Are We Ready for a Single, Integrated Theory?


Essay review of Perspectives on Activity Theory1
Edited by Yrjö Engeström, Reijo Miettinen, and Raija-Leena Punamäki
Michele Minnis2 and Vera P. John-Steiner3
University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA

Engeström, Miettinen, and Punamäki address Perspectives on Activity Theory to English-speaking social scientists. Such a readership, they note, may be unacquainted with the "theoretical concept of activity" (AT), at least in present day expressions. The editors characterize this collected work as "a first attempt to present a somewhat balanced variety of the theoretical views and practical applications of activity theory currently developed by researchers in different parts of the world" (p. 2).

Some of the book's twenty-six chapters were written within the past few years. Others, originally, were papers presented at the Second International Congress for Research on Activity Theory, held in Lahti, Finland, in 1990. The authors reside in ten counties, mainly those of northern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where AT was first advanced.

The theory of activity is one of several lines of thinking and research derived from the early 20th Century cultural-historical school of Russian psychology. That school's leader and most prolific and influential member was Lev Semenovich Vygotsky. Central to all cultural-historical theoretical approaches is the Marxian idea that nature is revealed in change. Vygotsky was guided by that notion throughout years of seminal research on language, thought, and human consciousness (Vygotsky 1962, 1978). For much of the 20th Century, due largely to Vygotsky's death at a young age and to government repression of his writings, the body of his work was little recognized outside Soviet scholarly circles. From the mid 1960s, however, when the first English translations of that work began to appear, appreciation for Vygotsky's contributions has grown steadily in Western countries. Best known among Vygotsky's close associates are A. R. Luria, a pioneer in experimental studies of neurological development (Luria 1973, 1976, 1979), and Alexei N. Leont'ev, the originator and principal exponent of activity theory (Leont'ev 1978, 1981).

Although it is linked to the early collaboration of Vygotsky, Luria, and Leont'ev, activity theory has moved from that starting point in many directions. This book respects that diversity. Its analyses resolve at various social scales, from the societal to the intra-personal, and at various temporal scales, from minutes to years and, in one case, centuries. Diversity also typifies the topics and their treatments, as well as the contributors' disciplinary perspectives.

Perspectives' multiplicity of views is consistent with the editors' intentions to display activity theory as, at once, broad and intricate, intellectual and practical, and, although already richly textured, still in a formative stage. Beyond simply introducing activity theory, however, the editors present it as a unifying corrective to what they regard as a fragmented and unworkable intellectual system. For the editors, that is, the larger message of Perspectives is that activity theory is the "germ cell" for reorganizing and integrating Western social science. For example, AT treats as a continuous field of study what most Anglo-American readers would regard as several distinct disciplines. Lead editor Yrjö Engeström says that separating disciplines concerned with individual behavior and human agency on the one hand, from those concerned with socioeconomic structures on the other, ignores and, in effect, denies mutual influences in individual, sociocultural, and societal development. He asserts the timeliness of a theoretical coupling across this subject-matter divide:

[The] traditional dualistic framework does not help us to understand today's deep social transformations. More than ever before, there is a need for an approach that can dialectically link the individual and social structure. From its very beginnings, the cultural-historical theory of activity has been elaborated with this task in mind (p. 19).

The beginnings of such an approach may be seen in Vygotsky's emphasis on how the social becomes personal and, subsequently, may be expressed in new forms. For Vygotsky, the medium of these conversions was language. In contemporary activity theory, it is activity, as defined by Leont'ev and others in his line.

Perspectives' first ten chapters are devoted to theoretical explorations of AT's origins and lineage. Along the way, the authors highlight the theory's reach and emerging relationships to other current theories of human and societal development. The second ten chapters focus on "language and its acquisition" (Chs. 11-13) and "play, learning, and instruction" (Chs. 14-20). While these subjects have long been associated with Vygotskian scholarship, they may appear fresh in a context that accentuates activity theoretical interpretations. The six final chapters, "technology and work" (Chs. 21-23) and, especially, "therapy and addiction" (Chs. 24-26), introduce what many will welcome as new and intriguing applications of AT.

The body of this review is organized by two topical headings. Under the first of these, Theoretical/Philosoph­ical Issues, we explore three strong themes from the theoretical chapters: the meanings of transformation, the dynamics of the individual and the social, and integrative levels. Under the second heading, Methodological Issues and Interventions, we consider how two current problems in social science, bridging micro and macro levels of analysis and capturing the dynamic character of social relationships and activity, are dealt with in six of the chapters reporting research. The review's final section is devoted to comments and conclusions about the book as a whole.



