Psychology Degree Guide: Activity Theory
Activity theory is a psychological model that explores the complex relationship between humans and their tools, seeing tools as manifestations of internal processes that facilitate interpersonal communication. It is a circular theory: social interactions provoke the creation of new tools that facilitate deeper or more complex and productive social interactions.
When it was first conceived in the 1920’s, activity theory was a revolutionary development in the field of psychology. Activity theory is still prevalent in psychology, though there are many different branches in the field today.
As an ongoing effort to provide the best resources on psychology, compiled below are lists of useful sites that offer information on important figures in the field of activity theory.
Activity Theory: An Overview
Activity theory arose in Russia in the 1920’s and 1930’s as an alternative to behaviorism and psychoanalysis. Activity theorists sought to expand existing paradigms to explore human behavior as socially structured and dynamic, a holistic approach to the study of human psychology rooted in the physical world in which psychology develops.
Activity theory can be traced to many sources, but the most widely recognized origin was in the work of the three researchers at the Moscow Institute of Psychology: Lev Vygotsky, Alexander Luria and Alexei Leont’ev. Vygotsky was the founder of cultural-historical psychology, the seed of what would become, after many additions and revisions, activity theory. Cultural-historical psychology challenged the objectivism of behaviorism and the subjectivism of psychoanalysis, attempting to create a dynamic psychological framework based on development and change to connect the human mind to human activity.
One of the primary ideas behind activity theory is that human beings develop within a created environment, shaped by the needs and tools of other human beings. Changes to this environment occur over time, as the needs of the humans living within it change, thus influencing the next humans to be born in that environment. The early activity theorists studied this phenomenon through “cultural mediators”: symbol, sign, word and myth. They strove to examine humans through a lens that recognized their place in the world and place in time.
According to the theorist Liam Bannon, Activity theory grew from a larger effort in the field to create a psychology based on Marxist philosophy. The Marxist origins of Activity theory are illustrated in one of the earliest postulates of the theory, the “principle of unity and inseparability of consciousness and activity.” The human mind is a creation of its context, a context that is, in large part, a creation of the human mind. The theoretical framework that shaped the development of the field included the examination of internalization vs. externalization; activity as a hierarchy; object-oriented behavior; tool mediation and constant change.
Activity theory is multidisciplinary. It applies to the way humans behave and the tools they use in all contexts. Today activity theory forms part of many psychology programs, and has been integrated into fields like computer science and business.
- For multiple definitions of activity theory from scholars in the field, visit the University of Colorado, Denver’s Activity Theory Page.
As one of the three pioneers of activity theory, the psychologist Lev Vygotsky was a prolific writer, tackling a wide variety of topics, including: child development, education, the psychology of art, learning, the development of complex higher mental functions, learning disabilities and the relationships between language and thought. Through his studies of child development in different cultural groups, Vygotsky began to recognize that habits of mind are a direct result of cultural influences, a premise he called cultural mediation.
Along with his colleagues at the Moscow Institute of Psychology and later at the Kharkov School of Psychology, he further refined and tested his theory of mind.
- The Muskingum University Psychology Department provides a biography of Vygotsky with an essay describing the complexity of his version of activity theory.
- Marxists.org offers a complete bibliography of works by Lev Vygotsky with links to excerpts and some full-text essays and chapters from his books. It also includes an obituary of Vygotsky by his friend and colleague, Alexander Luria.
- 21st Century Schools provides an outline of Vygotsky’s work with examples of applications of activity theory in the classroom.
- PsyJournals offers full-text editions of the journal Cultural-Historical Psychology, published by Moscow State University, based on Vygotsky’s pioneering work.
- Read Vygotsky’s book Thought and Language online.
Alexei Leont’ev was a contemporary of Vygotsky, and he both embraced and challenged Vygotsky’s work. Leont’ev focused on Vygotsky’s cultural mediation. He was the leader of the research team at the Kharkov School of Psychology, conducting a large collection of studies on child development, focusing on the formation of memories, reasoning, voluntary behavior and visual thinking. It was Leont’ev who named activity theory, expanding on Vygotsky’s “sociocultural theory of mind.”
- Information Technology in Human Activity, Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, provides a full-text scholarly research article by Paul F. Ballantyne entitled, “Leontiev’s Activity Theory Approach to Psychology.” The article includes links to additional scholarly resources.
- Marxists.org offers a complete bibliography of Leont’ev’s work, including links to excerpts, full-text essays and chapters from his books.
- PhillWebb offers online and offline bibliographic references to works by and about Leont’ev.
- The University of Louisville’s Robert N. St. Clair discusses Leont’ev in his article: “Reality-Loops and Activity Theory.”
Alexander Luria was a young psychologist just out of school when he met Vygotsky and Leont’ev in 1924. In his own words, Luria and his colleagues were working to, “discover the way natural processes such as physical maturation and sensory mechanisms become intertwined with culturally determined processes to produce the psychological functions of adults.” After Vygotsky’s early death (in 1934, at the age of 37) Luria and Leont’ev continued pursuing activity theory through their own diverse experiment sets.
In the 1930’s Luria attended medical school, specializing in neuroscience and the phenomenon of aphasia. He continued to study personality from the perspective of activity theory, combining it with medical science to create studies that investigated the cohesive sense of self from the perspective of physiology and psychology.
- The University of California San Diego provides an extensive biography of Alexander Luria.
- The Gallery of Russian Thinkers offers a biography and selected bibliography of Luria’s life and work, with a discussion surrounding his interest in language and memory.
- Renowned British neurologist Oliver Sacks discusses his relationship with the works of Luria, the connections between Luria’s work and his own, and their correspondence.
- Read Alexander Luria’s book: The Mind of a Mnemonist, a chronicle of his observations, case studies and experiments surrounding memory.
Miscellaneous Additional Resources
- The American Psychological Association provides Alex Kosulin’s article: The Concept of Activity in Soviet Psychology: Vygotsky, His Disciples and Critics.
- The University of California San Diego’s Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, uses activity theory (among a wide range of other approaches) to conduct psychological experiments.
- The Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research at the University of Helsinki continues the work of the early activity theorists. Visit their site to read about current research, PhD programs and publications.
- The Encyclopedia of Aging and the Elderly examines activity theory as it relates to geriatric medicine and elder care.
- Learning Theories illustrates activity theory with diagrams and includes a bibliography for additional research articles and other relevant materials.