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Life Discovery: The “Object — Objective” Gap and Attachment

An idea about Anticipatory Activity System and Motivation

Photo by Alex Lion on Unsplash

On Feb 18, 2022, I published Life Discovery: The Result — Reward Gap and Achievement and discussed an idea about Anticipatory Activity System. This article continues the journey and focuses on the Object — Objective Gap and Attachment.

The pair of concept of “Attachment — Achievement” echos the basic model of the Ecological Practice approach. See the diagram below.

The Ecological Practice approach is an abstract theoretical approach. In order to apply the approach to the Life Discovery Activity, we need an intermediate theoretical framework.

This article adopts the Anticipatory Activity System Framework for present discussion. There are two reasons for this decision:

  • The core of Anticipatory Activity System is “Self, Other, Present, Future” which highly matches the Life Discovery Activity.
  • Traditional Activity Theoretical approaches tend to adopt the collective perspective. Anticipatory Activity System starts from the individual perspective.

In addition, I am testing the Anticipatory Activity System Framework too. By adopting the Life Discovery Activity as a concrete application, I find a way to continuously develop the framework.

1. The Anticipatory Activity System Framework

The Anticipatory Activity System framework is a hybrid theoretical framework which curates the following two theories together:

  • Activity Theory
  • Anticipatory System Theory

This hybrid approach is inspired by Clay Spinuzzi’s book Network: Theorizing Knowledge Work in Telecommunications. In order to understand a telecommunications company’s knowledge work, Clay Spinuzzi focuses on the concept of “Network”, and adopts the following two theories to build an abstract framework for theorizing “Network” of knowledge work:

  • Activity Theory
  • Actor-network Theory (ANT)

The above diagram is the standard model of the Anticipatory Activity System framework. It was formed by the following pairs of concepts:

  • Present — Future
  • Self — Other
  • Object — Objective
  • Result — Reward
  • First-order Activity — Second-order Activity

You can find more details from D as Diagramming: Strategy as Anticipatory Activity System.

This article will focus on the pair of concept of “Object — Objective”.

2. The “Object” of Activity Theory

The concept of “Object” is the foundational concept of Activity Theory. According to the founder of Activity Theory A. N. Leontiev, “Separate concrete types of activity may differ among themselves according to various characteristics: according to their form, according to the methods of carrying them out, according to their emotional intensity, according to their time and space requirements, according to their physiological mechanisms, etc. The main thing that distinguishes one activity from another, however, is the difference of their objects. It is exactly the object of an activity that gives it a determined direction.” (1978, p.98)

So, what’s the object of activity?

The answer from Leontiev is the motive of activity. Leontiev claimed, “According to the terminology I have proposed, the object of an activity is its true motive. It is understood that the motive may be either material or ideal, either present in perception or exclusively in the imagination or in thought. The main thing is that behind activity there should always be a need, that it should always answer one need or another.” He also added a note about the term motive, “Such restricted understanding of motive as that object (material or ideal) that evokes and directs activity toward itself differs from the generally accepted understanding”.(1978, p.98)

The Object-orientedness principle is similar to other theories’ terms such as “needs”, “intentionality” or “intention”. According to Kaptelinin and Nardi (2012), “…all human activities are directed toward their objects and differentiated from one another by their respective objects. Objects motivate and direct activities, around them activities are coordinated, and in them activities are crystallized when the activities are complete.” (p.29)

However, the concept of Object has a different meaning in the Activity System Model which was developed by Yrjö Engeström with the above triangle diagram. According to Kaptelinin and Nardi (2006), “For Leontiev, the object (predmet) of activity is an object of activities carried out by individuals, either collectively or individually, and is related to motivation. For Engeström, the object, introduced through the ‘subject — object’ distinction — that is, as objekt — is the object of collective activities. The object is defined as ‘the raw material’ or ‘problem space’ at which the activity is directed and which is molded and transformed into outcome…’ ” (2006, p.142–143)

Here we face two issues. The first one is the language issue. According to Kaptelinin and Nardi (2012), “In Russian there are two words with similar but distinct meanings: objekt and predmet. Both refer to objectively existing entities, but the notion of predmet typically also implies a relevance of the entity in question to certain human purposes or interests…Leontiev deliberately referred to the object of activity as predmet rather than object. However, this distinction is usually lost in English translation since both words are translated as ‘object.’ ” (p.29) The second one is the theoretical issue. Leontive and Engeström offer two theoretical accounts about human activities. One is about psychology while the other is about organizational change.