Through the years, as it has been used, Leont'ev's definition of activity has been qualified and refined. More recent versions may be appreciated best in light of the original. Leont'ev formulated a three-tiered model of activity. The top tier was occupied by collective, object-related activity, the middle tier by goal-related actions, and the lowest by automatic operations. Object-related activity is said to be inherently collective, systemic, and continuous. That is, it comprises sustained, complexly interdependent efforts of multiple actors who are motivated and coordinated by a common object. Actions, by contrast, are said to be relatively discrete. They are task- or goal-related, and may be accomplished by individuals as well as by collectives. For example, writing this essay could be considered an action which serves a larger scholarly activity, the object of which is to advance understanding of cultural-historical and activity theories (or CHAT). Operations are described as minute-by-minute instrumental movements "driven by the conditions and tools at hand." Keying words into the computer would be regarded as an operation.

The ambiguities of the three-tiered model are overcome to some extent by the concept of "activity system," a unit of analysis proposed by Engeström (Engeström, 1987; 1990; 1994; Middleton & Engeström, 1996; Cole, Engeström, and Vasquez, 1997). For Engeström, an activity system consists of, at a minimum, object, subject, mediating artifacts (signs and tools), rules, community, and division of labor (p. 9). The ongoing interaction of these constituents is well illustrated in his analysis of work-team meetings as brief cycles of expansive learning, or knowledge-construction (Ch. 23). Figures 1a and 1b are examples of the triadic diagrams used by Engeström and his associates to reinforce verbal descriptions of activity systems.

The Meanings of Transformation

The words "transformation" and "transformative" appear throughout this volume. Each instance reflects its own context and emphasis. Our illustrations draw from three authors. Vassily Davydov (Ch. 2) is concerned, primarily, with the fundamental nature of transformation, Yrjö Engeström (Ch. 1) with systemic processes of transformation, and Vladimir Lektorsky (Ch. 4) with reciprocal interpersonal transformation.

By definition, activity is movement and change. For Davydov, however, not every change is transformative. He reserves the latter designation for changes that realize an object's inner potential: "Transforma­tion means changing an object internally, making evident its essence and altering it" (p. 42). Davydov's elaboration of this remark is less a matter of offering practical examples than of explaining how philosophical traditions differ in defining what is "of the essence." Nonetheless, Davydov contributes to the conversation about transformation by pointing to the ambiguity of the term as one of AT's major unsolved problems.

Engeström introduces the subject of transformation in the context of activity theory's association with internalization and reproduction of existing practices. Critics of the theory have questioned whether it encompasses and accounts for creativity, the construction of the new. Engeström argues that AT can address innovation, through the concept of expansive cycles, and will be of greater practical utility when it successfully documents such cycles.

People face not only the challenge of acquiring established culture, they also face situations in which they must formulate desirable culture. In order to understand such transformations going on in human activity systems, we need a methodology for studying expansive cycles" (p. 35).

Expansion is Engeström's metaphor for transformative processes and outcomes. He describes how, at different times or from different aspects, activity systems both reproduce existing social structures and, through expansion, produce new ones. Here is his capsule summary of an activity system moving through reproductive, disruptive, and expansive modes before reorganizing in a novel form:

[T]he expansive cycle of an activity system begins with an almost exclusive emphasis on internalization, on socializing and training the novices to become competent members of the activity as it is routinely carried out. Creative externalization occurs first in the form of discrete individual innovations. As the disruptions and contradictions of the activity become more demanding, internalization increasingly takes the form of critical self-reflection-and externalization, a search for solutions, increases. Externalization reaches its peak when a new model for the activity is designed and implemented. As the new model stabilizes itself, internalization of its inherent ways and means again becomes the dominant form of learning and development (p. 34).

Although Engeström indicates that transformations of activity systems may be precipitated by the actions of individuals, he treats individuals generically, in terms of their roles in the system, rather than personally, in terms of each one's experience as a participant. Davydov at least acknowledges the latter possibility when he writes about how activity transforms individuals.

Any activity carried out by a subject includes goals, means, the process of molding the object, and the results. In fulfilling the activity, the subjects also change and develop themselves. The transforming and purposeful character of activity allows the subject to step beyond the frames of a given situation and to see it in a wider historical and societal context. It makes it possible for the subject to find means that go beyond the given possibilities (p. 39, emphasis added).

Davydov's remarks imply that creative action begets creativity; that is, as people jointly work through the contradictions of specific object-oriented activities, their general capacities to act creatively are enlarged, or transformed.

