Andy Blunden November 2007

Sources of Activity Theory

In his seminal work “Learning by Expanding” (1987), Yrjö Engström cites three theorists of the early twentieth century, who developed theories of activity which had the potential to provide the foundation for a comprehensive socio-cultural theory of psychology – Peirce, Mead and Vygotsky. Engström is a leading theorist of the older generation of the Vygotsky School today, and part of the Finnish group, which for a long time formed a bridge between the Soviet psychologists and the West, especially the Americans like Mike Cole, Jim Wertsch and others, from the 1960s on.

Engström claims that Peirce’s conception of the sign mediation of human activity was “treated as something purely mental and intentional,” and this view was shared by the Russians, who regarded Peirce as basically having produced a theory of signalling. There is certainly plenty in his writings to support this view, but Peirce is also open to an interpretation which is close to the direction taken by the Russians. The second problem, according to Engström was “the strict separation of the form from the content of the signs and the exclusive interest in the pure form.” For Peirce all signs are forms of matter, but the question of the relation of form and content resolves itself into the relation between the content of the form and the form of the content, that is, of one semiotic relation to another.

It seems that Peirce’s writing and publication practices made his work so obscure that any influence he would exert would only be mediately through his friends, the consummate communicators, William James and John Dewey.

Dewey is not mentioned in Engström’s list, but no doubt his views were close to those of his colleague and friend George Herbert Mead. Dewey also visited the Soviet Union in 1928 and was an influence in the direction taken at that time by the Vygotsky School. But from 1928 until the 1960s, the American and Soviet schools developed more or less in isolation from one another; the Russians read what the Americans were doing, albeit at a distance, but the Americans did not read what the Russians were doing, and there was a total absence of collaboration or interaction between the two currents during this period.

Engström explains the shortcomings of Mead’s theory as follows. In relation to the origin of gestures, Mead took gestures to be “mere communication and symbolization” whereas for the Russians, “the construction of objects is above all sensuous, material construction by means of tools, i.e., production. Communication and symbolization are seen as derivative, though organically intertwined aspects of production.”

What is implicit here is that for the Russians, a Marxist anthropology of labour underlies their conception of activity, as well as Vygotsky’s studies of the transformation of communicative and instrumental actions in the processes of both internalisation and objectification. The Vygotsky School “stress the genetic connection of gestures and tool-mediated work on material objects.”

The differences that the Russians had with Habermas are also mentioned by Engström here. Whereas for the Vygotsky school:

“... activity must be pictured in its simplest, genetically original structural form, as the smallest unit that still preserves the essential unity and quality behind any complex activity. ... Instead of the original inner unity, Habermas takes the division of action into labor and interaction as his starting point.”


“[The Vygotsky School’s] point of departure is the original unity of instrumental and communicative aspects of activity. Therefore, signs and symbols are seen as derivative instruments of productive activity which necessarily has an interactive, communicative form. For Mead, the original situation is that of interaction, of a ‘social process’ with only secondary and abstract presence of material objects. For him, symbols are not primarily instruments for mastering tool-mediated procedures on objects.”

It is not just a question of taking communicative or taking instrumental activity as primary, but of the unity of the two. Mead does deal with instrumental activity:

“But this instrumental line of thought remains more or less a separate sidetrack in Mead’s work. Communicative and instrumental aspects of activity do not form a unified system. Their interrelations are not worked out in any recognizable manner.”

It seems to me that even if these criticisms of Mead are correct in their entirety, they are not damning. In the Russian line of development, at least a dozen major theorists would have to be mentioned, from the 1920s up to the 1970s when interactions with the West began to become important, and every one of them put a distinctive spin on the basic principles and made a unique contribution to the working out of the theory. The criticisms of Mead do not amount to anything more serious than the differences, for example, between Leontyev and Vygotsky, to name just two of the Russians.

