Three actions and one quotation about Second-order Activity and my “Activity” thematic space

This is a long note about the concept of Second-order Activity and my “Activity” thematic space. I will share three situational actions and one quotation.

In the past two weeks, I returned to theoretical learning of Activity Theory.


There are three things behind this move: 1) Last week the AAS4LT program roughly closed its first part: Life Discovery Project, 2) I am reading a book titled The Scientific Project of Sociology, 3) I am also reading a book titled Controversy Mapping.

All these things encourage me to re-read papers about Activity Theory and rethink it and my creations about it.

The Concept of Second-order Activity

In the past two months, I worked on testing the AAS4LT 1:1 life coaching program with a friend of mine.

The AAS4LT framework is developed for applying the Anticipatory Activity System (AAS) framework to Life Transitions (LT).

The program was designed with two main parts: Life Discovery Activity (as a Second-order Activity) and Developmental Project (as a First-order Activity). Last week, we roughly closed the first part Life Discovery Activity.

So, I started reflecting on the program and the Life Discovery Project.

Based on the program and my other projects, I thought the concept of “Second-order Activity” is a pretty interesting idea. It also encourages me to rethink Activity Theory.

Originally, I gave an operational definition of the concept of “Second-order Activity” for the AAS framework. From the perspective of Leontiev, an Activity is defined by its Object/Objective. Activity Theorists don’t use the pair of concepts “First-order Activity/Second-order Activity”. For the AAS framework, Second-order Actiivty is defined as a special activity that aims to discover Objectives for a new activity.

In other words, Second-order Activity defines Objectives of First-order Activity. This is a simple reason to use the term “Second-order”. We can also find examples from the real-life world. The “Strategy” activity and the “Life Discovery” activity can be considered two types of Second-order Activity.

However, I realized that the notion of “discovering objectives for a new activity” is not enough to describe “Second-order Activity”. For example I started applying the AAS framework to Service Knowledge Management two weeks ago. I considered “Software Outsourcing Service” as a “First-order Activity” while “Service Knowledge Management” is understood as a “Second-order Activity”. Without “Software Outsourcing Service”, we don’t need “Service Knowledge Management”.

So, the relationship between First-order Activity and Second-order Activity is quite complex.

Today I read a paper titled Activity theory: theory and practice (Manolis Dafermos, 2015) and found Rubinstein’s approach to Activity Theory offers me a new solution to rethink this issue. See more details in the section of Quotation.

Is Activity Theory a Sociological Theory?

The other thing is reading a book titled The Scientific Project of Sociology (Ping-keung Lui, 2010) which is the second series of lectures on sociology-philosophy, taught in a course for MA(Part-time) students at the Department of Philosophy, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Fall 2010. Its original title was “The Philosophers, the Sociologists, and the Scientific Project of Sociology”.

Ping-keung Lui aims to build a brand new theoretical sociology as a candidate for the paradigm of sociology. According to Lui, “There are three kinds of theories in sociology, namely, social theory, sociological theory, and theoretical sociology. ”

  • Social theories are speculations about the social world. They constitute the speculative project of sociology.
  • Some social theories are amenable to positivistic investigation under certain specific conditions. I call them sociological theories.
  • Also, some other social theories, being very ambitious, attempt to recruit as many as they can sociological theories supporting themselves. I call them theoretical sociologies. They compete against each other. The winner becomes the paradigm of sociology, and its supporting sociological theories become exemplars of the paradigm. In this way, theoretical sociologies and sociological theories constitute the scientific project of sociology.

Two days ago, I had a short chat with Lui about the term “Social theories”. In fact, he considers all “Social Thoughts”, “Logs”, and “Ideology” as “Social theories”. For example, a political party’s ideology and a professional community’s knowledge framework are “Social theories” from his perspective.

The book was organized into four parts:

  • Introduction: Philosophy of Social Science
  • Part I: Realism
  • Part II: Method
  • Conclusion: The Scientific Project of Sociology

Lui developed his account in two steps. First, he curated some theories in sociology and philosophy for his lectures by selecting, quoting, analyzing, and discussing. Second, he created his own perspective by reflecting and responding to these theories. This is an amazing example of Curativity as Creativity.

To be honest, it is a challenge to read this book for me. However, it offers me a guide to reading some social theoretical thinkers such as Schutz, Giddens, Bourdieu, Goffman, etc.

During the process of reading this book, I asked myself a question:

Is Activity Theory a sociological theory?

It’s not easy to answer this question because there are many branches of Activity Theory. In fact, the term “Activity Theory” is not an official name for a particular theoretical account. People just use it as a name to refer to a family of similar approaches.

In the past two decades, scholars also used “Cultural-historical Activity Theory” (CHAT) to refer to a set of approaches and expanded the focus from psychology to multiple disciplines. According to Manolis Dafermos (2015), “A multidisciplinary approach to activity theory has developed at the Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research (University of Finland, Helsinki) led by Yrjö Engeström. Vygotsky, Luria, and Leontiev worked in the context of psychology as a discipline, while the representatives of CHAT developed a multidisciplinary research program.”