Lektorsky also discusses individual creativity and transformation, but in a way that emphasizes increased self-knowledge rather than increased cognitive and problem-solving ability. He maintains that, to its detriment, activity theoretical scholarship has neglected intersubjective experience. Citing Vygotsky's extensive study of the development of human consciousness and interiority, Lektorsky argues that Leont'ev's preoccupation with the collectivist side of human activity obscured the unique character of person-to-person exchanges. According to Lektorsky subject-object interactions, the kind Leont'ev used to illustrate his activity model, differ fundamentally from subject-subject interactions:

Activity in the process of a genuine dialogue is not a simple transformation of a co-interlocutor in accordance with the aims and plans of another; it includes self-realization of the participants at the same time. Successful communicative activity presupposes taking into account the positions and values of the other, an ability to look at oneself from this position and to perform an 'inner dialogue' . . . . It is an activity, it is a process of change, but it is not like the process of transforming physical things. The latter is included in intersubjective relations and can be understood only in this context. (p. 68, emphasis added).

Lektorsky's analysis indicates why contemporary activity theory is critically concerned with the interrelationship of the individual and the social.

The Dynamics of the Individual and the Social

Prominent in the future of AT as outlined in the book's Introduction is the expectation that the theory will span the divide between "the individual" and "the social." While none of the subsequent chapters completely fulfills this promise, several provide related, intriguing insights. We consider a few examples. Davydov (Ch. 4) maintains that, to be of theoretical value, activity on both sides of and connecting across the individual-social boundary must be more precisely described. From Stephen Toulmin (Ch. 3) we get the idea that knowledge is shared procedures, which are constructed and reconstructed at the individual-social boundary. Mikael Leiman (Ch. 25) is also concerned with knowledge, but with psychosocial and emotional knowledge rather than with formal knowledge. As Leiman speaks of it, the individual-social interface is not so much a line as a space. He refers to this space, potential space, as "a third area of living" and "the meeting point of union and separateness," where meaning is constructed (p. 426). For his part, Charles Tolman (Ch. 5) uses activity theory's conception of the individual-society relationship to separate it from contemporary theories with which it might be confused.

Among his eight unsolved problems of activity theory, Davydov includes "the relation between collective and individual activity or between collective and individual subject" (p. 44). Framing this multi-faceted issue, Davydov considers only social-to-individual exchanges and recommends distinguishing activity in the two domains.

Numerous versions of activity theory admit the existence of an internalization process, that is, of the process of formation of individual action on the basis of collective activity. While doing this, they notice that the structures of these two forms of activity are to a certain degree similar. But they pay very little attention to their difference (p. 44).

Davydov elaborates on this comment in a discussion about the nature of individuals and collectivities that drives home the current lack of definition in this area. Stephen Toulmin's "Knowledge as shared procedures" (Ch. 3) is helpful in this regard because it sharpens, while also challenging, traditional philosophical conceptions of the individual as independent thinker and agent.

The individual-social dichotomy is, originally, a Cartesian one. Toulmin discusses the legacy of René Descartes' 17th Century epistemology in light of 20th Century revisions, specifically Ludwig Wittgenstein's explanations of knowing and Vygotsky's analysis of the role of language and social practice in mediating thought.

The Cartesian model, dominant in Western science for over three hundred years, has profoundly shaped modern philosophical and psychological theory. On the assumption that knowledge can be certain, the model revolves around questions about how certain knowledge is acquired. Associated assumptions are that knowing is an individual act and a private one. Ideas are said to originate inside the knower, entirely on the basis of physical impressions.

The implications of the Cartesian framework are that each human being is isolated in his own knowing. According to Toulmin, the most powerful opposition to Descartes comes from Wittgenstein:

[W]ittgenstein's arguments not merely rejected but discredited the ideas and impressions that were the starting point of 17th Century epistemology . . . . [He contended that] if all our knowledge, concepts, and judgments are in principle intersubjective [as the philosopher Immanuel Kant acknowledged], there is a reason. All such units of understanding obtain their meaning by entering language not via the minds of single individuals but within 'forms of life'. . . that are essentially collective. As a result, the origins of any individual's questions and judgments is defined by the current state of the art in the relevant field of inquiry . . . (p. 55, emphasis added).

Toulmin maintains that, in locating the origins of meaning in the public sphere and in language use, Wittgenstein changed the direction and content of the search for knowledge about knowledge. The Cartesian question of how humans, as individuals, arrive at certain knowledge about the world, was replaced by a new question: How are individuals successfully socialized into the knowledge shared by a particular culture or profession? (p. 55).

To the latter question, Toulmin says, Vygotsky would have answered "through the mediation of language in the context of joint practice." According to Toulmin, Vygotskian and Wittgenstinian thought concur most significantly in relating language, practice, and meaning: "for both men, language has a definite meaning only when it is related to a given constellation of practical activities" (p. 59). The epistemological consequences of this conception, Toulmin explains, are that knowledge is neither universal nor constant. Rather, it is expressed as the practices taken for granted by members of a collectivity at any particular moment.

Mikael Leiman (Ch. 25) also writes about how meaning is formed in joint activity. Specifically, he shows that D. W. Winnicott's concepts of potential space and transitional objects and Vygotsky's methods of studying signs enrich one another.

