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Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research

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Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research
Department of Education
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FIN-00014 University of Helsinki

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Cultural-Historical Activity Theory

In his Theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx (1845) pointedly characterized the two pitfalls of social theory: "The chief defect of all previous materialism ... is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively." And on the other hand: "Hence in opposition to materialism the active side was developed abstractly by idealism, which of course does not know real sensuous activity as such."

The cultural-historical theory of activity was initiated a group of revolutionary Russian psychologists in the 1920s and 1930s, determined to turn the spirit of the Feuerbach theses into a new approach to understanding and transforming human life. The basic concept of the approach was formulated by Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), the founder of the school. According to Vygotsky, psychology in the 1920s was dominated by two unsatisfactory orientations, psychoanalysis and behaviorism. Vygotsky and his colleagues A. R. Luria and A. N. Leont'ev formulated a completely new theoretical concept to transcend the situation: the concept of artifact-mediated and object-oriented action (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 40). A human individual never reacts directly (or merely with inborn reflects) to environment. The relationship between human agent and objects of environment is mediated by cultural means, tools and signs. Human action has a tripartite structure.

Figure 1: (A) Vygotsky's model of mediated action and (B) its common reformulation

Vygotsky showed that language is first used in the interaction between adult and child as a means of communication and shared actions. Gradually language is internalized into a means of child's thought and control of her activity. Vygotsky formulated "the genetic law of cultural development" according to which the child's cultural development appears twice or on two planes (Vygotsky, 1981, p. 163). First it appears interpsychologically, in interaction between people, and secondly within the child as an intrapsychological achievement. "Social relations or relations of people genetically underlie all higher functions and their relations" (ibid.).

In the early 1930s Alexander Luria undertook a pioneering study in Soviet Central Asia to grasp the historical transformation of human psychological functions under the influence of changing psychological tools. Luria (1976) showed that implementation of written language and logico-mathematical operations, typically connected to formal schooling, had significant influence on how people categorized objects of the environment.

We may discern three theoretical generations in the evolution of activity theory. The first generation, centered around Vygotsky, created the idea of mediation. In the early work of the cultural-historical school, mediation by other human beings and social relations was not theoretically integrated into the triangular model action (see Figure 1 above). Such an integration required a breakthrough into the concept of activity by distinguishing between collective activity and individual action. This step was achieved by Alexei Leont'ev by means of reconstructing the emergence of division of labor as a fundamental historical process behind the evolution of mental functions.

Marx's concept of labor, or production of use values, was the paradigmatic model of human object-oriented activity for Leont'ev. Mediated by tools, work is also "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)

The second generation of activity theory derived its inspiration largely from Leont'ev's work. In his famous example of "primeval collective hunt" Leont'ev (1981, p. 210-213) explicated the crucial difference between an individual action and a collective activity. The distinction between activity, action and operation became the basis of Leont'ev's three-level model of activity. The uppermost level of collective activity is driven by an object-related motive; the middle level of individual (or group) action 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. However, Leont'ev never graphically expanded Vygotsky's original model into a model of a collective activity system. Such a model is depicted in Figure 2 (Engeström, 1987, p. 78).

Figure 2: The structure of a human activity system

Since the 1970s, the tradition was taken up and recontextualized by radical researchers in the west. New domains of activity, including work, were opened up for concrete research. A tremendous diversity of applications of activity theory began to emerge. The idea of internal contradictions as the driving force of change and development in activity systems, powerfully conceptualized by Evald Il'enkov (1977; 1982), began to gain its due status as a guiding principle of empirical research.

Ever since Vygotsky's foundational work, the cultural-historical approach was very much a discourse of vertical development toward 'higher psychological functions'. Michael Cole (1988; see also Griffin & Cole, 1984) was one of the first to clearly point out the deep-seated insensitivity of the second generation activity theory toward cultural diversity. When activity theory went international, questions of diversity and dialogue between different traditions or perspectives became increasingly serious challenges. It is these challenges that the third generation of activity theory must deal with.

The third generation of activity theory needs to develop conceptual tools to understand dialogue, multiple perspectives and voices, and networks of interacting activity systems. In this mode of research, the basic model is expanded to include minimally two interacting activity systems (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Two interacting activity systems as minimal model for the third generation of activity theory

Cole, M. (1988). Cross-cultural research in the sociohistorical tradition. Human Development, 31, 137-151.

Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit.

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.

Leont'ev, A. N. (1978). Activity, consciousness, and personality. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Leont'ev (Leontyev) A. N. (1981). Problems of the development of the mind. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Luria, A. R. (1976). Cognitive development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Marx, K. (1845/1967). Theses on Feuerbach. In E. Kamenka (Ed.), The Portable Marx. New York: Penguin Books.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1981). The genesis of higher mental functions. In J. V. Wertsch (Ed.), The concept of activity in Soviet psychology. Armonk: Sharpe.

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