Activity Theory and its contributions in strategy research
Written by: Mohammad Sihab Ridwan
PhD student at School of Management 0f Southampton University
Activity theory is a name that commontly accepted for a line of theorizing and research iniated by L.S. Vygotsky, A.N. Leont’ev, and A.R. Luria, in the 1920s and 1930s, the founders of the cultural-historical school of Russian psychology ( Ed, Engerstrom, Miettinen, Punamaki, 1999; Engerstrom, 2000 ). Chaiklin, Hedegaard, Jensen ( 1999 ) explain that the roots of activity theory and the cultural historical approach to psychology are in the theory and research of Lev S, Vygotsky and Alexei N Leontiev. Similarly, Bedney and Meister ( 1997: XV ) present that activity theory has a broad history dating back to Vigotsky’s work and his followers. The scholars around the world have elaborated and developed further this activity theory with conducting research in antropology, pedagogy, computer science, philosophy, and psychology ( Chaikin et al, 1999; Engerstrom et al, 1999 ). This paper will seek to outline activity theory and its application in strategy research. Activity theory is a psychological paradigm as a basis for work behaviour study in the former Soviet Union and it assumes ‘a distinctive human psychology defined by goal directed behaviour’ (Bedny, Seglin, Meister, 2000:168 ). Activity theory defines ‘activity’ as ‘a goal directed system in which cognition, behaviour and motivation are integrated and organized by goals and the mechanisms of self regulation’ ( Bedney et al, 2000:168 ). Kuutti as quoted by Hasan ( 2002 ) defines acivity theory ‘as a philosophy and cross - diciplinary framework for studying different forms of human practices and offers a set of concepts, structures, and terms that are eminently suited to research undertaken within the communities of practice.’ Further, Kuutti describes actvity as ’a form of doing directed to an an object’; and the object transformed into an outcome by involving it through mediating artifacts drives , the existence of an activity ( Food, 2001 ). In activity theory the pragmatic concept of “activity” is simply what people do, so that activity theory provides a framework suitable to analyse everyday and mundane human work where information and knowledge enable a strategic contribution ( Hasan, 2002 ). According to Bedney et.al ( 2000 ) in activity theory, goal-orientation drives the elements of cognitive, behavioural and motivational into an integrated system that includes goal-oriented feed-forward and feed back elements ( Bedney et al, 2000 ). Further, Bedney et al explain that the most essensial unit of analysis in activity theory is a concept of action, which influenced the development of action theory in Western Europe. Under the rubrics of activity theory, motives, plans, performance methods and goal directed behaviour as a whole can be formulated either conciously or unconciously, but ‘the goal of an activity is always concious’ ( Bedney et al, 2000:168 ). Philosophically, activity theory is rooted in Karl Marx’s reality concept as sensuous human activity, practice (Foot, 2001). Engerstrom et al ( 2009 ) quoting Marx explain that concept of activity results in a new way to understand change and it does not rise from above and nor it depends on merely individual self change of subjects. The key is “revolutionary practice” which is not to be seen in narrowly political context but as joint “practical- critical-activity” potentially reflected in any mundane everyday practice ( Engerstrom et al, 2009 ). Foundational to activity theory is Marx’s points, that is, ‘real materialism has to take into account how social relationships are manifest in the felt experience of embodied persons,’ meanwhile the critical-cultural studies tradition has failed to connect ‘the patterns of practice in economic relationships or media texts with the lived experience of embodied persons’ (...
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