Vol. 12 No. 3, April 2007
Activity Theory is a philosophical framework for studying different forms of praxis as developmental processes, with both individual and social levels interlinked. Activity theory allows us to study and historically situate praxis in relation to the material conditions shared by a group of people. Accordingly, it places cognition not in the head or 'inside the skin,' but in the relations that constitute the continuous flow of activity in which human activity is embedded. As such, the general philosophy of AT is the integration of the objective, the sociocultural, and the ecological (Spasser 1999).
Activity theory has its origins in post-World War I Soviet Union as part of the cultural-historical school of psychology founded by Vygotsky, Leont'ev, and Luria (for historical reviews, see Axel 1997; Wertsch 1981). Activity theory has undergone continual development and today not only emphasizes the centrality of practice as doing and mediated action, but also brings to the fore setting and context as essential orienting concepts (see, especially, Engeström 1987; Nardi 1996). It arose in response to the exigent need to enlarge the research object of IS development, i.e., to take better account of contextuality - human activity is always situated in a context (or, more usually, intersecting contexts), and is impossible to understand outside of, or separate from, its contextual conditioning.
Because activities are always situated in specific contexts and are impossible to understand in isolation, a minimal meaningful context for individual actions must be included in the basic unit of analysis. Activity theorists call this basic unit an activity (or an activity system), which is at once more tractable than a social system, better defined and more persistent than arbitrary (and often ephemerally constructed) individual actions, and more meaningful than the artificial settings constructed for formal experimentation.
According to Blackler (1995), human activity has five basic characteristics: 1) pragmatic, or directed toward an object, either material or ideal; 2) mediated by artifacts (in which social knowledge, praxis, and the mediating characteristics of an activity are inscribed and transmitted); 3) embedded and realized socially in a culture; 4) provisional, or historically developing and evolving; and 5) contested, emphasizing the prevalence of contradiction, incoherence, and dilemma as primary opportunities for individual and collective learning. Finally, a sixth characteristic of activity is its hierarchical organization, such that motivated activities are realized through chains of goal-oriented actions, which are carried out through conditions-contingent operations (Kuutti 1996).
By explicitly recognizing and theorizing three broad classes of complexity - the stratified nature of the social world, the social contextualization and embeddedness of interaction, and the dynamism of development (Kuutti 1996) - activity theory is a promising new direction for the field of information science research. Conceptually, the theory registers the shift of focus from the interaction between the isolated user and the stand-alone computer to a larger, more ecologically valid interaction context between human beings with their environment; sensitizes us to the dynamic and evolving nature of human-computer interaction and of information system design and evaluation; and highlights the rich, multi-faceted, and multi-dimensional reality of computer-mediated activity in situ (Nardi 1996). Methodologically, activity theory highlights the importance of specifying a research time-frame long enough to truly understand users' objectives and behaviour; studying broad, sufficiently contextualized patterns of behaviour; employing a varied, yet flexibly disciplined, set of data collection and analytic techniques whose selection is driven by the research question of interest; and understanding events, artifacts, and activity from users' points of view (Nardi 1996). Finally, activity theory can provide information science with a rich, unifying, and heuristically valuable vocabulary and conceptual framework that will facilitate both the continual betterment of practice and the secure transferability and accumulation of knowledge.
This special issue of Information Research presents recent research on activity theory in information studies. While widely used in education, human-computer interaction, and computer-supported cooperative work, activity theory has been more recently applied in information management, information science, and librarianship (see, e.g., Hjørland 1997). This special issue presents activity theoretic work on information behaviour in safety critical operations, information sharing and organizational knowledge production, information systems development, and Web design accessibility. Included is a book-length treatment of activity theory as a unifying and over-arching meta-theoretical framework for interconnecting the anthropological sciences.
In her paper, von Thaden draws upon concepts from Information Science, Human Factors, and Activity Theory to construct a framework for studying the interactions of discourse, social influence, and activity on safety critical operations in aviation. In particular, the author uses those theoretical influences to develop the Distributed Information Behaviour System to help explain the complicated, negotiated information behaviour of pilots, who must improvise procedural responses in ambiguous circumstances.
In their paper, Widén-Wulff and Devenport use activity theory to explicate the link between information sharing and organizational knowledge production in two very different Finnish firms - an insurance company and a small entrepreneurial high technology dental products company. The authors articulate the ways that individual and group information behaviours intersect with organizational processes and, in the process, contribute to the evaluation of activity theory as analytic framework for studying information behaviour in organizations.
In their paper, Mursu, Minkkinen, and Korpela, use activity theory to create an analytic model - Activity Centred Design Model - that is, at once, work-oriented, practicable, emancipatory, and operational in information systems development. The Activity Centred Design Model, which is based on the Activity Analysis and Development Framework (ActAD), contributes to an integrated multilevel analysis - individual, group/activity, organization, and global - of work behaviour. The authors study actions, operations, informational tool use, and human-tool interaction at the individual level; work processes and information flows at the group and activity level; activity networks and organizational boundaries at the organizational level; and legislation and national strategies at the societal level. Their model is necessarily two-dimensional, accounting for both the stratified nature of information system development and its evolution over time. Accordingly, each phase-level intersection can be analysed in terms of objective, emergent tools, and methods to achieve appropriate outcomes.
In his paper, Kane proposes an activity theoretic model of the activities of lay, end-user Web designers to holistically understand the production and increasing accessibility of user-produced Web content. He examines the implications of the activities of end-user designers and tool designers on disabled Website consumers. Barriers to the adoption of accessibility practices occur within and between activity systems. Perhaps, most interestingly, issues of content accessibility and the barriers to it can only be addressed collaboratively between the designer and consumer. The author reminds us that design is always situated, that accessibility design education requires an activity-level focus, that all actors (and their behaviour) must be considered within the contexts of their activity systems, and that tools, including information tools, mediate all human behaviour and must be designed accordingly.
In his book, Karpatschof takes on the difficult task of establishing the interconnection among the anthropological sciences whose common ground is determined to be human activity. The author examines the scope of human activity as the central concept of anthropology. In fact, from a meta-theoretical perspective, all quests for knowledge must be contextualized in human activity. The book is organized into three parts. The Prologue introduces activity theory. Part I, Foundation of activity theory, contains chapters on the ontology and conception of evolution in activity theory, and on the anthropology of human activity. Part II, Theory of knowledge, is comprised of chapters on the epistemology of activity theory, on the meaning and semiotics of activity theory, and meta-science from the perspective of activity theory. The author takes a Marxist approach to human activity, clearly acknowledging the materialist and pragmatist origins of activity theory.
I would like to gratefully thank Editor-in-Chief, Tom Wilson, for his support and, more specifically, for his help in preparing this special issue.
© the author, 2007.
Last updated: 30 March, 2007