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Activity theory (AT) is a Soviet psychological meta-theory, paradigm, or framework, with its roots in socio-cultural approach. Its founders were Alexei Nikolaevich Leontyev, and S. L. Rubinshtein (1889-1960). 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 the education, training, ergonomics, and work psychology.
The history of activity theory
The origins of activity theory can be traced to several sources, which have subsequently having 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 and gifted 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.
The second major line of development within AT 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 researhers 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.
Verenikina discusses Vygotsky's contribution, beginning with the remark that "Vygotsky's life goal was to create a psychology adequate for the investigation of consciousness. He stated that consciousness is constructed through a subject's interactions with the world and is an attribute of the relationship between subject and object." Vygotsky also provided a "concept of the mediation of elementary (natural) mental processes by psychological tools (artificial devices for mastering mental processes) and internalisation." Vygotsky provided the initial impetus towards activity theory by introducing the notion of tool as a form of "mediated action" which "is externally oriented [and] must lead to changes in objects". Luria explains this: "Vygotsky supposed that higher mental processes are of a social origin... he suggested that the simplest form of [human conscious] behaviour can be found in tool- or sign-using, where a tool (or sign) can be used to reach a certain goal. Instead of the elementary scheme S→R (‘S’ for stimulus, ‘R’ for reflex), he proposed a new scheme S→ x→ R) where S stands for stimulus, x for means (tool or sign), and R for reflex."
Thus, Luria goes on to argue, explanation of complex phenomena such as human activity "is supposed to lie not in its reduction to single elements but rather in its inclusion in a rich net of essential relations."
After Vygotsky's early death, Leontiev became the leader of the activity theory research group and extended the framework in significantly new ways. This article can only briefly review Leont'ev's contributions. Many of the specifics of activity theory set out below derive, at least in their original form, from Leontiev's work. 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.
Activity theory, except for a few publications in western journals, remained unknown outside the Soviet Union until the mid-1980s, when it was picked up by Scandinavian researchers. (The first international conference on activity theory was not held until 1986. The earliest non-Soviet paper cited by Nardi is a 1987 paper by Yrjö Engeström : "Learning by expanding"). This resulted in a reformulation of activity theory. Kuutti notes that the term activity theory "can be used in two senses: referring to the original Soviet tradition... or referring to the international, multi-voiced community applying the original ideas and developing them further."
Some of the changes are a systematisation of Leont'ev's work. Although Leont'ev's exposition is clear and well structured, it is not as well-structured as the formulation by Yrjö Engeström. Kaptelinin remarks that Engeström "proposed a scheme of activity different from that by [Leont'ev]; it contains three interacting entities—the individual, the object and the community—instead of the two components—the individual and the object—in [Leont'ev]'s original scheme."
Some changes were introduced, apparently by importing notions from Human-Computer Interaction theory. For instance, the notion of rules, which is not found in Leont'ev, was introduced. Also, the notion of collective subject was introduced in the 1970s and 1980s (Leont'ev refers to "joint labour activity", but only has individuals, not groups, as activity subjects).
Activity theory and information systems
The application of activity theory to information systems derives from the work of Bonnie Nardi and Kari Kuutti. Kuutti's work is addressed below. Nardi's approach is, briefly, as follows: Nardi saw activity theory as "...a powerful and clarifying descriptive tool rather than a strongly predictive theory. The object of activity theory is to understand the unity of consciousness and activity... Activity theorists argue that consciousness is not a set of discrete disembodied cognitive acts (decision making, classification, remembering), and certainly it is not the brain; rather, consciousness is located in everyday practice: you are what you do." Nardi also argued that "activity theory proposes a strong notion of mediation—all human experience is shaped by the tools and sign systems we use." Furthermore, she identifies "some of the main concerns of activity theory: [as] consciousness, the asymmetrical relation between people and things, and the role of artefacts in everyday life." She explained that "a basic tenet of activity theory is that a notion of consciousness is central to a depiction of activity. Vygotsky described consciousness as a phenomenon that unifies attention, intention, memory, reasoning, and speech..." and "Activity theory, with its emphasis on the importance of motive and consciousness—which belongs only to humans—sees people and things as fundamentally different. People are not reduced to 'nodes' or 'agents' in a system; 'information processing' is not seen as something to be modelled in the same way for people and machines."
Nardi argued that the field of Human-Computer Interaction has "largely ignored the study of artefacts, insisting on mental representations as the proper locus of study" and activity theory is seen as a way of addressing this deficit.
In a later work, Nardi et al in comparing activity theory with cognitive science, argue that "activity theory is above all a social theory of consciousness” and therefore “... activity theory wants to define consciousness, that is, all the mental functioning including remembering, deciding, classifying, generalising, abstracting and so forth, as a product of our social interactions with other people and of our use of tools." For Activity Theorists "consciousness" seems to refer to any mental functioning, whereas most other approaches to psychology distinquish conscious from unconscious functions.
An explanation of activity theory
This section presents a short introduction to activity theory, and some brief comments on human creativity in activity theory and the implications of activity theory for tacit knowledge and learning.
Activity theory begins with the notion of activity. An activity is seen as a system of human "doing" whereby a subject works on an object in order to obtain a desired outcome. In order to do this, the subject employs tools, which may be external (e.g. an axe, a computer) or internal (e.g. a plan). As an illustration, an activity might be the operation of an automated call centre. As we shall see later, many subjects may be involved in the activity and each subject may have one or more motives (e.g. improved supply management, career advancement or gaining control over a vital organisational power source). A simple example of an activity within a call centre might be a telephone operator (subject) who is modifying a customer's billing record (object) so that the billing data is correct (outcome) using a graphical front end to a database (tool).
