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Outlines • No.

1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 1

An Interdisciplinary
Concept of Activity
Andy Blunden
Independent Social Research Network Melbourne, Australia

Abstract Vasily Davydov was right when he said
It is suggested that if Cultural-Historical Activity that activity is an ‘interdisciplinary’ concept:
Theory (CHAT) is to fulfil its potential as an ap-
proach to cultural and historical science in general, I always argue that the problem of activity
then an interdisciplinary concept of activity is and the concept of activity are interdisciplinary
needed. Such a concept of activity would provide a by nature. There should be specified
common foundation for all the human sciences, un- philosophical, sociological, culturological,
derpinning concepts of, for example, state and so- psychological and physiological aspects here.
cial movement equally as, for example, learning and That is why the issue of activity is not
personality. For this is needed a clear conception of necessarily connected with psychology as a
the ‘unit of analysis’ of activity, i.e., of what consti- profession. It is connected at present because in
tutes ‘an activity’, and a clear distinction between the course of our history activity turned out to be
the unit of analysis and the substance, i.e., ultimate the thing on which our prominent psychologists
reality underlying all the human sciences: artifact- focused their attention as early as in the Soviet
mediated joint activity. Union days. Things just turned out this way
It is claimed that the concept of ‘project collabora- (Davydov, 1999: 50, emphasis added).
tion’ – the interaction between two or more persons The objective of this paper is to take up
in pursuit of a common objective – forms such a Davydov’s observation and investigate what is
unit of activity, the single ‘molecule’ in terms of
needed for one and the same concept of activity
which both sociological and psychological phenom-
ena can be theorised. It is suggested that such a
to be useful both in the resolution of problems
clarification of the notion of activity allows us to associated with individuals and their relations,
see how individual actions and societal activities and those associated with societal entities and
mutually constitute one another and are each con- their relations. Such a concept would provide a
strued in the light of the other. rational basis for psychology (including educa-
tion, organizational theory, and so on) to ap-
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 2

propriate concepts from sciences concerned grasping the connection with societal phenom-
with societal phenomena (economics, cultural ena, because Activity Theory has had to un-
studies, political science, and so on) and vice critically borrow its conceptions of societal
versa, and contribute to overcoming the indi- entities from other sciences; but it is these enti-
vidual/society dichotomy. Interdisciplinary ties which constitute the content of the psyche
work is commonly organized through the coop- in modern societies. According to Activity
eration of different specialists who each use Theory, an activity is a system of actions in
specialist theories and concepts, but communi- pursuit of some object. But in reality, the iden-
cate with one another in the lingua franca. But tity of such activities have been borrowed from
Davydov is right in suggesting that ‘activity’ other sciences, and fitted into activity theory by
can provide a common theoretical foundation means of arbitrarily defining suitable ‘objects’.
across disciplinary boundaries. What is pro- For example, a spinner is participating in the
posed is not a theory of everything, but rather activity whose object is yarn, although the
concepts which facilitate disciplines critically worker’s goal is wages, and the employers’
appropriating insights from other disciplines. goal is profit. (Leontyev 2009)
And surely, when Marx spoke about ac- In what follows we will review the gen-
tivity (Tätigkeit) in “Theses on Feuerbach” eral conception of activity, drawing upon the
(1975a) he meant precisely an interdisciplinary classic work of Leontyev, leading into consid-
concept of activity, and not a concept limited to eration of how activity is conceived of as the
the solution of problems of individuals and substance of the human sciences. We will con-
small groups. In fact defining practice as the trast this conception of activity as substance
coincidence of changing circumstances and ac- with the conception of a ‘unit of analysis’. How
tivity, he says that “All mysteries which lead these ideas are dealt with by three Russian writ-
theory to mysticism find their rational solution ers whose work is canonical and frequently
in human practice and in the comprehension of cited in the current literature will be considered,
this practice.” All mysteries, not just psycho- and reviewed briefly in relation to two prob-
logical mysteries. In the oft-quoted early pages lems of the social sciences: Marx’s critique of
of “The German Ideology,” (1975b) he went so political economy and the constitution of social
far as to claim that the ‘real premises’ for his subjects. We will then consider whether
work would be ‘the real individuals, their activ- Engeström’s response to the problems which
ity and the material conditions under which have been identified, and the work of Michael
they live, both those which they find already Cole in bringing out the importance of context.
existing and those produced by their activity’ We will then propose a conception of the ‘unit
(1975b: 31). So defined, this project remains of analysis’ of activity which provides a foun-
before us to this day. dation for both the human sciences and ethics.
Because of the ‘historical accident’ re- The method of argument used here is im-
ferred to by Davydov, the concept of ‘activity’ manent critique, the method, originated by Ar-
‘stayed out of politics’ (Sawchuk & Stetsenko istotle, developed by Hegel (1977) in his
2008), so to speak, and came to be linked spe- Phenomenology, and applied by Marx in his
cifically to psychology. Despite the efforts of critique of political economy and by Vygotsky
Activity Theorists, the concept as it has been (1997) in his study of the Crisis in Psychology.
developed is inadequate beyond the domain of Instead of standing outside of a theory and
what Hegel referred to as ‘subjective spirit’ – pointing out its failings relative to this outside
self-contained activity amongst a finite group of position, immanent critique enters into the cur-
individuals. Such a science is inadequate for rent of thinking itself, and follows the concept’s
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 3

own development. In making sense of the his- object relationship exists wherever a living
tory of a concept, the critic is led to an objec- thing, as ‘subject’, has a need which lies outside
tive conception of its crisis. This entails a line of itself, satisfaction of which is the object of
of argument marked by contradictions, rather the subject’s activity, activity which is stimu-
than a series of smooth logical deductions – that lated by the object.
is the whole point: to bring out the contradic- The categories of subject, object and ac-
tions, and show how they are resolved in actu- tivity are mutually constitutive. Leontyev’s
ality. For this approach, science is not the concept of subject is like Kant’s in being asso-
function of an individual, but is a social proc- ciated with an individual organism, but differs
ess, advancing through crisis and contradiction. from Kant’s, in that it embraces all living or-
ganisms, not just human beings. Because hu-
The General Conception of man needs are products of social life and are
invariably satisfied by the products of social
“Activity” life, the object is always an artifact. In this
The idea of ‘Activity Theory’ is associ- sense then, activity is always mediated by arti-
ated with the name of Aleksei Nikolaevich Le- facts, but ‘artifact’ is here understood in terms
ontyev (1904-1979, here “Leontyev”), so let us of the object of activity.
begin with his definition of activity. Alexander Meshcheryakov explains how
Leontyev defines activity through the re- a child born deaf-blind first comes to experi-
lation between subject and object. For Leon- ence a human need:
tyev, the subject is any living thing, inclusive of Any deaf-blind child has a number of
whatever form of sensation and consciousness basic natural wants (to eat, excrete and protect
that the organism has. The object is something himself). Initially these wants do not in
in the subject’s environment which represents themselves constitute true needs in the
to the organism the satisfaction of a need. Ac- psychological sense of that word. They do not
tivity is what mediates between subject and ob- exist as human needs in the strict sense, they
ject. cannot as yet provide the motive force behind
This approach has the advantage of al- purposeful behavior, and for this reason no
lowing the origins of consciousness to be traced human behavior is to be observed in the early
stages. These wants become true needs only after
from non-human organic matter. Human life is
they start to be objectivized and satisfied through
distinguished by the fact that the objects of ac- human methods involving tools and implements
tivity and the needs which the objects satisfy (Meshcheryakov 2009).
them are no longer natural objects and biologi-
cal drives, but rather artifacts and needs which Possibly the first human activity the child
are themselves products of human activity. born deaf-blind may learn is eating with a
Human life is thus conceived as a system of spoon. The spoon is the bearer of the whole his-
needs and the means of their satisfaction. tory of humanity which lies behind the produc-
According to Leontyev, activity is the tion of the spoon, adapted for use in a certain
processes by which a person’s actual life in the way and no other. The deaf-blind child comes
objective world is realized – what they are do- to need a spoon, and using a spoon may be their
ing (Tätigkeit), as opposed to the nervous, first human act, and the first element of human
physiological processes that realize this activity consciousness.
within the organism, including mental proc- Leontyev is at pains to point out that:
esses (Leontyev, 2009). The subject-activity- The expression ‘objectless activity’ is
devoid of any meaning. Activity may seem
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 4