Source: Acting with Technology (2006, p.143)

As organizational scholar Frank Blacker (2009) claimed, “For newcomers to activity theory, the notion of the object of activity is unfamiliar and may not be easy to understand. Indeed, the term is complex; objects of activity need to be understood as simultaneously given, socially constructed, contested, and emergent.” He also pointed out, “The complexity of the term should not be thought of as a shortcoming of activity theory, however. Rather, it both reflects and reveals the complexity of human activity. ”

Some North American scholars use a special format to use the concept of objective: object(ive). For example, David Russell use the following sentences to describe Activity Theory in a paper titled Activity Theory and Its Implications for Writing Instruction, “I use the term object(ive) because it refers not only to persons or objects in a passive state (what is acted on) but also to the goal of an intentional activity, an objective, although the objective may be envisioned differently by different participants in the activity system.”

3. Object and Objective

For the Anticipatory Activity System framework, it is clear that we have to use two terms because Objective (what is motive about) is about Future while Object (what is acted on) is about Present.

These two terms adopt both Leontiev’s object (predmet) which refers to motivation and Engeström’s object which refers to ‘the raw material’ or ‘problem space’.

The Anticipatory Activity System framework uses the diagram below to separate these two terms’ spatial positions.

Moreover, Objective is related to Anticipation while Object is related to Performance. They refer to two types of complexities. See the diagram below.

In the beginning, an Objective projects our anticipation about the future and the complexity of anticipation is high because we don’t know if we can achieve the objective. In the end of an activity, the complexity of anticipation becomes low because the outcome is there.

However, the complexity of Performance on Object is a different trajectory. In the beginning, we do less work on an Object. Then, the complexity of interaction with Object is getting higher and higher.

Now, we see the Object — Objective Gap. It is not a bug, but a wonderful key for unlocking the deep secret of the Anticipatory Activity System.

4. Needs, Supports, and Motivation

As mentioned above, The “object of activity” is one of the most basic concepts of activity theory. We should review the concept and Motivation. For this section, I will use object (predmet) to refer to Leontiev’s original term which is about motive.

According to Victor Kaptelinin (2005), “The object (predmet) of activity has a dual status; it is both a projection of human mind onto the objective world and a projection of the world onto human mind. Employing the object (predmet) of activity as a conceptual lens means anchoring and contextualizing subjective phenomena in the objective world, and changes one’s perspective on both the mind and the world.”

Following the above Object — Objective separation, I’d like to separate the dual status too:

  • Object: a projection of human mind onto the objective world.
  • Objective: a projection of the world onto human mind.

Kaptelinin (2005) also pointed out, “…the object (predmet) of activity can be defined as ‘the sense-maker’ which gives meaning to and determines values of various entities and phenomena. Identifying the object (predmet) of activity and its development over time can serve as a basis for reaching a deeper and more structured understanding of otherwise fragmented pieces of evidence.” According to Kaptelinin, the original Leontiev (1975/1978) definition of the object (predmet) of activity as “its true motive” has some conceptual issues. He argued, “If the object (predmet) of activity is its true motive, then two concepts — ‘the object (predmet) of activity’ and ‘the motive of activity’ — mean basically the same thing.” He suggested that it is better to separate the object (predmet) of activity from the motive of activity in order to deal with poly-motivated activities.

Since we are applying the Anticipatory Activity System framework to discuss Life Discovery, we don’t need to touch the issue of poly-motivated activities.

Moreover, I’d like to adopt other psychological theories about motivation for our discussion. For example, the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is an established theory about human motivation. SDT claimed that there are three basic psychological needs are those for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. According to Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci who are the founders of SDT, “Our conceptualization of the effects of social contexts is pertinent to both motivation and behavior in immediate situations and to development and wellness over time. In other words, supports for autonomy, competence, and relatedness not only are theorized to facilitate more self-determined and high-quality functioning in the immediate situation, but they are also understood to promote the development of more effective self-functioning, resilience, and enduring psychological health for the long term.” (p.12) By connecting SDT with Activity Theory, we can discuss the issue of motivation with the three basic psychological needs.