In a 2019 paper that reviewed the development of Yrjö Engeström’s account, Clay Spinuzzi claimed that the account “was arguably closer to an organizational sociology. This organizational sociology is specifically oriented to interventionist research: i.e., the consensus-driven codesign of systems of collective action.”

Thus, I started re-read Clay Spinuzzi’s papers about the historical development of Yrjö Engeström’s Activity System model and expansive learning model.

In Sept 2020, I wrote a long article titled Activity U (IV): The Engeström’s Triangle and the Power of Diagram from the perspective of diagrams and diagramming on theoretical building and development.

Now, I am re-reading related papers from the perspective of The Scientific Project of Sociology.

The “Activity Circle” and Concept Dynamics

I am also currently reading Controversy Mapping: A Field Guide (Tommaso Venturini & Anders Kristian Munk, 2022) which connects ANT (Actor-network theory) with digital methods for social cartography.

According to the authors, ANT is inspired by Algirdas Greimas’ semantics and narrative theory in particular.

  • Generalizing the system introduced by Russian narratologist Vladimir Propp (1968) to catalogue folktales, Greimas (1989) defined the elements of any text according to what they do rather than what they are. A classic feature of traditional tales is indeed that their protagonists are not only humans, but also animals, spirits, and animated objects. Anything that acts is a character in its own right and it can fill a role in the story in the same way in which a human being would (a magic ring can cast spells like a magician, a magic sword can fight like an army of soldiers).
  • Extending this idea to all types of texts, Greimas introduced the notion of “actants,” defined as anything that “accomplish tasks, undergo tests, reach goals” (Ricoeur, 1989, p.588). The openness of the notion of “actant” struck a chord in ANT, to which it offered a way to identify the ingredients of sociotechnical networks without having to bother whether they were human beings (e.g., scientists and engineers), natural elements (e.g., microbes, stars, molecules), objects (e.g., laboratory tools, technological artefacts) or something else.

The authors combine two different but related schemas — the “actantial model” (proposed by Greimas, 1966, to categorize actors) and the “canonical narrative schema” (proposed by Greimas, 1970, to categorize action) — to suggest a way to dissect collective “programs of actions” into their components.

Controversy Mapping: A Field Guide (Tommaso Venturini & Anders Kristian Munk, 2022), p.123

The authors use a story about French wine and terroir as an example to show the power of the method. You can find a large size picture of the above diagram here. You can also find more details about the two schemas in the following articles:

I have read the diagram many times. Last week, I realized the above diagram is an example of Diagram Blending and I can adopt the pattern to blend two of my diagrams together.

What’s the pattern of the above diagram? First, the center of the diagram is a semiotic triangle which is also called the Acantial Model. I can use my diagram about Concept Dynamics as the center of the new framework. See the diagram below. While the Acantial Model is for categorizing actors, the Concept Dynamics is used for categorizing Concepts or Themes.

Second, the authors use the Canonical Narrative Model three times in order to present three types of actions. I can use the Relevance of Zone model to discuss theme-based communicative actions.

The above diagram is called “the Relevance of Zone” which is an Abstract Model. It considers four keywords: Self, Other, Thing, and Think. It was inspired by the iART Framework and the Typology of Relevance.

The Relevance of Zone focuses on “Self, Other, Thing, and Think”. Originally, I used “Thought” for the diagrams below. It is perfect for discussing a special object which has double properties: material property and mental property. This idea was inspired by cultural-historical psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s two types of mediating tools: technological tools and psychological tools.

The diagram below is an example of the Relevance of Zone: Art as Activity. Art is such a special object, at least for the field of Art Inventory, we have to pay attention to the content of Art (what the artist created) and the form of Art (what the material thing is). For example, a painting has a material aspect and a mental aspect which means an idea.

The “Art as Activity” model also considers the “Self — Other” Relevance, it offers a creative space for discussing various types of social roles and relationships. For the Art as Activity model, I defined four types of roles. Let’s use paintings as an example.

  • Creators: they create paintings.
  • Curators: they buy paintings to sell them.
  • Collectors: they buy paintings for using them.
  • Commenters: they view paintings and talk about them.

I use the “Self — Other” relevance to represent three Zones between four roles. A Zone means a long-term social interaction between two actors around a particular theme or a thing. You can find more details about the concept of Zone in Activity U (XI): Process, Position, and Zone of Project.

  • The Creator — Curator Zone
  • The Curator — Collector Zone
  • The Collector — Commenter Zone

You can find more details about using the Relevance of Zone in #TalkThree 03: How to Use an Abstract Model?

Why do I want to blend the Concept Dynamics framework and the Relevance of Zone model together?

In the past several weeks, I noticed there is a pattern behind many discussions on Linkedin. These discussions always present a theme-centered conversation or controversy.

I also realized that the Concept Dynamics framework and the Relevance of Zone are suitable for mapping these discussions.