objectless, but scientific investigation of activity The goal of the individual’s action arises only
necessarily requires discovering its object thanks to the representation of the activity
(Leontyev, 1978). through the mediation of social relations.
and continues: This is Leontyev’s general conception of
object-oriented activity. Not limited even to
Thus, the object of activity is twofold:
human life, activity is ubiquitous. Activity is
first, in its independent existence as
subordinating to itself and transforming the neither the object nor a method of research, but
activity of the subject; second, as an image of the rather is a general conception of the nature of
object, as a product of its property of the underlying reality, what is called the ‘prem-
psychological reflection that is realized as an ises’ of a science, or its ‘substance’.
activity of the subject and cannot exist otherwise
(Leontyev, 1978). The Substances, or Premises of a
As a special case of the more general Science
category of natural, object-oriented activity, If we are to gain a clear idea of the prob-
human activity is adapted to and reflects the lem of ‘unit of analysis’ then it is important to
objective properties and connections of its ob- clarify the different notion of ‘substance’. The
jects, but these are themselves human products. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains
The foundation of psychology is the capacity of ‘substance’ as follows:
the human organism to reflect the properties of
the objects of its activity. the substances in a given philosophical
So it is human needs which form the system are those things which, according to that
system, are the foundational or fundamental
structure of activity for Leontyev. Remember
entities of reality (Robinson, 2004).
that by human needs we do not mean the bio-
logical drives which underlie the activity of Thus, the substances, or ‘premises’ of a
lower animals, but rather the human needs and science are the conception the researcher has of
the artifacts in which they are objectified, the the ultimate reality underlying the universe of
objects which are themselves products of social phenomena with which the science is con-
activity. cerned. The same notion of the substance will
Human activity is further characterized by underlie a whole number of distinct enquiries
the fact that it is social activity meeting social, and sciences, within the broad scope of a world
or collective needs; the needs of individuals are view. For example, naïve realism presumes the
met only thanks to the meeting of social needs. existence of matter existing independently of
As a result of division of labor, we have a sepa- human activity, and obedient to natural laws
ration between the goals of an individual’s ac- which are to be investigated. It is not a question
tion and the objective motive of the activity, of whether this ‘belief’ is true or well-founded
which is deemed to be the meeting of some (undoubtedly it is), but simply that the whole
human (i.e., social) need. idea of natural science is to describe the world
The motive of an activity (such as pro- of Nature, beyond all labor processes. This
duction of yarn) is not translated directly into meaning of the word ‘substance’ has flowed
individuals’ goals (such as earning a wage). over into the natural language. For Kantian
The problem of forming individuals’ goals so skepticism, science deals with a subjective do-
that the individuals’ actions are rearticulated to main of appearances, manifesting things-in-
constitute activities which meet social needs is themselves which are beyond perception; so the
a problem of the social organization of labor. objects of possible experience are the sub-
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stance, while ‘matter’ and ‘things-in- ence of everything, like a ‘science of matter’. In
themselves’ are deemed not to be legitimate investigating the basis for an ‘interdisciplinary’
objects for science. For Hegel, the premises concept of activity, the aim is (1) to construct a
were Spirit (Geist), which he described as “the richer definition of activity as a premise for
nature of human beings en masse,” (Hegel 1952 both psychological and sociological sciences,
§264) but which he conceived of as pure and (2) focus on those problems lying on the
thought; for Hegel even Nature was a manifes- boundary between psychology and sociology.
tation of Spirit. But no writer in the CHAT tra- To define this relation a little more precisely,
dition has broached the issue of substance. we should note that psychology takes as given
Outside the domain of psychology and small the forms of social practice and the artifacts
group interactions, CHAT theorists generally constituted by the culture within which an indi-
are generally naïve realists in respect to forma- vidual psyche develops. On the other hand, the
tions outside the domain under study. Such an sociological sciences effectively take as given
approach does not give a means of critically individual psyches which are adapted to and
appropriating from other disciplines. reproduce the culture in which they are active.
Marx however was clear. For Marx, the But the viability of these acts of abstraction has
‘real premises’ were “the real individuals, their its limits, just as the viability of natural sci-
activity and the material conditions under ence’s abstraction of natural entities from activ-
which they live” (1975b: 31). ‘Activity’ is to be ity has its limits. We need a conception of
taken as an interdisciplinary concept, because activity which is equally adapted to the problem
for Marxists it is part of the premises for all of the constitution of forms of practice as to the
science, including even the natural sciences. problem of the constitution of the psyche. Le-
The way in which activity functions for natural ontyev’s general description described above
science became clear with the advent of quan- fails to provide such a conception.
tum physics and relativity, in which the relevant In summary, if we are to formulate an in-
entities cannot be described independently of terdisciplinary concept of activity, then follow-
the human activities through which they are ing Marx, we must:
made objects of experience. For the natural sci- (1) take the individuals and the material
entist, the wave-particle nonetheless remains conditions, i.e., the constellation of mate-
matter in the philosophical sense of the word. rial artifacts, along with activity, as our
Natural scientists can accommodate recourse to premises.
the language of activity as a method of descrip- (2) form a clear conception of the essen-
tion of Nature, while maintaining matter as the tial problem of the mutual constitution of
substance. But for the human sciences, activity social life and individual consciousness.
is crucial, for the objects of human life are both Central to both problems is the concep-
constituted and perceived by activity, and this is tion of what constitutes ‘an activity’, that is, of
the key aspect of activity which an interdisci- what constitutes a unit of social life, from the
plinary concept of activity must address. Notice standpoint of Activity Theory. The objects of
also that for Marx, activity was not the sole social life are institutions, cultures, discourses,
substance, for there can be no activity without norms, and so on. Activity Theory suggests that
individual human beings and a material world these objects are constituted by activity, but
which includes the material products of human what, from the standpoint of activity theory is
labor. the basic unit, the ‘unit of analysis’, from which
To be clear, we cannot talk of a ‘science we can elaborate the constitution of the objects
of activity’ since this would amount to a sci- of social science through activity?
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 6

The “unit of analysis” In the “Philosophy of Right,” Hegel dealt

not just with right, but with the entire range of
Central to formulating the foundations of
problems which arise with the creation of a
any science is the idea of ‘unit of analysis’, as it
modern nation-state, on the basis that all the
is called in the CHAT tradition, following Vy-
social and political phenomena of the modern
gotsky. This is the requirement to form a con-
nation state grow out of the notion of private
cept of the class of problems to be investigated.
property, which he calls ‘abstract right’ – the
It is what Marx meant in Preface to first edition
cell or unit of analysis for what Hegel called
of Capital, when, following Goethe (1996), he
‘objective spirit’. That is, while spirit remained
referred to the commodity relation as the ‘cell’:
the substance for Hegel, for an analysis of
But in bourgeois society, the commodity- modern society, the unit of analysis, according
form of the product of labor – or value-form of to Hegel, was a right, at root, simply private
the commodity – is the economic cell-form property. In the same way, the Logic is made up
(Marx 1996). of three sciences: Ontology, the science of Be-
Note that Marx derived the whole range ing, Essence, the science of Reflection and the
of phenomena of bourgeois society from the science of the Concept; the Philosophy of Na-
commodity relation, despite the fact that ex- ture is the science of Space. Thus Hegel’s En-
change of commodities is a relatively rare oc- cyclopaedia was a ‘circle of circles’.
currence in developed capitalism (Ilyenkov Marx and Hegel spent considerable labor
1960): invariably commodities are purchased to identify, not the most typical or even the
and sold for money. Marx derived money as a simplest unit of the complex they were study-
special limiting case of commodity; but if in- ing, but the most primitive or archetypal rela-
stead, he had begun with money, then he would tion, the relation which, once it comes into
have been quite unable to disclose the ‘mys- being, through its own process of development,
tery’ of capital, because, by starting with such a sets in train the series of transformations which
developed conception as ‘money’, he would produces the whole complex. Exchange of
have skipped over the very processes of differ- commodities or the recognition of private prop-
entiation and development which make the rela- erty are each a kind of ‘virus’ which, once es-
tions of capital comprehensible. Exchange of tablished, spreads and replicates itself and
commodities is the most primitive relation transforms the whole organism.
which, when further developed, unfolds into The definition of a ‘unit of analysis’ al-
purchase and sale, contract, the market, the ac- lows a science to be elaborated rationally (as
cumulation of capital, wage-labor, interest and opposed to empirically), and sheds light on the
so on and so forth. class of problems which prompted it. The type
It is the same idea as what Hegel called of problems opened up by an interdisciplinary
the Notion or conception of a thing, as he ex- conception of activity are analogous to what
plained in relation to the foundations of the sci- Gadamer (2005) called the ‘hermeneutic cir-
ence of right, for example: cle’: each word in a text is interpreted in the
light of it being part of a text of certain genre;
The science of right ... must develop the
idea, which is the reason of an object, out of the but conversely, the text is deemed of that genre
conception. It is the same thing to say that it only through the meaning given to each of the
must regard the peculiar internal development of constituent words. Likewise, the meaning of
the thing itself (Hegel 1952, §2). each individual action is derived from an un-
derstanding of the whole activity of which it is
a part, but conversely, social phenomena are
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 7

