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Activity Theory

Activity theory (AT) provides a psychological framework for studying different forms of human praxis. AT views human activity as a socially-situated, cultural-historically developed, tool-mediated, internal (cognitive) and external (behavioural) process driven by needs and motives and regulated and directed by conscious goals. Understood in this way, activity is seen as specific to humans whereas behaviour is exhibited by all life-forms. In its broadest formulation, sometimes referred to as General Activity Theory, AT has a high level of generality that can be applied across a variety of knowledge domains; as such, it is often appropriate to speak of an 'activity approach' to investigating human cognition, behaviour and motivation.  Sociologically, this approach can be categorised as broadly social constructivist; it can also be seen, particularly from the point of view of its applications in ergonomics and design, as a form of systems science, using systems thinking and cybernetics to develop a holistic understanding of human work and learning.

Author's note: Over its long history a wide variety of schools of thought, both theoretical and applied, have emerged within the activity approach. Currently, the breadth and history of this huge body of research is still not well known to English-language audiences; and the complex history of the use of activity theory by Western researchers has meant that some aspects of this complex tradition are much more familiar than others. As a contribution toward the effort to make this impressive intellectual legacy more widely available, this page provides one researcher's overview of General Activity Theory and some of its modern developments. It offers additional material and some very different interpretations to those found on the Wikipedia page on AT (of which the current author, Steve Harris has been one of the editors). Steve's Doctoral research in AT drew on Susanne Bödker's activity-theoretical approach to human-computer interaction, applying both Systemic-Structural and Cultural-Historical Activity Theory to the analysis and design of computer-mediated collaborative learning environments. Therefore the content on this page is particularly oriented toward those traditions.

also on this page: what is AT? | background and history | modern developments in AT | further reading

What is activity theory?

Activity theory (AT) is a psychological meta-theory, paradigm, or research framework. It was initially developed within the Former Soviet Union, was at first strongly influenced by Marxist-Leninist philosophy, and also has roots in pre-revolutionary Russian psychology and physiology. AT views human activity as a socially-situated, cultural-historically developing, tool-mediated, internal (cognitive) and external (behavioural) process driven by needs and motives and regulated and directed by conscious goals. Understood in this way, activity is seen as specific to humans whereas behaviour is exhibited by all life-forms. The process of activity, which involves both internal, mental activity and external behaviour, is carried out through a series of consciously-directed actions and unconscious, routinised operations. When humans engage in activity and interact with each other and their environment, this always takes place within a cultural and social context and is always mediated by physical or mental tools. Mental actions and operations involve the use of signs and concepts as tools; physical tools, and societal constructs such as rules and norms of behaviour are understood as "exteriorized" forms of mental and social processes. As these internal processes are manifested in tools, rules and norms (a phenomenon sometimes referred to in AT as 'objectification'), they become more readily accessible by, and communicable to, other people, who 'appropriate' the knowledge and experience they embody, both shaping and being shaped by the use of these tools in everyday life. This form of multilineal cultural-historical evolution is what differentiates homo sapiens from most of the animal kingdom; the use of signs and tools is seen within AT as being closely linked to the development of consciousness and the higher mental functions.

The early roots of AT in post-revolutionary Russia were in psychology, psychophysiology, Marxist theory and cultural-historical psychology. As it developed it later incorporated elements of cybernetics (both Soviet and Western) and cognitive science. The founders of Activity Theory were Sergei Rubinshtein (1889-1960) and Alexei N. Leont'ev (1903-1979), who both sought to understand human activities as complex, socially situated phenomena and go beyond the then-dominant paradigms of psychoanalysis and behaviourism. AT became one of the major psychological approaches in the former USSR, being widely used in both theoretical and applied psychology, in areas such as education, training, ergonomics, and work psychology. Since the fall of Communism in 1991 AT has continued to develop and diversify around the world. In its modern form Activity Theory contains several major schools of thought and is used across a range of theoretical and applied disciplines including psychology, ergonomics, and education. Currently the two forms of AT best-known and most widely used in the West are Cultural-Historical Activity Theory and Systemic-Structural Activity Theory.

download: Harris, S. R. (2007). A Glossary of Terms in Activity Theory.


Background and History of Activity Theory

The origins of activity theory can be traced to several sources, which have subsequently given rise to various complementary and intertwined strands of development. This account will focus on two of the most important of these strands.

The first major strand of development within activity theory stems from the work of the Soviet philosopher of psychology S. L. Rubinshtein (1889-1960). Rubinshtein, a pivotal figure in the establishment of a distinctive Soviet psychology,  founded the activity approach in the 1920s, first formulating “the principle of creative spontaneous activity” (1922) and then “the principle of unity of consciousness and activity”, one of the most fundamental concepts in AT. Rubinshtein's work was carried on by his 'disciples' K.A. Abulkhanova (b1933), A. V. Brushlinskiy (1933-2002), D. B. Bogoyavlenskaya (b1932) and E. B. Budilova (1909-1991). Closely related to this line of thought in AT was work by researchers such as P. K. Anokhin (1898-1974) - the originator of the Theory of Functional Systems - and N. A. Bernshtein (1896-1966); these scientists worked to integrate neurophysiology and cybernetics with the activity approach.  This 'systems-cybernetic' strand was further developed by researchers such as V. N. Pushkin, V. P. Zinchenko & N. D. Gordeeva, V. A. Ponomarenko, G. M. Zarakovsky and many others. This tradition in AT is currently becoming more widely known through the work of G. Z. Bedny, the founder of systemic-structural activity theory.

