Activity Theory

Activity Theory

Lars Taxén (Linköping University, Sweden)
Copyright: © 2010 |Pages: 13
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-192-6.ch004
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In this chapter I will give an account of some ideas in the Russian Theory of Activity or Activity Theory (AT) that have influenced the Activity Domain Theory (ADT): activity, mediation, and meaning. The activity domain in ADT is a direct descendant from “activity” in AT, while “mediation” and “meaning” are necessary prerequisites for the activity modalities construct in ADT. The AT was an attempt to apply the ideas of Marx and Engels to psychology in the early decades of the new socialist state, the Soviet Union. The front figure in this pioneering movement was the Russian psychologist and semiotician L. S. Vygotsky (1896-1934) together with his collaborators A. N. Leont’ev (1903-1979) and A. R. Luria (1902-1977). Other prominent researchers in this spirit were V. N. Vološinov (1895-1936) and M. M. Bakhtin (1895-1975). With the advent of the Stalinist era the momentum of the AT was more or less crushed. However, small but marginalized groups kept the ideas of AT alive. One of the most prominent philosophers was the previously mentioned E. Ilyenkov (1924-1979). During the last couple of decades, AT has gained a renewed momentum among Western researchers and been further developed by the works of M. Cole, J. Wertsch and Y. Engeström and others.
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The Concept Of Activity

The central concept in AT, the “activity” (German: Tätigkeit; Russian: deyatel'nost'), has a specific meaning that differs from how activity is usually understood in English. Activity was first introduced by Leont’ev as a fundamental unit in his investigations of the early manifestations of the mind in the human evolutionary history:

I will call the process of activity the specific processes through which a live, that is, active relation of the subject to reality is realized, as opposed to other types of processes. (Leont’ev, 1981, in Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006, p. 55)

Activities cannot exist without objects: “Any activity of an organism is directed at a certain object; an ‘objectless’ activity is impossible” (Leont’ev, 1981, in Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006, p. 55). Activity in this sense is equally applicable to all organisms that engage in its immediate “life-sphere”, whether they merely respond to signals like ticks, modify their environment like spiders or use tools like apes using sticks to catch termites. With the evolution of neural networks in organisms came the possibility of activity mediated by representations of phenomena, for example, heeding calls warning for predators. However, the significance of these representations rarely stretches beyond the immediate situation in space and time that the organism encounters.

With the human mind, a qualitatively new level of the psyche is reached. Representations can signify situations beyond here and now: past times, future events, places far away, and so on. The survival of a human being is not solely determined by physical and biological things of such as the availability of food, shelter, etc., but also of the social reality the individual is born into. Ontogenesis, i.e. the development of the individual, implies the appropriation of meaningful, referential concepts and signs that have evolved historically over time in a specific cultural setting. In particular, the individual must learn to master the language of its social milieu.

With the cultural dimension, activity becomes a social phenomenon in which humans join forces to fulfill social needs, such as supplying food to all. This brings forward another dimension of activity – the division of labor. Rather than having everyone doing all and the same tasks, the collective effort is distributed to different individuals, each proficient in performing a specific task. This implies that the actions of each individual need to be coordinated with the others. Thus, the division of labor brings about a more efficient way of fulfilling the social need at the expense of an extra effort to coordinate individual actions.

With the division of labor, the object of the activity becomes more sophisticated. The reason for the activity as such is fulfilled by the coordination of individual actions. However, individual actions may, taken one by one in isolation, be apprehended as contradicting this reason. This was illustrated by Leont’ev by the famous example of the activity of hunting. Consider the roles of the beaters in this activity. Although the obvious reason for the activity is to get food, the actions of the beaters drive the quarry away. Taken out of the context of the activity, these actions appear to be meaningless if not downright misdirected.

In AT these different aspects of activity are distinguished as follows. The activity itself is said to be oriented towards a motive, which is “the object, which stimulates, excites the subject. It is the object that the subject ultimately needs to attain” (Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006, p. 62). The actions needed to achieve the motive of the activity are directed towards goals. “Goals are conscious; we are typically aware of the goals we want to attain” (ibid). Thus, the goals of the beaters in the hunting example are to drive the quarry away, and the activity is motivated by the need to get food for all individuals belonging to the group. The motive of the activity determines the structure of the actions, that is, what kind of actions are meaningful and how these are to be coordinated.

The significance of the concept of activity for ADT is that activity provides a common basis for organizational units at different levels such as organizations, business units, groups, teams, etc. In ADT, these are conceptualized as activity domains, which should be seen as activities where coordinative aspects are emphasized.

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