constituted only in and through the meaning life? And what are the types of activity and ac-
given to individual actions. In general, indi- cording to what criteria do we differentiate
viduals uncritically accept for they appear to be, them? Unless we can determine the units and
all the states, social classes, institutions and so types of activity from the definition we make of
on, they meet with; psychology tends to follow an activity, then we will obliged to categorize
individuals in this uncritical acceptance of the activity according to arbitrary and extraneous
ontology of social life. Meanwhile conversely, criteria. This would lead to an uncritical de-
the social sciences tend to accept human nature scription of society.
as it is, rather than seeing that individual con- Although activity forms an underlying re-
sciousness is constituted by the forms of activ- ality for all the sciences, it has only been Marx-
ity of which individuals are a part. ist psychology and Marx’s political economy
As we have seen from Leontyev’s general which have explicitly taken up the concept. But
conception of activity, any social entity which these two sciences which have emerged from
performs some social function may be counted common origins are quite foreign to one an-
as ‘an activity’ for the purpose of psychology. other at any but the most superficial level. A
But while a state, for example, is indeed consti- minimal requirement for an interdisciplinary
tuted by activity, is ‘activity’ a fruitful way of concept of activity would be that one and the
approaching the science of the state? That is, same conception of ‘an activity’ should be con-
does the idea of the state as a system of activity sistent with both cultural-historical psychology
meeting some specific social need (security and Marx’s critique of political economy, or at
maybe?) provide a sounds basis for a science of least make the relation between the two trans-
the state? Can we simply replace the various parent.
social formations which need to be understood In forming a ‘unit of analysis’, and in line
in their own terms, with a ‘needs’ so that it can with what Marx had to say on this topic, and
be ‘an activity’? what is in any case self-evident, activity has to
An interdisciplinary theory of activity be taken together with the real human beings
will surely be in its element in dealing with active in that activity, and the actual constella-
those problems where the aspect of the consti- tion of material culture constituted in that activ-
tution of a social phenomenon or entity by the ity. Amongst other things, this excludes the
actions of individuals has a nearly equal weight possibility of beginning with hypothetical situa-
with the aspect of the actions of individuals be- tions belonging to a mythological past or im-
ing determined by the relevant social formation puting to nature relations and laws which are to
of which they are a part. That is, problems be later rediscovered in human activity: it
where the interdependence of individual actions means beginning with human beings of the kind
(psychology) and forms of social practice is we find before us today, and whose propensities
most prominent. Such problems span psychol- we wish to disclose.
ogy and sociology, and it is on such problems In the light of a study of the development
that an interdisciplinary concept of activity of the idea of ‘unit of analysis’ under various
ought to be able to shed some light. names, in Goethe, Hegel, Marx and Vygotsky,
An interdisciplinary science of activity described by this author elsewhere (Blunden in
requires a definite conception of “an activity,” press), the indispensable characteristics of the
that is to say, a unit of analysis which repre- unit of analysis are as follows:
sents just one unit of the totality of social life. (1) It is the conception of a singular, in-
How can we analyze activity as the social life divisible thing (not a collection or combination)
of human beings? What is a ‘unit’ of social (Hegel 2009 §86), but it is typically a particu-
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 8

lar genus of some universal (such as word confirms that Vygotsky used this same concep-
meaning, commodity relation, private property, tion of ‘unit of analysis’.
conditioned reflex). The general conception of activity de-
If it is a collection or combination, this scribed earlier is insufficient as a ‘unit of analy-
simply means that we have not started at the sis’. ‘Activity’ is inherently indeterminate,
real beginning, having already uncritically ac- because it is everything. A ‘unit of analysis’ on
cepted as given, the component concepts and the other hand, is determinate, as simple and
relations. As a particular, it may be or not be determinate as it is possible to be. ‘Activity’ is
(for example a reflex may be conditioned or not a singular thing but a quasi-infinite class of
not, i.e., unconditional) and this particulariza- things, a substance, the conception of the ulti-
tion points to a process of genesis, an inner mate reality for a science. As a unit of analysis
movement and tension. for a science we need some determinate genus
(2) It exhibits the essential properties of a of activity, an elementary unit of social life.
class of more developed phenomena. In what follows I will review of the ap-
The point is to discover which thing ex- proach of L. S. Vygotsky, A. Meshcheryakov,
hibits the essential properties of a class of phe- A. N. Leontyev, Yrjö Engeström and Michael
nomena. The discovery of the cell is always the Cole, writers whose work has been widely cited
outcome of a search for the essential relation in this tradition, with the aim of making an im-
behind a persistent series of problems. As a manent critique, i.e., tracing problems in the
cell, it is not a typical relation, but rather the notion of activity brought out by criticism made
most primitive of its type, a prototype (Hegel within this current of thought.
2009 §163). The unit of analysis poses the key
problems which can be examined without pre- Vygotsky’s Concept of Activity
suppositions. Although Activity Theory is associated
(3) It is itself an existent phenomenon with the name of Leontyev rather than Vygot-
(not a principle or axiom or hypothetical force sky, the concept originated in psychology with
or such like non-observable), in Goethe’s term, Vygotsky. The key aspects of Vygotsky’s con-
an Urphänomen (Goethe 1996). cept of activity are to be seen in the scenario in
A science can only base itself on some- which a novice (or experimental subject) is try-
thing real and empirically given. But the exis- ing complete some difficult task, and an adept
tent thing must be captured as a concept (or researcher) assists the novice complete the
because it is the starting point both for a real action by offering them an artifact to use in
development and for the development of under- solving the problem. This scenario is repre-
standing. For example, if we understand a sented in the ‘double stimulation’ experiment
child’s ‘social situation of development’ simply (Vygotsky 1978). By capturing the psychologi-
as a collection of factors capable of influencing cal function of a novice just as it first develops
the prospects for a child’s development we in the process of instruction, Vygotsky sheds a
have nothing more than an excuse to do some unique light on the essential nature of human
statistics. On the other hand, when we grasp the psychology. In order to successfully complete a
situation as a predicament, a trap from which task, the subject must use an artifact, and this
the child must emancipate herself (Borozhov artifact is not simply discovered by the subject,
2004), then we have what is both a concept and but is introduced and demonstrated by the
an existent reality. Vygotsky’s (1997: 318) dis- other, who acts as a bearer of the culture. The
cussion of Pavlov’s study of salivation in dogs novice thus completes the action by means of
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 9

collaboration with another in the use of an arti- meaning can be taken as a special case of tool-
fact. Similar scenarios appear in other areas of mediated collaborative action.
Vygotsky’s later work. Some confusion has arisen around the
Vygotsky always focused his scientific claim that Vygotsky defined ‘word meaning’ as
work on interactions between individuals, a unit of analysis of consciousness. Vygotsky’s
rather than using representations of societal position is put forward unambiguously in the
phenomena and institutions abstracted from first chapter of Vygotsky’s definitive “Thinking
their constitution in specific forms of activity, and Speech” as follows:
but this does not detract from the significance By unit we mean a product of analysis
of his work for understanding societal activi- which, unlike elements, retains all the basic
ties. After all, societal institutions exist only in properties of the whole and which cannot be
and through individual actions and interactions further divided without losing them. ... The true
between individuals. unit of biological analysis is the living cell,
In the double-stimulation relationship, possessing the basic properties of the living
two people collaborate in one completing a task organism.
set by an other, using an artifact introduced by What is the unit of verbal thought that
the other. The artifact is a cultural-historical meets these requirements? We believe that it can
product. In this scenario, all the essential ele- be found in the internal aspect of the word, in
ments of a notion of activity are encapsulated word meaning. ...
because the artifact may be a product of the ... it is in word meaning that thought and
wider society, and the other carries the knowl- speech unite into verbal thought. In meaning,
edge of how to use it. So this is not just a local- then, the answers to our questions about the
ized relationship between two individuals, but relationship between thought and speech can be
is nonetheless a cultural-historical formation. found. (Vygotsky 1997b)
Vygotsky (1997b) also introduced the So Vygotsky saw word meaning as the
idea of a ‘psychological tool’ – an external unit for the analysis of the relation between
stimulus the use of which introduces a new in- thinking and speaking. In the concluding words
ternal stimulus into an existing stimulus- of “Thinking and Speech” he says:
reaction reflex. The psychological tool begins
as a material object – a word, a symbol, a tool Thought and language ... are the key to the
or even a body part – which a person learns to nature of human consciousness. Words play a
use in collaboration with another person; the central part not only in the development of
thought but in the historical growth of
external stimulus is gradually transformed into
consciousness as a whole. A word is a
an internal stimulus, so that the activity- microcosm of human consciousness. (Vygotsky
structure of the external world of artifacts is 1997b)
internalized in the form of the structure of con-
sciousness and the subject becomes able to per- The idea of ‘microcosm’ is a different
form the relevant task without the use of an concept again, the idea here being that exhaus-
external stimulus. tively investigating the relation of thought and
Vygotsky famously spoke of ‘word- speech, will shed light on all problems of con-
meaning’ as a ‘unit of analysis’, but this author sciousness, because of the centrality of speech
agrees with V. P. Zinchenko (1985) that “one in human development, but it does not mean
can consider tool-mediated action as being very that word meaning is a unit of analysis for con-
close to meaning as unit of analysis” so word- sciousness. Such a claim would be absurd,
since clearly it is practice, i.e., individual hu-
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 10