Leiman credits Vygotsky with marking "the path from gesture to sign to meaning" (p. 423). To illustrate, Leiman quotes Vygotsky's describing how an infant's grasping vainly toward a desired object becomes for the infant, through the meaning it has for another, the gesture of pointing, a new way to communicate. With this example in mind, Leiman introduces the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, well known for his work in object-relations theory. Leiman explains how Vygotsky's developmental studies were both parallelled and complemented by those of Winnicott. In the pointing episode, notes Leiman, Vygotsky viewed objectivity as "something given and internalized by the child while interacting with an adult," whereas Winnicott viewed reality as "an interplay between what is given (objective) and what is created-jointly-in the intersubjective space" (p. 426).

Potential space is Winnicott's term for the intersubjective area in which object-mediated meaning is made. Using Winnicott's detailed anecdotes, Leiman shows how such meaning may be emotionally saturated, especially when tied to transitional objects, those associated with critical episodes in forming one's personal identity. Included with these ideas, which he refers to as Winnicott's legacies to Vygotskian scholars, is the notion of the developmental character of mediation itself. That is, Winnicott maintained that as infants grow "toward a conscious and creative use of objects," their mediating patterns-through which they make all distinctions, especially those between the internal and the external-will branch and change as well (p. 427).

While many of the contributors to this volume integrate activity theory with other contemporary theories, Charles Tolman (Ch. 5) dissociates actitivy theory from current "contextualist" theories of individual human development. As examples of the latter, Tolman mentions works by Richard Lerner and his associates.

Tolman's argument is that, despite seemingly common vocabulary and emphases, contextualists differ sharply from activity theorists, and not merely in the ways they construe human development. Ultimately, Tolman maintains, contextualists and activity theorists represent distinct approaches to the practice of science. Tolman explains that the critical distinctions lie in the how each approach understands "the individual-society relationship and the role of that relationship in the development of the individual personality." Contextualists speak of a person developing as an individual through interactions "with his or her environment" (p. 79). Elaborating, Tolman contrasts contextualist and behaviorist theories with activity theory:

In both contextualist and behaviorist positions, the individual is treated as preexisting, coming to society to be further shaped by external influences encountered there. The essentially societal individual of activity theory is absent. (p. 81, emphasis added)

Tolman says that in, effectively, treating all human-environment interactions as similar in kind, contextualists ignore two critical principles of activity theory; namely that the individual-society relationship is 1) unique to human development and 2) essential to the development of individuality. Regarding the first point, Tolman writes that development cannot be understood in terms of the acquisition of adaptive behaviors. The task for the human child is different than it is for other animals because the information required for human existence is different: it is societal information. "This kind of information cannot be "learned" in the way that animals learn to adapt to the changing demand of their external worlds; it must be appropriated, reflecting an evolutionary new process linked to the new societal nature of the human species" (p. 74, emphasis in the original). On the second point, Tolman comments, "The individual is truly human only in society. Indeed, a still stronger conclusion can be argued: that human individuality itself is achievable only in society".(p. 73).

Integrative Levels

Another expansion of Leont'ev's activity theory is offered by Ethel Tobach (Ch. 9). She is alone among the Perspectives authors in considering AT, already a broad theory, within an even broader theoretical framework, that of integrative levels. The theory of integrative levels applies dialectical and historical materialism to phylogenetic development (p. 133). Basically, the idea is that all matter-inanimate and animate, from the simplest forms to the most complex-may be seen as having been differentiated, over time, into dynamically interacting levels. Tobach defines a level as a "temporal-spatial relationship of structures whose functions are sufficiently synthesized to be categorized as an entity" (p. 134). New levels are said to arise because the stability of dynamics within a level is not permanent. Inevitably, a level's internal contradictions grow beyond its capacity to adjust. This tension is resolved through the eruption of a new level. The latter integrates its progenitor's strategies and processes with those it devises through its own development. Thus, does the succession of levels proceed. Tobach devotes her chapter to explaining this theory, its complementarity with activity theory, and its fundamental difference from genetic determinism, with which it is sometimes mistakenly associated. Her message is that, depending on the question being asked, one may consider a level either in itself or in the context of relationships with interfacing levels.

The evolution of humans, Tobach notes, integrated as it is across all levels preceding their origin-molecular biochemical, cellular, histological, physiological, psychological-continues to spawn additional levels. One example of that is the ever-expanding ability of humankind to know and represent the world. Toulmin's account of the development of professional knowledge as procedures belongs in this latter category. So, too, does the conceptualization of matter as integrated levels. Tobach says that the theory of integrative levels is but an expression of cumulative human knowledge gained through activity in the world.


