Activity theory

The activity theory ( engl. activity theory ) is a psychological theory that was developed in the 1930s in Kharkov by Aleksei N. Leontiev ( Leont'ev ) and employees. It is a further development of the work, which in the 1920s in Moscow as part of what is now known as Cultural-Historical school work contexts to the psychologist Lev Semenovich Vygotsky ( Vygotksij ), Alexander Romanovich Luria ( Luria ) and Alexei Nikolaevich Leont'ev ( Leont'ev ) emerged. According to the activity theory the relationship between humans and the environment is a social, characterized by the development of cultural tools and signs. International are among the representatives include: Anne Edwards, Anna Stetsenko, Harry Daniels, Michael Cole, Yrjö Engeström, Klaus Holzenkamp, Mariane Hedegaard, Andy Blunden, Seth Chaiklin, Yves Clot, Charles Tolman, Ole Dreier, Morten Nissen, Nikolai Veresov, Georg Rückriem, Falk Seeger, Wolff- Michael Roth, Wolfgang Jantzen, Georg feuser and Karl-Heinz Braun.

  • 5.1 activity theory in the Soviet Union
  • 5.2 Reception and development of international


The close to culture and social change -oriented activity theory developed a group of Russian psychologist whose work constellations are now often as a cultural historical school known. The roots of today's activity theory go back to the USSR in the 20s of the twentieth century. Relevant concepts formulated Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934), who is often regarded as the actual founder of activity theory. Dissatisfied with the two relevant at this time psychological paradigms - of psychoanalysis and behaviorism - developed Vygotsky and his colleagues Alexander Romanovich Luria and Alexei Nikolaevich Leontiev a new theory as a foundation for the understanding of human development: the concept of object-oriented and mediated activity.

This concept was elaborated and further developed after by a group of psychologists to Leontiev, called the Kharkov school of psychology in the 30s of the twentieth century. Based on the teachings of Marx, the Russian researchers were looking for a suitable concept and framework of meaning for modern psychology. Initial consideration was the inseparability of awareness and physical activity. For many years, from the activity theory developed the leading direction of Russian psychology.

Attracted international attention, the activity theory in the late 70s and early 80s. Leontjews activity, consciousness and personality has been translated into English, a collection of papers Leontjews and other activity theorists were published. In Finland, Germany, Denmark and the USA, there was a growing number of interested parties. The relevant provision was, inter alia, the dissertation Learning by Expanding Yrjö Engeström of.

Several books and writings were published in this period (eg Engeström, 1990, Nardi 1996, Engeström, among others 1999). They contributed to the growing interest in the potential of activity theory. Since the mid 80s there were attempts the initial focus of activity theory, developmental psychology to expand to other areas. Since the mid- 80s, formed three main branches, the persecuted applying the activity theory for various disciplines.

Central message of many investigations in each application is that activities must be analyzed both at the individual and as well as on the social and cultural level.

Vygotsky's contribution

In the history of higher mental functions ( 1931) Vygotsky distinguishes between mental tools and technical tools, where he criticized the metaphor of the tool on a psychological level later. Significant difference between the two categories of tools is the direction of action. While technical tools act on the material- physical environment of the acting, tool -using subject ( see also action control theory ), are mental tools ( eg language, sketches, formulas ) of the organization of human behavior. The basic question Vygotsky was initially based on the natural history and socio- historical development of higher mental functions, in particular thinking and speech ( Vygotsky, 1934/2002 ). On the psychology and pedagogy field he worked in this way from overcoming the two section of the sciences in the humanities and natural sciences. The question of the activity was in a cultural and psychological context: to what extent are the development processes of mental activities such as thinking, memory, and learning some of the social and cultural development? So first there was a psychological concept of activity in the foreground: exist of how the German, two terms, namely aktivnost ( activity) and deyatelnost ( activity ) in Russian. In English, however, this distinction was lost through the translation of both terms with activity. Both concepts play in the psychological approach of the cultural-historical school has a different role, so they are not synonymous usable. Stooges for the term of the activity ( deyatelnost ), especially the AN Leontiev made ​​strong, is on the one hand, Hegel, on the other hand, Marx, which ushered in a practical philosophical paradigm shift in the first thesis on Feuerbach and criticized the fact that the hitherto existing materialism "of the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. "

Leontjews Post

A.N. Leontiev followed up on these shaped by Marx and Hegel activity concept. Its central concept is that of objective activity.

