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systemic-structural activity theory

On this page: Introduction | Basic Concepts | Activity Analysis & Design | Resources


Activity Theory (AT) connects the abstract notion of activity with concrete practice, through the concept of action. However, while the general theory of activity developed by Rubinshtein and Leont'ev suggests ways of thinking about activity, it does not provide any exact methodology specifically developed for the study of human performance. For example, general activity theory does not present methods for extracting separate actions from the flow of activities which unfold over time, nor does it suggest principles for the classification of mental and motor actions; and it does not include the concept of self -regulation of activity. This can make the general theory difficult to apply to the field of human performance. The Systemic-Structural Activity Theory (SSAT) developed by G. Z. Bedny and his associates sets out to resolve the methodological challenges raised by attempts to apply AT to the detailed design and analysis of work activity. It builds on work in the systems-cybernetic tradition of AT, drawing on the discoveries of P. K. Anokhin, P. Y. Gal'perin, O. A. Konopkin, M. A. Kotik, L. M. Landa, O. K. Tikhomirov, V. P. Zinchenko and others, as well as work by Western researchers in the fields of cognitive science, systems theory and ergonomics.

Basic Concepts of SSAT

Activity is a goal directed system, where cognition, behaviour and motivation are integrated and organized by a mechanism of self-regulation toward achieving a conscious goal. There are two primary types or aspects of activity - "object oriented" and "subject-oriented" activity. Object-oriented activity is performed by a subject using tools on a material object, where the subject of activity is the individual or group of individuals engaged in that activity. Object-oriented activity can be represented as a simple tri-partite scheme: Subject – Tools – Object. Subject-oriented activity, also known as social interaction (in Russian, obshenie), can be represented in a similar way as: Subject – Tools – Subject. During task performance, the object-oriented and subject-oriented aspects of activity continuously transform into one another. The object is that which is modified and explored by a subject according to the goal of activity. Modification or exploration include not only physical transformation, but also the classification of objects according to required goals, the discovery of features of the object that correspond to goal of explorative activity, and so on. Objects may be either concrete or abstract. Abstract objects are e.g. signs, symbols or images, and their constitution as entities transformed by the subject in accordance with goals. Initial, intermediate, and final states of objects may be distinguished. It is only the desired future final state of an object that corresponds to the notion of the goal of action or activity. A goal is a conscious cognitive representation of the desired future result of activity. Goals may be accepted in advance, or formulated and specified during activity. Sometimes the goal is very ambiguous during the preliminary stages of task performance; goals may be modified or even entirely transformed during the course of activity. In the absence of a definition of the goal and the task, the object itself cannot be defined.
Figure 1, below, presents a triadic schema of activity, showing the central relationship between subject, object and goal in activity. In this schema, the object and goal are treated as distinct components and not only the subject – object relationship, but also intersubjective relations are illustrated.

Triadic schema of activity

Figure 1. Schema of activity. After Bedny, G. Z., Karwowski, W., & Jeng, O.-J., 2001.

The broken circles in the figure indicate that subject-object interaction may be either direct, or mediated through the use of external instruments. By the same token, intersubjective interaction may be direct (speech, gesture), or instrumentally mediated (e.g. telephone, email). In both object-and subject-oriented actions, direct interaction should not be taken as implying a complete absence of mediating instruments; rather, in such cases the subject employs "internal" tools. In AT, the subject is always understood as a socially constituted individual, in possession of internal, psychological tools acquired during ontogeny; internal tools are assumed as a condition of subjectivity.
Figure 1 also distinguishes between the concepts of goal and result. Whereas the goal is a primarily cognitive mental representation of the desired future state of the object, the result is the actual outcome of activity. Clearly, the result of an activity may coincide with the goal, or it may not. It follows that the subject's attempts to reach a desired result align with their established goal; if the actual result of an activity does not coincide with the subject's goal, then she or he must reformulate their strategy for goal achievement, or reformulate the goal itself. This process of continual adjustment requires the presence of feedback influences, and implies that activity is organized according to principles of self-regulation. These feedback influences are also present on the schema, as arrows connecting the result with the subject.


Activity Analysis & Design

SSAT approaches cognition both as a process and as a structured system of actions or other functional information-processing units, developing a taxonomy of human activity through the use of structurally organized units of analysis. The systemic-structural approach to activity design and analysis involves identifying the available means of work, tools and objects; their relationship with possible strategies of work activity; existing constraints on activity performance; social norms and rules; possible stages of object transformation; and changes in the structure of activity during skills acquisition. When analysing activity, it is important to consider who is engaged in that activity, what their intentions, goals and motives are, and what type of activity they are involved in. In SSAT, activity and task form the major objects of study. Conscious, goal-directed actions are the major unit of analysis in the morphological (structural) analysis of activity. According to the purpose of the study, actions can be further decomposed into operations, or clustered as members of human algorithms, which describe the logical structure of activity during task performance. In functional analysis, function blocks become the major units of analysis. Figure 2, below, illustrates the objects of study and units of analysis in SSAT:

Objects of study and units of analysis in SSTA

Figure 2. Objects of study and units of analysis in activity theory.

The analysis and design of activity based on SSAT utilizes three distinct, but closely interrelated, approaches: the parametrical, which focuses on studying various parameters of activity using techniques such as error analyses and cognitive (process) analyses; the morphological, which focuses on the description of the structure of activity during task performance as a series of discrete actions and operations; and the functional, which describes activity as a goal-directed, self-regulating process. All three approaches involve some or all of four general stages: (1) qualitative description, (2) algorithmic analysis, (3) time structure analysis, and (4) quantitative (complexity) analysis. These four stages are recursively related; later stages of analysis usually require revisiting earlier descriptions in order to refine or refocus them. Each stage can be carried out from the point of view of some or all of the three approaches and at different levels of detail or decomposition; depending on the requirements of the research, not all stages may be appropriate or required. Other SSAT approaches include objectively logical analysis, which integrates several methods including verbal and graphical description of tasks, description of technological processes, tools, equipment, conditions of work; sociocultural studies of the context in which task performance takes place; and the study of individual-psychological factors such as features of personality and individual style of activity performance.



The primary English-language sources for information on SSAT (and activity theory generally) are:


Clarifies a number of commonly misunderstood AT terms & concepts from an SSAT perspective; presents the 'Bedny triangle' schema of activity; offer an SSAT definition of design; discusses the morphological analysis of activity through decomposition into elements; offers two schema for the classification of actions, the first based on dominating psychological process, the second on the nature of tools employed for actions; introduce the techniques of algorithmic analysis; defines human algorithm and introduces its symbolic description, including the use of the MTM-1 description language in SSAT analysis; offers some HCI examples; summarizes functional and morphological analysis in SSAT. Gives a general outline of the general and systemic-structural theories of activity; clarifies the distinction between subject and object of study and subject and object of activity; redefines a number of commonly confused and mistranslated AT terms, including object, motive & goal; introduces the stages of SSAT analysis; and offers a radical revision of the famous Engeström triangle schema. Gives the SSAT definition of design; illustrates the morphological analysis of activity through decomposition into elements; offers two detailed schema for the classification of actions, the first based on dominating psychological process, the second on the nature of tools employed for actions; outlines the use of the MTM-1 description language (developed in US ergonomics) in SSAT analysis; demonstrates the decomposition of an example HCI task, check spelling; introduces the techniques of algorithmic analysis; defines human algorithm and explains its symbolic description; worked through the practical example of a production process; offers another HCI example, a graphics drawing task; and summarizes functional and morphological analysis.