10/29: Introduction

11/5: What's the Point?

11/12: Knowledge in Practice

11/19: Who's the enemy

11/26: Ways of theorizing

12/3: Conclusion


What Theory Matters

Info 290a (Sec 4) Fall 2013
School of Information, UC Berkeley

Tuesday, 3:30 - 6
107 South Hall

Jean Lave, Paul Duguid


This short seminar will explore how differences in theoretical perspectives reveal themselves. It will address questions such as what does it mean to “have a theoretical perspective”? How do you come to recognize different theoretical stances as we read and consider the work of others? What are the implications of those differences for scholarly work and social engagement with the world? We will take up these and related questions by looking closely at how a group of scholars/researchers asked to address a common issue approached the challenge from different perspectives. For this we will explore Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context. (With the growth of alternative online forums challenging the status of and need for the university, exploring assumptions about learning seems particularly salient in all our lives.) The challenge for the seminar is to detect the theoretical stances and assumptions that permeate these projects. We will do this by reading and in some cases rereading chapters of the book and discussing them in juxtaposition with one another. We will attempt as we go along not only to question the assumptions of the authors, but also of ourselves. Besides becoming more acute readers of academic work by the end of the seminar, students will have (we hope) a hands-on grasp of the craft of social theorizing, and an introduction to contrasting theories of learning, knowledge, context and practice.

Course Requirements
  1. Class attendance and participation
  2. Reading the chapters assigned
  3. Short presentation in the final class (see December 3 below)

Course Reading

  • Seth Chaiklin & Jean Lave. 1993. Understanding practice: Perspectives on activity and context. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  • [All readings, unless otherwise noted, come from this volume.]


    Week 1

    October 29:   Introduction

    • Seth Chaiklin, "Understanding the social scientific practice of Understanding Practice," 377-401.

    Additional material:
    Week 2

    November 5:   What's the point?

    • Yrjö Engestrom. "Developmental studies of work as a testbench of activity theory: The case of primary care medical practice," 64-103.

    • Lucy A. Suchman and Randall H. Trigg, "Artificial intelligence as craftwork," 144-178.

    • Ray McDermott, "The acquisition of a child by a learning disability," 269-305.

    Week 3

    November 12:  Knowledge in practice
    • Edwin Hutchins, "Learning to Navigate," 35-63.

    • Jean Lave, "The Practice of Learning," 3-32.

    • Suchman and Trigg, "Artificial intelligence as craftwork."

    Week 4

    November 19:   Who's the enemy?
    • Hugh Mehan, "Beneath the skin and between the ears: A case study in the politics of representation," 241-268.

    • Norris Minick, "Teachers' directives: The social construction of "literal meanings" and "real worlds" in classroom discourse,"

    • Steinar Kvale, "Examinations reexamined: Certification of students or certification of knowledge?" 215-240.

    Week 5

    November 26:  In theory and in practice
    • John Seely Brown & Paul Duguid. 2000. "Re-Education," pp. 207-241 in The Social Life of Information.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    • [This is available through the course bspace site. If you do not have access, please get in touch with Paul.]
    • Jean Lave, "The Practice of Learning," 3-32.

    Week 6

    December 3:  Conclusion
      Find an article from your own field of research and examine its theoretical assumptions and how they are manifest in the article.
      Present your findings to the class.