Re: [xmca] operation, action, activity

From: Steven Thorne (
Date: Wed Jul 06 2005 - 21:25:59 PDT

hi all -- in response to Mike's request, here are
statements from AN Leont'ev describing levels of

Leont'ev summarizes the hierarchy of activity this way:

"in the general flow of activity that makes up
higher, psychologically mediated aspects of human
life, our analysis distinguishes, first, separate
(particular) activities, using their energizing
motives as the criterion. Second, we distinguish
actions-the processes subordinated to conscious
goals. Finally, we distinguish the operations,
which depend directly on the conditions under
which a concrete goal is attained."
(A. N. Leont'ev 1981: 64-5).

a few more quotations below -- levels in ALL CAPS.

'Activity' is the broadest level process within
the hierarchy and is always connected to a
motive, though in some cases, the motive may not
be consciously realized by the actor or

"we always deal with specific activities and
each answers to a specific need of the active
agent. It moves toward the object of this need,
and it terminates when it is satisfied. Various
concrete activities can be classified according
to whatever features are convenient, such as
form, means of execution, emotional level,
temporal and spatial characteristics,
physiological mechanisms, etc. However, the main
feature that distinguishes one activity from
another is its object. After all, it is precisely
an activity's object that gives it a specific
direction. In accordance with the terminology I
have proposed, an activity's object is its real
motive. Of course, the motive can be either
material or ideal. The main point is that some
need always stands behind it."
(A. N. Leont'ev 1981: 59)


"The basic 'components' of various human
activities are the actions that translate them
into reality. We call a process an action when it
is subordinated to the idea of achieving a
result, i.e. a process that is subordinated to a
conscious goal'.
(A.N. Leont'ev 1981: 59-60)

... when a concrete process-internal or
external-unfolds before us, from the point of
view of its motive, it is a human activity, but
in terms of subordination to a goal, it is an
action or a chain of actions. At the same time,
an activity and an action are genuinely different
realities One and the same action can be
instrumental in realizing different activities.
(A. N. Leont'ev 1981: 61-2)

  all excerpts are from: Leont'ev, A.N. 1981. 'The
problem of activity in psychology' in J. V.
Wertsch (ed.). The Concept of Activity in Soviet
Psychology. Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe.


