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Notes: Sannino et al. (2009). Activity theory between historical engagement and future-making practice



Citekey: @Sannino2009-cg

Sannino, A., Daniels, H., & Gutiérrez, K. D. (2009). Activity theory between historical engagement and future-making practice. In A. Sannino, H. Daniels, & K. D. Gutiérrez (Eds.), Learning and expanding with activity theory (pp. 1–15). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from


Summarize: This chapter provides an interesting and thorough overview of the historical context of activity theory. Understanding the historical circumstance of this theory is important for any use of it.


The legitimacy of activity theory as a unified theory has been the subject of various discussions. Holzman (2006), for example, argues that there is no unified perspective on activity theory (p. 25)

An emphasis on psychological approaches without consideration of anthropological, sociological, historical, and linguistic characteristics of activity is risky and narrows the focus to the study of specific and limited aspects of activity . (p. 25)

beginning in the 1930s when Leont’ev formulated its basic principles and proposed the structure of activity. (p. 25)

This historical circumstance has given rise to the promi- nence of activity theory in psychology. Today, however, activity theory is redefining itself and proving its generative potential across a wide range of disciplines and fields of social practice. (p. 26)

activity the- ory addresses the foundational theoretical issue of activity as the primary unit of analysis and, thus, provides both a theory of human activity and a productive method for its study. (p. 26)

However, Engeström envi- sions a different future for the field, proposing that “the current expansive reconstruction of activity theory will actually lead to a new type of the- ory. Essential to this emerging theory is multivoicedness coexisting with monism ” (Engeström , 1999a, p. 20). (p. 26)

One distinctive theoretical feature of activity theory , for example, concerns the issue of change . As Minnis and John-Steiner (2001) argue, “The delineating factor [between activity theory and the theories dominant in Western psychology and sociology] is that activity theory requires a systematic examination of change . This can be done by provoking, facilitating, and documenting change ” (p. 308). (p. 26)

Activity theory is grounded in the lineage of Leont’ev’s works and recognizes a unifying thread between the works of Leont’ev and other Russian scholars, such as Vygotsky, Luria , Meshcheryakov, and Davydov. This thread may be articulated as follows: Not only is activity an abstract principle of explanation or a general theoretical notion; it is a concept that denotes the basic unit of concrete human life. (p. 26)


human life is fundamen - tally rooted in participation in human activities that are oriented (p. 26)

toward objects. (p. 27)

Object-oriented activities , then, are the core of activity theory and distinguish it from other approaches. (p. 27)

Here we wish to highlight an important difference between sociocultural approaches and activity theory . As a unit of analysis , a focus on action does not account for the historical continuity and longevity of human life. Activity theory conceptualizes actions in the broader perspective of their systemic and motivational context and, thus, aims at going beyond a given situation. The emphasis on action a lone does not f u l fi l l t he resea rch agenda in activity theory, according to which actions are studied in historically evolving collective activities . (p. 27)

Further, the boundaries of the field of activity theory are defined by two distinctive features. First, activity theory is a practice-based theory. Second, it is a historical and future-oriented theory. (p. 27)

Activity theory involves the researcher throughout the course of the development, stagnation, or regression of the activities under scrutiny, as well as in the activities of the research sub- jects. (p. 27)


This proclaimed prac - tice turn can be traced back to Marx’s idea of revolutionary practice , in which theory is not only meant to analyze and explain the world, but also to facilitate practices and promote changes. (p. 27)

Within activity theory, even the most theoretically oriented represen- tative – the philosopher Il’enkov – grounded his philosophy in the edu- cational practices in the boarding school directed by Meshcheryakov in Zagorsk for children with multisensory impairment. (p. 30)

Activity theory , as a practice-based theory , is grounded in practice both theoretically and concretely. On this basis, we argue that the very nature of activity theory relies on establishing a bridge between theory and practice. (p. 31)


Activity theory is based on the collective heritage of the founders, in partic- ular Vygotsky , Luria , and Leont’ev . (p. 31)

This collective contribution stands in contrast to other approaches typically (p. 31)

based on a single individual’s endeavors – for example, psychoanalysis on Freud’s works and genetic epistemology on Piaget’s works. Also, activity theory has the distinctive characteristic of developing as an integral part of the periods of historical turmoil in which activity theorists have lived. (p. 32)

