Re: [xmca] definition of 'activity'

From: Mike Cole (
Date: Sat Jan 07 2006 - 17:30:30 PST

I wish you great good luck, Andy. In *Cultural Psychology* I examine a
number of terms with close affinities to "activity"/ Below is a snippet
focused on activity.
But the only thing I can be sure of about this discussion is that it is
going to be considered ill considered, ignorant, or downright offensive by
any number of people
who, to be sure, do not agree among themselves about the right answer.
Michael Roth can almost certain help out with German origins of the term and
Yrjo has
written extensively about it in Learning by Expanding, which is available at

Might even touch on that topic in the mediational theories of mind class!

 *Following the Activity Thread*

Activity theory is anything but a monolithic enterprise. Within Russia there
are at least two schools of thought about how best to formulate Marx's ideas
in psychological terms (Brushlinsky, 1968; Zinchenko, 1985). There is a long
German tradition of activity theory research (Raeithel, 1994), a
Scandinavian/Nordic tradition ( Hydén, 1984; Engeström, 1993) and now,
perhaps, an American tradition (Goodwin and Goodwin, in press; Nardi, 1994;
Scribner, 1984). A good statement of general tenets of this approach is
provided by Engeström, who writes that an activity system,

 integrates the subject, the object, and the instruments (material tools as
well as signs and symbols) into a unified whole.

An activity system incorporates both the object-oriented productive aspect
and the person-oriented communicative aspect of human conduct. Production
and communication are inseparable (Rossi-Landi, 1983). Actually a human
activity system always contains the subsystems of production, distribution,
exchange, and consumption (p. 67).

The attractiveness of this formulation in light of the discussion of
artifact mediation at the beginning of this chapter should be apparent:
Engeström's formulation promises a way to incorporate ideas about the
duality of artifacts but does not privilege production over social cohesion.

Engeström represents his conception of activity in a manner that both
includes and enlarges upon the early cultural-historical psychologists'
notions of mediation as individual action. Once again we see a triangle, but
now it is a set of interconnected triangles (See Figure 5.3). At the top of
the figure is the basic subject-

[Insert Figure 5.3 about here]

 mediator-object relationship depicted in Figure 5.1. This is the level of
mediated action through which the subject transforms the object in the
process of acting upon it. But action exists "as such" only in relation to
the components at the bottom of the triangle. The *community* refers to
those who share the same general object; the *rules* refer to explicit norms
and conventions that constrain actions within the activity system; the
of labor* refers to the division of object oriented actions among members of
the community. The various components of an activity system do not exist in
isolation from each other; rather, they are constantly being constructed,
renewed, and transformed as outcome and cause of human life.

Engeström echoes contemporary dissatisfaction with conceptions that either
treat contexts as "containers" of behavior, untouched in themselves by human
actions or as contained within interpersonal interaction. Jean Lave nicely
summarized the shortcomings of these two conceptions by declaring that "one
has system without individual experience, the other experience without
system (Lave, 1988, p. 150)."

In activity theory as summarized in Figure 5.3, contexts are activity
systems. The subsystem associated with the subject-mediator-object
relationships exists as such only in relationship to the other elements of
the system. This is a thoroughly relational view of context.

Jean Lave (1993) provides a succinct summary of several themes uniting
scholars interested in activity and practice theory:

 1. An emphasis on the dialectical character of the fundamental relations
constituting human experience (in Lave's terms, human agency is "partially
determined, partially determining").

2. A focus on experience in the world that rejects the structure and
dynamics of psychological test procedures as a universally appropriate

3. A shift in the boundaries of cognition and the environment such that, in
Lave's phrasing, cognition "is stretched across mind, body, activity and
setting" (a perspective sometimes referred to as "distributed cognition"
(Hutchins, 1991; Norman, 1991; Salomon, 1993).

On 1/7/06, Andy Blunden <> wrote:
> Can anyone help me with a succinct (NB) definition of 'activity' as it is
> used in the CHAT literature.
> I am sure this is a hotly contested topic, but if there is any kind of
> lowest common denominator or consensus on this I would be very grateful.
> Andy Blunden
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