Through an activity theory lens: Conceptualizing service learning as 'boundary work'

Janice McMillan


Michael Gibbons (2005) has spoken about the need to re-imagine the relationship between higher education and society and he calls for the emergence of a ‘new social contract’. In particular he highlights three elements of this new form of engagement: contextualization, boundary objects, and transaction spaces or boundary zones. It is here that my paper is located – in the conceptualization of the ‘boundary zone’ at the nexus of higher education and society, with a focus on service learning as practice. In the literature on higher education there appears to be little evidence describing ways of conceptualizing and understanding the boundary zone itself. Most of the service learning research literature for instance, looks either at the university side of the relationship or at the impact on the community (and even then only in very few cases).

In order to better understand the ‘push and pull’ of service learning, we need to better understand better what happens in the transaction/boundary zone in the first instance. In order to do this, we need to develop conceptual tools to illuminate the complex practices that occur at this nexus. Drawing on situated learning, post Vygotskian theory and activity theory in particular, I develop a framework for service learning conceived as ‘boundary work’. This framework illuminates inherent contradictions in these trans-boundary practices, and the argument is therefore that unless we understand these practices better and in more nuanced ways, we are in no position to improve them and consequently our understandings of this form of educational practice remain unaltered. Finally, by raising a number of questions about boundary practices at the end of the paper, I provide some ways of taking this conceptualization project further.

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