The central principle of CHAT methodology, that nature is revealed in change, is well captured in Vygotsky's developmental experiment. Engeström summarizes that experiment as four moments or steps: first, observe rudimentary, everyday behavior; then, reconstruct the historical phases of the cultural evolution of that behavior; next, experimentally produce change from the rudimentary to higher forms of behavior and, lastly, observe actual development in naturally occurring behavior (p. 35). These priorities contrast with the emphasis on experimental control in the more familiar, variable-centered methodology of what Eskola (Ch. 7) calls the "mechanistic-deterministic paradigm."

In the Introduction, Engeström and Miettinen argue that activity theory offers promising approaches to two major problems in social science: 1) a need to bridge gaps between micro- and macro-level analyses and, 2) a need to move beyond the physical sciences' linear causation models and depict human social phenomena as "multiple systematically interacting elements" (p. 9). The importance to AT of resolving these problems may be seen in the themes of the preceding section. Understanding the interdependence of individual and social transformation will require defining activity systems and tracking their dynamics through observation and analysis on several levels and from several perspectives. As Engeström and Miettinen put it:

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. At the same time, the analyst must select a subject, a member (or better yet, multiple different members) of the local activity, through whose eyes and interpretations the activity is constructed. This dialectic between the systemic and subjective-partisan views brings the researcher into a dialogical relationship with the local activity under investigation. The study of an activity system becomes a collective, multivoiced construction of its past, present, and future zones of proximal development4 (p. 10).

Where people are jointly engaged in constructing new models of activity, Engeström (Ch. 1) proposes, the developmental experiment must move into new territory: the researcher must intervene as a participant. "Instead of only forming experimentally skills and mental functions in the students," he writes, "the researchers will be engaged in forming societally new artifacts and forms of practice jointly with their subjects" (p. 35). Practical success, he cautions, will depend on "careful historical and empirical analysis of the activity in question" (p. 35). Regarding scientific success, the validity and generalizability of the results, Engeström maintains that these effects will be "decided by the viability, diffusion, and multiplication of [the] new models in similar activity systems" (p. 35).

The researcher-as-participant approach Engeström describes is demonstrated in Michael Cole's Fifth Dimension (Ch. 6). In this complex intervention, Cole and his colleagues continuously monitor relationships among the goals, actions, artifacts, communications, and developmental processes of co-participants in a number of intersecting activity systems.

The Fifth Dimension is a network of community-based, computer-assisted, afterschool educational projects for 6- to 12-year-old children. At any project site, the focal activity system is an electronic maze game involving a menu of task assignments of graduated difficulty. These assignments are designed to develop skills in reading and mathematical comprehension and communication. University undergraduates coordinate and staff the projects and, thereby, in conjunction with related course work, fulfill some of their degree requirements.

The Fifth Dimension model is not mechanical, as its technical trappings might suggest. Rather, it is open-ended and ecological. The program, likewise, is not linear; it is recursive. It constantly reconstitutes and modifies itself on the basis of input from the participants, particularly the field notes of the undergraduate students. Every project site offers a chance to study development in a single, extended system at several levels. Research priorities include documenting academic achievements, computer literacy, and communications abilities of both students and staff. Moreover, there are opportunities to monitor the inter-relationships of the various activity systems that constitute and intersect the Fifth Dimension. The latter include ongoing efforts in the areas of university outreach education, community center management, elementary and middle school curriculum development, and design of computer-assisted instruction. All in all, the Fifth Dimension is an excellent example of a multipurpose and multilayered intervention, which uses both quantitative and qualitative data to analyze multi-causal systems.

One of most touching and ingenious studies reported in this volume is a long-running intervention by Matthias Bujarski, Martin Hildebrand-Nilshon, and Jan Kordt (Ch. 13). Although this work focuses on an individual, it is framed in terms of activity systems. While illustrating the idea of articulating across levels and facets of analysis, it also exemplifies Engeström's concept of researchers as facilitators of expansive, or transformative, cycles.

Bujarski and his collaborators present a detailed account of literacy acquisition in a non-vocal cerebral palsic young man named Michael. The micro level in this case is that of Michael's sensorimotor operations, which were dramatically augmented during his lengthy acquisition of computer-mediated communicative actions. The macro level was that of Michael's concurrent integration into broader social frames and systems.

Briefly, with respect to the micro-level investigation, because Michael's voluntary movements were limited largely to his upper torso, he was taught to use a pointer attached to his forehead to press a keyboard. The latter was cued first to the Blissymbol system (Bliss, 1965; Kelso & Vanderheiden, 1985) and, later, to traditional orthography. Data analysis in this part of the study emphasized discriminable, repetitive physical movements in learning various alphabets and ways of combining them into meaningful words and phrases. The researchers noticed that children who are not handicapped as Michael is learn vocal, gesticular, and graphomotor patterns for each letter of the alphabet. Each pattern is unique, complex, interrelated with the others, and, eventually, unconscious. On the basis of these observations, Bujarksi and his co-authors attributed Michael's early slowness to learn to read and write to his not having acquired such movement patterns. They expressed this hypothesis and, later, the explanation for Michael's learning progress as follows:

If the articulatory, gesticulatory, and graphomotor functions are severely handicapped, they have to be compensated for by learning some other voluntary movement patterns as representations for letters and other symbols. Furthermore, the use of these patterns is one of the prerequisites for the process of analyzing and synthesizing the letter strings of words in reading and writing (p. 212, emphasis added).

