Engeström's keynote at the ISCAR 2017 Conference

"Expansive learning in social movements," August 30, 2017


Learning in social movements has been largely addressed as formation of political awareness and commitment to social justice through civic engagement (Choudry, 20125; Walter, 2007; Welton, 1993). This literature tends to rely on case descriptions of specific social movements. Theoretically ambitious studies of learning in social movements are rare. Cultural-historical activity theory and the theory of expansive learning (Engeström, 2015) offer a potential framework for such research.

The very idea of social movements is transformation and generation of qualitatively new forms of practice and culture.  Expansive learning may be characterized as “learning what is not yet there” (Engeström, 2016), that is, as collective construction and appropriation of new patterns of activity that resolve historically accumulated inner contradictions in the existing practice. Thus, expansive learning is an inherent potential of social movements. One might say that all expansive learning processes have characteristics of a social movement - but not all social movements accomplish expansive learning. Expansive learning is a demanding longitudinal process that consists of specific learning actions and follows the general pattern of ascending from the abstract to the concrete (Engeström & Sannino, 2010).

I will analyze expansive learning processes in four social movements, namely the New York City Community Land Initiative (NYCCLI), the Abahlali baseMjondolo in the shack communities of Durban, the Herttoniemi Food Cooperative in Helsinki, and La PAH in Barcelona. Each case affords a specific scope and scale for the analysis of expansive learning. In NYCCLI, I will analyze the evolution of the entire movement. In Abahlali baseMjondolo I analyze the learning process of a community of shack dwellers. In the Herttoniemi Food Cooperative I analyze expansive learning in the board of the cooperative. And in La PAH, I analyze the cycles of expansive learning of individual members engaged in the movement. This range of analytical scales offers us a unique possibility to examine the methodological potentials and pitfalls of multi-level analysis of expansive learning in social movements.



Choudry, A. (2015). Learning activism: The intellectual life of contemporary social movements. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Engeström, Y. (2015). Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Engeström, Y. (2016). Studies in expansive learning: Learning what is not yet there. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Engeström, Y. & Sannino, A. (2010). Studies of expansive learning: Foundations, findings and future challenges. Educational Research Review, 5, 1-24.

Walter, P. (2007). Adult learning in new social movements: Environmental protest and the struggle for the Clayoquot Sound rainforest. Adult Education Quarterly, 57(3), 248-263.

Welton, M. (1993). Social revolutionary learning: The new social movements as learning sites. Adult Education Quarterly, 43(3), 152-164.

Laval University, Quebec City, Canada