Academic journal article Outlines : Critical Practice Studies

A Gramscian Perspective on Developmental Work Research: Contradictions, Power and the Role of Researchers Reconsidered

Academic journal article Outlines : Critical Practice Studies

A Gramscian Perspective on Developmental Work Research: Contradictions, Power and the Role of Researchers Reconsidered

Article excerpt


The article presents a Gramscian reading of organisational interventions within the framework of developmental work research. Developmental work research is based on Engeström 's concepts of activity system and expansive learning cycle. It utilizes the theoretical vocabulary provided by Marx and Ilyenkov and is situated in the traditions of cultural-historical and critical research. In recent years, critical commentaries have pointed to a need to reconsider questions related to transformation, contradictions and power within the approach. The Gramscian reading here suggests that the concepts of transformism, hegemony and dialectic pedagogy could open potential ways to reformulate certain elements of both the practice of organisational intervention and the theoretical principles of developmental work research.

Keywords: developmental work research, expansive learning, hegemony, dialectical pedagogy, Engeström, Gramsci


Organisational change triggered by designed interventions is at the core of developmental work research situated in the tradition of cultural-historical research (Engeström 2001; 2005b; Virkkunen & Schaupp 2011). Developmental work research and its further applications, such as Change Laboratories, apply interventionist methodology to organisations conceptualised as activity systems, or, networks of activity systems. The theoretical groundwork of developmental work research (Engeström 1987) innovatively combines psychological accounts of human learning drawing on Vygotsky, Leontjev and Bateson together with the overall Marxian philosophy of praxis and the analysis of contradictions as phenomena related to the economic constellation of capitalism. The fundamental notions of developmental work research are activity system and the cycle of expansive transition (Engeström 1987, 78, 322), further referred to as expansive learning. Practical organisational interventions follow the stages of the cycle of expansive learning: historical analysis, actual-empirical analysis, modelling, examining and implementing new models, reflecting on the process and consolidating the new practice. (Engeström 2001;Virkkunen 2004). In this article, I use developmental work research1 in reference to organisational intervention, which is a researcher-designed process in activity systems proceeding in accordance with the stages of expansive learning.

On the basis of references made to Marx's Feuerbach theses2 (Marx 1998 [1945], 574) in support of the need to not understand but instead change the world, developmental work research can be located in the tradition of transformative and critical research. For example, Sawchuk et al. (2006, 5) define the meaning of 'critical perspective' as "approaches that ultimately have an interest in describing, analysing, and contributing to a process of historical change and human betterment along the lines of Marx's Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, that is an emphasis on change with a clear-eyed understanding of the social, political, economic, and historical base of material reality". The research that produces socio-critical knowledge can be conceptualised as revolutionary practice which entails the idea of a dialectic relationship between changing circumstances and changing activity. Jean Lave (2012) urges cultural-historical research to become such a revolutionary practice. In her search for new, revolutionary research agendas, she advocates the ideas of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), particularly as a basis for a theory of learning and education. Gramscian notions such as transformation of societal relations, engagement in a critical analysis of power as hegemony, and understanding the political aspects of any activity are relevant to cultural-historical research in the contemporary world.

In this article I discuss Lave's proposition within the specific context of developmental work research. I draw on recent research literature which critically discusses the theoretical principles and practical implementation of developmental work research. …

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