Activity Theory: an overview and history

Engestrom's interpretation of activity theory.

Engestrom’s interpretation of activity theory.

I chose to post this on my blog because, even though I wrote it as an undergraduate student, it’s helpful for me to review the major concepts of activity theory for WRA 841: Professional Writing Theory & Research. Some of my interpretation and summary of activity theory might be flat-out wrong, so in the event that you stumble across this and have something to say in response, I encourage you to leave a comment or reach out to me on Twitter. 

Activity theory has grown into different generations of thought since its beginnings; however, in its most simplified sense it attempts to explain human interaction. Applied to an educational perspective, activity theory is a tool to be aware as we instruct students: an understanding of the way we interact, communicate, and create meanings. Like any other theory, activity theory has been articulated in many different ways. While some scholars consider the theory to be simply “the study of the human mind in its cultural and historical contexts,” others claim it as “a general conceptual system with the principles of hierarchical structure of activity, object-orientedness, internalization/externalization, tool mediation and development” (Holzman 6).

While the interpretations of activity theory vary widely, Holzman argues the theory generally falls somewhere between mainstream psychology (not methodological) and postmodern psychology (radically methodological) and is structuralist and behavioral in practice (7). According to Lois Holzman, “activity theory as a human science perspective originated in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s among psychologists seeking to transcend the dualism that framed the ‘crisis in psychology’ in the early years of the 20th century: notably Lev Vygotsky” (6). Vygotsky’s work was further developed by his colleague, Alexei Leont’ev (Engeström 134). In addition, Soviet scholar Alexander Luria was a major contributor to activity theory (Witte 129). Holzman claims, however, that Vygotskians have overlooked the “theoretical relevance of his philosophy” (7). Although Vygotsky has been categorized as a behaviorist, a cognitive psychologist, and most recently a constructivist, he has been attributed with the origins of activity theory (Holzman 6).

Interpretations of activity theory rely heavily on Vygotsky’s principles that “human learning and development are social-cultural-historical activities” (Holzman 8). According to Holzman, there are three bases of Vygotsky’s argument: (1) “neither learning nor development is an individual accomplishment; (2) experimental, cognitive psychology is ecologically invalid; and (3) educational applications of both behavioral and cognitive learning theories contribute to the failure of our schools” (8). Yrjö Engeström, the Director of the Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research at University of Helsinki, has been a leader in the evolution of activity theory within the cultural-historical framework established by Vygotsky.

Engeström claims that “activity theory has evolved through three generations of research” (134). The first generation of research refers to Vygotsky’s idea of mediation. Vygotsky simplified the idea of mediation with a “triangular model in which the conditioned direct connection between stimulus and response was transcended by ‘a complex, mediated act’” (Engeström 134). Cultural mediation, expressed by Vygotsky, is often referred to as the “triad of subject, object, and mediating artifact” (Engeström 134). Vygotsky’s model of mediated act was revolutionary in that individuals needed cultural means and agency to use and produce artifacts (Engeström 134).

Vygotsky’s model of mediated act has been scrutinized for its limitations; thus, the second generation of activity theory was born. Leont’ev recognized that Vygotsky’s triangle remained “individually focused” and established the “crucial difference between an individual action and a collective activity” (Engeström 134). The second generation of activity theory reformulated Vygotsky’s triangle to account for collective activity: subjects, objects, and a mediating artifact are interdependent to form a “collective activity system” (Engeström 134). In short, the new reformulation of Vygotsky’s triangle allows a representation of individual and community instead of being limited to individual and subject (Engeström 135).

Though the second generation accounted for collective activity, it failed to recognize multiple perspectives. In order to fully the complexity of dialogue, networks of interacting activity systems, and explain multiple perspectives, the third generation of activity theory was born (Engeström 135). While Vygotsky’s model of mediated act focused on individual acts and Leont’ev and the second generation shifted the focus of activity theory to collectivity, third generation theorists aim to explain the full complexity of human actions. For instance, Engeström describes a need for the third generation of activity theory: “Gutierrez and her co-authors suggest the concept of ‘third space’ to account for events in classroom discourse where the seemingly self-sufficient worlds and scripts of the teacher and the students occasionally meet and interact to form new meanings that go beyond the limits of both” (135-36). Scholars currently contributing to the third generation of activity are Wertsch, Bakhtin, and Ritva Engeström (Engeström 135). In addition, David Russell has done enlightening research on activity networks (Engeström 135). Nevertheless, the eventual development of the third generation has led to “boundary crossing” within activity theory (Engeström 135).

The third generation of activity theory has reformulated and adapted the triangles of Vygotsky as well as the second generation to provide an all-encompassing model. For example, two triangles – built on the principles of subject, rules, community, division of labor, object, and mediating artifacts – are connected by a series of objects, which influence the actions occurring between the triangles (Engeström 136). Due to the complicated nature of such a model, Engeström has summarized activity theory in five separate principles:

  1. “A collective, artifact-mediated and object-oriented activity system, seen in its network relations to other activity systems, is taken as the prime unit of analysis. Activity systems realize and reproduce themselves by generating actions and operations” (136).
  2. “Activity systems are multi-voiced. An activity system is always a community of multiple points of view, traditions, and interests” (136).
  3. “Activity systems take shape and get transformed over lengthy periods of time” (136-37).
  4. “Contradictions have a central role as sources of change and development. Contradictions, not to be confused with problems or conflicts, are historically accumulating structural tensions within and between activity systems” (137).
  5. “Activity systems have a possibility for expansive transformation. Activity systems move through relatively long cycles of qualitative transformations” (137).
    Engeström’s five principles provide a framework for activity theorists in the third generation of scholarship. Although activity theory has many devoted contributors, it has been criticized for various reasons.