Kuutti formulates activity theory in terms of the structure of an activity. “An activity is a form of doing directed to an object, and activities are distinguished from each other according to their objects. Transforming the object into an outcome motivates the existence of an activity. An object can be a material thing, but it can also be less tangible.”
Kuutti then adds a third term, the tool, which ‘mediates’ between the activity and the object. “The tool is at the same time both enabling and limiting: it empowers the subject in the transformation process with the historically collected experience and skill ‘crystallised’ to it, but it also restricts the interaction to be from the perspective of that particular tool or instrument; other potential features of an object remain invisible to the subject...”.
As Verenikina remarks, tools are “social objects with certain modes of operation developed socially in the course of labour and are only possible because they correspond to the objectives of a practical action.”
The levels of activity theory
An activity is modelled as a three-level hierarchy. Kuutti schematises processes in activity theory as a three-level system.
Verenikina paraphrases Leontiev as explaining that “the non-coincidence of action and operations... appears in actions with tools, that is, material objects which are crystallised operations, not actions nor goals. If a person is confronted with a specific goal of, say, dismantling a machine, then they must make use of a variety of operations; it makes no difference how the individual operations were learned because the formulation of the operation proceeds differently to the formulation of the goal that initiated the action.”
The levels of activity are also characterised by their purposes: “Activities are oriented to motives, that is, the objects that are impelling by themselves. Each motive is an object, material or ideal, that satisfies a need. Actions are the processes functionally subordinated to activities; they are directed at specific conscious goals... Actions are realised through operations that are determined by the actual conditions of activity.”
Engestrøm developed an extended model of an activity, which adds another component, community (“those who share the same object”), and then adds rules to mediate between subject and community, and the division of labour to mediate between object and community.
Kuutti asserts that “These three classes should be understood broadly. A tool can be anything used in the transformation process, including both material tools and tools for thinking. Rules cover both explicit and implicit norms, conventions, and social relations within a community. Division of labour refers to the explicit and implicit organisation of the community as related to the transformation process of the object into the outcome.”
Activity theory therefore includes the notion that an activity is carried out within a social context, or specifically in a community. The way in which the activity fits into the context is thus established by two resulting concepts:
- rules: these are both explicit and implicit and define how subjects must fit into the community;
- division of labour: this describes how the object of the activity relates to the community.
The internal plane of action
Activity theory provides a number of useful concepts that can be used to address the lack of expression for ‘soft’ factors which are inadequately represented by most process modelling frameworks. One such concept is the internal plane of action. Activity theory recognises that each activity takes place in two planes: the external plane and the internal plane. The external plane represents the objective components of the action while the internal plane represents the subjective components of the action. Kaptelinin defines the internal plane of actions as “The human ability to perform manipulations on an internal representation of external objects before starting actions with these objects in reality.”
For a more detailed explanation, see Verenikina.
The concepts of motives, goals and conditions discussed above also contribute to the modelling of soft factors. One principle of activity theory is that many activities have multiple motivation (‘polymotivation’). For instance, a programmer in writing a program may address goals aligned towards multiple motives such as increasing his or her annual bonus, obtaining relevant career experience and contributing to organisational objectives.
Activity theory further argues that subjects are grouped into communities, with rules mediating between subject and community and a division of labour mediating between object and community. A subject may be part of several communities and a community, itself, may be part of other communities.
Human creativity plays an important role in activity theory, that “human beings... are essentially creative beings” in “the creative, non-predictable character”. Tikhomirov also analyses the importance of creative activity, contrasting it to routine activity, and notes the important shift brought about by computerisation in the balance towards creative activity.
Learning and tacit knowledge
Activity theory has an interesting approach to the difficult problems of learning and, in particular, tacit knowledge. Learning has been a favourite subject of management theorists, but it has often been presented in an abstract way separated from the work processes to which the learning should apply. Activity theory provides a potential corrective to this tendency. For instance, Engeström's review of Nonaka's work on knowledge creation suggests enhancements based on activity theory, in particular suggesting that the organisational learning process includes preliminary stages of goal and problem formation not found in Nonaka. Lompscher, rather than seeing learning as transmission, sees the formation of learning goals and the student's understanding of which things they need to acquire as the key to the formation of the learning activity.
Of particular importance to the study of learning in organisations is the problem of tacit knowledge, which according to Nonaka, “is highly personal and hard to formalise, making it difficult to communicate to others or to share with others”. Leont'ev's concept of operation provides an important insight into this problem. In addition, the key idea of internalisation was originally introduced by Vygotsky as “the internal reconstruction of an external operation”. Internalisation has subsequently become a key term of the theory of tacit knowledge and has been defined as “a process of embodying explicit knowledge into tacit knowledge”. Internalisation has been described by Engeström as the “key psychological mechanism” discovered by Vygotsky and is further discussed by Verenikina.
Activity theory is being applied to tackle the complexity of elusive design problems. For details and further information, please see the Computer Supported Cooperative Work Special Issue on Activity Theory and the Practice of Design.
- Leont'ev, A. Problems of the development of mind. English translation, Progress Press, 1981, Moscow. (Russian original 1947).
- Nardi, Bonnie A. (ed.). Context and consciousness: activity theory and human-computer interaction. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996.
- Verenikina, I. “Cultural-Historical Psychology and Activity Theory”. In Hasan, H., Gould, E. and Hyland, P. (Eds) Information systems and activity theory: tools in context, 7–18. University of Wollongong Press, 1998, Wollongong.
- David F. Redmiles (ed). Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), Special Issue on Activity Theory and the Practice of Design. 11(1-2), 2002. Also see Activity Theory and the Practice of Design.
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