Kaptelinin (2005) also suggested four criteria for “successful” objects (predmet) of activities: “ (a) balance: the effective motives should be properly represented; if a motive is systematically ignored, the activity may face a breakdown; (b) inspiration: the object of activity should be not only rationally feasible but also attractive and energizing, ( c) stability: if the object changes too often, the activity can be disorganized; and (d) flexibility (the opposite of stability): when the factors, such as motives and available means, change, the object of activity should be redefined to avoid becoming obsolete and ineffective.”

I’d like to consider these four criteria as support offered by an activity. See the diagram below.

The above diagram is part of the Life-as-Activity framework (v0.3) which was published on Nov 29, 2020. The word “Object” in the above diagram refers to objects (predmet). Now we can directly use Objective.

For the Anticipatory Activity System framework, there is a missing piece in the above diagram because it doesn’t pay attention to the source of objective.

Where do great objectives come from?

This question leads to a more deeper question:

How does an activity start?

Let’s answer this question with the “Object — Objective” gap. If an activity starts from Object-drive-Objective, then I call it First-order Attachment. If an activity starts from Objective-drive-Object, it is called Second-order Attachment.

5. First-order Attachment

As mentioned above, I use “Object” to refer to Object (what is acted on) and ‘the raw material’ or ‘problem space’. However, ‘the raw material’ or ‘problem space’ is adopted from Yrjö Engeström’s Activity System Model which is about organizational innovation and development.

The Anticipatory Activity System framework doesn’t only talk about organizational activities, but also about individual life development. In order to apply the framework to life development, I’d like to expand the concept of “Object” to material objects and things we could act on.

If we use metaphorical words, then we can roughly define the following three types of Objects:

  • Object for Play: the object of non-work activity.
  • Object for Produce: the object of work.
  • Object behind Plain: the source of problem.

As mentioned above, if an activity starts from Object-drive-Objective, then I call it First-order Attachment. Now we discuss the mechanism of First-order Attachment with the “Play, Produce, Plain” metaphor.

There are three paths of First-order Attachment:

  • Play-turn-Produce
  • Product-led-Produce
  • Plain-turn-Produce

The Play-turn-Produce path means we switch from a non-work activity to a work activity. Inspired by some knowledge sparks we discovered from a play, we define a new objective for a work activity.

The Product-led-Produce path means we start from a product or a by-product we made in previous activities. For a new activity, the outcome of old activities become resources which drive new objectives.

The Plain-turn-Produce path means we have to cope with a problem in a particular situation. The objective of a new activity is about solving the problem.

There are other possible paths such as Play-turn-Plain, or Produce-turn-Play, Produce-turn-Plain, etc. If we focus on impact-led-life, then all paths should lead to the produce-type activity.

6. Second-order Attachment

If an activity starts from Objective-drive-Object, it is called Second-order Attachment.

Why do we need to discuss Second-order Attachment since we have discussed many ways of defining objects in the above section?

The reason is that individual life is always embedded in social life. We can roughly understand social life as a nested social container. Each social container has its own objective for its activities. Thus, we have to deal with the hierarchy of objectives.

In other words, Second-order Attachment is about Objective-led-Objective. This is a typical phenomenon in organizational environments. In 2018, David J. Collis and Michael G. Rukstad published an article titled Can You Say What Your Strategy Is? on Harvard Business Review. The picture below is quoted from the article.

For organizational environments (a type of social container), we see a hierarchy of company statements. An objective of a company is part of its strategy which is part of the hierarchy of company statements. We also have to notice the hierarchy of organizational structure. Even though we use a flat structure such as the “company [projects(people)]” mode, we still need two levels of objectives. Moreover, for a particular project, we need its own hierarchy of objectives too.

David J. Collis and Michael G. Rukstad use a metaphor in their article, “Think of a major business as a mound of 10,000 iron filings, each one representing an employee. If you scoop up that many filings and drop them onto a piece of paper, they’ll be pointing in every direction. It will be a big mess: 10,000 smart people working hard and making what they think are the right decisions for the company — but with the net result of confusion…If you pass a magnet over those filings, what happens? They line up.”

