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Activity Theory

Introduction to Activity Theory image29.gif

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 3 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.

Figure 3: 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:

TLRP showcase:


Ivanič, R. (2006) uses Activity Theory as a framing for discussing the relationships between Language, learning and identification. (First presented as a paper at BAAL Annual Conference at the University of Bristol 2005).

Mannion, G. and Miller, K. (2005) Literacies for Learning in Further Education: promoting inclusive learning across boundaries through students' literacy practices, ECER Conference, Dublin, September, 2005.

Welch, G. (2007) Addressing the multifaceted nature of music education: An activity theory research perspective, Research Studies in Music Education, Vol. 28, No. 1, 23-37.

Gallagher, T; Daniels, H; Kilpatrick, R; Carlisle, K (2008) Making it work: Collaborative working to meet the needs of young people at risk, TLRP Research Briefing 34. Uses Activity Theory as a framework for analysis.

Gallagher, T; Daniels, H; Kilpatrick, R (2008) Collaborating to combat social exclusion. Multi-agency working in Northern Ireland, TLRP Outcomes Poster.

Postlethwaite, K (2007) Boundary crossings in research: towards a cultural understanding of the research project 'Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education', Educational Review 59(4), 483-499.

Kent, P; Noss, R; Guile, D; Hoyles, C; Bakker, A (2007) introduce an epistemological dimension to activity theory in Characterizing the use of mathematical knowledge in boundary-crossing situations at work, symposium on 'Learning and Technology at Work' (all symposium contributions available from Mind, Culture, and Activity 14:1&2).

Thorpe, M., Miller, K. and Edwards, R. (2005) The Situatedness and Mobility of Learning: Pedagogical, Theoretical and Research Issues. This paper was given as part of a TLRP Thematic Seminar Series on Contexts, Communities and Networks: Mobilising Learners' Resources and Relationships in Different Domains.

Wheelahan, L. (2007) Blending activity theory and critical realism to theorise the relationship between the individual and society and the implications for pedagogy, Studies in the Education of Adults, 39, 2, pp. 183-196.