More on Activity Theory

While I waited for some feedback from Clare and Wendy on an episode of progressive discourse that I had drafted up (thank you), I finally got around to writing about Activity Theory. I’ve blogged about Activity Theory
, and I’ve been meaning to write up a section for my thesis since at least mid-November. It may be a bit premature, but I do think there has been growth in my conceptual understanding. Here it is, sorry it’s long. I’m still working on it, but as always, comments are welcome.

Activity Theory is an interdisciplinary theory initiated by the founders of the cultural-historical school of Russian psychology—Lev Vygotsky, A.N. Leont’ev, and A.R. Luria—in the 1920s and 1930s. The approach has since been elaborated by a large number of contemporary scholars have since elaborated on the approach in both in the former socialist countries and in the West (Engeström, 2001; Engeström, Miettinen, & Punamäki, 1999). In contrast to the standard cognitivist view that identifies individual mental structures as the context of learning, this view takes the entire activity system as the unit of analysis, including the societal and cultural aspects in its notion of context. For situativity researchers, Activity Theory thus offers a naturalistic framework for characterizing human activity and provides a set of perspectives on practice that bridges the individual and social levels (Barab, Barnett, Yamagata-Lynch, Squire, & Keating, 2002).

Activity Theory continues to evolve in empirical practice. Yrjö Engeström (2001, 2005) discerns three theoretical generations in the evolution of Activity Theory. He centers the first generation of Activity Theory on Vygotsky’s (1978) tri-partitite model of mediated action commonly expressed as subject, object, and mediating artifact. Vygotsky’s model did not distinguish between individual action and collective activity. The second generation of Activity Theory highlights this distinction by integrating Vygotsky’s model of mediation with Leont’ev’s (1981) three-level model of collective object-oriented activity; conscious individual or group goal-oriented action, and unconscious operation. The discourse of the first two generations, as Engeström points out (2001), remains one focused on the vertical development toward “higher psychological functions,” and one that displays a deep-seated insensitivity towards the essentially cultural aspect of activity in the sociohistorical tradition (Cole, 1988; Griffin & Cole, 1984). These are challenges that third generation Activity Theory attempts to address.

Before outlining some differences between the second and third generations of Activity Theory, it may be useful to present an overview of the model of the basic structure of the human activity system. Leont’ev never graphically represented the expansion of Vygotsky’s triad mediation model into a collective activity system; rather, it was Engeström (1987, p. 78) who represented it as such (see figure 1. below):


In this model, the points of each triangle indicate the components of the activity system:

…[S]ubject refers to the individual or subgroup whose agency is chosen as the point of view in the analysis. The object refers to the “raw material” or “problem space” at which the activity is directed and which is molded or transformed into outcomes with the help of physical and symbolic, external and internal tools (mediating instruments and signs). The community comprises multiple individuals and/or subgroups who share the same general object. The division of labor refers to both the horizontal division of tasks between members of the community and vertical division of power and status. Finally the rules refer to the explicit and implicit regulations, norms, and conventions that constrain actions and interactions within the activity system. (Engeström, 1993, p. 67, italics in the original)

Originally conceptualized by Evald Il’enkov (1977; 1981), contradictions between components are seen to be the driving force behind disturbances or innovations that change and develop the activity system. New norms first emerge as deviations from previously accepted and codified norms. In capitalist socio-economic formation, the primary contradiction of all activities is “the dual nature of commodities, between the use value and exchange value” (Engeström, 1993, p. 72) residing within each component. The primary contradictions are not resolved, but evolve into emergent secondary contradictions between the components that arise when a new component enters into the activity system from the outside.

For empirical research, the secondary contradictions between components may be thought of as system dualities that help us understand and sustain innovation in the system (Barab et al., 2002). This may be particularly useful for describing how a design-based research study unfolds. Throughout, the design goal is not to treat systemic tensions not as polar opposites or to eliminate one side or another, but to leverage them as they emerge and disrupt the evolution of the activity system. Identifying and analysing tensions in the activity system may then enable participants to work towards resolving those tensions by “means of expanding the object and reorganizing the activity accordingly, instead of being victimized by changes that roll over them as if forces of a natural catastrophe” (Engeström, 2005, p. 181).

The third generation of activity theory expands the basic model by including two interacting activity systems as a minimal model (Engeström, 2001, 2005). This results in the appearance of additional contradictions. Tertiary contradictions arrive when a culturally more advanced object and motive is intorduced into the activity. Although new ideas may be formally implemented, vestiges of the old activity internally resist them. Quaternary contradictions arise as interactions between the central activity and its neighbouring activities lead to conflict and misunderstandings.


Barab, S. A., Barnett, M., Yamagata-Lynch, L. C., Squire, K., & Keating, D. (2002). Using Activity Theory to understand the systemic tensions characterizing a technology-rich introductory astronomy course. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 9(2), 76-107.
Cole, M. (1988). Cross-cultural research in the sociohistorical tradition. Human Development, 31, 137-151.
Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding. Helsinki, Finland: Orienta-Konsultit.
Engeström, Y. (1993). Developmental studies of work as a testbench of activity theory: The case of primary care medical practice. In S. Chaiklin & J. Lave (Eds.), Understanding practice: Perspectives on activity and context. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Engeström, Y. (2001). Expansive learning at work: Toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization. Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), 133-156.
Engeström, Y. (2005). Developmental work research: Expanding Activity Theory in practice. Berlin: Lehmanns Media.
Engeström, Y., Miettinen, R., & Punamäki, R.-L. (1999). Perspectives on Activity Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Griffin, P., & Cole, M. (1984). Current activity for the future: The zo-ped. In B. Rogoff & J. V. Wertsch (Eds.), Children’s learning in the zone of proximal development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Il’enkov, E. V. (1977). Dialectical logic: Essays in its history and theory. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Il’enkov, E. V. (1981). Problems of the development of the mind. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Leont’ ev, A. N. (1981). The problem of activity in psychology. In J. V. Wertsch (Ed.), The concept of activity in psychology. Armonk, NY: Sharpe.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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