How above individual life development? Can a person avoid the hierarchy of objectives?

While organizations cope with the “Individual — Collective” curativity, individuals have to deal with a different type of challenge: the “Present — Future” curativity.

The term Curativity is adopted from my theoretical work Curativity Theory. It means turning pieces into a meaningful whole. For organizations, the “Individual —Collective” curativity means turning pieces of thousands of members’ effect into a meaningful outcome for an organization as a whole.

For individuals, the “Present — Future” curativity refers to turning pieces of daily life experience into a meaningful life as a whole. Though organizations also face the challenge of the “Present — Future” curativity, individuals face a harder one: there is an end of life.

7. The Curativity of Life

I use three dimensions of the concept of “Life” to develop the model for life discovery orientation. There are at least three ways to understand the concept of “Life”.

  • Life as Organism: this is the perspective of biological theories.
  • Life as Practice: this is the perspective of social theories.
  • Life as Ideal Type: this is the perspective of humanities.

These three perspectives can be called Biological Life, Sociocultural Life, and Spiritual Life. I also defined three types of Freedom.

Our biological life has a clear path: from birth to death. Our spiritual life needs a meaningful life to create mental freedom in order to define death anxiety or thanatophobia (fear of death).

However, a meaningful life is not only about thinking, it is about doing too. Thus, our sociocultural life needs to connect collective cultural themes with our own life themes in order to make the meaningful life happen. If we can make a balance between cultural themes and life themes, then we achieve the cultural freedom and make a good deal between spiritual life and sociocultural life.

In order to support biological life, individuals need to get involved in sociocultural life in order to make material freedom as a foundation for cultural freedom and mental freedom.

This is a complicated dynamic system. A successful life doesn’t come easily.

8. How do Objectives lead to Objectives?

The above discussion offers two answers:

  • A higher level objective determines the lower objectives within an organizational hierarchy.
  • A future objective determine the present objectives within an individual life development.

The third answer comes from the “Self — Other” Relevance. The center of “Anticipatory Activity System” is “Self, Other, Present, Future”. The framework uses the following model to discuss the “Self — Other” relationship.

The above diagram considers four units of analysis of the “Self — Other” relevance.

  • Intrapersonal Relevance: the Other is potential, not actual.
  • Interpersonal Relevance: the Other is actual, but the “Self — Other” is not considered as a whole.
  • Transactional Relevance: the Other is actual, and the “Self — Other” is considered as a whole.
  • Collective Relevance: the Other is pervasive, not proximal. The “Self — Other” relationship is understood as “Self — Group”.

The core of the framework is three aspects of Other.

  • Potential v.s. Actual
  • Independent v.s. Dependent
  • Proximal v.s. Pervasive

If a person doesn’t have direct interaction with real other people, he considers if his work or actions are relevant to predecessors or any other people. Then, this means Intrapersonal Relevance. Traditional Activity Theory doesn’t consider this unit of analysis. For Activity Theorists, an activity is a social collaboration.

Interpersonal Relevance refers to direct interactions with others. At this situation, the Other is actual, but the “Self — Other” is not considered as a whole since they don’t share reciprocity of motives. How can a person get good feedback from others? It depends on Relevance from the Other’s perspective.

Transactional Relevance is about dependent relationships and interactions. The Other is actual, and the “Self — Other” is considered as a whole. and they share reciprocity of motives. In this situation, the person and Other share reciprocity of motives, challenges, background knowledge.

Collective Relevance considers Other as a pervasive group, not a particular person or several people. The “Self — Other” relationship becomes the “Self — Group” relationship.

If we apply this typology of Relevance to discuss objectives, then we can call it the Relevance of Objectives. This is a key for understanding the complexity of Second-order Attachment.

9. The Relevance of Objectives

Following the above “Self — Other” Relevance, we start discussing the Second-order Attachment at different unit of analysis.

For Intrapersonal Relevance, we can consider Self-Determined Objectives because no other people make any impact on our decisions on objectives. Also, it doesn’t belong to a hierarchy of objectives which is made by others.

