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Activity Theory applied to Careers Guidance

Brief recap of central concerns of activity theory:

The basic idea of activity theory is that an activity is undertaken by a human agent (subject) who is motivated toward the solution of a problem or purpose (object), which is mediated by tools and/or signs (artifacts) in collaboration with others (community). The structure of the activity is constrained by cultural factors including conventions (rules) and social strata (division of labor) within the context. Activity theory not only provides a conceptual framework that realises the importance of artifacts in everyday existence from which we can understand activities, actions and operations and reveal subjects motives, goals and instrumental conditions, respectively, but it predicts consciousness is not simply situated inside the head of an individual but is the product of the interaction - realized through material activity - between an individual and objective forms of culture created by the labour of mankind. See Figure 1 below for a diagrammatic representation of an activity system offered by on the University of Helsinki Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research website (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 (Engeström 1987, p.78)

To help explain the above perhaps it would be useful to try to apply the ideas of activity theory to a particular case, which we do below:

Ideas about the utility and application of activity theory to careers guidance:

When seeking to analyse attempts to enhance careers guidance practice there is often value in situating careers guidance practice within particular social, cultural, historic and political contexts. Indeed, the design of technological support for the development of communities of practice calls for the use of highly innovative design methodologies so that they can take into account the social, cultural, historical and political context within which any support would be located. Applying Engeström and Cole's (1993) activity theory framework to the study of careers guidance practice gives us the following:

  • Subject: careers guidance practitioners (goal-directed actions; beliefs; ideas; mental models);
  • Object: careers guidance practice (patterns of behaviour; relations with clients);
  • Outcome: clients receiving improved career guidance (effectively informing, assessing, advising counselling, enabling, advocating, feeding back, teaching, networking, managing and innovating);
  • Mediating artifacts (tools or instruments): socio-cultural ideas about guidance practice (tools; theories; approaches; historical traces and cultural meanings associated with careers, occupations and identities);
  • Rules: changing frameworks for regulation of practice (focus of guidance practice; statutory entitlements; service targets);
  • Community: extent to which value systems are shared (ideas about 'good practice', meeting targets, nature of professionalism);
  • Division of labour: between practitioners, specialists and assistants (roles and relationships).

The 'value added' of applying CHAT to the enhancement of careers guidance practice is that it provides a richer framework to the search for new understandings in attempts to contextualise, enrich and renew careers guidance. In particular, an activity theory perspective would take such attempts to improve practice as its relevant unit of analysis, and thereby situate careers guidance practice within appropriate social, cultural, historic and political contexts. More generally, when there is a change to a particular area of a system, effects can result as a consequence of that change in areas separate to where the changes were made; activity theory emphasises the value of analysing those effects. This emphasis is particularly useful in helping participants generate questions for discussion. For example: what are the consequences for ideas about professionalism when recognised vocational qualifications are changed?; what values do practitioners place upon innovative practice?; to what extent can an individual change practice, and if they cannot change it completely on their own, who else has to be involved?; how much is critical reflection valued in the system? Such questions, generated as a consequence of the CHAT framework, helps ensure that as attempts are made to restore careers guidance to being a key service to education and training that the complex inter-relationships involved in such a process are addressed.

General online resources:

The following are examples of the use of Activity Theory in research practice:

Appendix: some discussion of the origins of Activity theory

The origin of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) is widely attributed to the founders of the Cultural Historical school of Russian Psychology; L. S. Vygotsky, A. N. Leont'ev and A. R. Luria. However a strong case could be made for arguing that it was in fact Marx who gave birth to the crucial ideas and concepts of CHAT. The fundamental ideas of the approach were articulated by Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934): he proposed that consciousness is constructed through a subject's interactions with the world and is an attribute of this relationship between subject and object, where that action is both artefact-mediated and object-oriented. He, together with his colleagues Luria and Leont'ev, went on to elaborate that a human never (re)acts directly to the environment (or merely with inborn reflects). But that instead the relationship between human agent (subject) and the objects of the environment is mediated by cultural signs and tools; that human action has a tripartite structure. These tools and signs, which can be external (physical) or internal (psychological), are conceptualised as forms of "mediated action" which "are externally oriented and must lead to changes in objects" (Verenikina, 1998). So, instead of the elementary scheme S→R (‘S’ for stimulus, ‘R’ for reflex) from behaviourism, he proposed a new elementary scheme S→ x→ R (where S stands for stimulus, x for means (tool or sign), and R for reflex). Vygotsky insisted that the explanations of other complex phenomena would also lie not in their reduction to single elements but rather in their inclusion in a rich net of essential relations. This new elementary scheme argues that tool- or sign-using is embedded in the most elementary scheme or form of conscious behaviour, therefore Vygotsky supposed that higher mental phenomena would also be of a social origin.

