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Scandinavian activity theory is a derivation of Soviet Activity theory, a psychological meta-theory, paradigm, or framework, with its roots in the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky's cultural-historical psychology.



Activity theory as it was developed by Leont'ev and Rubinshtein and their associates and students, except for a few publications in western journals, remained virtually 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 is aimed at understanding the mental capabilities of a single human being. However, it rejects the isolated human being as an adequate unit of analysis, focusing instead on cultural and technical mediation of human activity.[1]

Activity theory is most often used to describe activity in a socio-technical system as a set of six interdependent elements (Bryant et al.) which constitute a general conceptual system that can be used as a foundation for more specific theories:

  • Object-orientedness - the objective of the activity system as a whole. Human beings live in a reality which is objective in a broad sense; the things which constitute this reality have not only the properties which are considered objective according to natural sciences but socially/culturally defined properties as well.
  • Subject or internalization - a person or group engaged in the activities; the traditional notion of mental processes
  • Community or externalization - social context; all people involved
  • Tools or tool mediation - the artifacts (or concepts) used by subjects to accomplish tasks. Tools shape the way human beings interact with reality and reflect the experiences of other people who have tried to solve similar problems at an earlier time and invented/modified the tool to make it more efficient. This experience is accumulated in the structural properties of tools (shape, material, etc.) as well as in the knowledge of how the tool should be used. Tools are created and transformed during the development of the activity itself and carry with them a particular culture - the historical remnants from that development. The use of tools is a means for the accumulation and transmission of social knowledge. It influences the nature, not only of external behavior, but also of the mental functioning of individuals.
  • Division of labor - social strata, hierarchical structure of activity, the balance of activities among different people and artifacts in the system
  • Rules - conventions, the code and guidelines for activities and behaviors in the system

Activity theory helps explain how social artifacts and social organization mediate social action.(Bryant et al.)

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 focus 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 distinguish conscious from unconscious functions.

Human-computer interaction

The rise of the personal computer challenged the focus in traditional systems developments on mainframe systems for automation of existing work routines. It furthermore brought forth a need to focus on how to work on materials and objects through the computer. In the search of theoretical and methodical perspectives suited to deal with issues of flexibility and more advanced mediation between the human being, material and outcomes through the interface, it seemed promising to turn to the still rather young HCI research tradition that had emerged primarily in the US (for further discussion see Bannon & Bødker, 1991).

Specifically the cognitive science-based theories lacked means of addressing a number of issues that came out of the empirical projects (see Bannon & Bødker, 1991): 1. Many of the early advanced user interfaces assumed that the users were the designers themselves, and accordingly built on an assumption of a generic user, without concern for qualifications, work environment, division of work, etc. 2.In particular the role of the artifact as it stands between the user and her materials, objects and outcomes was ill understood. 3. In validating findings and designs there was a heavy focus on novice users whereas everyday use by experienced users and concerns for the development of expertise were hardly addressed. 4.Detailed task analysis and the idealized models created through task analysis failed to capture the complexity and contingency of real-life action. 5.From the point of view of complex work settings, it was striking how most HCI focused on one user - one computer in contrast to the ever-ongoing cooperation and coordination of real work situations (this problem later lead to the development of CSCW). 6.Users were mainly seen as objects of study.

Because of these shortcomings, it was necessary to move outside cognitive science-based HCI to find or develop the necessary theoretical platform. European psychology had taken different paths than had American with much inspiration from dialectical materialism (Hydén 1981, Engeström, 1987). Philosophers such as Heidegger and Wittgenstein came to play an important role, primarily through discussions of the limitations of AI (Winograd & Flores 1986, Dreyfus & Dreyfus 1986). Suchman (1987) with a similar focus introduced ethnomethodology into the discussions, and Ehn (1988) based his treatise of design of computer artifacts on Marx, Heidegger and Wittgenstein. The development of the activity theoretical angle was primarily carried out by Bødker (1991, 1996) and by Kuutti (Bannon & Kuutti, 1993, Kuutti, 1991, 1996), both with strong inspiration from Scandinavian activity theory groups in psychology. Bannon (1990, 1991) and Grudin (1990a and b) made significant contributions to the furthering of the approach by making it available to the HCI audience. The work of Kaptelinin (1996) has been important to connect to the earlier development of activity theory in Russia. Nardi produced the, hitherto, most applicable collection of activity theoretical HCI literature (Nardi, 1996).

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 four-level hierarchy. Kuutti schematises processes in activity theory as a four-level system.

Verenikina paraphrases Leont'ev 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.”

Engeström 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

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.


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External links

Further reading

  • Bryant, Susan, Andrea Forte and Amy Bruckman, Becoming Wikipedian: Transformation of participation in a collaborative online encyclopedia, Proceedings of GROUP International Conference on Supporting Group Work, 2005. pp 1.-10 [1]
  • Kaptelinin, Victor, and Bonnie A. Nardi. (2006) Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design., MIT Press.
  • Mazzoni, E. (2006). "Extending Web Sites' Usability: from a Cognitive Perspective to an Activity Theory Approach". In S. Zappala and C. Gray (Eds.) Impact of e-Commerce on Consumers and Small Firms. Aldershot, Hampshire (England), Ashgate.

See also


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