Activity theory (AT) is a Soviet psychological theory invented by Alexei Nikolaevich Leontyev, which became one of the major psychological theories in that country, being used widely in areas such as the education of disabled children and the design of equipment control panels.
The History of Activity Theory
Activity theory originated from the Moscow Institute of Psychology and in particular the troika of young and gifted researchers, Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896¨C1934), Alexander Romanovich Luria (1902¨C77) and Alexei Nikolaevich Leontyev (1903¨C79). Vygotsky's contribution was rich and diverse, but here we only refer to the parts relevant to activity theory.
Verenikina discusses Vygotsky's contribution, beginning with the remark that "Vygotsky's life goal was to create a psychology adequate for the investigation of consciousness. He stated that consciousness is constructed through a subject's interactions with the world and is an attribute of the relationship between subject and object." Vygotsky also provided a "concept of the mediation of elementary (natural) mental processes by psychological tools (artificial devices for mastering mental processes) and internalisation." Vygotsky provided the initial impetus towards activity theory by introducing the notion of tool as a form of "mediated action" which "is externally oriented [and] must lead to changes in objects". Luria explains this: "Vygotsky supposed that higher mental processes are of a social origin... he suggested that the simplest form of [human conscious] behaviour can be found in tool- or sign-using, where a tool (or sign) can be used to reach a certain goal. Instead of the elementary scheme S?R (¡®S¡¯ for stimulus, ¡®R¡¯ for reflex), he proposed a new scheme S? x? R) where S stands for stimulus, x for means (tool or sign), and R for reflex." Thus, Luria goes on to argue, explanation of complex phenomena such as human activity "is supposed to lie not in its reduction to single elements but rather in its inclusion in a rich net of essential relations."
After Vygotsky's early death, Leontiev became the leader of the activity theory research group and extended the framework in significantly new ways. This article can only briefly review Leontiev's contributions. Many of the specifics of activity theory set out below derive, at least in their original form, from Leontiev's work. Leontiev first examined the psychology of animals, looking at the different degrees to which animals can be said to have mental processes. He concluded that Pavlov's reflexionism was not a sufficient explanation of animal behaviour and that animals have an active relation to reality, which he called activity. In particular, the behaviour of higher primates such as chimpanzees could only be explained by the ape's formation of multi-phase plans using tools.
Leontiev then progressed to humans and pointed out that people engage in "actions" that do not in themselves satisfy a need, but contribute towards the eventual satisfaction of a need. Often, these actions only make sense in a social context of a shared work activity. This lead him to a distinction between activities, which satisfy a need, and the actions that constitute the activities.
Leontiev also argued that the activity in which a person is involved is reflected in their mental activity, that is (as he puts it) material reality is "presented" to consciousness, but only in its vital meaning or significance.
Activity theory, except for a few publications in western journals, remained 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 Engestrøm). 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 Leontiev's work. Although Leontiev's exposition is clear and well structured, it is not as well-structured as the formulation by Engestrøm. Kaptelinin remarks that Engestrøm "proposed a scheme of activity different from that by [Leontiev]; it contains three interacting entities¡ªthe individual, the object and the community¡ªinstead of the two components¡ªthe individual and the object¡ªin [Leontiev]'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 Leontiev, was introduced. Also, the notion of collective subject was introduced in the 1970s and 1980s (Leontiev refers to "joint labour activity", but only has individuals, not groups, as activity subjects).
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¡ªall 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¡ªwhich belongs only to humans¡ªsees 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 locus 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."