Where is the primary contradiction?
Reflections on the intricacies of research predicated on activity theory
This article reflects on the idea that there is an omnipresent primary contradiction lurking at the bottom of every activity in capitalism. In doing so, it articulates the relationship between Marxism and Activity Theory. Whilst Marx’s ideas suggest that a trademark of capitalist social formations is the way surplus is pumped out from living labour, Activity Theory posits that the dual nature of commodities (i.e. their use and exchange-value) is the fundamental contradiction existent among all activities. The article argues that such distinction bears a direct impact on empirical research predicated on Activity Theory and goes on to consider the practical and theoretical implications of the Activity Theory’s departure from Marx’s ideas. The point is illustrated with an example of the challenges faced by the author while conducting an activity theoretical field research attempting to identify the primary contradiction in the activity system of a public organisation in the UK.
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