Activity Theory

Historical Origins

Activity theory originated in the former Soviet Union and is rooted in Vygotskian psychology.  Vygotsky proposed that a child derives their understanding of the world through culturally-based social interactions.  Accordingly, knowledge acquired by a child through social interactions represents transmitted cultural knowledge.

                       Vygotsky                                                                         Leont’ev

During the 1920s and 1930s, Leont’ev sought to apply Vygotsky’s framework with research by Soviet psychologist Luria in order to resolve questions left unanswered by behavioralist psychology.  Leont’ev’s work resulted in his development of activity theory, which has since been expanded upon by other psychologists and learning theorists.

Core Concepts

Activity theory is a research framework based on the premise that human activity is inseparable from context.  Individuals are inherently linked to cultural contexts by social interactions and, consequently, any individual knowledge formed through social interactions is interconnected in part with the culture of the individual.

A basic tenet of activity theory is that consciousness is a critical part of participating in an activity.  As Frolove (1984) states, “consciousness is shaped by activity and, in turn, influences this activity, determining and regulating it. As they realise their creative plans, people transform nature and society and thereby transform themselves” (as cited in Tolman, 1998). Furthermore, 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, 1995).

Tools, or artifacts, also form a critical component of activity theory.  The notion that “all human experience is shaped by the tools and sign systems we use” (Nardi, 1995) is called “mediation.” Children learn at an early age to use tools for their own purposes through “appropriation.”   This process of “owning” a particular tool embodies the notion that humans use tools to deliberately transform their environment.  The socio-cultural activities associated with these objects reflect shared knowledge in the collective sense.

Human activities are summarized by Blackler (1995) as having five basic characteristics:

1)      Human activities are directed towards objects;

2)      Human activities are facilitated by artifacts inscribed with social knowledge;

3)      Human activities are embedded in a culture;

4)      Human activities evolve over time; and

5)      Human activities promote individual and collective learning when breakdowns, conflicts, and tensions occur. (as cited in Spasser, 1999)

Meaning is developed not only in an individual sense through self-awareness and consciousness but also through mankind’s collective experience and social practice. Thus, activities provide the social settings and contexts for cognition and learning to occur.

Professor Yrgö Engeström, a professor at the University of Helsinki and University of California in San Diego who specializes in activity theory, can be seen answering a question about activity theory in the following video clip:


Lastly, despite its historical roots in the early 1900s, activity theory is still in the process of being researched. Additionally, it is concurrently influencing research on educational technology. In particular, activity theory has recently been used to guide studies on human-computer interaction (HCI), which focuses on the interactions between people and computers. Because activity theory takes into consideration how human-made tools influence social consciousness and activity, researchers have been using this framework when evaluating the design of their studies. As such, Nardi (1995) argues that activity theory is “evolving and growing; it is not by any means a static end point. Activity theory has a tremendous capacity for growth and change, an intellectual energy that is being realized in research efforts in Russia, Europe, North America, and Australia” (p. 2).

Activity Theory Chart

Key Definitions

Action:  the activities an individual performs; these are based on biological needs

Activity:  the interaction between an individual and the environment

Aim:  why an activity is done; the goal

Meaning: in the broader, societal sense, it’s what defines mankind’s experience; symbols, ideas, and language exist based on agreed upon meanings; in the individual sense, it reflects how an individual understands the human experience

Need:  is why an activity gets done

Subject: the person or group involved in an activity

Adapted from Tolman (1998) and Nardi (1995)

Practical Understandings

In a computer lab scenario, an individual learning in front of a computer can be viewed as a stand-alone process.  Activity theory, however, shifts the focus from individual learning to a broader sense.  Computers are tools designed through a series of collective social activities.  Therefore, individual gains in knowledge as a result of the computer are, in part, attributed to the socio-cultural stream of activity connected with that computer.


Nardi, B. A. (1995). Studying context: A comparison of activity theory, situated action models, and distrubuted cognition.  In B. A. Nardi (Ed.), Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction  (pp. 35-52). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.  Retrieved October 20, 2011, from:

Nardi, B.A. (1995). Activity theory and human-computer interaction. In B. A. Nardi (Ed.), Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction  (pp. 35-52). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.  Retrieved October 20, 2011, from:

Spasser, M. A. (1999). Informing information science: The case for activity theory. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50, 1136-1138.  Retrieved October 16, 2011, from:<1136::AID-ASI17>3.0.CO;2-0

Tolman, C.W. (1988b). The basic vocabulary of activity theory. Activity Theory, 1, 14-20. Retreived October 13, 2011, from:

Image Credits

Photo of Leont’ev. Retrieved October 21, 2011, from:

Photo of Vygostky. Retrieved October 21, 2011, from:

Chart of Activity Theory. Retrieved October 29, 2011, from:

Video Credits

Engeström, Yrjo – Answer a Question Regarding Activity Theory. Retrieved on 10/30/11 from:



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