Activity theory and ancient history – not as far away as you might think

My original degree – decades ago now, as the tutor I just asked for a research reference reminded me – was in Ancient and Modern History.  It was quite a radical proposition to do a combined degree at Oxford at the time.  I got there by starting a Classics degree and then flunking the bootcamp ancient Greek.  They could have kicked me out, but one very kind tutor decided I should have the benefit of the doubt, I switched schools and then rewarded the college with the highest mark in prelims that year.  I think I was forgiven then!

But has this got anything to do with activity theory?  Or maybe I’ve just abandoned all that history stuff?  Well no, not really.  History will always be with me (!), the desire to see the past as a structure, as a mass of change, as a different world identity in which people’s consciousnesses were so different from ours.  The ancient world was even more fascinating – the birth of significant ideas, the differences and most of all the innate similarities of people through time.

Every couple of years, I re-read the Iliad in translation.  It’s my desert island book.  It doesn’t glorify war, or killing, or superheroes.  For me, the book isn’t about that.  It’s the first great work of world literature, in my opinion, and it’s really about relationships.  You could subtitle it ‘a really bad day at the office’.  Achilles doesn’t like Agamemnon throwing his weight around, stealing Achilles’ spoils, playing the big boss.  Achilles throws a strop.  Agamemnon is not man enough to swallow his pride.  To cut the plot summary short, bad stuff happens as a consequence.  A city falls, but no-one has really won the war.  Being tough and macho, the myth of the warrior-hero, gets totally undermined.  Homer tells us that it’s people’s feelings that matter, that make things happen, not war or trade.  It’s a human story, happening against the background of world events.  It’s the Syria, Palestine, Europe, Brexit of the time.  People caught up in history, context, fighting to survive.

Context is everything.  If the two guys had just fallen out on an insignificant farm in Attica, it wouldn’t have been such a problem.  But they were ‘important people’, fighting the major war of the time, besieging a city for the sake of honour (the myth) or trade and money (the reality, probably).  Their realities were different, conflicting, they saw the same events from different viewpoints, and they didn’t like what they saw.  We have all experienced difficulties at work, unless we are very lucky, even if it’s only a bit of office gossip.  It happens everywhere, only a great poet could make such a tragic, moving, beautiful narrative from this.

Myth vs reality from

Myth vs reality from Greek myth comix

CHAT emphasises context, development, the back story, people, motivations, agency, abilities.  So there’s nothing unusual there.  I think I had a narrower view of things growing up, a very contained view of the world which started and ended with my little portion of Yorkshire.  But then, I have a distinct memory of a lecture at college, just one in a series, but suddenly hearing Jasper Griffin talk about the movement of peoples in a particular part of the ancient world, how they made a journey over centuries from one part of the area to another, how the land, the environment, the weather, the transport options, the neighbouring peoples – how all these things played out together.  I suppose you would call it social geography, combined with history, but for me it was a revelation of context, how you could see things as a great sweep of history and lived experience, as something huge and significant but manifesting gently and sometimes almost imperceptibly over time, and still retain an individual view.

So there’s the connection.  This week I was just reading how a case study is about telling a story from different perspectives and realities (in Helen Simons, Case Study Research in Practice).  Thinking about how knowledge is created in an environment where the players are so different – novices and experts, working together, creating new ideas, building a changed sense of purpose to a particular environment, never mind that it is a business rather than an educational institution.

Do check out Greek myth comix – it’s an excellent site with cartoons and ideas for promoting Homer by Laura Jenkinson, and one of my favourite ancient world websites and licensed under a CREATIVE COMMONS ATTRIBUTION-NONCOMMERCIAL 4.0 LICENSE. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *