An Overview of Activity Theory in Technology-Mediated Higher Education

An Overview of Activity Theory in Technology-Mediated Higher Education

Copyright: © 2014 |Pages: 34
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4590-5.ch002


This chapter provides an overview of Activity Theory. It outlines the origins and development of the theory, situates it in relation to other approaches, and explains the important role of history and culture in the theory. The second part of the chapter provides an overview of the components of an activity system: subject; object; outcomes; tools; community; division of labour; and norms. The chapter devotes particular attention to the component of tools, then presents and summarizes their importance in seven propositions using examples from higher education. The chapter follows with a discussion of the role of ethics, values, and emotions in Activity Theory and includes a visual representation of the activity system of Activity Theory.
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A Reputation Of A “Different Flavour”

Activity Theory owes part of its reputation as intimidating and hard to understand to its complex origins in early 20th-century German philosophy (Hegel, Kant), Soviet cultural-historical psychology (Vygotsky, Luria, Leont’ev), and in Marxist philosophy. The theory was only introduced in the Western world during the late 1960s and 1970s (Sannino, Daniels, & Gutiérrez, 2009). In the 1980s and 1990s, the theory underwent an expansion and became more popularly known in the West due to the efforts of Finland’s Yrjö Engeström, “one of the world’s most representative contemporary activity theorists” (p. 3). Those interested in knowing more about its origins can consult more comprehensive overviews (e.g., Blunden, 2010; Engeström & Miettinen, 1999; Kaptelinin & Nardi, 2006; Roth & Lee, 2007; Sannino et al., 2009; Yamagata-Lynch, 2010).

The theory’s slow uptake and unpopularity in the West may also be due to the difference in its perspective. It is unlike approaches in the behavioural and social sciences that separate the social and the individual, socio-economic structure and human agency (Engeström, 1999a). It is closer to a European than an American tradition in which “cognitive, executive, and activity spheres are studied relatively independently” and in which psychology traditionally focuses on either the internal or external (Zinchenko, 1996, p. 286).

Its emphasis on naturalistic study, culture, and developmental and historical processes (Kuutti, 1996) presents a “different flavour of psychology from what the West has been accustomed to” (Nardi, 1996a, p. 8). While Anglo-American empirical psychology is preoccupied with measurement, prediction, and statistical analysis of variables, Activity Theory shows an “utter indifference” to variables (Tolman, 1999, p. 78). Not surprisingly, Roth (2009) described Activity Theory as “quite alien, in its dialectical foundations, to that of Western theorizing” (p. 53).

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