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What is CHAT?

We use cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) in a broad sense* here to identify the emergent synthesis that has brought together Vygotskyan psychology, Voloshinovian and Bakhtinian semiotics, Latour's actor-network theory, and situated, phenomenological work in sociology and anthropology. The journal Mind, Culture, and Activity illustrates the range of work coming together in this area.

CHAT rejects the notion that human action is governed by some neo-platonic realm of rules, whether the linguistic rules of English, the communicative norms of some discourse community, or cognitive scripts for acting in a particular situation. It argues that activity is situated in concrete interactions that are simultaneously improvised locally and mediated by historically provided tools and practices. Those tools and practices range from machines, made-objects, semiotic means (e.g., languages, genres, iconographies), and institutions to structured environments, domesticated animals and plants, and, indeed, people themselves. Mediated activity involves externalization (speech, writing, the manipulation and construction of objects and devices) and co-action (with other people, artifacts, and elements of the social-material environment) as well as internalization (perception, learning). As objects and environments are formed and transformed through human activity, they come to embody the goals and social organization of that activity in the form of affordances for use. Affordances do not determine how an artifact is used, but do make particular uses easier or harder. Mediated activity also means that action and cognition are distributed over time and space and among people, artifacts, and environments. Distributed activity inevitably crosses social and historical boundaries so that activity, people, and artifacts are always heterogeneous. Activity is thus also laminated, as multiple frames or fields co-exist in any situated act. Laminated frames may be relatively foregrounded or backgrounded. In activity, people are socialized (brought into alignment with others) as they appropriate cultural resources, but also individuated as their particular appropriations historically accumulate to form a particular individual. Socialization (learning) simultaneously makes people and societies because what is appropriated and individuated is also externalized in activity and, thus, alters the social.

For further reading in the diverse field of CHAT, we would particularly recommend the following texts listed in our references: Mikhail Bakhtin (1986); Charles Bazerman (1988); Michael Cole (1996); Yrjo Engestrom (1987, 1993); Dorothy Holland, William Lachicotte, Debra Skinner, and Carole Cain (1998); Edwin Hutchins (1995a); Judith Irvine (1996); Bruno Latour (2005); Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991); Paul Prior (1998, 2005, Prior and Jody Shipka, 2003); Ron Scollon and Suzie Wong Scollon (2003); Sylvia Scribner (1997); Valentin Voloshinov (1973); Lev Vygotsky (1987); James Wertsch (1991, Wertsch, Pablo del Rio, and Amelia Alvarez 1995).

* CHAT is sometimes used in a narrower sense to refer to a specific line of work, particularly approaches that align closely with Engestrom and Cole. The broader field is variously named and divided. Other terms include sociohistoric, sociocultural, activity, (neo)Vygotskyan, and practice theory.