Vygotsky expanded that the development of these cultural tools and signs appears on two planes: "first it appears interpsychologically, in the interaction between humans (often child and adult) and secondly within the human (often child) as an intrapsychological achievement/tool. For example, language is first used in the interaction between adult and child as a means of communication and shared actions. Gradually language is then internalized into the child's means of controlling their thought and activity. Vygotsky dubbed this "the genetic law of cultural development...Social relations or relations of people genetically underlie all higher functions and their relations" (Vygotsky, 1981, p. 163). In a bid to provide some empirical support to Vygotsky's theorising, Alexander Luria undertook a pioneering study (Luria, 1976) on illiterate peasants in Soviet Central Asia to investigate the influence of different cultural signs and tools on human psychological functions. He pained to provide questions that would be concrete and familiar to his subjects such as:

In the far north, where it snows, the bears are white.
Nova Zemblya is in the far north, and it is always snowy there.
What colour are the bears in Nova Zemblya?

Yet, the replies he received often still did not fit with his expectations, such as:

How should I know? I have never been to the north.

Why are you asking me? You have travelled I have not.

So-and-so said the bears were white. But he is always lying.

Yet, these answers provide implicit evidence that they are in possession of good syllogistic reasoning. For example; you cannot believe liars; so-and-so is a liar; therefore even if he says the bears are white they may not be. So, in spite of sound reasoning abilities the peasants failed to answer questions testing syllogistic reasoning; the implication is that their different cultural tools and signs are impacting on their application of a psychological function. Importantly, this was not limited to syllogistic reasoning; on classification tasks, Luria's subjects would again score poorly, while simultaneously demonstrating good classification skills. For example:

When asked to classify the 'odd-one-out' of:

Hammer, saw, hatchet, log

The typical response was similar to:

They all belong, you need the saw and the hatchet to cut the wood and the hammer to hammer it.

Thus, Luria (1976) had provided some empirical support for both the idea of a tripatrate structure of human action (i.e. because the stimuli (S) were the same yet the (re)actions (R) very different the implication was that the tools and signs (x) must be mediating this process because they were different), and that the development of mediating tools and signs are linked to an individual's cultural development (i.e. because the tools' mediation varied according to the participants' cultural background).

Three distinct generations of ideas are discernible in the evolution of activity theory; the ideas already discussed, centred around Vygotsky's notions about cultural mediation, constitute the first generation. However, in this early work, Vygotsky had not integrated mediation by other human beings through social relations in his triangular model of action. Such integration required a conceptual breakthrough: Leont'ev provided it by distinguishing between collective activity and individual action, and so inspired the second generation of CHAT theorising. Again the impetus for this theorising stemmed indirectly from Marx: this is because for Leont'ev, Marx's concept of labor, or "production of use values", was the paradigmatic model for the human object-oriented activity, and this model argues work, mediated by tools, is "performed in conditions of joint, collective activity (...) Only through a relation with other people does man relate to nature itself, which means that labour appears from the very beginning as a process mediated by tools (in the broad sense) and at the same time mediated socially" (Leont'ev, 1981, p. 208). Whilst, this theorising primarily inspired Leont'ev to suppose that the emergence of the division of labour was fundamental to the evolution of mental functions, it also planted the conceptual seeds for a distinction between collective activity and individual action.

To illustrate his idea Leont'ev described a "primeval collective hunt" (1981, p. 210-213): "a beater, for example, taking part in a primeval collective hunt was stimulated by a need for food, or perhaps, a need for clothing, which the skin of the dead animal would meet for him. At what, however, was his activity directly aimed? It may have been directed, for example, at frightening a herd of animals and sending them towards other hunters, hiding in ambush. That, properly speaking, is what should be the result of the activity of this man. And the activity of this individual member of the hunt ends with that. The rest is completed by other members. This result, i.e. frightening of the game, etc., understandably does not in itself, and may not, lead to satisfaction of the beater's need for food, or the skin of the animal. What the processes of his activity were directed to did not, consequently, coincide with what stimulated them, i.e., did not coincide with the motive of his activity; the two were divided from one another in this instance. Processes, the object and motive of which do not coincide with one another, we shall call "actions". We can say, for example, that the beater's activity is the hunt, the frightening of the game the action."

