Activity Theory

From IS Theory
Jump to navigation Jump to search



Alternate name(s)

Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT)

Main dependent construct(s)/factor(s)

Outcome (desired result)

Main independent construct(s)/factor(s)

Object (objectiveness of the reality), Subject (internalisation), Community (externalization), Instruments/Tools (artifacts), Rules, Division of Labour

Concise description of theory

Activity theory or Cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) is a theoretical framework that helps to comprehend and analyse the interaction between the human mind, comprising of individuals’ thoughts and feelings, and their and activity.[1] L. S. Vygotsky and Aleksei N. Leontiev are regarded as the founders of the cultural-historical school of Russian psychology and the developers of this theory. CHAT has also been defined as a cross-disciplinary theory for understanding how individuals actively modify their natural and social reality, including themselves, as an ongoing culturally and historically situated, materially and socially mediated process,” according to its definition.[2]

The core tenets of activity theory are - first, humans act collectively, learn by doing, and communicate through their actions. Second, humans create, employ, and adapt a variety of tools to learn and communicate. Lastly, one’s community is central to the process of making and interpreting meaning – and subsequently to all forms of learning, communicating, and acting.[3]

Three principal stages or generations of activity theory have been identified. The first generation is characterised by Vygotsky’s theory of cultural mediation, which was developed in response to behaviourism’s explanation of consciousness, or the formation of the human mind, which reduced the mind to a series of atomic components or structures linked largely with the brain as “stimulus-response” (S-R) processes.[4] Vygotsky contended that the connection between a human subject and an article is never direct and that rather than exploring the human brain or the individual mind, it should be looked for in society and culture as they evolve.  Thus, his cultural-historical psychology endeavoured to account for the social origins of language and thinking. Vygotsky contended that consciousness is essentially subjective and shaped by the history of each individual’s social and cultural experience. The unit of analysis of the Vygotskyan framework is principally the individual.

Vygotsky defined practical human action as the general explanatory category in human psychology, however, he did not clarify its precise nature. Later, the unit of analysis was expanded to incorporate collective motivated activity toward an object in the second generation, moving beyond Vygotsky’s individually-focused model to A.N. Leontiev’s collective model, allowing for a better understanding of how social groups mediate activity.[5] As a result, community, regulations, division of labour, and the importance of understanding their interactions with one another are all included.[6] The analysis of the collective activity system covers social, psychological, cultural, and institutional viewpoints. In this conception, activity systems are inextricably linked to a culture’s deep-seated material practises and socioeconomic institutions. Vygotsky’s previous, simpler triadic model could not adequately account for these sociocultural elements. Thought and cognition, in Leontiev’s view, should be regarded as a part of social life - as a part of the means of production and social relations systems as well as the intentions of individuals in certain social situations.

When activity theory ‘went international’ after Vygotsky’s foundational work on the individual’s higher psychological functions and Leontiev’s extension of these insights to collective activity systems, questions of diversity and dialogue between different traditions or perspectives became increasingly serious challenges. In the 1970s and 1980s, Michael Cole and Yrjö Engeström’s work brought activity theory to a much larger international audience.[7]

Engeström contended that after taking into account all of the participants’ lives and biographies, as well as the history of the larger community, multiple activity systems must be considered, implying the need for a 'third generation' to “develop conceptual tools to understand dialogue, multiple perspectives, and networks of interacting activity Systems,”. A noticeable advantage of second and third-generation CHAT over its earlier Vygotskian ancestor, which concentrated on mediated activity in relative isolation, is the bigger canvas of active persons (and researchers) enmeshed in organisational, political, and discursive practises.[8]

Third-generation activity theory is the application of Activity Systems Analysis (ASA) in developmental research, which is characterised by investigators taking a participatory and interventionist role in the participants’ activities and changing their experiences. Engeström’s activity triangle diagram – which includes rules/norms, intersubjective community relations, and division of labour, as well as multiple activity systems sharing an object – has become the widely used third-generation model for analysing individuals and groups in the research community.

Diagram/schematic of theory

Activity System Diagramas per the third generation Activity Theory
Engeström’s Activity System Model

Originating author(s)

Lev Vygotsky and Aleksei N. Leontiev, later Yrjö Engeström.

Seminal articles

Engeström, Yrjö. "Activity theory and individual and social transformation." Perspectives on activity theory 19.38 (1999): 19-30.

Engeström, Y. (2000). Activity theory as a framework for analyzing and redesigning work. Ergonomics, 43(7), 960-974.

Originating area


Level of analysis

Individual (First generation of activity theory – Vygotsky), Group (Second generation of activity theory – Leontiev).

Links to WWW sites describing theory

Links from this theory to other theories

Social Constructivism (Learning theory)

IS articles that use the theory

Allen, D.K., Brown, A., Karanasios, S., & Norman, A. (2013). How should technology-mediated organizational change be explained? A comparison of the contributions of critical realism and activity theory. MIS Quarterly, 37 (3), 835–854

Barki, H., Titah, R., & Boffo, C. (2007). Information system use-related activity: An expanded behavioral conceptualization of individual-level information system use. Information Systems Research, 18(2), 173-192. doi:10.1287/isre.1070.0122

Chen, R., Sharman, R., Rao, H.R., & Upadhyaya, S.J. (2013). Data Model Development for Fire Related Extreme Events: An Activity Theory Approach. MIS Quarterly, 37(1), 125–147.