Activity theory has been somewhat “marginalized to developmental and social psychology and educational research” (Holzman 7). Due to the fact that activity theory has “marginalized,” once can assume that the theory is either too broad, complicated, lacks direction, or fails to explain the complexities of human actions. Scholar Stephen Witte has argued that even theorists themselves have confused the meaning of social-cultural-historical thought of the Soviet founders (130). According to Witte, Vygotsky and Luria’s idea of activeness was important for two reasons:

“First, activeness manifests itself in humans’ attempts to control and/or alter, through the use of tools, the material, or natural, world in which they live. Second, activeness manifests itself in humans’ ability to cooperate with one another in practical human activity, a cooperation made possible through the use of sign systems, the most important one being language.” (131)

In short, activeness is important because it accounts for human actions – through the use of tools and language – a sign system. Stated simply, activeness aims to explain human actions as well as human interactions. Activity theory, then, has a lot of ground to cover. Witte also argues that Engeström and Leont’ev’s conceptualizations of activity systems and theory are “difficult, if not impossible, to apply” (Witte 140). Engeström theoretical model is also weakened by the fact that it is referred to a “model of activity” in some places, and a “model of mediation” in other places (Witte 141). Thus, researchers have struggled with these contradictions. Nevertheless, many studies have been performed – using the activity theory as a framework – in multiple settings.

Using the transmission model, the idea that fixed meanings can be transmitted from person to person; Kathryn Evans conducted a study of two college instructors (393). Although both instructors were fully versed in communication theories and the limitations of the transmission model, they still relied on this approach in their classrooms and in face-to-face interactions with their students (Evans 393). Activity theory was applied to this study to account for the resilience of the instructors to rely on an all-encompassing, conceptualized model. Thus, the instructors repeatedly attempted to control their students through the use of a tool – language.

David Russell has been a leader in the application of activity theory; however, instead of attempting to apply the theory as a whole, he attempts to clarify it by focusing on the idea of genre. According to Russell, “[…] genres can be defined […] as typified ways of purposefully interacting in and among some activity system(s)” (Russell, “Rethinking”). Further, Russell uses genre to connect activity theory to writing. First of all, Russell uses the concept of genre to describe writing as a tool to accomplish social action and social motives (Russell, “Rethinking”). Second, Russell explains genres (in this case, writing genres) as having shared expectations among groups of people (“Russell, Rethinking”). Third, Russell states that writing genres can be viewed as a kind of tool to “relate genres to other kinds of material actions” (Russell, “Rethinking”). In “Rethinking genre and society: an activity theory analysis,” Russell evaluates the writing genre of a cell biology course at a research university. Obviously, cell biology writing has its own characteristics. In addition, those characteristics rely on various inter-textual influences. In short, Russell’s application of genre and how it may be applied in a public, secondary school setting is invaluable.

The importance of activity theory and how it applies to writing in the workplace is also invaluable. In a study conducted by Freedman and Adam, a group of young college graduates were researched as they began work in the fields of finance, law, social work, architecture, and other professions (Russell, “Writing” 231). Freedman and Adam found that “in nonschool workplaces, writing occurs as an integral but tacit part of participation in communities of practice, whose activities are oriented towards practical or material outcomes” (qtd. in Russell, “Writing” 231). Genre was essential in evaluating the students’ transition from education to work, as were activity and material outcomes. That being said, Russell’s idea of genre as it applies to activity theory has been used to explain the relevance of writing in a variety of contexts.



Brunk-Chavez, Beth, and Janette Martin. “The journey out: conceptual mapping and writing process.” Academic Exchange Quarterly 6.3 (2002): 193+. Educator’s Reference Complete. Web. 18 Sept. 2010.

Engeström, Yrjö. “Expansive Learning at Work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization.” Journal of Education & Work 14.1 (2001): 133-156. Professional Development Collection. EBSCO. Web. 19 Sept. 2010.

Evans, Kathryn. “Accounting for Conflicting Mental Models of Communication in Student-Teacher Interaction: An Activity Theory Analysis.” Writing Selves/Writing Societies: Research from Activity Perspectives. Ed. Charles Bazerman and David Russel. Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse and Mind, Culture, and Activity, 2003. Web. 393-427.

Holzman, Lois. “What Kind of Theory is Activity Theory? Introduction.” Theory & Psychology 16.1 (2006): 5-11. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 18 Sept. 2010.

Russell, David R. “Rethinking genre and society: an activity theory analysis.” Written Communication 14.4 (1997): 504+. Educator’s Reference Complete. Web. 18 Sept. 2010.

Russell, David R. “Writing and Genre in Higher Education and Workplaces: A Review of Studies That Use Cultural–Historical Activity Theory.” Mind, Culture & Activity 4.4 (1997): 224-237. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 18 Sept. 2010.

Witte, Stephen P. “Research in activity: An analysis of speed bumps as mediational means.” Written Communication 22.2 (2005): 127-165. Educator’s Reference Complete. Web. 18 Sept. 2010.