man beings, material conditions and activity, tion in his work in the education of deaf-blind
not words which is the foundation of con- children. A child who is deaf and blind from
sciousness. The problem of language is indeed infancy will generally not develop a fully hu-
key, but far from exhausting the problem of man consciousness without scientific interven-
consciousness, it is the most developed form of tion. This work gave Meshcheryakov’s staff the
behavior. The rest of Vygotsky’s work testifies opportunity to bring consciousness into being
to the fact that the shared use of cultural tools where it did not previously exist. The teacher is
of any kind was Vygotsky’s unit of analysis. not just ‘experimenting’ on the child, but assist-
All the essential aspects of the concept of ing the child in achieving something it needs to
activity are present in this concept of Vygot- achieve.
sky’s. It has been subject to criticism however. In Meshcheryakov’s scenario, the teacher
Leontyev correctly pointed out that the meaning manually helps the novice complete a task us-
and motives of a person’s action cannot be ing an artifact taken from the cultural life of
found either within the individual, their use of society, and then gradually withdraws that as-
an artifact or their relationship with the collabo- sistance, in such a way that the novice is able to
rator. For this reason, Leontyev made a distinc- take over the teacher’s actions and complete the
tion between the individual’s action, and the task autonomously.
social activity of which it is a part and which In using a spoon to eat, the child does not
gives it meaning; the goal of action is not the just satisfy its immediate need for nourishment,
same as the motive of the activity of which the but by mastering practical-sensuous actions
action is a part. with the spoon, forms an internal image which
The idea is that over history, and the evo- contributes to a reconstruction of the whole
lution of humankind, action and activity which universe of social conventions and practices
are initially identical, became separated from with which the spoon and its shape is associ-
one another. Originally needs were satisfied ated. Meshcheryakov takes us through the
immediately, but with the deferral of satisfac- process whereby his students learn, step by
tion and the growth of a division of labor there step, the skills of self-care, play and communi-
developed a labor process, means of production cating with others, learn the lay-out of their
and culture generally. This distinction between home, their neighbourhood and the activities
action with its immediate goals, and activity which go on in the various buildings, learn a
with its social motivation, is not touched upon daily timetable, a calendar, the important na-
by Vygotsky. This is the criticism of Vygotsky tional holidays and their meaning, learn to grow
which laid the basis for what became known as and prepare food, learn to travel by public
Activity Theory. transport and explore the country and so on and
so forth; in other words, to reconstruct in their
Meshcheryakov’s Work own consciousness and activity the entire
Alexander Meshcheryakov was a student sweep of the culture of their society.
of Vygotsky’s colleague A. R. Luria, and an Meshcheryakov calls the unit of analysis
associate of Feliks Mikhailov and Evald ‘shared object activity’ (Meshcheryakov 2009:
Ilyenkov. In his development of Vygotsky’s 294).
concept of activity, he was able to respond in A kind of vicious circle develops: in order
practice to criticisms of Vygotsky’s concept. to know how to act with the tool the child has to
Meshcheryakov (2009) developed Vygot- know it, and in order to know the tool it is
sky’s conception of learning through collabora- essential that the child act with it. The vicious
circle is broken when the adult begins to teach
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 11

the child to act with the tool in the process of development of a social labor process. The ob-
satisfying its needs. This instruction is only ject thus has a dual existence, being the objec-
possible in the form of joint object action shared tive means of satisfaction of a need, and the
between the adult and the child. (Meshcheryakov socially constructed image of it which serves as
the motivation for a social labor process, which
Human culture is built into the artifacts a may or may not prove adequate to its object and
person uses and the actions of those with whom which may or may not be present in the con-
they are collaborating. Neither Meshcheryakov sciousness of an individual. An activity for Le-
nor Vygotsky, however, went on from these ontyev is thus a ‘social function’, in this
ideas of interpersonal collaboration to develop subjective/objective sense.
an approach to understanding societal phenom- Activities are realized by individual ac-
ena on a broader scale, that is to say, a social tions which are controlled by individuals, each
theory. And this is the problem which Leontyev oriented towards some goal. An activity is real-
tackled. ized by many actions pursuant to different
goals, but while the goals differ from the mo-
Leontyev’s Anatomy and Taxonomy tive of the activity, the activity has no material
existence separately from the actions through
of Activity which it is realized. A goal, such as “Go to
Leontyev never claimed to have identified point A,” must be kept in the individual’s mind
a ‘unit of analysis’ for activity, and always used if they are to take the appropriate action, but the
the word “unit” in inverted commas (AA Leon- goal does not provide its own inherent motive.
tyev 2006), but he did construct an anatomy of Further, it is not assumed that the individual has
activity based on the fact that every activity has an objectively true conception of the motive
an object (Leontyev 1978). Whatever its limita- behind the activity to which their action con-
tions, Leontyev’s effort to develop a theory of tributes; all that is necessary is that for one rea-
activity made the important advance over Vy- son or another they pursue an appropriate goal,
gotsky’s theory in defining activity as a societal and the divers goals pursued by different indi-
entity, beyond the domain of the individual’s viduals objectively add up to furtherance of the
immediate relations and actions, providing ob- activity. On the other hand, this understanding
jective motives for the individual’s actions of an activity and action means that there can
which differed from the subjective goals of the be no immanent definition of an activity on the
individual’s actions. Something of this kind is basis of its constituent goals. The activity can-
necessary if we are to develop an interdiscipli- not be defined solely in terms of what everyone
nary concept of activity which ‘connects’ the is striving to do. So what constitutes ‘an activ-
domain of psychology and the domain of the ity’ can only be determined either from an ob-
social sciences. server standpoint, outside of activity, or by
Each activity is defined by its motive, but those who manage society and the various so-
in the sense of an ‘objective’ or social function, cial functions. This scientific, objectivist aspect
the attainment of a socially determined object of Leontyev’s approach is the cost of bridging
and satisfaction of some social need rather than the gulf between psychology and sociology.
a narrowly psychological entity. But such an Operations are the means by which ac-
‘objective motive’ is reflected in the conscious- tions are realized according to conditions, and
ness of individuals in such a way as to motivate may not be consciously or purposively selected
their actions, actions which as mentioned or controlled. Actions become ‘internalized’ in
above, differ from the activity as a result of the
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 12

being transformed into operations, that is, they horizons of their subjective field of action. An
become ‘second nature’. individual may be motivated by dreams of
The archetypal activity for Leontyev is a glory to go to war, or motivated by fear of pov-
collective hunt by a tribal group, in which dif- erty to become an operative and contribute to
ferent individuals cooperate through a tradi- the accumulation of capital. That is all open.
tional division of labor, pursuing different goals Over and above the artifact-mediated ac-
(beating or trapping) which contribute to reali- tions already highlighted in relation to Vygot-
zation of the social product, which is then dis- sky’s treatment, the core of Leontyev’s
tributed according to social norms and rules, so conception of activity is the production and sat-
that the needs and expectations of each individ- isfaction of needs. This story is all about needs:
ual are met. The actions are carried out using ... we always must deal with specific
socially developed operations which have be- activities, each of which answers a definite need
come ‘second nature’ to the individual, of of the subject [i.e., the individual], is directed
which they are only conscious when something toward an object of this need, is extinguished as
‘goes wrong’. a result of its satisfaction, and is produced again,
The concepts of operation and action and perhaps in other, altogether changed conditions.
some concept of activity form an adequate basis ... The main thing that distinguishes one
for a psychology, and it is not my intention to activity from another, however, is the difference
criticize the concepts of operation and action. of their objects. It is exactly the object of an
The question with which I am concerned here is activity that gives it a determined direction. ...
only the adequacy of Leontyev’s notion of ‘an The main thing is that behind activity there
activity’, as a connecting link between psychol- should always be a need, that it should always
ogy and the phenomena of broader social life. answer one need or another. (Leontyev 1978)
The importance of having a critical per- This conception is dependent on an un-
spective in relation to activity, as a societal en- critical vision of society as a division of labor
tity realized by individual actions, is that it is either rationally planned or economically and
not generally possible to lift an action out of its culturally evolved to meet the social needs of
connection with the activity it is realizing and its citizens. Such conceptions are compatible
which, in a given culture, invest the action with only with the myth of the socialist state or the
social meaning. We will return to this problem image of a primitive tribal society. It is most
below when we consider the cross-cultural re- certainly not compatible with bourgeois society
search of Michael Cole. or at any rate, with Marx’s vision of bourgeois
Leontyev’s idea is that in the social field society as set out in Capital and elsewhere. But
there are various activities; each of these activi- the starting point for a science cannot be some
ties is deemed to be meeting some social need, other world, whether of the primeval past or the
performing some function within the commu- utopian future. The starting point for science
nity’s construction of its needs. There are types must be, as Marx insisted, the “real activity of
of activity according to different types of social individuals” which can be “verified in a purely
need. Individuals are motivated to participate in empirical way.”
these activities, but what goals they are moti- We will now move to consider Leon-
vated to pursue and what motivates them to tyev’s concept of activity in relation to two
pursue those goals, are open questions. The in- problems of social science for which Marxism
dividuals’ goals are generated in the social divi- has developed authoritative models: political
sion of labor and their ‘objective motives’ economy and the constitution of social subjects.
originate in social life somewhere beyond the
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 13