However, an important concept for Mead is the “generalised other,” the personification of group values, through which an individual represents to themselves the whole community or group in which they are participating. Engström points out that “neo-Meadians” replace this concept of the “generalised other” with relationships with other individuals and omit the mediating symbols. For Mead, the mediating symbols are public and universal. “They are dissociated from instruments and procedures of material production – but they are definitely societal and historical,” and this element of material culture is what gets omitted by contemporary readings of Mead. I would add that this is exactly what has happened with critical theorists, such as Axel Honneth. A relationship which is mediated by cultural and societal practices is reduced to a dyadic, and consequently, individualistic conception.

“For Mead, the social character of knowledge meant that knowledge is above all public, impersonal. For the neo-Meadians, the social character of knowledge means that knowledge is interpersonal. This means that the neo-Meadians end up in a new version in individualism or privatism as they tacitly set aside the truly societal, public dimension of Mead’s theory.”

The way the Russians have developed the concept of activity, insisting on the primacy of the material reproduction of life, of base over superstructure, has moved away from the supposed “original unity” of communicative and instrumental actions. This is particularly marked in Leontyev and his more recent interpreters. In my view, Marx’s point about the primacy of base over superstructure should not be over-extended and it certainly should not be written into the foundations of psychology. In setting up the foundations through which social consciousness is to be understood, there should be no distinction between activity which is deemed to be communicative and activity which is deemed to be instrumental; indeed at the most fundamental level there is continually transformation from one into the other. Further, in the conception of material culture, and at the analytical level of the foundations of psychology, there can be no distinction between means of labour (or tools) and means of communication (or symbols). Such a dichotomy would be entirely false. (Actually, Hegel has a third paradigmatic type of mediating element when he refers to the raising of children alongside words and tools.)

It seems to me that this problem can be seen in the work of the Russian Vygotskyists, but once the current broke through the Iron Curtain and began to be taken up in the West, especially the US, this one-sidedness was overcome. Freed from the dogma of “base over superstructure,” in the social conditions created by the new social movements and the late-capitalist economy, the falsity of the labour vs. communication or “world of things” vs “world of people” dichotomies was untenable. There were other “distortions” introduced into the work of the Russians which appear to be the result of their isolation within the Soviet Union and the impact of the official ideology there. For example, the Russians tend to reject feminism and its philosophical products, and what they see as the “political correctness” and “liberalism” of their Americans colleagues who continue to reject notions of unproblematic social progress, the superiority of modern over indigenous society, and so on. But still, there is in my opinion no doubt that it was the Russians who made the real achievement during those 50 years of mutual isolation.

The ideas of James and Dewey and Mead entered into all the social sciences in the USA, but the great insights of the Progressive Movement were largely lost in their being taken up by the broader community in America. Relations mediated by the “generalised other” were on the whole generally abandoned in favour of private transactions between individuals, that is, a narrowly pragmatic conception which betrayed the essence of the founders of the movement. There are still scholars who continue the work of Dewey and Mead, but they are not the dominant current in American social psychology, where eclecticism dominates in a milieu of behaviourism and methodological individualism.

Despite Engström’s efforts to locate the differences between the Russian and American schools of activity theory in the errors of the founding fathers of American Pragmatism, it seems to me that the real differences between these two currents are simply the geo-political differences between the USA and the USSR during the middle of the twentieth century.

The activity theorists remained a minority, with behaviourism dominating in both countries, but the Soviet Activity theorists developed as a coherent current, with a succession of important figures critiquing the theories of their predecessors and co-workers, subjecting the foundations of the theory to continual modification and revision. The Soviet School has suffered from fragmentation, with supporters of the different canonical figures motivated by rivalry with one another. In the US, however, Dewey and Mead were an “influence” on entire generations of American sociologists and psychologists, but the individualist spirit of late-twentieth century America undermined the original idea as described above. Also, during the Cold War, the Americans did not have Marx, whereas the spectre of Marx, particularly the Marx of “Capital,” accompanied the Russians throughout: – the dialectic, contradiction, commodity fetishism, “real abstractions,” the dual nature of labour, alienation, abstract labour and so on, continued to animate the work of the Soviet workers, and via Marx, even Hegel continued to exert an influence.