At the macro level of analysis, the authors focused on features of personality development associated with Michael's growing literacy competence. Specifically, they analyzed socioemotional motives and activities that developed as Michael endured innumerable technical and equipment corrections, persisted in ever more demanding tasks, and learned to communicate complex ideas and feelings. Anchoring their intervention in the AT tradition, the investigators maintain that personality development is a matter of acquiring socioculturally and personally relevant meanings and motives in the context of physical, cognitive, and emotional activities. Thus, the authors sought both to document and to assist Michael's gradual induction into larger activity systems of culture, work, and associated social relations and expectations. In these efforts, in addition to addressing other concerns, they took pains to recognize contradictions and tensions that arise in integrating new motives into an unstable, changing motivational system.

While Bujarski, Hildebrand-Nilshon, and Kordt acknowledge that their macro-level analysis is less advanced than their micro-level analysis, they say they are confident that activity theory offers the best approach available to modeling processes of personality development in the full range of their sociohistorical and cultural complexity (p. 225). In even taking account of the socio­emotional ramifications of learning processes, these authors have pursued a subject that has received little attention in AT research to date.

Micro-level changes within larger activity systems are also the subject of Engeström's work-team study (Ch. 23). This intervention focuses on cycles of expansive learning in two team meetings in a large manufacturing plant. These small or short-lived cycles are interpreted as potentially expansive, to emphasize that they may or may not lead to the large-scale organizational changes Engeström had in mind when presenting his expansive cycle model of transformation (Ch. 1).

The research methods consisted of videotaping the meetings, collecting related written documents, interviewing some of the participants, transcribing the videotaped conversations, and interpreting the tapes and transcripts through discourse analysis. Here, the raw data consist of talk and gestures, reported speech and analogies, joking, and in-house terms such as "inventory," "continuous improvement," and "corrective actions, " which are sometimes referred to in acronyms. These data are interpreted in terms of a construct which is pervasive in AT research, that of mediating artifact. Artifacts consist of "tools and signs, both external implements and internal representations such as mental models" (p. 381). Engeström classifies artifacts by function. Specifically, he shows how, in the course of the two meetings, innovative solutions to the problems raised are mediated by artifacts of four types: what artifacts, used in identifying and describing objects; how artifacts, "used in guiding and directing processes and procedures on, within, or between objects;" why artifacts, used in diagnosing and explaining the properties and behavior of objects; and where to artifacts, used in envisioning the future state or potential development of objects, including institutions and social systems (pp. 381-2).

At a second level of analysis, the data are grouped as contributing to one or the other of several phases said to constitute a learning, or knowledge-construction, cycle. These phases are as follows: formulating or debating a problem, analyzing a problem systematically, analyzing the history of a problem, modeling a new solution, examining a new model, implementing a new model, reflecting on the results of implementation, and consolidating a new practice (p. 384).

Comparing his expansive learning analysis with analysis based on a knowledge-creation model advanced by Nonaka and Takeuchi (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995), Engeström holds his approach to be superior in opportunities for examining the constitutive actions of expansive learning (p. 391). His commentary on these findings stresses that knowledge can be created in brief, mundane activities and that constructive controversy is vital to effective teamwork and the formation of a shared object.

Artifacts are critical, as well, to Kyoshi Amano's (Ch. 12) report of literacy acquisition in a school context. In this case, unlike the work-team study described above, the artifacts are used to mediate a targeted learning outcome and are designed and sequenced by the investigators. What Amano's work shares with many others reported in this book is a careful programming of artifacts and a precise examination of their mediating roles in new learning. In procedures similar to those of Bujarski and his colleagues, Amano helped academically low performing youngsters become measurably more competent readers and writers. Specifically, he used relatively simple symbol systems to bridge learning to more complex and widely-used alphabets and more advanced composing assignments. In contrast with the Bujarski study, Amano's is a group study. Its more conventional design involves pre-post and experimental/control group comparisons on quantitative measures. Perspectives inclusion of this and other studies employing traditional experimental approaches indicates a tolerance, in AT research, for methodological pluralism.

