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Cultural-Historical Activity Theory

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Jan 14, 2022


Key Points

  • Cultural-Historical Activity Theory posits that human activities can be described and analyzed by considering the dynamics of motivation, societal structures and rules, and the means of doing activities.
  • Activity Theory, in its original form, has three key principles: the subject, or the person who carries out the activity; the object, or the objective; and the artifacts, or the tools used to achieve an object. Later theorists added a plethora of new factors to this model.
  • Activity Theory developed in the 1920s primarily as a way of describing child development, but stayed constrained to the Soviet Union until the 1970s, after which it spread to domains as diverse as education and human-computer interaction.

History and Overview

Activity Theory, also known as Cultural-Historical Activity Theory, holds that any human activity can be described and analyzed and that all activities have a structure, happen under certain conditions and can be assisted by particular tools, instruments, or artifacts and are performed to meet a purpose.

In Activity Theory, human activities are the unit for analysis (Kaptelinin and Nardi, 2006), and the intentional use of tools or artifacts by people to accomplish tasks are the focus of study. Activity theory is concerned with understanding the relationship between consciousness and activity (Nardi, 1996).

This means that consciousness and activity are not independent of each other, but interdependent. Activities have intention, and consciousness is the carrying out of activities situated in a social context (McAvinia, 2016).

In the words of Nardi (1996), “you are what you do.” artifacts are the tools that people use to accomplish tasks, and they can improve culturally specific ones such as language.

Because people are what they do and tools mediate what people do according to activity theory, artifacts such as computers are “crucial mediators of human experience” (McAvinia, 2016).

Activity Theory’s aim is to describe the relationship among the individual, tools or artifacts, other individuals, and the conditions where a purposeful activity can be undertaken to achieve an intended or desirable outcome.

Activity Theory originated in Marxist philosophy (Wertsch, 1981) as well as in the work of Soviet psychologists in the 1920s and 1930s. The designers of the theory, such as A. N. Leont’ev and Lev Vygotsky, believed that behaviorism and psychoanalysis were inadequate approaches to psychology and drew on Marx’s critique of social theory.

Luria and Leont’ev proposed the concept of artifact-mediated and object-oriented action (CRADLE, 2011), rejecting the behavioralist idea that activities are responses to stimulus (McAvinia, 2016).

In Vygotsky’s view, learning is social, and infants learn to understand the world through interacting with it and through the construction of artifacts.

Drawing from the equation of action and consciousness, Vygotsky (1978) proposed that the use and construction and artifacts is part of human development, and that by doing activities, the mind can be developed.

First Generation Activity Theory

Activity theory, as formulated by Vygotsky, has three key principles, which can be modelled as three nodes: human subjects use tools to achieve an object.

The object is the motivation for the activity, and the activity is mediated by one or more artifacts, which can also be called tools, instruments, or technologies.

The process of a subject working towards an object using an artifact creates an outcome. This outcome can be the same or different from the object, and even unintended or undesired.

Second Generation Activity Theory

Leont’ev extended Vygotsky’s model of activity theory to take the socially mediated nature of activity and the roles of other individuals in the activity into account.

Leont’ev suggested that activities also depend on the division of labor between individuals. While Vygotsky defined activity as object-oriented action mediated by cultural tools and signs (Engestrom and Miettinen, 1999’ McAvinia, 2016),

Leont’ev extended this definition to consider how this activity related to the individual’s role in the group. Thus, Leontyev iteration of activity theory had several different nodes: the individual, mediating artifact, object, community, rules, and the division of labor.

Additionally, Leont’ev accounted for the automatic or unconscious aspects of the activity, theorizing that activities are composed of actions and operations.

This means that Leontiev's activity theory consists of an activity driven by an object-related motive, actions that are goal-oriented and contribute to the activity as a whole, and finally operations, which are automatic and determined by the conditions under which the activity is undertaken (McAvinia, 2016).

Although Leontiev's activity theory developed initially in the 1920s, much of the work of the Soviet school of activity theory was unknown outside the Soviet Union until being translated and popularized in the 1970s.

Engestrom and Miettinen (1999), who traced the development of Activity Theory following the Second World War, say that it was used in child psychology and studies of language acquisition as well as in the study of instruction.

Since the 1980s, however, activity theory has come to influence spheres as unrelated as education, human-computer interaction, and discussions of situated learning (McAvinia, 2016).

Third Generation Activity Theory

The 1980s saw a diagrammatic representation of activity theory by Yrjo Engestrom. At the time, Engestrom and his colleagues had conducted extensive research on activity theory at the University of Helsinki.

