Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research
Department of Education
P.O. Box 26 (Teollisuuskatu 23)
FIN-00014 University of Helsinki
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The Activity System
Human activity is a complex evolutionary achievement. In a simplified fashion, its emergence may be depicted in three major steps. First, the animal form of activity (Figure 1) is an immediately collective and populational 'methodology of survival' of a species. Even this type of activity is not just passive adaptation - "species do not adapt to environments; they construct them." (Lewontin, 1982, p. 163)
Figure 1: General structure of the animal form of activity (Engeström, 1987, p.74)
In animal evolution, we witness ruptures in each of the three sides of the triangle depicted in Figure 1. The uppermost side of 'individual survival' is ruptured by the emerging utilization of tools, most clearly demonstrated by the anthropoid apes. The left hand side of 'social life' is ruptured by collective traditions, rituals and rules, originating at the crossing of adaptation and mating. The right hand side of 'collective survival' is ruptured by division of labor, influenced by the practices of breeding, upbringing and mating, and appearing first as the evolving division of labor between the sexes (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Structure of activity in transition from animal to human (Engeström, 1987, p. 76)
The breakthrough into human cultural evolution - into a specifically human form of activity - requires that what used to be separate ruptures or emerging mediators become unified determining factors. At the same time, what used to be ecological and natural becomes economic and historical. What used to be adaptive activity is transformed into consumption and subordinated to the three dominant aspects of human activity - production, distribution, and exchange (or communication). The model suggests the possibility of analyzing a multitude of relations within the triangular structure of activity. However, the essential task is always to grasp the systemic whole, not just separate connections (Figure 3).
Figure 3: The structure of human activity (Engeström, 1987, p. 78)
In the model, the subject refers to the individual or sub-group whose agency is chosen as the point of view in the analysis. The object refers to the 'raw material' or 'problem space' at which the activity is directed and which is molded and transformed into outcomes with the help of physical and symbolic, external and internal mediating instruments, including both tools and signs. The community comprises multiple individuals and/or sub-groups who share the same general object and who construct themselves as distinct from other communities. The division of labor refers to both the horizontal division of tasks between the members of the community and to the vertical division of power and status. Finally the rules refer to the explicit and implicit regulations, norms and conventions that constrain actions and interactions within the activity system.
The model may be concretized by means of an example. Consider the work activity of a physician working at a primary care clinic. The object of his work is the patients with their health problems and illnesses. The outcomes include intended recoveries and improvements in health, as well as unintended outcomes such as possible dissatisfaction, non-compliance and low continuity of care. The instruments include such powerful tools as X-rays, laboratory, and medical records - as well as partially internalized diagnostic and treatment-related concepts and methods. The community consists of the staff of the clinic, distinguished from other competing or collaborating clinics and hospitals. The division of labor determines the tasks and decision-making powers of the physician, the nurse, the nurse's aide, and other employee categories. Finally, the rules regulate the use of time, the measurement of outcomes, and the criteria for rewards.
Figure 4: The work activity of a primary care physician
The same primary health care activity will look quite different if we take the point of view of another subject in the community, for instance a nurse. Yet both subjects share the overall object - the patients and their health problems. An activity system is always heterogeneous and multi-voiced. Different subjects, due to their different histories and positions in the division of labor, construct the object and the other components of the activity in different, partially overlapping and partially conflicting ways.
There is constant construction and renegotiation within the activity system. Coordination between different versions of the object must be achieved to ensure continuous operation. Tasks are reassigned and redivided, rules are bent and reinterpreted.
There is also incessant movement between the nodes of the activity. What initially appears as object may soon be transformed into an outcome, then turned into an instrument, and perhaps later into a rule (Engeström, 1996). For instance, an unusual medical case first appears as a problem, is transformed into a successful diagnosis and treatment, the account of which is used instrumentally as a prototype or model for other similar cases, and is gradually sedimented and petrified into a rule requiring certain procedures in all cases that fit the category. On the other hand, rules may be questioned, reinterpreted and turned into new tools and objects.
Activity is a collective, systemic formation that has a complex mediational structure. An activity system produces actions and is realized by means of actions. However, activity is not reducible to actions. Actions are relatively short-lived and have a temporally clear-cut beginning and end. Activity systems evolve over lengthy periods of socio-historical time, often taking the form of institutions and organizations.
Collective activity is connected to object and motive, of which the individual subjects are often not consciously aware. Individual action is connected to a more or less conscious goal. Leont'ev (1978, p. 52) pointed out that the concept of object is already contained in the very concept of activity; there is no such thing as objectless activity. An object is both something given and something projected or anticipated. A thing or phenomenon becomes an object of activity as it meets a human need. This meeting is "an extraordinary act" (Leont'ev, 1978, p. 54). The subject constructs the object, "singles out those properties that prove to be essential for developing social practice" (Lektorsky, 1984, p. 137). In this constructed, need-related capacity, the object gains motivating force that gives shape and direction to activity. The object determines the horizon of possible goals and actions.
Below the collective activity and individual action, there is the level of automatic operations. Operations are dependent on the conditions in which the action is performed. Leont'ev (1978, p. 66) gives an example from learning to drive a car.