Like Kyoshi Amano, Yuji Moro (Ch. 11) situates his study in an elementary school. Moro's focus and approach are quite different, however. In this instance, the children in the classroom generate and employ artifacts that mediate their own expansive learning. Moro shows how, through writing stories and reading and reflecting on each other's stories, children become aware of a storyteller's point of view. This awareness comes about, in part, through the construction of a dialogic sphere, an imaginary reality where speech representing different views of a situation may be interfaced. Understanding of this kind, Moro explains, creates one's sense of identity.

Introducing the study, Moro cites two propositions from Vygotsky: that child development originates in social processes, and that these processes are the means to individualization. The latter proposition has been insufficiently appreciated, says Moro, due to limitations inherent in Vygotsky's analytic approach. According to Moro, Vygotsky regarded individualization as a process of acquiring self-control (p. 167). Moro maintains that, in attempting to explain the role of speech in the development of self regulation, Vygotsky was mistaken in two decisions: he chose the "word" as the unit of analysis and, in turn, he focused exclusively on children's internalizing adults' directives and commands (p. 167). Moro prefers Mikhail Bakhtin's position on the role of speech in individualization. For Bakhtin, the relevant unit of analysis was neither the "word" nor the "sentence," which are linguistic abstractions, but the real speech activity of "utterance" (p. 167).

As Moro presents it, Bakhtin' theory of utterance hinges on the idea that speech can be understood correctly only when it is addressed in a situation of dialogue. Although, in ordinary dialogue, the speaking subject and the real subject are identical, this correspondence does not obtain in "culturally complex domains such as . . . . writing activity" (p. 169). There, Bakhtin noted, the author's own voice may differ from that of the speaking subjects he or she has created.

Moro makes these theoretical claims vividly concrete in examples of "life experience writing" by students in elementary schools in Japan. One of Moro's case studies concerns a boy named Izumi. Using excerpts from Izumi's compositions over a year's time, Moro demonstrates how Izumi appropriated from his classmates' compositions a confessional style, an outsider's perspective on a relative about whom he was ashamed, and the technique of writing about his family through several differently-positioned speakers whose various utterances about the household, interacting in dialogue, established a complex, more panoramic picture than in his earlier writings. In addition to giving him these new skills, the life-experience writing gave Izumi a sense of himself as someone who, while part of his family, was also separate from it.

Like Mikael Leiman, Anthony Ryle (Ch. 24) demonstrates the complementarity of object relations theory and activity theory. But Ryle's interests are more immediately practical than are Leiman's. His procedural sequence model, which he sees as an interface between several theoretical frameworks, is a tool for adult psychotherapy. Here, as in the example from Moro, the subject creates artifacts about his life which mediate a transformation of self awareness.

The gist of Ryle's model is that patient and therapist jointly reformulate the patient's problems in a letter that summarizes the patient's history of unsuccessful strategies, or "procedures," for overcoming the problems. A key analytic tool in the patient's written history of his problem is the sequential diagram. This aid, applied in the context of Ryle's account of child development, depicts the origin and relationships of historically-derived personality structures and repetitive, self-maintaining, and ultimately crippling procedural sequences. According to Ryle, a healthy developmental course eventually entails learning the caretaker role of one's mother (or her surrogate) and applying it to oneself. Presumably, a patient's guided use of his sequential diagram enables him to recognize and overcome failed attempts to pass this learning milestone or lack of opportunity to encounter its challenge.

Commenting generally on the topics of emotional and personality development, Ryle remarks on the potential for exploring them within a framework that combines elements of object relations theory and activity theory:

In many ways, the procedural sequence object relations model could be regarded as an extension of the developmental theory of activity theory to earlier ages (with a bias toward abnormality). One aspect of its contribution could be epitomized by rephrasing Vygotsky's statement as follows: 'What the adult cannot let the child do or know today, the child cannot let herself do or know tomorrow.'5 It would seem to be important for educators as well as therapists to recognize the potential effects of damaging early internalizations, and of how they may inhibit late entry into the (intellectual and emotional) zone of proximal development (p. 414).

This short summary of some of the interventions reported in Perspectives indicates that the crucial distinction between activity theory and the theories dominant in Western psychology and sociology is not, as some might think, a matter of whether qualitative or quantitative methods are used. Instead, the delineating factor is that AT requires a systematic examination of change. This can be done by provoking, facilitating, and documenting change. The long-standing methodological expectations are that this documentation will be longitudinal, artifact-centered, multi-layered, and grounded in the situation. These expectations are the constant across widely diverse research contexts and purposes. The subject of change may be large systems like Fifth Dimension, with many participants, or, as several of the authors have demonstrated, a single individual. This unity, this common focus on the dynamics of change, is more important in defining activity theory than are disputes about which methods are proper to the field.


Perspectives on Activity Theory dramatically extends Leont'ev's original theory. The editors clearly explain the expanded theory in light of the original and provide an excellent overview of the book's offerings. Each of its many chapters is enlightening in itself. Together, they touch on wide array of issues in the human sciences.

