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Eveliina Saari
A Study of Learning and Development in a Research Group

2003; 245 pp.
Price 28 €
ISBN 952-10-0803-2

University of Helsinki
Department of Education

Helsinki University Press



Today, technological research work is not being conducted in isolation in individual investigators' chambers, but goes on in research groups or teams connected with other research groups and users. These groups face a number of challenges when directing their research towards the future and organizing their research work. One major developmental challenge appears to be the constant construction of the local research program and the need to make it viable and sustained. What seems to be the crucial source of learning and creativity is the lively collaboration and interaction both within the group and with its research partners and users.

This study focuses on exploring the dynamics of learning in a research group. It analyzes the life and development of the group from three complementary perspectives. First, the construction of the local research program is analyzed as it evolves in interaction with users of the laboratory's products and other research groups, and in its internal planning meetings. Second, a trajectory of collaboration between two research groups is opened up and analyzed. Third, the evolution of the division of labor and the development of individual researchers in the group are examined.

The group under scrutiny is an Aerosol Technology Group at the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT). It was initiated at the beginning of the 1990s, and has gradually grown into a well-known and internationally networked group with over 20 members. It is studying the dynamics of aerosols in several areas connected to different industrial and medical applications. The study applies a longitudinal ethnographic case-study strategy, and the ethnographic field work of the Finnish research group was at its most intensive from 1995 through 1998.  The author visited the American collaborator group at the University of New Mexico for six months in 1997.

The study pertains to the sphere of Science and Technology Studies and Cultural-Historical Activity Theory. Activity Theory offers a framework for studying the development of the research group as a learning process. It analyzes such a group as an object-oriented activity system, which is culturally and socially mediated and networked with other activity systems. It gives special weight to ethnographic analyses that concentrate on changes, transitions and critical turning points in the activity. This means capturing and analyzing, in particular, the critical phases in the life of a research group when a new research area is initiated, when an innovation is in transition from the laboratory to the users, when collaboration begins or ends, and when individual researchers leave or enter the group.

The findings of the study show that the activity of the research group involves shifting between its efforts to solve practical problems together with the users, and its aims to promote a new understanding of the studied mechanisms and phenomena together with other research groups. This mastering of the tension-laden pulse of the dual object of research is the major learning challenge for an applied research group. The outcome of this primary process is the growing number and quality of methods, models and new knowledge which remain with the group. The research group constructed its own future, which was conceptualized in the study as its zone of proximal development, by moving in the terrain of research laboratories and industrial companies and by implementing new elements into its own activity. The development of the individual researchers seemed to be closely related to the application area on which they happened to work, but this relationship turned out vulnerable and fragile as they moved to another area or changed the workplace.

The findings and the contribution of this study are discussed in relation to Science and Technology Studies and Activity Theory. The practical implications are relevant for personnel-development work in the context of research organizations in particular.

Keywords: activity theory, research work, group, local research program, learning, the zone of proximal development, network, division of labor, collaboration, career

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