Engeström, “Activity Theory and Individual and Social Transformation”

Yrjö. "Activity Theory and Individual and Social Transformation."
Engeström, Yrjö, et al., eds. Perspectives on Activity
Theory: Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive & Computational Perspectives
New York: Cambridge UP, 1999. 19-39.

The introduction to this collection, Perspectives on Activity Theory,
and Engestrom’s opening chapter, "Activity Theory and Individual and Social
Transformation" together offer a reasonably thorough, if condensed, introduction
to some of the central tenets of activity theory. Basically, activity
theory grows out of Marx-influenced researchers in sociology and psychology who
found limited explanatory power in the traditional frameworks for making
sense of socioeconomic structures (typically top-down and "stable, all-powerful,
and self-sufficient" (19)). In many of the contemporary, interdisciplinary
applications of AT, Marx recedes from center stage, while activity theory
continues to pursue a kind of "radical localism" (36) as a departure from
mechanical materialism or idealism (mentation as its own domain
detached from physical substance).

In an effort to explain what he means by a "dynamically evolving cell concept
of activity," Engestrom identifies and defines six dichotomous themes
related to activity theory.

  1. Psychic processes versus object-related activity (21)
  2. Goal-directed action versus object-related activity (22)
    Analysis across levels (scales) risks an "individualist and ahistorical"
    orientation/bias (23)
  3. Instrumental tool-mediated production versus expressive sign-mediated
    communication (23)
    Risks (as in Leont’ev) "prototypical forms of activity" (23)
  4. Relativism versus historicism (25)
    "Any conceptual framework that postulates a predetermined sequence of stages
    of sociohistorical development will easily entail suspicious notions of what
    is ‘primitive’ and what is ‘advanced,’ what is backward and what is good"
  5. Internalization versus creation and externalization (26)
  6. Principle of explanation versus object of study (27)

Next, Engestrom synthesizes three questions that draw together the six

  1. "First, how can we depict the cell of activity theory or, more
    specifically, what would be a viable way of modeling the structure and
    dynamic relations of an activity system?"
  2. "Second, how can we incorporate historicity and developmental
    into activity-theoretical analyses, yet take fully into account
    the diversity and multiplicity inherent in human activities?"
  3. "And third, what kind of a methodology is appropriate for
    activity-theoretical research–one that could bridge the gaps between the
    and the applied, between conceptualization and

Engestrom goes on to attempt to answer each of these questions after he
strongly emphasizes mediation as a pivotal term/concept for activity theory.
Gaining control of artifacts, he explains, is akin to gaining control of one’s
future (29). In the next section, "Modeling the Activity System," Engestrom
presents two variations of a triadic model (subject-object-mediating artifacts)
also a systemic model (see Spinuzzi for application), calling attention
to the value in being able to move across scales from individual action
to large-scale or organization-level activity.

Key terms: [From the Introduction: activity theory (1), idealism (3),
mechanical materialism (3), distributed cognition (8), monocausal (9),
interactive system model (9), mediating artifacts (9), Wertsch’s mediated action
(11), Lave & Wenger’s community of practice (12), mediation as "germ cell" (13)],
psychic process (21), object-related activity (21), goal-directed activity (22),
activity prototypes (23), relativism (25), historicism (25), internalization
(26), externalization (27).

[From the Introduction: "In the post-World War II decades,
activity theory was mostly developed within the psychology of play, learning,
and child development. It was applied in research on language acquisition and
experimental development of instruction, mainly in the context of schools and
other educational institutions. Although these domains continue to be central,
activity-theoretical research has become broader in the 1980s and 1990s. It now
encompasses such topics as development of work activities, implementation of new
cultural tools such as computer technologies, and issues of therapy" (2).

"Activity theory has a strong candidate for such a unit of analysis in the
concept of object-oriented, collective, and culturally mediated human
, or activity system. Minimum elements of this system include the
, subject, mediating artifacts (signs and
), rules, community, and division of labor (Engestrom,
1987; Cole & Engestrom, 1993)" (9).

"Activity system as a unit of analysis calls for complementarity of the
system view
and the subject’s view. The analyst constructs the
activity system as if looking at it from above" (10).

"Activity theory recognizes two basic processes operating continuously at
every level of human activities: internalization and externalization.
Internalization is related to reproduction of culture; externalization as
creation of new artifacts makes possible its transformation" (10).]

"If anything, the current societal transformations should teach us that
closed systems of thought do not work
. But monism does not have to be
interpreted that way. Human activity is endlessly multifaceted, mobile, and rich
in variations of form and content" (20).

"In most of these [goal-directed] theories, individual action is
regarded as the unit of analysis and as the key to understanding human
functioning. The orienting function of goals and plans, the sequential
structure, and the levels of regulation of actions have received a lot of
attention. But these theories seem to have difficulties in accounting for the
socially distributed
or collective aspects as well as the
or cultural aspects of purposeful human behavior"

"Mediation by tools and signs is not merely a
psychological idea. It is an idea that breaks down the Cartesian walls that
isolate the individual mind from the culture and society" (29).

"The idea is that humans can control their own behavior–not ‘from the
on the basis of biological urges, but ‘from the outside,’
and creating artifacts" (29). i.e., Vygotsky’s auxiliary

"In this sense, it might be useful to try to look at the society more as a
multilayered network of interconnected activity systems
and less as a
pyramid of rigid structures dependent on a single center of power" (36).

Related sources:
Engestrom, Yrjo. Learning, Working, and Imagining: Twelve Studies in
Activity Theory
. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsulit, 1990.
Giddens, Anthony. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of
. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.
Hutchins, Edwin. "The Technology of Team Navigation." Intellectual
Teamwork: Social and Technological Foundations of Cooperative Work
Galegher, Kraut, Edigo, eds. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1990.