Much of the power of Perspectives lies in its penetrating discussions, scattered throughout the chapters, about AT's relationships to theories in other traditions. While the book gives much attention to these cross-theoretical articulations, it does not gives comparable attention to other contemporary theories in the Vygotskian tradition. The Introduction does mention Wertsch's socio-cultural theory and its unit of analysis, mediated action (Wertsch 1995, 1997), as well as Lave and Wenger's theory of situated learning and its unit of analysis, community of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991), and Rogoff's related idea of community of learners (Rogoff, 1995; Rogoff, Radziszewska, and Masiello, 1995). But these references are brief and focus on the relative weaknesses of these other theoretical approaches in areas staked out as central to activity theory. There is no effort to show how each of these theories accentuates aspects of the Vygotskian legacy about which activity theory is silent. This comment also applies to cultural-historical theory, the one other Vygotskian theory repeatedly mentioned in the book. In Perspectives, activity theory and cultural-historical theory are treated as if they were either identical, or interchangeable, or so closely related that their combination as CHAT was well understood and long established. But none of these conditions obtains. What is needed is a systematic, thorough, and thoughtful comparative analysis of the scope and particular strengths of all the theoretical approaches that have grown out of the seminal work of Vygotsky, Luria, and Leont'ev.

Considered alone, activity theory is masterful in the social domain. It is most convincing when it is focused on activity systems in teams and organizations. But it does not resolve well at the level of the individual person. We miss in this collected work the documentation of simultaneous transformations in activity systems and in individual actors in these systems. There is only one instance of that in Perspectives, the longitudinal study by Bujarski, Hildebrand-Nilshon, and Kordt. The young man in that study is one of the few persons we remember from the book.

A true bridging of the individual and social domains, as the Introduction promised AT could provide, would permit concurrent monitoring of change in various subsystems and in units of analysis appropriate to each. The focus of inquiry at a particular moment or on a particular issue would determine the immediate salience of a subsystem. For example, in examining literacy development as an activity system, a full analysis would include an examination of simultaneous changes within the brain and nervous system, in individual consciousness, in intersubjective relationships, and in artifact-mediated social dynamics in the classroom, in the family, and in larger institutional and cultural systems.

The mention of culture raises another dimension overlooked in this book. Although various cultures and national histories are represented by the authors of Perspectives, the book itself contains no cross-cultural research. It lacks, that is, any attempt at comparative analysis of culturally-patterned activity systems. It is also incomplete in the kinds of changes it treats. That is, Perspectives is so oriented to learning, expansion, and development, that it overshadows both the perils and renovating possibilities of destructive cycles. It is only in Ryle's chapter (and, to some extent, in a couple of others not mentioned in the review) that the possibility of disintegrating transformations, their functions, and their trajectories is considered.

Finally, in view of the diversity and conceptual complexity of Perspectives on Activity Theory, an afterward would have been greatly appreciated. Such an addition could have highlighted the many ways in which the chapters play off one another and could have clarified the sometimes mystifying use of the same term to refer to different things. All the same, no linear medium such as text can do justice to the rapid, real-time shifting relationships with which AT and related theories are concerned. Ideally, these dynamic relationships would be presented in a more dynamic medium such as that of video animation.

In Chapter 1, Engeström poses the question: "Can we have sufficient shared understanding of the idea of activity to make it the cell of an evolving multivoiced activity theory?" (p. 20). While the ambitions of this theoretical stance are very impressive, its claim towards a full resolution of how different traditions can be integrated into a single theoretical system seems unrealistic. Our preference would be to construct a set of inter-related theories which reveal richness at different levels of analysis.



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Engeström, Yrjö (1990). Learning, working, and imagining: Twelve studies in activity theory. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit.

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Rogoff, B., Radziszewska, B., and Masiello, T. (1995). Analysis of developmental processes in sociocultural activity. In L. M. W. Martin, K. Nelson, and E. Tobach (eds.), Sociocultural psychology: Theory and practice of doing and knowing. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

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1 New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

2Water Resources Program, Department of Economics, University of New Mexico, 1915 Roma NE, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87131. Tel. (505) 277-3556. E-mail:

3Department of Linguistics and College of Education, Humanities Building, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87131. Tel. (505) 277-4324. E-mail:

4Vygotsky devised his experimental model while studying children's psychosocial development in interaction with adults or relatively more capable peers. The course of learning (for both learner and helper, but the former is emphasized) is such that the learner moves out of an area of established competence and knowledge into an area where, with the helper's assistance, he can perform at a level of higher knowledge or skill. Vygotsky referred to the latter area as the zone of proximal development (zpd).

5The original version of this statement is Vygotsky's oft-quoted remark: "What the child does with an adult today, she will do on her own tomorrow."