This distinction between activity and action provided the basis for Leont'ev's three-level model of activity. The uppermost level of activity (often collective) is driven by an object-related motive; the middle level of action (often individual) is driven by a conscious goal; and the bottom level of automatic operations is driven by the conditions and tools of the action at hand. For CHAT theorising, this model both marked Vygotsky's, Leont'ev's and Luria's last major contribution to it, and signalled the beginning of its third generation: around the 1970s the tradition was taken up, systematised and recontextualized by radical researchers in the west. As a consequence, a tremendous diversity of applications of activity theory began to emerge. New domains of activity, including modern workplaces, began to be empirically analysed. To this end Evald Il'enkov (1977; 1982) conceptualised a powerful guiding principle to direct all this new empirical research: the idea that internal contradictions were the driving force of change and development in activity systems.

Ideas introduced by this third generation have often been imported from Human-Computer Interaction theory. For instance, Engeström (1987) introduced the notion of rules to govern the interaction between a subject and those with whom they are performing collective activity/sharing a common object, defined by Engeström as the community (a subject may be part of several communities and a community, itself, may be part of other communities) [1]. Rules cover both explicit and implicit norms, conventions, and social relations within a community, and so determine how subjects must fit into the community. In addition, Engeström expressly defined the division of labour as the mediator between the object of the activity and community. More specifically, he defined division of labour as referring to all the explicit and implicit organisation of the community which related to the transformation of the object into the outcome.

This third generation also made some intrinsically interesting observations about some aspects of the previous generation's theorising. For example, Kuutti noted "The tool is at the same time both enabling and limiting: it empowers the subject in the transformation process with the historically collected experience and skill 'crystallised' to it, but it also restricts the interaction to be from the perspective of that particular tool or instrument; other potential features of an object remain invisible to the subject...". Moreover, this new generation also began to identify problems in the early generations' foundational work, some of which were undoubtedly less apparent before the theory had become international. For example Cole (1988; see also Griffin & Cole, 1984) pointed out that the original cultural-historical approach was very much a discourse of vertical development toward 'higher psychological functions' and that this notion of 'higher' had a deep-seated insensitivity toward cultural diversity. Having identified such problems the third generation had to begin to develop conceptual tools to understand and facilitate dialogue between cultures, multiple perspectives and voices, and networks of interacting activity systems.

[1] Although the concept of community and division of labour had already been conceptualised, facilitating the theoretical distinction between action and activity, as part of the third generation's systematisation they expressly, and more formally, defined the terms.

  • Cole, M. (1988). Cross-cultural research in the sociohistorical tradition. Human Development, 31, 137-151.
  • Cole, M. & Engestroem, Y. (1993). A cultural-historical approach to distributed cognition. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations (pp. 1-43). New York: Cambridge University Press
  • Engestroem, Y. (1987): Learning by Expanding: An ac-tivity-theoretical approach to developmental re-search, Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit Oy.
  • Griffin, P. & Cole. M. (1984). Current activity for the future: The zo-ped. In B. Rogoff & J. V. Wertsch (Eds.), Children's learning in the zone of proximal development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Il'enkov, E. V. (1977). Dialectical logic: Essays in its history and theory. Moscow: Progress.
  • Il'enkov, E. V. (1982). The dialectics of the abstract and the concrete in Marx's 'Capital'. Moscow: Progress.
  • Kuutti, K. (1996) Activity Theory as a Potential Framework for Human-Computer Interaction Research, In Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction. In B. Nardi (Ed.) Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.
  • Leont'ev (Leontyev) A. N. (1981). Problems of the development of the mind. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
  • Luria, A. R. (1976). Cognitive development, its cultural and social foundations. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  • Nardi, Bonnie A. (ed.). (1996). Context and consciousness: activity theory and human-computer interaction. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996.
  • Verenikina, I. "Cultural-Historical Psychology and Activity Theory". In Hasan, H., Gould, E. and Hyland, P. (Eds) Information systems and activity theory: tools in context, 7-18. University of Wollongong Press, 1998, Wollongong.