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Activity theory

Introduction to Activity Theory applied to a work context

The premise of activity theory is that a collective work activity, with the basic purpose shared by others (community), is undertaken by people (subjects) who are motivated by a purpose or towards the solution of a problem (object), which is mediated by tools and/or signs (artefacts or instruments) used in order to achieve the goal (outcome). The activity is constrained by cultural factors including conventions (rules) and social organisation (division of labour) within the immediate context and framed by broader social patterns (of production, consumption, distribution and exchange). Activity theory provides a conceptual framework from which we can understand the inter-relationship between activities, actions, operations and artefacts, subjects’ motives and goals, and aspects of the social, organisational and societal contexts within which these activities are framed. See Figure 1 below for a diagrammatic representation of an activity system offered on the University of Helsinki Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research website and from where it is possible to get a more extended interpretation of Activity Theory. Although note the Center has since been renamed: Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE):

Activity Theory

Figure 1: The structure of human activity (p. 78, Engeström, Y. (1987): Learning by Expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental re-search, Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit Oy).

Example of application of Activity Theory in a TLRP project

The TLRP Learning in and for interagency working project demonstrate that Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) is a useful framework for examining learning to become a professional. Hence their materials can be used to explore in some detail the use of CHAT in practice:

Other resources on Activity Theory

There are masses of online resources on Activity Theory, the following are just some possible starting points: