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.

Yrjö Engeström upgraded the activity theory from the individual activity level to collective activity level with a conceptual model of “activity system” in order to apply activity theory to educational settings, organizational development and other fields (Engeström,1987).

The development of work and expertise

Yrjö Engeström is Professor of Adult Education and Director of the Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE) at University of Helsinki and Professor Emeritus of Communication at University of California, San Diego.

Yrjö Engeström was attracted by the Soviet-Russian tradition of cultural-historical activity theory when he was a university student and activist and started his first activity-theoretical study in 1982. In order to avoid the curricular constraints in school settings, he chose the world of work and organizations as the field of study in which he encountered a more open attitude toward novel ideas and practices. (Engeström & Glaveanu, 2012, p.515).

This start point anchored his research trajectory and led to a series of great innovations such as Activity System, Expansive Learning, and Developmental Work Research. In 1987, he published his keystone work titled Learning by Expanding (1987/2014) in which he developed the now-famous Activity System triangle, the concept and model of Expansive Learning, and the early version of methodology of development work research. Since then, his research has significantly advanced our understanding of development and learning in different work settings and made significant contributions to cultural-historical activity theory.

Yrjö Engeström’s creativity and contribution to the development of activity theory and the field of organizational learning and innovation are for all to see. According to Georg Ruckriem and Joachim Lompscher (2005), “Yrjö Engeström is one of the most self-directed but certainly also most interesting representatives of contemporary activity theory. In the development of activity theory, his publications, starting with his early work on learning theory, signify the beginning of a new phase in which activity theory steps out of its mainly academic discourse and becomes an interdisciplinary approach increasingly engaged in the resolution of practical societal problems. This is happening internationally, in Europe, Latin America, North America, Japan, and elsewhere. Engeström made an essential contribution to this with his creative development of the methodology which he — unlike the psychologically oriented classics of the theory, Vygotsky, Leont’ev, Luria — founded on an understanding of activity as collective activity. He constructed and developed further the methodology by using it in and confronting it with empirical studies.”

The Engeström’s Triangle

One major outcome of Learning by Expanding is a diagram which aims for picturing Leontiev’s activity system. Now the diagram has a nickname called “Engeström’s Triangle”.

The above Engeström’s triangle is based on the cultural-historical psychologists’ notions of mediation as individual action (subject — instruments — object) at the top of the diagram. Engeström (1987) considered “a human activity system always contains the subsystems of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption.”(p.67), thus, he added the bottom of the triangle to the original individual triangle in order to include other people (community), social rules (rules), and the division of labor between the subject and others.

Some authors see this diagram as a graphical heuristic. For example, Geri Gay and Helene Hembrooke said, “…Building on these principles, Alexei N. Leont’ev (1981) created a formal structure for operationalizing the activity system as a complex, multilayered unit of analysis (figure 1.1). His model is less a representation of reality than a heuristic aid for identifying and exploring the multiple contextual factors that shape or mediate any goal-directed, tool-mediated human activity.” (2004, p.2).

Clay Spinuzzi (2020) also used “graphic heuristic” to review this model, “…Engeström provided a graphical heuristic (the now-famous triangle) for picturing Leontiev’s activity system. This heuristic, which has been derided by some critics (e.g., Miller, 2011)…”. However, Spinuzzi pointed out the positive value of the diagram, “This heuristic…was meant not only as an analytical device for researchers but (critically) also as a way to communicate with — and codesign work with — research participants (e.g., Engeström, 1999; Engeström & Sannino 2010). That is, it served as an interventionist “language game” (Ehn 1989) similar to the prototypes and organizational games that Bødker and other participatory designers used to leverage the tacit expertise of participants. This point has been overlooked by those who have critiqued the triangle heuristic as an oversimplified theoretical tool.”

The formation of learning activity

Engeström considered three activity types as practical lineages leading to the formation of learning activity, “These three are the activity of school-going, the activity of work, and the activities of science and art.” (1987, p.108)

The diagram below is for discussing the primary contradiction of modern work activity. Now, the graphic models became a tool for theoretical development. Engeström pointed out, “In terms of activity theory, we may say that there is on the one hand the object-activity (appearing in the form of market demands) requiring high quality, flexibility, variability and short delivery times from the products, which in turn require complex programmable cybernated instruments. However, there is an acute conflict between these factors and the striving for immediate cost-efficiency, manifested above all in the polar and compartmentalized division of labor. In effect, industrial capitalism has split the work activity in two basic layers of actions, those of operating or performing and those of design and management.”

Engeström claimed that the learning activity emerge from these contradictions. He said, “To gain mastery of the whole work activity means to move from actions to activity in the sense tentatively characterized by Leont’ev and Ilyenkov. As I pointed out earlier, the expansive form of this transition implies that the actions themselves are objectively transformed. Moreover, such a transition requires ‘reflecting the relation of the motive of a given, concrete activity to the motive of a wider activity’ (Leont’ev).

In other words, the subjects must become aware of the contradictory nature of their present work activity and relate it to a future form of the work activity ‘that realises a broader, more general life relation that includes the given, concrete activity’ (meaning that the given form of work is not eliminated or replaced at once). This is a tall order that cannot be accomplished without ‘a certain, special activity’ of new type — learning activity.” (1987, p.125)

The network of human activities

In order to discuss the relationship between learning activity and other types of human activities, Engeström used a new term called Activity Network. He said, “Human learning begins in the form of learning operations and learning actions embedded in other activities, phylogenetically above all in work. Learning activity has an object and a systemic structure of its own. Its prerequisites are currently developing within earlier activity types: school-going, work, and science/art. In the network of human activities, learning activity will mediate between science/art on the one hand and work or other central productive practice on the other hand.” (1987, p.133)

The above diagram and various types of diagramming indicate the future evolution of the Activity System theory.