Russia had been ruled for centuries by despots, and thus the revolution was a unique historical turn for the country. For a large number of artists, intellectuals, and academics, it meant a unique opportunity to build a new society. They became completely involved in this cause, exhilarated that they were sharing the vision of a better world (p. 32)

A need to make sense of historical turmoil was the driving force behind the forma- tion of what was to become activity theory. (p. 33)

Until 1990, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, the legacy of Stalinism continued and the state system Stalin built continued to be based on coercion and extreme control. Activity theory, then, must necessarily be understood in the context of this complex historical framework. (p. 34)

The student movement in Europe in the 1960s gave rise to a renewed interest in activity theory. (p. 34)

In these years between the late 1960s and 1970s, activity theory was introduced in the West. Progressive academics like Urie Bronfenbrenner , Jerome Bruner , and Michael Cole brought the works of the founders to American academic circles. (p. 34)

Again, activity theory is one that develops as an integral part of the historical turmoil in which activity theorists live. (p. 35)

As Engeström wrote ( 1999a), “ Activity theory has the conceptual and methodological potential to be a pathbreaker in studies that help humans gain control over their own artifacts and thus over their future” (p. 29). (p. 35)


We identify four main phases in Engeström’s development as an activity theorist.1 These cycles are interrelated and their historical boundaries are not well defined: (1) the European student movement of the 1960s and the discovery of activity theory; (2) the study of instruction and the turn from school learning to workplace learning; (3) developmental work research and the theory of expansive learning; and (4) the formation of activity- theoretical communities aimed at changing societal practices. (p. 35)

At the end of the 1960s and during most of the 1970s, Engeström produced a set of works stemming directly from his participation in the student movement . (p. 35)

Engeström’s search for pedagogical ideas emanated from the Soviet Union and East Germany, most notably L e ont ’e v ’s Problems of the Development of the Mind, published in East Germany in 1973 (Leontjew, 1973) (p. 36)

This first phase of investigation culminated in Engeström’s (1979) thesis, The Imagination and Behavior of School Students Analyzed from the Viewpoint of Education for Peace (in Finnish), in which he first makes extensive use of activity the- ory . (p. 36)

This study reinforced his initial frustration at not being able to pro- vide tangible alternatives to the instructional practices of that time. (p. 36)

The second phase of Engeström’s development as an activity theorist was an intense period starting at the end of 1970s, in which he devoted his work to the study of instruction with the explicit aim of promoting changes in school practices. (p. 36)

The third phase in Engeström’s work concerns the birth of developmen- tal work research , conceived in parallel with the elaboration of the theory of expansive learning. (p. 37)

Engeström’s main argument in Learning by Expanding (1987) is that this kind of learning can be seen in full maturity in the transformation of work. (p. 37)

In Learning by Expanding , we also see Il’enkov’s influence on Engeström in his adoption of the concept of contradictions. The triangular model of activity systems (Engeström , 1987, p. 78), present in embryonic form in early texts (Engeström , 1983; Engeström , Hakkarainen , & Hedegaard , 1984), was further theorized within the development of the theory of expansive learning. The visual representation of the triangle was a way to condense and convey theory in research collaborations with practitioners. (p. 37)

Thus, the triangle emerged as a tool designed to destroy the myth of direct- ness in learning and teaching, and to overcome the dualism in existing traditional theories based on subject–object, learner–knowledge, and indi- vidual–environment relations. Significantly, the triangular representation is a direct result of the researcher’s dialogue with practice. It is important to note that in Engeström’s study of cleaners (Engeström & Engeström, 1984), Vygotsky’s simple triangular representation was successfully used as a basis for making the distinction between object and tool. (p. 37)

A fourth phase of Engeström’s work can be characterized as an ongoing effort to initiate communities into the use and development of activity the- ory for changing societal practices. (p. 38)

The main influence of Engeström’s work on society has occurred through the research projects and partnerships of the Center for Activity Theory and (p. 38)

Developmental Work Research . (p. 39)

This brief historical account of Yrjö Engeström’s work illustrates the development and application of activity theory through the life of an activity theorist. For Engeström, as for the founders of activity theory, theoretical developments require activist involvement in concrete human practices. In constant dialogue with the activity-theoretical classic heri- tage – in particular that of Vygotsky , Leont’ev, Ilyenkov, and Davydov – Engeström’s work addresses the pressing societal challenges of change and learning in work activities. (p. 39)