Leontyev’s Theory of Activity and In fact, Leontyev’s Activity Theory does not
seem to find any significant psychological dif-
Marx’s Political Economy ference between the Soviet Union, capitalist
Marx repeatedly insists that the object of America or Saudi Arabia.
all labor subsumed under capital is the expan- The unit of the social life of capital is the
sion of capital, but in Activity Theory, the ob- company (Connell 1977), not a functional
ject of an activity is always the meeting of a branch of industry. For Marx, capital is a
human need, albeit a socially produced collec- ‘quasi-subject’. Capital is an activity which sets
tive need. The idea that the object of the market goals and actions for individuals and underlies
and capital accumulation is the satisfaction of representations people form of the motives of
human needs is precisely what Marx was argu- their actions, and its units are units of capital,
ing against. For example, in Chapter 11 of companies. But capital cannot be understood as
Capital, we read: answering a definite need of the individual, and
If we consider the process of production directed toward an object of this need. Of
from the point of view of the simple labor- course, capital produces use-values, and the ad-
process, the worker is related to the means of vocates of the market take that as the beginning
production, not in their quality as capital, but as and end of the matter, but according to Marx
being the mere means and material of his own the object of labor in bourgeois society is the
purposeful productive activity... But it is production of exchange value and the accumu-
different as soon as we view the production lation of surplus value. The production of use-
process as a process of valorization ... the life- values is a means to an end, not the object of
process of capital consists solely in its own
activity itself.
motion as self-valorizing value (Marx 1996).
The structure of capital, divided into
Leontyev’s conception of activity as be- companies (in the broad sense), internally struc-
ing made up of ‘systems of activity’ each an- tures activity by means of a flow of funds
swering to a definite need of the citizens downwards supports a confluent command
suggests a theory of history in which social re- structure, subject to the capital market. All la-
lations evolve somewhat like an ecological sys- bor subsumed under capital can be divided into
tem. Leontyev’s theory is a kind of units and analyzed easily according to the un-
functionalism. derstanding of capital as a form of activity.
Now it could be argued with some merit Human needs are a secondary matter in the dy-
that this characterization of Leontyev’s theory namics of capital. Other organizations modeled
is a parody: Leontyev allows that the motives of on capitalist enterprises function internally in
social activities are generated and meaningful the same way, and it cannot be presumed that
only socially. But if we allow that in the last the formal aims of the organization (e.g. a pub-
analysis, the objects of activities are not human lic service) is the effective object of all actions
needs, but some other product of social history, in the organization as every nodal point in the
then we are no further forward: either the no- distribution of funds creates new (bureaucratic)
tion of the object of an activity is tautological interests. Not only may goals be at odds with
or the notion of a human need is devoid of motives; actions may be at odds with activities!
meaning. The supposed ‘object’ of an activity is Now, even today, the relations of capital
just an ideal reification of that activity. Insofar do not exhaust social life; there are other forms
as Leontyev’s concept of an activity is com- of activity that provide different motivations
patible with how any social theory constructs other than expansion of capital, but nothing in
its objects, it seems that it can add nothing to it. Leontyev’s notion of activity seems to offer an
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 14

opening for such a distinction, other than the Groups as a Model of Sociality
conception of capital as a distortion or internal
On the face of it, the problem of identity
contradiction within an otherwise healthy labor
and the constitution of social subjects, would
process. This is not an adequate standpoint.
seem amenable to an Activity Theory approach.
Leontyev (2009) talks about the problems
Social subjects are the formal or informal, col-
for his theory arising from the contradiction
lective self-conscious actors on the terrain of
between use value and exchange value, but he
social life, mediating between system-wide
only goes so far as to point to distortions that
phenomena and lives of individuals. The forma-
the market introduces into cultural evolution.
tion of social subjects was a central concern of
He points out that a doctor must desire that his
Hegel, and Marx dealt with it in writings such
patients are ill, because it is by curing their ill-
as “The 18th Brumaire” and there is a vast
ness that he earns a living. He points out that
modern literature on group dynamics, identity
norms of distribution may lead to unfair remu-
and other related topics.
neration for some participants in the social la-
Leontyev’s model of activity theory re-
bor. He talks about the psychological effect of
tains the Kantian conception of the individual
alienation. But he does not see these observa-
subject, whilst the activities in which individu-
tions as calling into question the fundamental
als participate remain objective functions or
idea that the object of an activity (including
structures, so the idea of collective subjectivity
wage labor) is the meeting of an objective, so-
does not fit easily in Leontyev’s theory. A solu-
cial need. At the strictly psychological level,
tion which many writers, both Marxist and non-
this does not seem to pose a problem: a wage
Marxist, have adopted is to put in the position
laborer indeed pursues a goal useful to the em-
of the individual subject “an individual or
ployer with the idea that her own needs will be
group.” That is, the problem of the social char-
met as a by-product in distribution of the social
acter of human agency is elided by the supposi-
product by means of wages, and doubtless also
tion that a group may act in the same way as an
believes that her work meets a social need, not
individual, but without considering any addi-
just the profit of the employer.
tional problems about how a ‘group’ is consti-
That people manage to live despite capi-
tuted, what is meant by ‘group membership’ or
talism is not simply because their needs are met
how an individual comes to accept the actions
as a by-product of capital accumulation. Were
of a particular group and not another as their
social life to be totally subsumed under capital,
then not only would the social conditions for
For example, Vladimir Lektorsky, who is
human life be destroyed but the natural condi-
renowned for his work on the subject-object
tions for human life would be extinguished as
relation in the Activity Theory tradition, says:
well. But it is surely self-evident that a psy-
chology which is to shed light on the psychol- Activity cannot exist without a subject.
ogy of modern capitalist society must recognise But the initial form of a subject is no ego, but a
that this society is a capitalist society, not con- subject of collective activity (e.g., a group, a
tingently, but essentially, with a specifically community, a team). The individual subjective
world, individual consciousness, ego are not
capitalist array of character and psychology.
something given (as philosophers in the 17th and
So as a theory of psychology Leontyev’s 18th centuries thought), but the result of the
activity theory still works, just so long as the development and transformations of collective
content of ‘activity’ is not taken too seriously. activity or practice. (Lektorsky 1999: 107)
But what then does activity theory add to Vy-
gotsky’s original formulation?
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 15

There is no doubt that social subjects of relationships such as solidarity, loyalty, friend-
this kind exist and the concept of corporate or ship, ethical commitment, respect for law, pur-
collective subject has an important role in cul- suit of science, religious identity, ability to
tural and historical analysis. However, group cooperate with others, the acquisition of cul-
membership is only one limited mode of sub- tural competences and so on. Societies are not
jectivity. Still more limited is ‘membership’ of homogeneous; the relation between the individ-
abstract general groups such as race or gender. ual and the people as a whole is one of the most
But more importantly, the posing of essential problems of the human sciences. Born
group membership solves nothing in relation to into society, and pursuing culturally-historically
the problem of the sociality of individual ac- produced ends with culturally-historically pro-
tion. In fact, the existence of social groups and duced means, the individual is participating in
how they are constituted by individuals is an cultural-historical activity, not as a Kantian ‘in-
additional problem for Activity Theory over dividual subject’, but as a ‘social subject’,
and above the objects of activity, as well as the without any implication of being a ‘member of
problem of how a group acts, when in reality a group’.
actions are only ever executed by individuals.
Rather than being a solution to the problem of Yrjö Engeström’s ‘root model of
membership of society, the idea of membership
of group simply sets up an infinite regress much
human activity’
like the homunculus sets up an infinite regress Yrjö Engeström tackled a lot of the prob-
in the other direction. The concept of group lems in Leontyev’s model with his comprehen-
membership is also a particularly poor repre- sive schema of nested triangles. Engeström
sentation of sociality in relation to modern so- starts with the natural model of the activity of
ciety. Membership of a team or committee is social creatures, in which an individual’s rela-
one relatively marginal part of social life. tionship to their environment is mediated by
This ‘lumpy’ conception of subjectivity, their community. This makes in fact a three-
being either an individual subject or a collective way relationship of mutual mediation, as the
subject, far from solving the problem of the so- community’s relationship with its environment
cial construction of consciousness, altogether is mediated by individuals and the individuals’
misses the point: how is the relation between an relationship with their community is mediated
individual person and institutions like nation, by the environment.
market, industry, etc., or group, to be medi- The specifically human form of life then
ated?. For example, in the classic example of a develops through the mediation of each of these
hunting group used by Leontyev to explain the three relationships:
structure of activity, the question of how the • The individuals’ relationship with their en-
group of individuals come to be constituted as a vironment opens up as the direct relation-
group is elided by supposing them to be mem- ship with nature is mediated by emergent
bers of a primitive tribal group. How does that tool use and tool making underlying a sys-
work for members of modern society who do tem of production mediating between needs
not belong to ‘tribes’? and their satisfaction.
How an individual thinks and acts to one • The relationship of the entire community to
degree or another as part of a group is a ques- the means satisfying its needs opens up with
tion which needs to be answered, not presup- the direct relationship being replaced by a
posed by activity theory. Activity theory can division of labor with a system of distribu-
and must shed light on identity, interpersonal tion of the products of labor.
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 16