Crawford, K. & Hasan, H. (2006) Demonstrations of the Activity Theory framework for Research in IS. Australasian Journal of Information Systems, 13(2), 49–68.

Forsgren, E., & Byström, K. (2018). Multiple social media in the workplace: Contradictions and congruencies. Information Systems Journal, 28(3), 442-464. doi:10.1111/isj.12156

Gleasure, R., & Morgan, L. (2018). The pastoral crowd: Exploring self-hosted crowdfunding using activity theory and social capital. Information Systems Journal, 28(3), 489-515. doi:10.1111/isj.12143

Hasan, H., Smith, S., & Finnegan, P. (2017). An activity theoretic analysis of the mediating role of information systems in tackling climate change adaptation. Information Systems Journal, 27(3), 271-308. doi:10.1111/isj.12104

Jensen, T., Vatrapu, R., & Bjørn-Andersen, N. (2018). Avocados crossing borders: The problem of runaway objects and the solution of a shipping information pipeline for improving international trade. Information Systems Journal, 28(2), 408-438. doi:10.1111/isj.12146

Karanasios, S., & Allen, D. (2013). ICT for development in the context of the closure of Chernobyl nuclear power plant: an activity theory perspective. Information Systems Journal, 23(4), 287–306. doi: 10.1111/isj.12011

Karanasios, S., & Allen, D. (2014). Mobile Technology in Mobile Work: Contradictions and Congruencies in Activity Systems. European Journal of Information Systems, 23(5), 529–542. doi: 10.1057/ejis.2014.20

Karanasios, S., Allen, D., & Finnegan, P. (2015). Information systems journal special issue on: Activity theory in information systems research. Information Systems Journal, 25(3), 309-313. doi:10.1111/isj.12061

Karanasios, S., & Allen, D. (2018). Activity theory in information systems research. Information Systems Journal, 28(3), 439-441. doi:10.1111/isj.12184

Kelly, P. R. (2018). An activity theory study of data, knowledge, and power in the design of an international development NGO impact evaluation. Information Systems Journal, 28(3), 465-488. doi:10.1111/isj.12187

Li, L., Du, K., Zhang, W., & Mao, J. -. (2019). Poverty alleviation through government-led e-commerce development in rural china: An activity theory perspective. Information Systems Journal, 29(4), 914-952. doi:10.1111/isj.12199

Malaurent, J., & Avison, D. (2016). Reconciling global and local needs: A canonical action research project to deal with workarounds. Information Systems Journal, 26(3), 227-257. doi:10.1111/isj.12074

Malaurent, J., & Karanasios, S. (2020). Learning from workaround practices: The challenge of enterprise system implementations in multinational corporations. Information Systems Journal, 30(4), 639-663. doi:10.1111/isj.12272

Park, J., Pang, M. -., Kim, J., & Lee, B. (2021). The deterrent effect of ride-sharing on sexual assault and investigation of situational contingencies. Information Systems Research, 32(2), 497-516. doi:10.1287/ISRE.2020.0978

Ryu, C., Yong Jin, K., Chaudhury, A., & Rao, H.R. (2005). Knowledge acquisition via three learning processes in enterprise information portals: learning-by-investment, learning-by-doing, and learning-from-others. MIS Quarterly, 29(2), 245–278.

Simeonova, B. (2018). Transactive memory systems and web 2.0 in knowledge sharing: A conceptual model based on activity theory and critical realism. Information Systems Journal, 28(4), 592-611.


Rishika Jain, Doctoral Student at Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, India

Date last updated

3 September, 2020

Please feel free to make modifications to this site. In order to do so, you must register.


  1. Kaptelinin, Victor; Nardi, Bonnie A. (2006). Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0262513319.
  2. Roth, Wolff-Michael; Lee, Yew-Lin (2007). ""Vygotsky's Neglected Legacy": Cultural-Historical Activity Theory". Review of Educational Research. 77 (2): 186–232. CiteSeerX doi:10.3102/0034654306298273
  3. Kaptelinin, Victor; Nardi, Bonnie A. (2006). Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0262513319.
  4. Vygotsky, Lev S. (1978). Mind in Society: the Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-67457629-2.
  5. Engeström, Yrjö (1987). Learning by Expanding: An Activity-theoretical approach to developmental research (PDF). Helsinki, Finland: Orienta-Konsultit.
  6. Engeström, Yrjö (1999a). Engeström's (1999) outline of three generations of activity theory (PDF). Univ Bath webpage.
  7. Kaptelinin, Victor; Nardi, Bonnie A. (2006). Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0262513319.
  8. Engeström, Yrjö (1987). Learning by Expanding: An Activity-theoretical approach to developmental research (PDF). Helsinki, Finland: Orienta-Konsultit.