Engestrom’s visual representation of activity theory incorporates Vygotsky’s early model with the extensions made by Leont’ev. In this model, the individual, the subject, pursue an object using mediating artifacts which can also be called tools or instruments.

The activity can also be mediated by a community, the rules of the community (such as laws, conventions, or unspoken rules), and a division of labor which describes how members of the community share the activity.

The concept of the activity is unfixed and changes constantly, meaning that what initially appears to be an object can soon be transformed into an outcome, then turned into an instrument, and even later into a rule (CRADLE, 2011; McAvinia, 2016).

If the object of the action is either not being bet or cannot be met, then a break or contradiction happens in the system. When a contradiction happens, the object is separate to the outcome.

These contradictions can be one reason why the outcome is not the one anticipated or desired (McAvinia, 2016).

Engestrom also believed that activities are always (McAvinia, 2016):

  • goal-directed;
  • multivoiced;
  • historical and changing over time;
  • subject to contradictions which are sources of change and development;
  • subject to the possibility of so-called “expansive transformation.”

Expansion, as mentioned above, is an important aspect of Engestrom’\s work (McAvinia, 2016). According to Engstrom, activity is an expansive process that is essential for learning but not necessarily confined to a formal setting, such as a school.

Third Generation Activity Theory identifies the connections between different activity systems, and Engestrom posits that different activity systems can have either shared or unshared objects (McAvinia, 2016).

Key Principles

Consciousness, Context, and Activity are the Same

Activity Theory posits that consciousness, context, and activity are the same. Instead of there being a context for an activity, the activity is the context, and the participants act consciously.

In application, this would mean that an activity theorist, for example, would say that someone cannot design a computer application with a fixed idea of the user, as the designer’s intentions and consciousness will influence the system.

To activity theorists, the mind is the product of particular activities and their relationships between the subject and object (McAvinia, 2016).

Internalization and Externalization

In activity theory, the human mind is not separate, objective, or distant from an activity. Instead, subjects or individuals negotiate how they do and which activities they will do.

Because individuals come to understand the world through their activities, as goes Vygotsky’s view, individuals internalize this understanding. Later on, the individual can externalize this understanding in order to do a new activity.

When individuals use mediating artifacts, they come to understand how these mediating artifacts perform in an activity. In turn, the individual can create new artifacts (online learning and its application).

Engestrom and Miettinen describe internalization as related to the reproduction of culture, and externalization as the creation of new artifacts which make the transformation of culture possible.

Thus, in Engestrom and Miettinen’s view, these processes are inseparable (1999).

Activities are Object-Oriented and Lead to an Outcome

According to Activity Theory, humans have intentions that are considered consciously through cognition. Activities are different from other actions because they have an object (Issroff and Scanlon, 2002).

This object motivates the activity, and the activity focuses on turning the object into an outcome. In short, when people design, learn, or sell, they not only design, learn, or sell something, but their “dreams, emotions, and feelings are also directed toward something in the world” (Kaptelinin and Nardi, 2006).

This transformation of an object into an outcome, according to Davydov (1999) is an internal change, “making evident its essence and altering it.” According to Davydov, there are two types of transformation. In the first, formal transformation, people transform things by classifying them into categories.

For example, humans can place the tomato into the category of vegetable, and while the tomato will not itself physically change, its organization and categorization are.

In the second form of transformation, :dialectical,” people find resources and create conditions” (Davydov, 1999). For example, a farmer could locate and plant seeds to produce food.

In this case, the seeds physically change in a different object as they grow. In short, transformations can be cognitive as well as physical (McAvinia, 2016).

Activities are Mediated and There are Mediating artifacts

Engestrom (1987) considers the fundamental change from humans to animals to be humans’ ability to make tools and use them with intention. This marked, in Engestrom’s view, the beginning of the social order and division of labor in humans.

Using tools allows people both to fulfill their intentions, but they are also influenced by using tools (McAvinia, 2016).

For example, as Cole (1999) discusses, artifacts evolve to include the modifications of the people who had used them throughout history. artifacts can also limit what activities people can do, as tools can restrict how the subject interacts with the object.

For example, someone with a sponge and bucket is forced to approach the objective of “cleaning a house” than someone with a power washer (McAvinia, 2016).

Activities Have Rules and a Division of Labor

The Rules of the Community as well as the Division of Labour also impact activities. However, this is not the limiting structure of an activity theory, as all of the nodes within an activity system are connected and thus able to influence each other (McAvinia, 2016).

Rules An individual's activities are mediated by the community where they are a member as well as the rules of that community. Rules can be either spoken or unspoken.

For example, while the rules associated with being a doctor are written in the Hippocratic oath, the rules about what is acceptable behavior at a dinner party may be tacit (McAvinia, 2016).