• The direct relationship of the individual to individual and the outside world. Fourth,
the group gives way to the emergence of specifically human activity must be analyzable
larger and more complex communities and as culturally mediated phenomenon. No dyadic
social relationships mediated by norms, organism-environment models will suffice
rules and traditions, including the exchange
of products on the market. The first of the above criteria clearly indi-
The combination of production, distribu- cates that Engeström is talking about a ‘unit of
tion and exchange are then mediated by a sys- analysis’, though he never actually makes this
tem of social consumption of the products of claim, and indeed denies it. Nonetheless, the
labor. Thus, we have Engeström’s (1987) fa- way the concept is deployed, it takes the place
mous expanding triangle of triangles. The rela- of a unit of analysis. It cannot be a unit of
tionship between the (Kantian, individual) analysis however. Altogether, Engeström’s
subject and its object (the means of satisfying model represents relationships between indi-
the subject’s needs) is now subject to multiple vidual (subject), object, outcome, community,
lines of mediation. Each implementation of this environment, social rules, instruments of pro-
schema produces an outcome which is a duction, division of labor, production, distribu-
changed relationship of all the factors, and each tion, exchange and consumption. Engeström
of the mediating links contains contradictions, calls this the ‘root model’ for activity theory on
the mediation of which generate further lines of the basis of the above criteria.
development. Even if we assume that production, dis-
In the editorial introduction to “Perspec- tribution, exchange and consumption are de-
tives on Activity Theory” (1999) of which rivative rather than essential concepts, and we
Engeström is co-author, he says that a ‘strong take ‘outcome’ as a reproduction of the object,
candidate’ for a unit of analysis of Activity we are still left with seven distinct concepts –
Theory is “object-oriented, collective and cul- subject, object, community, environment, social
turally mediated human activity, or activity sys- rules, instruments of production and division of
tem.” This definition is a fair representation of labor – which have to be derived before we
the state of Activity Theory up till now. have any ‘unit of analysis’. But if the ultimate
In his classic work (1987), Engeström reality we are dealing with is activity, then
traced conceptions of the ‘unit of analysis’ used every one of these concepts is derivative of the
by a series of writers in the Russian CHAT tra- concept of activity. For example, ‘subject’ is
dition, and went on to specify four criteria for one of the seven concepts which are presup-
what he calls a “viable root model of human posed in the conception of activity; but what is
activity”: the nature of the subject? And how is a ‘com-
First, activity must be pictured in its
munity’ constituted if not by activity? Answers
simplest, genetically original structural form, as to these questions should be outcomes of a the-
the smallest unit that still preserves the essential ory of activity, and cannot be its presupposi-
unity and quality behind any complex activity. tions.
Second, activity must be analyzable in its The idea of pairs or triplets of concepts
dynamics and transformations, in its evolution which are mutually constitutive, being a differ-
and historical change. No static or eternal entiated unity, has a long pedigree, but a set of
models will do. Third, activity must be seven mutually constitutive concepts is not
analyzable as a contextual or ecological really tenable, and Engeström surely doesn’t
phenomenon. The models will have to mean it that way.
concentrate on systemic relations between the
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 17

Engeström’s claim rests on the idea of the and the relation of actions and artifacts to the
initial natural relationship of individual- activity in which they are subsumed.
community-environment ‘expanding’ through Firstly, Cole showed (in press) that activi-
the intervention of mediating elements. This ties cannot be ‘modeled’ by action systems
would make activity the coincidence of three lifted out of the cultural contexts to which they
processes: tool-making, law-making and labor are indigenous and dropped into another cul-
organization. So activity is derivative from tural context. Cross cultural researchers had
these concepts. It is a plausible conception, underestimated, according to Cole’s findings,
similar to Hegel’s schema of the differentiation the extent to which the presuppositions of stan-
of production and consumption mediated by dard interviewing and test procedures are im-
labor, and used to theorise the emergence of plicit in the use of certain types of artifact,
Spirit in his 1802-03 system, but it is entirely styles of speech and so on. This meant for ex-
speculative. It has no empirical content. The ample, that standard psychological tests used as
only unity tying the set of concepts together as part of scientific activity, would fail when im-
whole is the thesis that at some time in the past plemented with people belonging to a different
things happened this way. Such a speculation culture to which the practice of scientific re-
cannot be the premise for a science or its start- search is foreign. For example, people who
ing point. were quite unfamiliar with being asked ques-
To make a start with a science we have to tions, the answers to which were obvious and
have a concept of what it is that we are investi- already known to the questioner, solely in order
gating and the possibility of observing it. But to test their intelligence or whatever, would re-
here at the very least we have seven entities, spond to such questions in ways that bore no
whose conceptions are posited as preliminary to relation to the test design. The ways in which
the science of activity. The argument seems to questions were construed by the subjects on one
be a proof that one cannot have a unit of analy- hand, and by the experimenters, on the other
sis for Activity Theory, inasmuch as the root hand, were quite different.
model which is “the smallest unit that still pre- Secondly, Cole found (1997) that psycho-
serves the essential unity and quality behind logical work with experimental subjects could
any complex activity” is already a composite. only succeed to the extent that both the re-
Whether it is called a ‘root model’ or a searcher and the experimental subject shared a
‘unit of analysis’, Engeström’s ‘expanding tri- common aim (even if they had different mo-
angle’ is an impressive schema of social life, tives). This could happen if an adult subject
but it is not the foundation of a science, in the was part of a culture where scientific experi-
sense that Goethe, Hegel, Marx and Vygotsky mentation was widely understood and sup-
envisaged. Engeström has given us an elegant ported, but in many cases it could only be
general schema for various components of so- achieved by the researcher focusing on achiev-
cial life, but he has not given us a conception of ing something that the experimental subject
any of those components or of activity itself. wanted to achieve, in the hope that scientific
insights would come as a by-product of the sub-
Michael Cole and cultural context ject doing what she wanted to do anyway. For
Michael Cole agrees that the unit of example, in order to effectively study a learning
analysis for Activity Theory is ‘joint artifact- process, it was necessary to actually help some-
mediated activity’ but he points to some impor- one learn something they really wanted to learn.
tant nuances in what constitutes ‘an activity’ Generally speaking the actions and arti-
facts used in the scenario have to be indigenous
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 18

to the culture of the experimental subject and mutually constitute one another and are ulti-
the scenario must be either itself a normal part mately identical.
of the subject’s culture, or so constructed that ‘Project’ differs from ‘joint mediated ac-
the way in which it is construed within the sub- tivity’ because it is a unit and not a substance; a
ject culture is transparent. project is ‘an activity’, a ‘unit’ of activity: pur-
Under these conditions it is possible for suing shared aims according to certain common
the two parties to share a common ‘project’. norms, over some period of time. Participation
Otherwise ambiguity, misunderstanding and in joint mediated activity cannot be made sense
failures of communication prevail. Where sub- of until we understand what project each par-
jects are not committed to a common project, ticipant construes the actions to be a part of,
one and the same action or artifact, for example and how, if the different subjects are pursuing
an interview question, could figure in two dif- different projects, their respective projects re-
ferent activities. This is the relevance of the late to one another.
‘hermeneutic circle’: each action is interpreted A project mediates collaborative activity,
by a subject on the basis of a presumption of but it is not an artifact. All activity is artifact-
the activity or project of which it is a part, but a mediated, but people can cooperate in a project
project can only be perceived through the ac- by pursuing the common aim even if they are
tions by which it is instantiated. This is how not in direct communication. The use of arti-
cross-cultural misunderstandings occur. facts remains a part of collaborative projects,
Much of Cole’s research went to the fact but the key mediator is the project itself, how-
that meaning is context-dependent, but if we ever it is represented. Cultural differences such
were to rest at this point, then the possibility of as language affect collaboration in a project, but
a unit of analysis is ruled out, for ‘context’ is an what is fundamental is not cultural difference or
open ended totality: where do you draw the commonality, but the project’s common aims
boundary around what is relevant to context? and norms.
But Cole’s research went beyond the impossi- Cole’s work demonstrated that the speci-
bility of meaning being retained in the transfer ficity of an activity, its distinctness, as for ex-
from one cultural context to another. Under ap- ample, being indigenous to a certain national
propriate conditions, an experimenter could culture, penetrates every aspect of a person’s
carry out a test with a subject of a different cul- motivation, relationship to other people and un-
ture, provided that the actions of both parties derstanding of actions and artifacts used in a
belong to a common project. scenario. Within a given culture, actions and
artifacts are construed in a particular way ac-
Projects cording to the project that they are taken to be a
Like ‘object’, ‘project’ represents the part of. These findings bring us to the concep-
teleological aspect of social life, people striving tion of a unit of analysis for activity that we are
for something. Project is broader than object, looking for.
because it includes both the end and the means,
the norms through which an object is pursued Towards a Unit of Analysis for an
within a given culture, over some period of Interdisciplinary Activity Theory
time, with shared expectations about the mean- Societal phenomena, such as states, mar-
ing of the actions used. The means and ends are kets, social mores and institutions, which exist
not distinct components of the project because, beyond the bounds of the immediate interac-
as Hegel (2009) demonstrated, means and ends tions amongst a group of individuals, neverthe-
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 19