For Interpersonal Relevance, we consider Part-Determind Objectives. In this situation, the Other is actual, but the “Self — Other” is not considered as a whole since they don’t share reciprocity of motives. Since there are various types of Interpersonal Relationships, there are many kinds of situations. The key point is that Other directly impact our decisions on objectives.

The impact depends on the relationship and communication between Self and Other. For example, a friend may offer an advice or an opportunity for us, and it impacts our objectives. A colleague may be a potential competitor around a job position to us.

Transactional Relevance is about dependent relationships and interactions. The Other is actual, and the “Self — Other” is considered as a whole. and they share reciprocity of motives. In this situation, the person and Other share reciprocity of motives, challenges, background knowledge.

I consider Co-Determind Objectives for Transactional Relevance. Since Self and Other share the outcome of the activity, the two sides could be considered as one social actor.

Collective Relevance considers Other as a pervasive group, not a particular person or several people. The “Self — Other” relationship becomes the “Self — Group” relationship.

I consider Group-Determind Objectives for Collective Relevance. The impact is made through a hierarchy of objectives. It is more about the power of hierarchy and a social group’s structure, culture and policy.

10. Meta-objectives: Objectives about Objectives

Meta-objectives are an important issue about Second-order Attachment.

The process of defining an objective for a long term activity is a dynamic process. Since all objectives are about the future, they all are hypotheses. In order to reduce potential risks, we have to test some important objectives.

Now we start playing a meta game. If an activity’s objective is for testing an objective of another one activity, then the activity is a Second-order Activity.

We call objectives of Second-order Activity Meta-objectives.

One major difference between the Anticipatory Activity System framework and other theoretical frameworks of Activity Theory is that the former really takes Second-order Activity seriously. In fact, this is the uniqueness of the framework since its first keyword is “Anticipatory”.

11. Concrete Objectives toward Objects

Finally, we need to close the Object — Objective Gap. The simple trick is making a new typology of Objectives:

  • Concrete Objectives
  • Abstract Objectives

Concrete Objectives echoes Richard P. Rumelt’s Proximate Objectives. In his 2011 book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, Rumelt writes a chapter titled Proximate Objectives. According to Rumelt, a good proximate objective is close enough at hand to be feasible.

The value of Proximate Objectives is coping with uncertainty of the future. Rumelt emphasizes, “Many writers on strategy seem to suggest that the more dynamic the situation, the farther ahead a leader must look. This is illogical. The more dynamic the situation, the poorer your foresight will be. Therefore, the more uncertain and dynamic the situation, the more proximate a strategic objective must be. The proximate objective is guided by forecasts of the future, but the more uncertain the future, the more its essential logic is that of ‘taking a strong position and creating options,’ not of looking far ahead.” (2011, p.111)

From the perspective of the Anticipatory Activity System framework, the key is the relationship between Objective and Object. If an objective towards object, it is a concrete objective.

If we can’t turn an objective into concrete objectives, then the objective can’t guide actions and performance.

12. Abstract Objectives toward Themes

On the other hand, we need Abstract Objectives to curate various concrete objectives and pieces of actions into a meaningful whole.

While Concrete Objectives toward Objects, Abstract Objectives toward Themes.

On Sept 29, 2020, I published Activity U (VI): The Hierarchy of Human Activity and Social Practice. In the end of the article, I introduced a universal hierarchy of activity and practice. Human activity and social practice is extremely complex, the hierarchy is a great thinking tool for understanding it. Based on perspectives from activity theorists and other researchers, I found there are eight levels of hierarchy of activity and practice. The six mid-levels are adopted from activity theorists. The top-level is adopted from anthropologist Morris Opler (1945). The low-level is adopted from ecological psychologist James J. Gibson (1979). See the table below.

I also classify these eight levels into three types: “logical level”, “actual level”, and “possible level”. We can call the logical level the ideal level too. I don’t have perfect terms to name these types.

While Concrete Objectives echoes the Actual Level, Abstract Objectives echoes the Logical Level.

Themes are highly abstract ideas or concepts. It represents the complexity of social life in meaningful words. It’s a great cognitive instrument for connecting our daily actions and the development of collective culture.

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