The second major line of thought within activity theory (and currently the most well-known in the West) is associated with the Moscow Institute of Psychology and in particular the troika of young researchers, Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896–1934), Alexander Romanovich Luria (1902–77) and Alexei Nikolaevich Leont'ev (1903–79). Vygotsky founded cultural-historical psychology, an important strand in the activity approach; Leont’ev, one of the principal contributors to activity theory, both continued, and reacted against, Vygotsky's work. In the 1980s  a blend of ideas from Vygotskian Cultural-Historical Psychology, Luria's work in neuropsychology and Leont'ev's formulation of general activity theory was taken up by researchers in the US and Scandinavia, most notably Michael Cole and Yrjö Engeström,  and as a consequence has until recently been highly influential in Western post-Soviet developments in AT, which have largely been concerned with social-scientific, organizational, educational and information systems topics rather than purely psychological research.

After Vygotsky's early death, Leont'ev became the leader of the research group nowadays known as the Kharkov school of psychology and extended Vygotsky's research framework in significantly new ways. Leont'ev first examined the psychology of animals, looking at the different degrees to which animals can be said to have mental processes. He concluded that Pavlov's reflexionism was not a sufficient explanation of animal behaviour and that animals have an active relation to reality, which he called activity. In particular, the behaviour of higher primates such as chimpanzees could only be explained by the ape's formation of multi-phase plans using tools. Leont'ev then progressed to humans and pointed out that people engage in "actions" that do not in themselves satisfy a need, but contribute towards the eventual satisfaction of a need. Often, these actions only make sense in a social context of a shared work activity. This lead him to a distinction between activities, which satisfy a need, and the actions that constitute the activities. Leont'ev also argued that the activity in which a person is involved is reflected in their mental activity, that is (as he puts it) material reality is "presented" to consciousness, but only in its vital meaning or significance.

download: Bedny, G. Z., Seglin, M. H. & Meister, D. (2000). Activity theory: history, research and application.


Recent Developments in activity theory

in this section: Scandinavian ATIT | Cultural-Historical AT | Systemic-Structural AT

The Aarhus-Oslo School of Activity-Theoretical Information Technology Design

Danish scientists at Aarhus University, led by Susanne Bödker, were among the first to use AT within the fields of human-computer interaction and participatory design. Bödker's classic 1988 thesis, Through the Interface - a Human Activity Approach to User Interface Design, was instrumental in introducing activity theory to a whole generation of researchers in computer science and information systems, work which she and her students (notably O. W. Bertelsen) have continued to develop to the present day. One of Bödker's major contributions has been the technique of focus-shift analysis, used for the testing and participatory design of user interfaces. The leading theorist of this group, Klaus B. Bærentsen, has done much to elucidate the basic concepts of AT and bring it into dialogue with other activity-oriented approaches in psychological science such as J. J. Gibson's Ecological Psychology.

download: Bærentsen, K. B. (2000) Intuitive User Interfaces  |  Bodker, S (1999) Computer applications as mediators of design and use - a developmental perspective

Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT)

This major school of thought is primarily associated with the Finnish researcher Yrjö Engeström, the originator of the (in)famous Engestrom Triangle, and the American psychologist Michael Cole, founder of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition at University of California, San Diego. CHAT seeks to integrate and develop concepts from Vygotsky's Cultural-Historical Psychology and Leont'ev's General Activity Theory, and also draws on other sociocultural and social constructivist traditions. It has been widely influential in educational, organisational and information systems research, and as such is often erroneously identified as representing the mainstream of development in AT.

download: Engeström, Y. (1987) Learning by expanding

Systemic-structural activity theory (SSAT)

At the end of the 1990s, Russian and American activity theorists led by Gregory Z. Bedny began to publish English-language articles and books developing the systems-cybernetic tradition of Bernshtein and Anokhin and dealing with topics in human factors, ergonomics and human-computer interaction. Under the rubric of systemic-structural activity theory (SSAT), this work represents a modern synthesis within activity theory which brings together the cultural-historical and systems-structural strands of the tradition (as well as other work within Soviet psychology such as Uznadze's Psychology of Set) with findings and methods from Western human factors/ergonomics and cognitive psychology. The development of SSAT has been specifically oriented toward the analysis and design of the basic elements of human work activity: tasks, tools, methods, objects and results, and the skills, experience and abilities of involved subjects. SSAT offers techniques for both the qualitative and quantitative description of work activity. Its design-oriented analyses specifically focus on the interrelationship between the structure and self-regulation of work activity and the configuration of its material components.

Further information and resources on SSAT can found here.

Further Reading