Division of Labor

Activities can also be mediated by the division of labor in a community.

This division of labor can be different depending on context - while division of labor in a workplace would follow the roles of individuals, a classroom may see a division of labor among everyone (McAvinia, 2016).

Operations and Actions Contribute to Activities

The activity system has three levels: Activity, Action, and Operation.

An activity is the greater system where an individual’s aim is to transform an object into an outcome; an action is goal-oriented and contributes to the overall activity; and an operation is an automatic process contributing to the actions associated with the activity.

Changing conditions at any of these levels can interrupt the activity or create a break in the system. Activities can also become actions if they lose their specific motivation, the object.

According to Kuuttii (1996), while actions are undertaken consciously and have goals, their goals are not the same as the object of the activity. The same action can also contribute to different activities (McAvinia, 2016).

Contradictions in Activity Systems

Contradictions is a term used in Activity Theory to describe misfits within elements, between them, between different activities, or between different developmental phases of a single activity (Kuuttii, 1996).

According to Engestrom (1987), there are four types of contradictions:

  1. Primary contradictions: contradictions that happen when a subject has more than one value system; for example, a doctor who both wants to heal patients and needs to run his practice as a business (McAvinia, 2016).
  2. Secondary contradictions: contradictions that occur when something new is introduced to an activity and adapting to this change causes conflict.
  3. Tertiary contradictions: when the adoption of a new method for achieving the Object causes problems with other parts of the activity.
  4. Quaternary contradictions: changes to an activity resulting in conflicts with other activities.
Activities are Constantly Changing

Finally, activity theorists tend to emphasize that while researchers may attempt to model activities to analyze them, this does not necessarily mean that activities are fixed and unchangeable.

As activities evolve, some old aspects of the activities may remain. Thus, knowing the history of an activity can be important to understanding it. Activity theory is a “lens” for understanding an activity at different times (Russell, 2002).

For example, students at a university may have different objectives at different times; for one concept, they may only be working to get good exam results in order to progress through university, while at other times, they may be trying to obtain mastery and understanding (McAvinia, 2016).

Examples

Human Computer Interaction

Activity theory has been a foundational perspective in Human Computer Interaction since the mid-1980s. In Scandinavia, the 1970s saw a number of research projects that reconsidered the introduction of computers in the workplace. These research projects had an action-research approach that valued active cooperation between researchers and participants, with the implication that researchers needed to actively commit with the workers to help improve their situations (Carroll, 2003) The advent of the personal computer brought forth a need to explore how to work on materials and objects through the computer. Those who developed computer applications turned to the then-young Human Computer Interaction research tradition emerging in the United States to address this issue, but there seemed to be, as outlined by Norman (1980), a lack of consideration of how people interact with other people, the environment, and the influence that historical and cultural factors can have on behavior. Specifically, early cognitive-based scientific theories of human computer interaction tended to have these issues (Bannon and Bodker, 1991):

  • Many early advanced user interfaces assumed that the users had the same level of knowledge and technical proficiency as the person who designed them.

  • Researchers did not understand the role of the artifact and how it related to the user and their materials, objects, and outcomes. 

  • There was a heavy focus on novice users over the concerns of experienced users who used the software every day.

  • Although task analysis was seen as the starting point for most user-interface design (Carroll, 2003), researchers in Scandinavia noted that explicit task descriptions are poor means of capturing the actual actions and conditions of those using the computer, and failed to capture the complexity and contingency of action in real-life (Ehn and Kyng, 1984).

  • Early views of computers saw computers as being for the automation of routines, and this carried into Human Computer Interaction. Meanwhile, Human Computer Interaction scholars such as Ehn and Kyng (1984) treated their perspective on computers as being similar to how a craftsman uses tools and materials with the experience he has as a craftsman as a practical basis for using these tools. However, this perspective lacked a theoretical foundation.

  • Human Computer Interaction tended to focus on how an individual user used a single computer over the cooperation and coordination of multiple people and computers in real work situations.

  • Finally, Human Computer Interaction tended to see people mainly as objects of study over sources of inspiration in design.

In response to these issues, Bodker (1991), Gruidin (1990), and Kaptelinin connected the earlier development of activity theory in Russia to Human Computer Interaction. This activity-theoretical Human Computer Interaction has these focuses:

  • Analysis and design for people at work who have different work environments, divisions of work, work qualifications, and so on.

  • Analysis and design with a focus on actual use and the complexity of multi user activity, and the idea that the artifact is a mediator of human activity.

  • Focus on the development of expertise and use in general.

  • Active user participation in design, and a focus on use as part of that design.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2022, Jan 17). Cultural-historical activity theory. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/cultural-historical-activity-theory.html

References

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