less exist only in and through the actions and fabric of social life is woven and may be ana-
experiences of individuals and the artifacts that lytically unstitched.
they use, carrying with them shared or overlap- The scenarios we have considered have
ping meanings. A hermeneutic circle operates been limited to pair-wise collaboration, but the
in constituting both the societal phenomena and presence of an artifact is always implicitly the
the consciousness of participating individuals presence of a third or more parties to the col-
which extends beyond the bounds one-on-one laboration, so it seems that the essentials of
interaction. The problem cannot be resolved by multi-sided collaboration (as in group dynam-
naturalizing societal phenomena so that they ics) are contained in two-sided collaboration so
can be taken out of the hermeneutic circle and long as it remains the case that the artifact me-
treated as givens. diating the interaction between the two parties
In the foregoing review of efforts to form comes from outside. Collaboration always im-
a conception of activity, it seems that attempts plies that the individuals involved share not
to incorporate ‘supra-individual’ aspects of so- only a common object but a common project.
ciety such as social division of labor, norms and According to the OED, a project is “a planned
rules, systems of production and distribution, or proposed undertaking; a scheme, a proposal;
and so on, fail to provide the basis for a unit of a purpose, an objective. In business, science,
analysis. The fact is that these societal phenom- etc., a collaborative enterprise, frequently in-
ena exist for the individual only through (1) the volving research or design, that is carefully
use of artifacts which originate and carry cul- planned to achieve a particular aim” (OED
turally determined meaning from outside the 2008).
immediate setting of their use, and (2) the regu- ‘A project’ differs from ‘an activity’ un-
larity of expectations and experiences of inter- derstood à la Leontyev, as a system of actions
action with other individuals. Consequently, a directed towards a given socially defined object
unit of analysis for the study of activity must be in several respects. Firstly, a project includes
based on ideas like that of Vygotsky and the individuals and all the artifacts and norms
Meshcheryakov cited earlier, which take the and rules indigenous to that project. A project is
collaborative actions of two individuals, with always directed towards some ideal. Projects
one using an artifact introduced by the other, as need to be understood as historically articu-
the basis for understanding activity. Such col- lated, and individual projects carry forward pro-
laborative actions are always part of a common jects that may have a long history. In this sense
project shared by the collaborating individuals. the idea of project is subject-centered rather
Notions of social norms, division of labor, mar- than object-centered. In “Theses on Feuer-
kets, and so on, must therefore be derived from bach,” Marx criticised “hitherto-existing mate-
their foundation in the artifact-mediated col- rialism” for failing to conceive of practice “as
laboration of individuals in common projects or human sensuous activity, ... subjectively.” It is
‘project collaboration’. not at all the case that in developing “the active
To be clear, ‘project collaboration’ is not side” an objective, materialistic standpoint is
something different from activity, but simply a compromised. Human practice is active; activ-
unit of activity, a unit of joint mediated activity. ity is not just passive attraction to an object, but
Social life is a tangle of interactions, both for- active projection and pursuit of ideals.
mal and informal, between individuals, both In recent Hegel interpretation (Pinkard
friends and strangers; what is being suggested 1994) the word ‘project’ has been used as an
is that ‘projects’ are the threads from which the interpretation of what Hegel called a ‘formation
of consciousness’, that is, a self-conscious his-
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 20

torical form of social practice. ‘Project’ carries other under their own project. Other limiting
the connotation of being extended in time be- cases hinge on attribution, for example, a jew-
yond the actions of current participants and eler has a technician make ring to their design,
through historical time, and of being an on- but is attributed as the maker.
going bearer of meaning, identity, values and Collaboration is an important way of con-
ethical convictions. ceiving of social bonds, because the project
Relations between collaborators in a pro- provides the mediation between subjects shar-
ject are not necessarily symmetrical or egalitar- ing a social bond, which are consolidated
ian, but a shared commitment to the project is through the shared artifacts and actions used on
integral to the concept and the project itself is a continuing basis to pursue the project. Self-
part of the relationship. Projects harbor a host evidently, collaboration provides an approach
of different kinds of relationship and interac- to the understanding of social subjects from a
tion. participant point of view. Shared artifacts and
interacting actions is an important condition for
Collaboration the formation of social bonds, but without the
Projects include conflict as well as coop- existence of shared projects amongst a group of
eration; collaboration implies that the partici- individuals, social bonds cannot develop. Col-
pants argue over what should be done and how. laboration also offers an important way of ap-
That is, the relationship in which one person proaching the ethical analysis of social
endeavours to prevent the other from doing relations.
something is just as essential as the situation in
which both strive for the same outcome by the Ethics and Collaboration
same means. Simple cooperation, in which con- Invariably any scientific project carries
flict is avoided, perhaps by means of a division within it a commitment to certain ethical norms
of labor or the adherence to rigid norms and and concepts. Liberal economic theory bases
rules of behavior, fails to capture the nature of itself on a conception of individual, rational
the collaboration. A conflict always has a agents which also forms the foundation of lib-
shared situation as its outcome, which is indica- eral ethics, for example, and discourse analysis
tive of a notion of its irreducible co-production; must presume that participants ought to per-
were it not the case that both parties will have suade one another with rational argument, even
to share the outcome, there would be no basis while knowing they don’t. A human science
for conflict. The outcome is always the resul- which does not make its ethical commitments
tant of at least two independent wills, and con- explicit is only deceiving itself.
tains moments of both conflict and cooperation. The notion of collaboration not only pro-
In general, we can see cooperation (pursuing vides a starting point for science, but is also
the same end using some division of labor, normative, in the sense that when subjects work
whether natural or artificial) and conflict (pur- together, then they ought to share control over
suit of mutually exclusive states of affairs) are the project and share in its rewards, and in gen-
special, limiting cases of collaboration. eral they expect to, even if they don’t. Collabo-
Other important limiting cases of collabo- ration thus provides a reference point for ethics.
ration, are those relating to ‘ownership’ of the For example, if a group of people work together
project: solidarity is where one subject volun- to complete a difficult journey, then each will
tarily subordinates themself to the other’s ends; expect to have a say on the chosen route and
‘cooption’ is where one subject subsumes an- bear an equal share of privations, and so on.
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 21

Different relationships may apply (e.g. a guide which also have significant psychological im-
leads a group of tourists, or a military com- plications.
mander assumes leadership) but in such cases The idea of collaboration is already im-
where different ethical norms apply, the actions portant in social service industries. Doctors and
are quite different in their psychological impli- patients collaborate in restoring the patient’s
cations. The psychology of collaboration does well-being, and health service workers know
not arise directly from the activity itself, but is that the psychology and well-being of a patient
refracted through the relevant ethical norms. are dramatically affected by their equal partici-
As we have already noted, individuals pation in their own treatment. The classical
participate in project collaboration in a number therapeutic relationship corresponds to quite
of quite distinct ways; they may strive to different psychology, because in such a case the
achieve the project or they may strive to frus- project of achieving the patient’s well-being is
trate or modify the project, and there is nothing exclusively that of the therapist.
inherently unethical in conflict; in fact conflict Every instance of collaboration in a pro-
is a normal part of collaboration on projects; ject has characteristic problems – the doctor
shared projects are impossible without conflict may regard herself as expert and fail to share
and conflict is meaningless outside of shared decision-making with the patient, the architect
projects. may see the building as a monument to their art
While individuals may participate in a rather than a home for the owner, and so on. All
project in order to further its ideals and prac- these issues are psychological in their impact
tices, they may alternatively, participate in the because they are also normative.
project with only the aim of receiving side- Vera John Steiner made an extensive
benefits which are external to the project, rather study of well-known artistic and scientific col-
than those inherent in the project itself. This is a laborations, and proposed a 4-way typology as
distinction which Alasdair MacIntyre (1988) follows:
makes, as for example, when sports stars play 1. Distributed collaboration, which
only for the high monetary rewards rather than “takes place in casual settings and also in more
to further the practice of the sport in its own organized contexts. These include conversa-
right. For example, the psychology of art tions at conferences, in electronic discourse
changes dramatically when an artist ceases to communities, and among artists who share a
pursue the aim of furthering art and begins to studio space. In these groups, participants ex-
produce for the market. It is impossible to sepa- change information and explore thoughts and
rate the psychology from the ethical norms. The opinions. Their roles are informal and volun-
same goes for wage-labor. Individuals may tary.”
make decisions collectively, or either party may 2. Complementarity collaboration: “char-
take a leading role in defining the project, or acterized by a division of labor based on com-
one may simply follow the lead of the other, or plementary expertise, disciplinary knowledge,
even participate solely in solidarity with the roles, and temperament. Participants negotiate
other. The psychology of participating in some their goals and strive for a common vision.”
project is significantly affected by the extent to 3. Family collaboration: “a mode of in-
which a person participates in the planning and teraction in which roles are flexible or may
direction of the project. There are normative change over time” (John Steiner 2000).
questions in all these modifications of the para- There is in fact a whole literature on col-
digmatic collaborative relationships, each of laboration, especially collaborative learning in
which CHAT already plays a central role, as
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 22

