On this page we have collected short introductions to some of the key authors whose writings have particular importance for cultural-historical activity theory.
Karl Marx formulated in Theses on Feuerbach the foundational idea of object-oriented human activity as revolutionizing practice that transcends both idealism ("individuals have free will") and mechanical materialism ("individuals are mere reproductions of societal conditions"). He also pointed out that activity is always riddled with internal contradictions which are the driving force of history - in capitalism, the contradiction between the use value and exchange value pervades all activities.
» For some of Marx's works online, see the Marx/Engels Library
Lev Vygotsky created the foundation of cultural-historical psychology, based on the concept of mediation. Human action is not a direct response to the environment - it is mediated by culturally meaningful tools and signs which make the human being able to control him- or herself from the outside. Collaboration with other humans creates zones of proximal development for individuals, enabling them to go beyond their current capacity by grasping and constructing new mediating tools and signs. To uncover human potential, we need to conduct formative experiments which induce zones of proximal development.
» Marxists.org Vygotsky archive
Alexei Leont'ev formulated the concept of activity as a systemic formation and unit of analysis for human sciences. Activity is a collective system driven by an object and motive. It is realized through individual actions driven by goals. Actions in turn are realized by means of routinized operations, dependent on the conditions of the action. To understand and facilitate development, we need to study and change entire collective activity systems, their objects and motives, not just isolated actions and skills.
» Marxists.org Leont'ev archive
Alexander Luria showed that our ways of thinking and reasoning are indeed culturally mediated and change when ways of life undergo historical transformations. He also showed that our brain is a flexible organ which, working together with cultural tools and signs, enables us to remediate our activities even when we are seriously impaired by injury.
» Marxists.org Luria archive
Evald Il'enkov showed how human activity systems can be analyzed by ascending from the abstract to the concrete - that is, by tracing their evolution through internal contradictions from initial simple forms to complex and diverse totalities.
» Marxists.org Il'enkow archive
Michael Cole demonstrated that activity theory needs to understand the simultaneous co-existence and interaction of various different cultures and activities - not just the historical evolution of a single culture. His utopian methodology of studying human potential by creating new activity systems pushes forward Vygotsky's legacy of formative experiments.
» Michael Cole's home page at the University of California, San Diego
» Back to What are CHAT & DWR