptualization of the relationship between multilevel contradictions and epistemic actions in contrast to a single–level, generic concept of contradiction, and by presenting a model of how such an analysis can be undertaken. End of article


About the authors

Kirsten Foot is Associate Professor of Communication and Adjunct Faculty in the Information School at the University of Washington.
Direct comments to kfoot [at] uw [dot] edu

Carole Groleau is Associate Professor of Communication at the Université de Montréal.
E–mail: carole [dot] groleau [at] umontreal [dot] ca



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2. Engeström, 1990, p. 81.

3. Ashcraft and Mumby, 2004, pp. 116–117.

4. Holland and Reeves, 1996, p. 272.

5. Engeström, 1999a, p. 33.

6. Engeström, 1999b, p. 165.

7. Engeström, 1999b, p. 170.

8. Ashcraft and Mumby, 2004, p. 17.

9. Engeström, 1999b, p. 170.

10. Engeström, 1999b, p. 171.

11. Engeström, 1999b, p. 174.

12. Engeström, 1999b, p. 169.

13. Engeström, 1999b, p. 173.

14. Groleau, 2006, p. 157.

15. Kuutti, 1996, p. 27.

16. Krippendorf, 1984, p. 46.

17. Foot, 2001, p. 63.

18. Kuutti, 1996, p. 34.

19. See Engeström (1999a, pp. 34–35) for further explanation of his concept of how activity systems assess cultural advancement.

20. U.N. High Commission for Refugees, 1995, p. 8.

21. U.N. High Commission for Refugees, 1995, p. 10.

22. Discussion at annual meeting, 19 October 1995.



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Editorial history

Received 11 March 2011; accepted 16 May 2011.

Copyright © 2011, First Monday.
Copyright © 2011, Kirsten Foot and Carole Groleau.

Contradictions, transitions, and materiality in organizing processes: An activity theory perspective
by Kirsten Foot and Carole Groleau.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 6 - 6 June 2011