well as studies of work methods, group dynam- cooperation which are external rather than in-
ics, sports psychology and so on, where Activ- ternal to subjectivity.
ity Theory is immediately applicable even The point of these quite cursory remarks
without the problems raised by the issue of an is to draw attention to the richness of the con-
interdisciplinary concept of activity. This is not cept of ‘project collaboration’. It is the fact that
new: what is proposed is that this rich field of collaboration has a normative core for human
work on collaboration can be extended to theo- beings that makes it so rich as a foundation for
rise societal phenomena. human science; and it is the fact that collabora-
It may be noted as an aside here that Ac- tion lies at the foundation of formation of the
tivity Theory has hitherto taken division of la- human form, phylogenetically, culturally and
bor as the norm of cooperation. Leontyev’s ontogenetically, that makes collaboration such a
scenario of the primitive hunting group with a powerful notion for ethics.
division of labor between the beater and the In fact, from the standpoint of collabora-
trapper is prototypical. But the whole idea of tion, the formation of collective subjects – na-
the motives of actions diverging from the goals tions, churches, social movements, companies,
of actions rests on the idea of elaboration of a etc., etc. – is almost self-evident, as collective
division of labor as the process constitutive of subjects are collaborative projects.
the human condition. But if division of labor is
built into the foundations, then for example, the Marx’s Critique of Political
possibility of taking a critical attitude towards a
hierarchy of expertise in therapeutic work is
Economy and Activity Theory
excluded, let alone the neo-liberal conception It is now possible to establish the rela-
of learning as a customer-service provider rela- tionship between activity theory and Marx’s
tionship between student and teacher, or other critique of political economy. Whereas project
neo-liberal conceptions of the same kind. Divi- collaboration is the prototypical, genuinely hu-
sion of labor is a special, limiting case of col- man relationship, capital springs from the rela-
laboration, but the reverse is not true. The tionship of exchange of labor. It is especially
hypothetical historical narrative in which divi- clear in Marx’s very early work, “Comment on
sion of labor is elaborated by the introduction James Mill,” (1975) that Marx saw the relation-
of difference into a formerly homogeneous, ship of exchange of the products of labor as an
presumably infinite community, does not stand essentially manipulative and corrupting rela-
scrutiny. Division of labor can just as well be tionship. This relationship has nonetheless
seen to have arisen by formerly remote com- come to be the dominant relationship in bour-
munities establishing trading relationships with geois society. Capital rests on a quite particular
one another, as an outcome of collaboration. (de)formation of the relationship of project col-
Collaboration is well-established as a laboration, in which each subject pursues their
paradigm in the creative arts and in the sci- own end, but regards the other’s labor instru-
ences, where cross-media, cross-disciplinary mentally, simply as a means to their own end,
and cross-sectoral collaboration is regarded of and pursues their project by means of exchange
particular creative value. The ethics of collabo- of equivalents. Nevertheless: “the notion of
ration is in distinct contrast to liberalism, which human equality [can acquire] the fixity of a
emphasises the concept of the individual as an popular prejudice ... only in a society in which
autonomous agent and the archetypal relation- the great mass of the produce of labor takes the
ship between agents is contract or exchange, form of commodities” [Capital Chapter 1]
rather than collaboration. These are forms of (Marx 1996).
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 23

The commodity relation leads to an ab- There is also a third mode of cooperation,
stract general logic in which the projects pur- hierarchy. In this mode of cooperation, labor
sued by different subjects relate to each other takes place within some kind of hierarchy. This
only externally or quantitatively, rather than a may be the command structure within an or-
concrete universal logic, which characterizes ganization, or a traditionally established hierar-
project collaboration. The division of labor chy in which people act according to their
which results from the subsumption of collabo- station in life, in relations of traditional depend-
rative projects under capital, puts abstract gen- ence. Alternatively, it may be bureaucratic or
eral relationships in the dominant position, and meritocratic hierarchy, such as the hierarchy of
these abstract general relationships penetrate expertise that develops spontaneously even
deeper and deeper into consciousness, with the within voluntary groups, in therapeutic relation-
results being concentration of capital and frag- ships or for example the relation between
mentation of social bonds, as Marx demon- teacher and pupils.
strated in Capital and other works, such as The That is, there are three broad types of co-
Communist Manifesto. operation: hierarchy, exchange and collabora-
So in this view, Activity Theory and tion. From the standpoint of project
Marx’s critique of political economy have collaboration being a unit of analysis for activ-
compatible conceptions of social life and meth- ity theory, hierarchical command and cus-
odological principles. But what of the conclu- tomer/service provider relations are understood
sions to be drawn about the nature of social as limit cases of collaboration. Each of these
life? Marx’s critique of political economy modes of cooperation carries with it normative
points to the outcome of the growth of a spe- as well as descriptive weight. In this view, the
cific kind of activity, namely production for relations of capital constitute one of several
exchange, leading to a labor process more and domains of modern social life; labor not sub-
more, though never completely subsumed under sumed under capital may be organized along
capital. traditional lines (such as domestic labor within
The normal situation today is that col- the family) or may be collaborative (such as in
laboration is subsumed under the market, where voluntary organizations). It is important to es-
workers collaborate inside capitalist enterprises. tablish what is psychologically and sociologi-
Recently, neoliberal restructuring of corpora- cally specific about the relations of capital in
tions has increasingly introduced market rela- modern society. Political conditions in the So-
tions inside companies. On the other hand, in viet Union made these kinds of distinction im-
the ‘third sector’, exchange is subsumed under possible. Relations of domination and
collaboration, when some participants earn a exploitation which arose from the market out-
living and others contribute monetarily while side the USSR could be subject to criticism, but
contributing to a collaborative project. In any relations of domination which arose from non-
real situation, both types of relationship are pre- economic causes such as bureaucracy or gender
sent and contribute to the psychology of the were undertheorized.
participants. Although project collaboration is We shall now return to the question raised
the norm of social life amongst human beings, earlier of a taxonomy of activity.
modern capitalism is seeing an expansion of the
market and its penetration of more and more Towards a Taxonomy of Activity
spheres of activity. Nonetheless, exchange of At first we see that project collaboration
commodities remains a special, limiting case of constitutes the basic unit, the molecule of social
project collaboration.
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 24

life, presenting us a picture of millions and mil- An finer grain of analysis of social life is
lions of transitory relations of conflict and co- given by concepts, realized in and through ac-
operation between people sharing certain ends, tivity. In general concepts represent the sedi-
in a certain division of power enjoying internal mentation of past projects which have become
and externals benefits, and using certain arti- objectified within the culture. When concepts
facts and types of action to mediate their col- first appear, they constitute projects, but in
laborative activity. Such projects appear and time, they become objectified and merge into
disappear, and are reproduced in new forms at the fabric of social life, the language and cul-
different times and places, are nested one ture generally. Once a concept has become ob-
within another, whilst every person is engaged jectified, it ceases to have an independent life,
in a multiplicity of such relationships at any but participates as an aspect of all subsequent
given time. How ought we to move from this projects. Some concepts however, not yet ob-
complex picture of apparently chaotic activity? jectified, retain vitality, and constitute living,
How can this microscopic unit of analysis for self-conscious projects.
activity underpin a view of social life as a Consciousness is therefore constituted by
whole? participation in a multiplicity of different pro-
Categorization of the different types of jects and activity organized around a multiplic-
activity and their scope has to be derived from ity of different more or less independent
the notion of project collaboration itself, its concepts, which represent the sediment of past
normative core and the differences which can projects. “The tradition of all dead generations
be unfolded out of that core, as anticipated weighs like an nightmare on the brains of the
above. We have already seen that the distinc- living” (Marx 1979).
tions between collaboration, hierarchical com-
mand and the market flow from the notion of Conclusion
project collaboration. Within capital, different
companies constitute units of capital as indi- Cultural-Historical Activity Theory may
cated by the management structure erected on fulfil its potential as a contributor to a general
the basis of ownership of capital. Hierarchical cultural and historical science, by studying the
and collaborative relations arise from tradition, psychology of collaboration, laying a founda-
legislation, custom and so on and are norma- tion from which the various societal phenomena
tively transparent in their structure according to can be rendered in terms of the same unit of
the structure of organizations, states, families analysis: project collaboration. Just as the atom
and so on, although subject to many kinds of is the system for particle physics, but unit for
distortion. Aside from the taxonomy that flows molecular physics; project collaboration is the
from different forms of the collaborative rela- system for psychology, but the unit for social
tionship, further distinctions follow from the science. It is the point where a ‘hermeneutic
articulation of projects over various periods of circle’ operates in the mutual constitution of
time from momentary to historical. Social social life and psychology.
movements, nations, religious communities all Because the notion of project collabora-
constitute themselves as projects. The pursuit of tion has both normative and descriptive force,
an art or profession, is also constituted as a pro- there is an internal tension within the concept
ject, with practitioners striving to perfect the which is well suited to the study of individual
art, each generation standing on the shoulders and social development.
of the generation before.
Outlines • No. 1 • 2009 An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity • Andy Blunden 25

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