Activity Theory or the “Cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT)” is an interdisciplinary philosophical framework for studying both individual and social aspects of human behavior. From the perspective of Activity Theory, human activity or ‘what people do’ represents the basic unit of analysis when studying human behavior. The most important aspect of Activity Theory is understanding both individual and collective aspects of human practices from a cultural and historical perspective.

In 2012, Kaptelinin and Nardi summarized five basic principles of Leontiev’s activity theory:

  • Object-orientedness
  • Hierarchical structure of activity
  • Mediation
  • Internalization and externalization
  • Development

The hierarchical structure of activity was originally conceptualized by A. N. Leontiev (1978). We have to notice that the goal of Leontiev was developing a psychological theory at the individual level with the concept of Activity. Thus, we will see three levels of activity correspond to three levels of psychological notions.

Let’s see a diagram first. I found the following diagram from Victor Kaptelinin and Bonnie A. Nardi’s book Acting with Technology (2006, p.64). The three levels of activity are: activity, actions, and operations. The three levels of psychological notions are: motive, goals, and conditions.

Source: Victor Kaptelinin and Bonnie A. Nardi (Acting with Technology, 2006, p.64)

According to Leontiev, “Separate concrete types of activity may differ among themselves according to various characteristics: according to their form, according to the methods of carrying them out, according to their emotional intensity, according to their time and space requirements, according to their physiological mechanisms, etc. The main thing that distinguishes one activity from another, however, is the difference of their objects. It is exactly the object of an activity that gives it a determined direction.” (1978, p.98)

So, what’s the object of activity?

The answer from Leontiev is the motive of activity. Leontiev claimed, “According to the terminology I have proposed, the object of an activity is its true motive. It is understood that the motive may be either material or ideal, either present in perception or exclusively in the imagination or in thought. The main thing is that behind activity there should always be a need, that it should always answer one need or another.” He also added a note about the term motive, “Such restricted understanding of motive as that object (material or ideal) that evokes and directs activity toward itself differs from the generally accepted understanding”.(1978, p.98)

After defined the “activity — motive” level, Leontiev moved to its sub-level: the “action — purpose” level. He said, “We call a process an action if it is subordinated to the representation of the result that must be attained, that is, if it is subordinated to a conscious purpose. Similarly, just as the concept of motive is related to the concept of activity, the concept of purpose is related to the concept of action.” (1978, p.99)

Leontiev also used “goal-directed processes” and “actions” interchangeably. For example, he said, “We call a process an action if it is subordinated to the representation of the result that must be attained, that is, if it is subordinated to a conscious purpose. Similarly, just as the concept of motive is related to the concept of activity, the concept of purpose is related to the concept of action.”(1978, p.99)

Gregory Z. Bedny and Steven R. Harris argued that there are translation issues of activity theory related terms. For example, they pointed out, “No exact equivalent of the English word ‘purpose’ exists in the Russian language, and the concepts of purpose and goal carry clearly differentiated meanings within activity-theoretical psychology... The word tcel’ can be translated as goal and namerenie as intention or purpose. Soviet activity theorists expended great effort clarifying the differences and similarities between these ideas, and in particular distinguishing tcelesoobraznost’, — purposefulness, purposeful behavior — from tcelenapravlennost’, ‘the intention to reach the conscious goal…As a consequence of these various considerations, we consider the concept of ‘purpose’ as open to misinterpretation, and thus cannot endorse its use as a basic concept within AT-HCI.” (2008)

I think this is a reason why the diagram shows “action — goal” for the middle level, not “action — purpose”.

The third level refers to “operation — condition”. According to Leontiev, “Every purpose, even one like the ‘reaching of point N,’ is objective-ly accomplished in a certain objective situation. Of course, for the consciousness of the subject, the goal may appear in the abstraction of this situation, but his action cannot be abstracted from it. For this reason, in spite of its intentional aspect (what must be achieved), the action also has its operational aspect (how, by what means this can be achieved), which is determined not by the goal in itself but by the objective-object conditions of its achievement. In other words, the action being carried out is adequate to the task; the task then is a goal assigned in specific circumstances. For this reason the action has a specific quality that ‘formulates’ it specifically, and particularly methods by which it is accomplished. I call the methods for accomplishing actions, operations.”(1978, p.102)

Leontiev didn’t give a diagram for this three-level structure of activity. The above diagram was designed by others. The problem of the diagram is the one direction arrow which indicates the one way relationship between three levels. However, activity theorists don’t understand it in this way. Leontiev (1978), Kaptelinin and Nardi (2006), and others clearly pointed out it is a two way relationship.

There is a more accurate diagram below I found in a 2013 book The Change Laboratory: A tool for Collaborative Development of Work and Education (Virkkunen, J. & Newnham, D. S., 2013)

Source: The Change Laboratory (2013, p.37)

According to Leontiev, “Human activity does not exist except in the form of action or a chain of actions. For example, work activity exists in work actions, school activity in school actions, social activity in actions (acts) of society, etc. If the actions that constitute activity are mentally subtracted from it, then absolutely nothing will be left of activity. This can be expressed in another way: When a concrete process is taking place before us, external or internal, then from the point of view of its relation to mo-tive, it appears as human activity, but when it is subordinated to purpose, then it appears as an action or accumulation of a chain of actions…In addition, activity and action represent genuine and non-coinciding reality. One and the same action may accomplish various activities and may transfer from one activity to another, showing its relative independence in this way. The opposite is also obvious, specifically, that one or another motive may be given concrete expression in various purposes and correspondingly may elicit various actions.” (1978, p.100)

Kaptelinin and Nardi (2006) pointed out the transformation between actions and operations, “Levels of activity can transform into one another. Automatization is an example of transformations between actions and operations. Over the course of practice actions can become automatic operations. The opposite process is ‘deautomatization,’ the transformation of routine operations into conscious actions. Such a transformation can take place, for instance, when an automatized operation fails to produce the desired outcome and the individual reflects on the reasons for the failure and in how the operation can be ‘fixed.’ Typically a new, more appropriate procedure is devised which first is carried out as a conscious action and then becomes an operation.”(2006, pp.63–64)

Though Leontiev’s goal is developing a new psychological theory, many researchers adopted this three-layer model as an analytical tool for empirical research projects.