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.

Full Text:



Anzaldúa, G 1987, Borderlands/La Frontera: The new mestiza, Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco.

Billett, S 2002, 'Workplaces, communities and pedagogy: An activity theory view', in M Lea & K Nicoll (eds), Distributed learning: Social and cultural approaches to practice, Routledge/Falmer & Open University Press, London, New York.

Bowker, G & Star, S 1999, Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Bringle, R & Hatcher, J 1996, 'Implementing service learning in higher education', Journal of Higher Education, vol. 67, no.2, pp. 221239.

Castle, J Osman, R & Henstock, V 2003, 'Coupling school experience" with communityservice: A case study', Education as Change, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 320."

CHE (Council on Higher Education, South Africa) 2000, Policy report: Towards a new higher education landscape: Meeting the equity, quality and social development imperatives of South Africa in the twenty-first century, Pretoria, South Africa.

Cole, M 1996, Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Cole, M 1998, 'Can cultural psychology help us think about diversity?', Mind, Culture and Activity, vol. 5, no. 4, pp. 291304.

Cooper, L 2005, 'Towards a theory of pedagogy, learning and knowledge in a trade union context: A case study of a South African trade union', unpublished PhD thesis, School of Education, Faculty of Humanities, University of Cape Town.

Cruz, N & Giles, D 2000, 'Where's the community in service learning research?', MichiganJournal of Community Service Learning, Special Issue Fall, pp. 2834.

Daniels, H 2001, Vygotsky and pedagogy, Routledge/Falmer, London, New York.

Department of Education (DoE) 1997, Education White Paper #3: A programme for the transformation of higher education, Government Gazette 386 (18207), no. 15.

Engeström, Y 1996, Perspectives on activity theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Engeström, Y & Miettinen, R 1999, 'Introduction', in Y Engeström, R Miettinen & RLPunamäki (eds), Perspectives on activity theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Engeström, Y, Miettinen, R & Punamäki, RL 1999, (eds), Perspectives on activity theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Eyler, J 2002, 'Stretching to meet the challenge: Improving the quality of research to improve the quality of service learning', in SH Billig & A Furco (eds), Service learningthrough a multidisciplinary lens, Information Age Publishing, Greenwich, CT.

Favish, J 2003, 'Monitoring the quality of higher education: The case for makingcontributions to development central to considerations of quality', paper presented at Quality Assurance in higher education conference, University of the Western Cape, July.

Gee, J 1990, Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses, Falmer, London.

Gibbons, M, Limoges, C, Nowotny, H, Schartzman, S, Scott, P & Trow, M 1994, The new production of knowledge, Sage, London.

Gibbons, M 2005, 'Engagement with the community: The emergence of a new social contract between society and science', paper presented at the Griffith University Community Engagement Workshop, South Bank campus, Queensland, Friday 4 March 2005.

Giroux, H 1992, Border crossings: Cultural workers and the politics of education, Routledge, New York.

Hall, M 2003, 'Boundary institutions: Universities and social change', unpublished paper, University of Cape Town.

Hay, K 1993, 'Legitimate peripheral participation, instructionism, and constructivism: Whose situation is it anyway?', Educational Technology, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 3338.

Hayes, E & Cuban, S 1997, 'Border pedagogy: A critical framework for service learning', Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, vol. 4, pp. 7280.

Hodges, D 1998, 'Participation as dis-identification with/in a community of practice', Mind, Culture and Activity, vol. 5, no. 4, pp. 272290.

Hodkinson, H & Hodkinson, P 2003, 'Rescuing communities of practice from accusations of idealism: A case study of workplace learning for secondary school teachers in England', paper presented at Experiential: Community: Workbased: Researching learning outside the academy conference, Glasgow University.

Keith, N 1998, 'Community service for community building: The school-based servicecorps as border crossers', Michigan Journal for Community Service Learning, vol. 5, pp. 8696.

Keith, N 2005, 'Community service learning in the face of globalisation: Rethinking theoryand practice', Michigan Journal for Community Service Learning, Spring, pp. 524.

Kozulin, A 1998, Psychological tools: A sociocultural approach to education, Harvard University Press, London.

Lave, J & Wenger, E 1991, Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation, CambridgeUniversity Press, Cambridge.

Lemke, J 1997, 'Cognition, context and learning: A social semiotic perspective', in D Kirshner & A Whitson (eds), Situated cognition: Social, semiotic, and psychological perspectives, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ.

Leont'ev, AN 1981, Problems of the development of the mind, Progress Publishers, Moscow.

McMillan, J & Shay, S 2004, 'Service learning as situated learning" in higher education: Aconceptual framework', paper prepared as part of the JET-funded service learning project, University of Cape Town."

McMillan, J 2008, 'What happens when the university meets the community? An analysis of service learning as boundary work" in higher education', unpublished PhD thesis, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Humanities, University of Cape Town."

Moore, D 2000, 'The relationship between experiential learning research and service learning research', Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Special Issue Fall, pp.124128.

Morton, K & Troppe, M 1996, 'From the margin to the mainstream: Campus Compact's project on integrating service with academic study', Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 2132.

NCHE (National Commission on Higher Education) 1996, Discussion document: A framework for transformation, Human Sciences Research Council, Pretoria.

Russell, D 2002, 'Looking beyond the interface: Activity theory and distributed learning', in M Lea & K Nicoll (eds) Distributed learning: Social and cultural approaches to practice, Routledge/Falmer & the Open University, London, New York.

Scott, I, McMillan, J, Yeld, N & Hall, M 2003, Equity and excellence in higher education: The case of the University of Cape Town, Report to Mellon Foundation, December.

Skilton-Sylvester, E & Erwin, E 2000, 'Creating reciprocal learning relationships across socially-constructed borders', Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 6575.

Stanton, T 1998, 'Institutionalizing service learning within postsecondary education:Transformation or social adaptation?', Partnership Perspectives, vol. 1, no. 1, Community-Campus Partnerships for Health, San Francisco.

Stanton, T, Giles, D & Cruz, N 1999, Service learning: A movement's pioneers reflect on its origins, practice, and future, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Star, S & Griesemer, R 1989, 'Institutional ecology, translations" and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 190739', Social Studies of Science, vol. 19, pp. 387420."

Taylor, J 2002, 'Metaphors we serve by: Investigating the conceptual metaphors framing national and community service and service learning', Michigan Journal of CommunityService Learning, vol. 9, no.1, pp. 4557.

Tuomi-Gröhn, T & Engeström, Y (eds) 2003, Between school and work: New perspectives ontransfer and boundary-crossing, Pergamon, Amsterdam, New York.

Vygotsky, LS 1978, Mind in society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Waterman, AS (ed.) 1997, Service-learning: Applications from the research, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ, London.

Wenger, E 1998, Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity, CambridgeUniversity Press, Cambridge.

Wertsch, J 1985, Vygotsky and the social formation of mind, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Wolfson, L & Willinsky, J 1998, 'What service learning can learn from situated learning', Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, vol. 5, pp. 2231.

Zlotkowski, E (ed.) 1998, Successful service-learning programs: New models of excellence in higher education, Anker Publishing Company, Bolton, MA.