In the sense of Natural History of Mental Leontiev examined in problems of the development of the mental transitions and differences between activity on animal and human level. Was decisive was that people their needs not just spontaneously - given eg satisfy or certain genetically determined patterns of behavior, but the production of all goods that satisfy their specific human needs, organize labor - of hunger feelings. In contrast to the hunting activity in animals that cooperate extremely rare with each other to kill a prey, was a whole new development path emerges for people in their early history about in the cooperation between hunters and drivers: the division of labor and in need of cooperation form of life recovery. This new quality of development is the historical and social, in contrast to the evolutionary natural history. Critical psychology was about following Leontiev made ​​in developing a concept of subjectivity methodically secure / psyche of an investigation of the human-animal transition field. The emergence of a division of labor in the form of life is recovering after Leontiev also central to the development of the human psyche as the individual a social intelligence and anticipation need to reach a wider target by several subordinate objectives and sub- actions. You need an insight into the doings of others, who handle various tasks within a work process.

Leontjews activity - awareness - Personality therefore resulted in a breakdown of levels one: the level of activity ( overall process, complete work process such as hunting ), the level of actions ( tasks such as driving the herd ) and the level of operations ( handles, instrumental skills ).

The activity theory has had a major impact on the work and organizational psychological theories and methods development. An example of this is the action regulation theory, based on activity theory concepts ( activity, action, operation ) as a dynamic implementation structures of human activity. Other examples are the work of Yrjö Engeström and the staff of the Centre for Activity Theory / Developmental Work Research.

Concepts of activity theory

Basic assumption of activity theory is that the human psyche is created and constantly evolving. You can however only be understood in the context of meaningful, goal-oriented and sociologically relevant interactions between humans and their environment materialized. The activity theory includes five basic principles. Kaptelinin (1992 ) identifies the most important:

These principles run through every action of an activity and form the basis for understanding their considerable internal dynamics. The investigation unit activity as " the minimal meaningful context " to describe the actions of an individual is to be understood as a model. The elements are interdependent. The activity virtually forms a framework in which the individual elements interact with each other and enter into a relationship - the visual similarity of a crystal lattice.

Hierarchical levels

The activity theory differs according to Leontiev three levels that build on each other: operations, actions and activities. The orientations of each level are subordinate to those of the next higher level. Leontiev proposes a three-part structure prior to denote the orientations of each level: In line with activities, actions and operations he calls motives, goals and instrumental conditions and constraints. Such as motives driving activities. These build on actions that are based on objectives. Actions in turn are based on operations, arising from instrumental conditions and constraints.

The levels also differ by their assigned focus group. Activities are carried out by communities, individual actions of an individual or a group and operations correspond human routine work or can also be procedures that are performed by machines (eg gear shift of a vehicle).

Object orientation

The objective activity describes a central principle of activity theory. People live in a world that is characterized by touchable items. But These items have not only physical properties (shape, color, smell, etc.). You are also impressed properties that were determined socially and culturally and from the history result ( the printed Bible as the basis of a community of values ​​, the moon rocks as a rarity, the cup as a trophy ). So objects have not only material properties but also social and cultural, as their genesis and history of use. General objects have - whether tangible ( fork, circular saw, calculators ) or mental (writing can formulate hypotheses, solve problems ) - a great significance for the relationship between people and their immediate surroundings.

Internalisation versus externalization

The activity theory includes a dual aspect: it distinguishes internal from external activities. The classic psychology concept of " mental processes " is roughly equivalent to internal activities, outward actions, however, are referred to as external activities. Internal activities are, however, in mutual dynamics with external. They are mutually dependent and can often be transformed into one another (eg, mastering the basic arithmetic operations in an abacus or calculator ). The dynamics and the overall context of an activity determines when and why external activities are internalized or vice versa.

Tool mediation

The tool mediation explains another key principle of activity theory. It refers to the fact that an activity is characterized in that an individual tool is operated to change an object. There is a distinction between two aspects of the use of tools:

The resource and social development are also interacting with each other. The steam engine by James Watt, for example, was a driving factor for the industrial revolution and changed in the long term consequence to society. Aids will never be used in a vacuum. Rather, it shapes the social and cultural context in which they are used.

Continuous development

The activity theory posits that an individual's interaction with the reality of activities to be analyzed in the context of development. In contrast to other psychological theories, in which the development is considered to be an important object of study, all activities are seen as the result of certain historical developments in activity theory. Activities also are constantly evolving and subject to constant change.