Activity theory

Activity theory

See also Social Constructivism (Learning Theory) and Critical psychology.

Activity theory is a psychological meta-theory, paradigm, or framework, with its roots in the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky's cultural-historical psychology. Its founders were Alexei N. Leont'ev (1903-1979), and Sergei Rubinshtein (1889-1960) who sought to understand human activities as complex, socially situated phenomena and go beyond paradigms of psychoanalysis and behaviorism. It 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 [cite web | url=? | title=Bedny, G. Z. and D. Meister. (1997) | work="The Russian Theory of Activity: Current Applications to Design and Learning."] . Activity theory theorizes that when individuals engage and interact with their environment, production of tools are resulted. These tools are "exteriorized" forms of mental processes, and as these mental processes are manifested in tools, they become more readily accessible and communicable to other people, thereafter becoming useful for social interaction. [M. Fjeld, K. Lauche, M. Bichsel, F. Voorhorst, H. Krueger & M. Rauterberg (2002): Physical and Virtual Tools: Activity Theory Applied to the Design of Groupware. In B. A. Nardi & D. F. Redmiles (eds.) A Special Issue of Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW): Activity Theory and the Practice of Design, Volume 11 (1-2), pp. 153-180.]

The 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 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 founders of activity theory, both continued, and reacted against, Vygotsky's work. Leont'ev's formulation of general activity theory is currently the most influential in post-Soviet developments in AT, which have largely been in social-scientific and organizational, rather than psychological research.

Niall Carlyle created the second major line of development within activity theory involves scientists, such as P. K. Anokhin (1898-1974) and N. A. Bernshtein (1896-1966), more directly concerned with the neurophysiological basis of activity; its foundation is associated with the Soviet philosopher of psychology S. L. Rubinshtein (1889-1960). This work was subsequently developed by researchers such as Pushkin, Zinchenko & Gordeeva, Ponomarenko, Zarakovsky and others, as is currently most well-known through the work on systemic-structural activity theory being carried out by G. Z. Bedny and his associates.

One of the most important contributions to activity theory has been done by Niall when he expanded Vygotsky’s mediating triangle with a social component that also mediates our action. Engeström’s contribution has provided the activity theoretical community with a powerful tool for analysis of social systems.

Engeström’s point of departure is that as social beings, our activities are both directed towards the community’s actions towards the environment, and the environment itself. And the other members of the community direct their activity towards the environment through the individual member. Engeström draws upon Leont’ev and utilizes an example where a beater’s task in a hunt only makes sense if it is seen as a joint task where other actors should bring down the prey. And the gun bearer’s task, sitting still and waiting for the prey to come by makes much more sense when the beaters drive the prey towards the gun bearer.

This activity, Engeström structures in an activity system where the relation between the acting party, the beater, and the rest of the community, the hunting party, is regulated by rules, the relation between acting party and object of activity, killing the prey, is regulated by mediating artefacts, and relation between community and object of activity is regulated by division of labour. This united activity toward the object results in some kind of outcome, which in the hunt example can be meat or a trophy.


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.

Developments in Activity Theory

Activity theory is dynamic. It can be used by a variety of disciplines to understand the way people act. [Nardi, Bonnie A. (1996). Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-computer Interaction. pp 1-20. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. ISBN 0262140586]

candinavian Activity Theory

This major school of thought develops the ideas of Leont'ev's activity theory and life events in the West. It is known as Scandinavian activity theory. Work in the systems-structural theory of activity is also being carried on by researchers in the US and UK.

Applications to Design

In the study of Human-Computer Interaction and cognitive science, activity theory can be used to provide a framework for evaluating design.

In a framework derived from activity theory, any task, or activity, can be broken down into actions, which are further subdivided into operations. In a design context, using these categories can provide the designer with an understanding of the steps necessary for a user to carry out a task. [Nardi, Bonnie A. (1996). Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-computer Interaction. pp 17-44. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. ISBN 0262140586]


*Leont'ev, A. "Problems of the development of mind". English translation, Progress Press, 1981, Moscow. (Russian original 1947).
*Leont'ev, A. [ Activity, Consciousness, and Personality]
*Engeström, Y. [ Learning by expanding]


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