>Does anyone have, from Engestrom's book or the
>Leontiev article in Wertsch, or....... a
>succinct statement of
>the three level struclture of activivity a la
>Leontiev and if so would you please post?
>On 7/6/05,
>That is quite a tidy little package to unpack.
>Those individual units of activity also combine
>to form the gestalt of the work goal. But I am
>still confused because in the quote Leontiev
>refers to actions and operations and then at the
>very end he is stating that analysis should
>revolve around the unit of activity. The units
>of activity that Leontiev refers to are indeed
>what need to be studied when analyzing the
>development of a person's work (insert academic)
>skills, but do operations and actions combine to
>form the unit of activity? And finally, how
>does the interplay of culture decide that new
>worker's competence?
>Mike Cole <<>>
>Sent by: <>
>07/06/2005 08:28 AM MST
>Please respond to mcole
>To: Mike Cole <<>
>>, "eXtended Mind, Culture, and
>Subject: [xmca] operation, action, activity
>Eric-- I have been remiss in not finding a
>statement by Leontiev about levels. There may be
>better ones. I found this
>at <> where two
>Leontiev texts are available. There are probably
>better statements, but this is what I had
>time to grab. Others might do better. If you
>think about the example in this passage in terms
>of your last <> might
>be helpful.
>There is frequently no difference between the
>terms action and operation. In the context of
>psychological analysis of activity, however,
>distinguishing between them is absolutely
>necessary. Actions, as has already been said,
>are related to goals, operations to conditions.
>Let us assume that the goal remains the same;
>conditions in which it is assigned, however,
>change. Then it is specifically and only the
>operational content of the action that changes.
>In especially visual form, the non coincidence
>of action and operation appears in actions with
>tools. Obviously, a tool is a material object in
>which are crystallized methods and operations,
>and not actions or goals. For example, a
>material object may be physically taken apart by
>means of various tools each of which determines
>the method of carrying out the given action.
>Under certain conditions, let us say, an
>operation of cutting will be more adequate, in
>others, an operation of sawing; it is assumed
>here that man knows how to handle the
>corresponding tools, the knife, the saw, etc.
>The matter is essentially the same in more
>complex cases. Let us assume that a man was
>confronted with the goal of graphically
>representing some kind of dependences that he
>had discovered. In order to do this, he must
>apply one method or another of constructing
>graphs - he must realize specific operation, and
>for this he must know how to do them. In this
>case it makes no difference how or under what
>circumstances or using which material he learned
>how to do these operations; something else is
>important - specifically, that the formulation
>of the operation proceeds entirely differently
>from the formulation of the goal, that is, the
>initiation of action.
>Actions and operations have various origins,
>various dynamics, and various fates. Their
>genesis lies in the relationships of exchange of
>activities; every operation, however, is the
>result of a transformation of action that takes
>place as a result of its inclusion in another
>action and its subsequent "technization." A
>simpler illustration of this process may be the
>formation of an operation, the performance of
>which, for example, requires driving a car.
>Initially every operation, such as shifting
>gears, is formed as an action subordinated
>specifically to this goal and has its own
>conscious "orientational basis" (P. Ya.
>Gal'perin). Subsequently this action is included
>in another action, which has a complex
>operational composition in the action, for
>example, changing the speed of the car. Now
>shifting gears becomes one of the methods of
>attaining the goal, the operation that effects
>the change in speed, and shifting gears now
>ceases to be accomplished as a specific
>goal-oriented process: Its goal is not isolated.
>For the consciousness of the driver, shifting
>gears in normal circumstances is as if it did
>not exist. He does something else: He moves the
>car from a place, climbs steep grades, drives
>the car fast, stops at a given place, etc.
>Actually this operation may, as is known, be
>removed entirely from the activity of the driver
>and be carried out automatically. Generally, the
>fate of the operation sooner or later becomes
>the function of the machine.
>Nonetheless, an operation does not in any way
>constitute any kind of "separateness," in
>relation to action, just as is the case with
>action in relation to activity. Even when an
>operation is carried out by a machine, it still
>realizes the action of the subject. In a man who
>solves a problem with a calculator, the action
>is not interrupted at this extracerebral link;
>it finds in it its realization just as. it does
>in its other links. Only a "crazy" machine that
>has escaped from man's domination can carry out
>operations that do not realize any kind of
>goal-directed action of the subject.
>Thus in the total flow of activity that forms
>human life, in its higher manifestations
>mediated by psychic reflection, analysis
>isolates separate (specific) activities in the
>first place according to the criterion of
>motives that elicit them. Then actions are
>isolated - processes that are subordinated to
>conscious goals, finally, operations that
>directly depend on the conditions of attaining
>concrete goals.
>The "units" of human activity also form its
>macrostructure. The special feature of the
>analysis that serves to isolate them is that it
>does so not by means of breaking human activity
>up into elements but by disclosing its
>characteristic internal relations. These are the
>relations that conceal transformations that
>occur as activity develops. Objects themselves
>can become stimuli, goals, or tools only in a
>system of human activity; deprived of
>connections within this system they lose their
>existence as stimuli, goals, or tools. For
>example, a tool considered apart from a goal
>becomes the same kind of abstraction as an
>operation considered apart from the action that
>it realizes.
>Investigation of activity requires an analysis
>specifically of its internal systemic
>xmca mailing list
>xmca mailing list

Steven L. Thorne
Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics
Linguistics and Applied Language Studies
Communication Arts and Sciences
Associate Director, Center for Language Acquisition
Associate Director, Center for Advanced Language 
Proficiency Education and Research
The Pennsylvania State University
Interact > 814.863.7036 | | | IM: avkrook

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