"Initially every operation, such as shifting gears, is formed as an action subordinated specifically to this goal and has its own conscious 'orientation basis'. Subsequently this action is included in another action, ... for example, changing the speed of the car. Now shifting gears becomes one of the methods for attaining the goal, the operation that effects the change in speed, and shifting gears now ceases to be accomplished as a specific goal-oriented process: Its goal is not isolated. For the consciousness of the driver, shifting gears in normal circumstances is as if it did not exist. He does something else: He moves the car from a place, climbs steep grades, drives the car fast, stops at a given place, etc. Actually this operation [of shifting gears] may, as is known, be removed entirely from the activity of the driver and be carried out automatically. Generally, the fate of the operation sooner or later becomes the function of the machine."
The three-level structure of activity proposed by Leont'ev is depicted in Figure 5.
Figure 5: The hierarchical structure of activity
An activity system does not exist in a vacuum. It interacts with a network of other activity systems. For example, it receives rules and instruments from certain activity systems (e.g., management), and produces outcomes for certain other activity systems (e.g., clients). Thus, influences from outside 'intrude' into the activity systems. However, such external forces are not a sufficient explanation for surprising events and changes in the activity. The outside influences are first appropriated by the activity system, turned and modified into internal factors. Actual causation occurs as the alien element becomes internal to the activity. This happens in the form of imbalance. The activity system is constantly working through contradictions within and between its elements. In this sense, an activity system is a virtual disturbance- and innovation-producing machine.
The primary contradiction of all activities in capitalist socio-economic formations is that between the exchange value and the use value within each element of the activity system. The work activity of a physician in primary medical care may again serve as an illustration. The primary contradiction in object of the doctor's work activity takes the form of patient as person to be helped and healed versus patient as source of revenue and profit (or on the flip side, as opportunity to profit by cutting costs). As Leont'ev (1981, p. 255) observed:
"The doctor who buys a practice in some little provincial place may be very seriously trying to reduce his fellow citizens' suffering from illness, and may see his calling in just that. He must, however, want the number of the sick to increase, because his life and practical opportunity to follow his calling depend on that."
The primary contradiction can be found by focusing on any of the elements of the doctor's work activity. For example, instruments of this work include a tremendous variety of medicaments and drugs. But they are not just useful for healing - they are above all commodities with prices, manufactured for a market, advertised and sold for profit. Every doctor faces this contradiction in his or her daily decision making, in one form or another.
As a new element enters into the activity system from outside, secondary contradictions appear between the elements. An example of a secondary contradiction in medical work would be that caused by the emergence of new kinds of objects, that is, patients and their medical problems. Conflicts emerge between the increasingly ambivalent and complex problems and symptoms of the patients and the traditional biomedical diagnostic instruments. Patients' problems increasingly often do not comply with the standards of classical diagnosis and classification of diseases. They require an integrated social, psychological and biomedical approach which may not yet exist.
A tertiary contradiction appears when a culturally more advanced object and motive is introduced into the activity. Such a tertiary contradiction arises when, say, practitioners of a medical clinic, using experiences from other clinics, design and adopt a new model for their work that corresponds to the ideals of a more holistic and integrated medicine. The new ideas may be formally implemented, but they are internally resisted by the vestiges of the old activity.
Quaternary contradictions are those that emerge between the changing central activity and its neighboring activities in their interaction. Suppose that a primary care doctor, working on a new holistic and integrated basis, refers the patient to a hospital operating strictly on a traditional biomedical model. Conflicts and misunderstandings easily emerge between these activity systems.
These four levels of contradictions may now be placed in appropriate locations in a schematic network of activities presented in Figure 6.
Figure 6: Four levels of contradictions in a network of human activity systems
Level 1: Primary inner contradiction (double nature) within each constituent component of the central activity.
Level 2: Secondary contradictions between the constituents of the central activity.
Level 3: Tertiary contradiction between the object/motive of the dominant form of the central activity and the object/motive of a culturally more advanced form of the central activity.
Level 4: Quaternary contradictions between the central activity and its neighbor activities.
Inner contradictions of an activity system are "the principle of its self-movement and (...) the form in which the development is cast" (Il'enkov, 1977, p. 330). This means that new qualitative forms of activity emerge as solutions to the contradictions of the preceding form. This in turn takes place in the form of 'invisible breakthroughs', innovations from below.
"In reality it always happens that a phenomenon which later becomes universal originally emerges as an individual, particular, specific phenomenon, as an exception from the rule. It cannot actually emerge in any other way. Otherwise history would have a rather mysterious form. Thus, any new improvement of labour, every new mode of man's action in production, before becoming generally accepted and recognised, first emerges as a certain deviation from previously accepted and codified norms. Having emerged as an individual exception from the rule in the labour of one or several men, the new form is then taken over by others, becoming in time a new universal norm. If the new norm did not originally appear in this exact manner, it would never become a really universal form, but would exist merely in fantasy, in wishful thinking." (Il'enkov, 1982, p. 83-84)
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