Finally, I decided to use “Activity Circle” to name the outcome of the diagram blending for discussing theme-centered conversation. However, I am not sure if it is appropriate to propose the term “Activity Circle” as a new concept for the field of Activity Theory.

Several months ago, I found Karpatschof’s 2000 book Human Activity: Contributions to the Anthropological Sciences from a Perspective of Activity Theory. Though I have read many books and papers about Activity Theory, Karpatschof’s theoretical approach opened a new door for me. The most important idea of his account is to bring Sign/Meaning/Concept back to Activity Theory.

Also, I have mentioned Andy Blunden’s approach “Formation of Concept as Activity”. Though Andy Blunden combined “Project — Concept — Theory” together, I consider the notion of “Formation of Concept of Activity” as a perspective and adopt it to support my work “Themes of Practice”.

Thus, the “Activity Circle” framework echoes both Karpatschof and Blunden’s ideas. Also, the theme-centered conversation or controversy also echoes some Activity Theorists’ work on connecting Lev Vygotsky and Mikhail Bakhtin (1, 2, 3, 4).

The Final Words

On Jan 9, 2022, I wrote a case study about the Thematic Space. You can find more details in Mapping Thematic Spaces #2 — The “Activity” Thematic Space.

On Jan 17, 2022, I wrote an article titled Thematic Space: The Art of Continuous Discovery to review the development of my tacit knowledge about the Activity Analysis project.

In March 2022, I designed a board for reflecting the Activity U project (2020–2022).

On April 22, 2022, I designed a board for rethinking the development of Activity Theory from the perspective of Deep Analogy.

Now it seems that I am analogically returning to June 2020 when I started the HERO U framework which led to the Activity U project (phase I) in August 2020.

Quotation: Rubinstein on Activity

This section is quoted from Manolis Dafermos’s 2015 paper Activity theory: theory and practice.

M.Dafermos (2015). Activity theory: theory and practice.
in I. Parker (Ed.), Handbook of Critical Psychology.
London and New York: Routledge. [ISBN: 978–1–84872–218–7]

Another version of the psychological theory of activity was introduced and developed by Rubinstein. In 1934 Rubinstein’s paper was published: “Problems of Psychology in the works of Karl Marx” devoted to the analysis of an early Marx work: the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (written in 1844). Rubinstein argued that the Marxian notion of human activity is the starting point of the reconstruction of psychology. Human activity is Man’s objectification of himself, “the process of revelation of its essential powers” (Rubinstein 1987: 114). The human being and their psyche are formed in the processes of human activity. Changing the world, the human being simultaneously changes their own essential powers. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 marked the emergence of the method of scientific investigation of Marx. However, it is only the starting point of scientific investigation of the political economy of capitalism. In Marx’s Das Kapital the method of scientific investigation reached a qualitatively new level of development. In Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts many of the most important of Marx’s ideas had not yet appeared as, for example, the notion of the dual character of labour, the distinction between abstract and concrete labour.

Rubinstein suggested “the principle of unity of consciousness and activity” which “synthesized in one formula the four tenets of dialectical psychology … the special nature of the psyche, its active role in human behaviour, the historicity of consciousness and the plasticity of man’s abilities” (Payne 1968: 149). The appearance and formation of psychological processes takes place within the activity only in the process of the continuous interaction between the individual with the world around him (Rubinstein 2000). Consciousness and, more generally, psychological processes not only arise from activity, but also form and transform within the activity. Rubinstein disagreed with the identification of psychological processes with the internal and activity with something external. Activity - in the same way as with psychological processes - is a concrete unity of external and internal. In contrast to functionalism, Rubinstein attempted to study not only discrete psychological functions (such as perception, memory, speech, emotion, thinking), but also human psychism (“psychika”) as a whole in its ontogenesis.

The relation between internal and external activity is one of the principal points of controversy between Leontiev and Rubinstein. Rubinstein criticized Leontiev’s conception of internalization as a transformation of external activity to internal, psychic activity. According to Rubinstein (1973), all the external conditions determine the impact on the thinking only refracted through the internal conditions. External causes act through internal conditions. For Rubinstein, Leontiev overstressed the dependence of internal activity on external activity, while not revealing the inner structure and content of psychic activity itself.

One of the consequences of Leontiev’s approach to internalization is the reduction of learning to the assimilation of fixed knowledge, of predetermined products and results of the process of cognition. Rubinstein criticized the perspective of reduction of learning to a purely reproductive process, to the simple appropriation of ready-made products of culture and the elimination of the production of new knowledge and new forms of activity. One of Rubinstein’s main achievements is connected with his focus on the active, creative role of the subjects and their non reproductive, innovative activity.

Rubinstein suggested a more dialectical approach than Leontiev, one which demonstrates the complex interconnection of the internal and external activity and highlights the importance of subjects in the creative learning process. However, in Rubinstein’s activity theory, as in Leontiev’s theory, there is not a concrete analysis of activity in the particular sociocultural contexts and the description of the particular sociocultural and educational conditions of the transition from the reproductive to creative learning process.