Activity Theory and Distributed Cognition: Or What Does CSCW Need to DO with Theories?

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This essay compares activity theory (AT) with distributed cognitiontheory (DCOG), asking what each can do for CSCW. It approaches this task by proposing that theories – when viewed as conceptual tools formaking sense of a domain – have four important attributes: descriptivepower; rhetorical power; inferential power; and application power.It observes that AT and DCOG are not so different: both emphasizecognition; both include the social and cultural context of cognition;both share a commitment to ethnographically collected data. Startingwith a description of the distributed cognition approach, it uses anexample of a DCOG analysis to ground a discussion of the strengths andweaknesses of AT and DCOG as an approach to issues in CSCW. Finally,the essay considers what theoretical work is being done by theattributes of the respective theories, and whether AT, DCOG, or anytheory developed outside the context of group work, will workfor CSCW.