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):
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:
- Engeström’s (1999) outline of three generations of activity theory
- Edwards, A. (2007) Relational Agency in Professional Practice: a CHAT analysis, Actio. An International Journal of Human Activity. 1. 1-17
- Daniels, H., and Warmington P. (2007) Analysing third generation activity systems: labour-power, subject position and personal transformation, Journal of Workplace Learning Vol. 19, No. 6, pp. 377 – 391. In a special issue on 'Activity theory and workplace learning.'
- Daniels, H. (2006) Analysing institutional effects in Activity Theory: First steps in the development of a language of description, Outlines: Critical Social Studies, 2006 (2), 43-58.
- Edwards, A. (2007) Working collaboratively to build resilience: a CHAT approach, Social Policy and Society, 6(2), 255-265.
- Daniels, H., Edwards, A., Martin, D., Leadbetter, J., Brown, S. & Middleton, D. (2004) The transformation of teachers' work in and for inclusive practice in: Vadeboncoeur, J. & Jervis-Tracey, P. (Eds), Crossing Boundaries - Perspectives Across Paradigms in Educational Research, (Brisbane, Australian Academic Press).
- Edwards, A. (2005) Relational agency: Learning to be a resourceful practitioner, International Journal of Educational Research, 43, 168–182.
- Edwards, A. (2005) Understanding mind in world: the Vygotskian legacy, TLRP Seminar Series 'Contexts, Communities, Networks': Seminar one 'Reviewing current positions and debates', Glasgow
- Edwards, A. and Apostolov, A. (2007) A cultural-historical interpretation of resilience: the implications for practice, Outlines: Critical Social Studies, 2007 (1), 70.
- Warmington, P.; Daniels, H.; Edwards, A.; Leadbetter, J.; Martin, D.; Brown, S. and Middleton, D. (2004) Learning in and for interagency working: conceptual tensions in 'joined up' practice, TLRP Annual Conference, Cardiff.
- Warmington, P.; Daniels, H.; Edwards, A.; Brown, S.; Leadbetter, J.; Martin, D.; Middleton, D.; Parsons, S. and Popova, A. (2005) Surfacing contradictions: intervention workshops as change mechanisms in professional learning, British Education Research Association Annual Conference, Glamorgan.
- Edwards, A. (2005) Cultural Historical Activity Theory and Learning: a relational turn, TLRP Annual Conference, University of Warwick, November 2005.
Other resources on Activity Theory
There are masses of online resources on Activity Theory, the following are just some possible starting points:
- Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research - University of Helsinki (Center has since been renamed: Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE))
- Centre for Sociocultural and Activity Theory Research (CSAT), University of Bath.
- Martin Ryder's Activity Theory Resource
- Billett, S. (2003) Vocational Curriculum and Pedagogy: an activity theory perspective, European Educational Research Journal, Volume 2, Number 1, 6-21.
- Griffiths, T. and Guile, D. (2003) A Connective Model of Learning: the implications for work process knowledge, European Educational Research Journal, Volume 2, Number 1, 56-73 (use of CHAT to provide a theoretical and methodological framework for analysing work experience).
- Williams, J. and Davis, P. (2006), University of Manchester How pedagogy can help provide resources and motivation for/against mathematical identity work: a socio-cultural perspective ESRC Seminar on Mathematical Relationship: Identities and Participation, University of Manchester, November 2006. (A discussion of how sociocultural theory has informed our understanding of the dynamic relation between mathematical identity and classroom mathematics practice.)
- Fitzsimons, G. (2005) Technology mediated post-compulsory mathematics: An activity theory approach, International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, Volume 36, Issue 7, 769 - 777.