Inicio > Filosofía marxista, Psicología marxista, Teoría crítica acumulada > «An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity»: Andy Blunden

«An Interdisciplinary Concept of Activity»: Andy Blunden


It is suggested that if Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) is to fulfil its potential as an approach to cultural and historical science in general, then an interdisciplinary concept of activity is needed. Such a concept of activity would provide a common foundation for all the human sciences, underpinning concepts of, for example, state and social movement equally as, for example, learning and personality. For this is needed a clear conception of the ‘unit of analysis’ of activity, i.e., of what constitutes ‘an activity’, and a clear distinction between the unit of analysis and the substance, i.e., ultimate reality underlying all the human sciences: artifactmediated joint activity.

It is claimed that the concept of ‘project collaboration’ – the interaction between two or more persons in pursuit of a common objective – forms such a unit of activity, the single ‘molecule’ in terms of which both sociological and psychological phenomena can be theorised. It is suggested that such a clarification of the notion of activity allows us to see how individual actions and societal activities mutually constitute one another and are each construed in the light of the other.


Vasily Davydov was right when he said that activity is an ‘interdisciplinary’ concept:

I always argue that the problem of activity and the concept of activity are interdisciplinary by nature. There should be specified philosophical, sociological, culturological, psychological and physiological aspects here. That is why the issue of activity is not necessarily connected with psychology as a profession. It is connected at present because in the course of our history activity turned out to be the thing on which our prominent psychologists focused their attention as early as in the Soviet Union days. Things just turned out this way (Davydov, 1999: 50, emphasis added).

The objective of this paper is to take up Davydov’s observation and investigate what is needed for one and the same concept of activity to be useful both in the resolution of problems associated with individuals and their relations, and those associated with societal entities and their relations. Such a concept would provide a rational basis for psychology (including education, organizational theory, and so on) to appropriate concepts from sciences concerned with societal phenomena (economics, cultural studies, political science, and so on) and viceversa, and contribute to overcoming the individual/society dichotomy. Interdisciplinary work is commonly organized through the cooperation of different specialists who each use specialist theories and concepts, but communicate with one another in the lingua franca. But Davydov is right in suggesting that ‘activity’ can provide a common theoretical foundation across disciplinary boundaries. What is proposed is not a theory of everything, but rather concepts which facilitate disciplines critically appropriating insights from other disciplines.

And surely, when Marx spoke about activity (Tätigkeit) in “Theses on Feuerbach” (1975a) he meant precisely an interdisciplinary concept of activity, and not a concept limited to the solution of problems of individuals and small groups. In fact defining practice as the coincidence of changing circumstances and activity, he says that “All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.” All mysteries, not just psychological mysteries. In the oft-quoted early pages of “The German Ideology,” (1975b) he went so far as to claim that the ‘real premises’ for his work would be ‘the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity’ (1975b: 31). So defined, this project remains before us to this day.

Because of the ‘historical accident’ referred to by Davydov, the concept of ‘activity’ ‘stayed out of politics’ (Sawchuk & Stetsenko 2008), so to speak, and came to be linked specifically to psychology. Despite the efforts of Activity Theorists, the concept as it has been developed is inadequate beyond the domain of what Hegel referred to as ‘subjective spirit’ –self-contained activity amongst a finite group of individuals. Such a science is inadequate for grasping the connection with societal phenomena, because Activity Theory has had to uncritically borrow its conceptions of societal entities from other sciences; but it is these entities which constitute the content of the psyche in modern societies. According to Activity Theory, an activity is a system of actions in pursuit of some object. But in reality, the identity of such activities have been borrowed from other sciences, and fitted into activity theory by means of arbitrarily defining suitable ‘objects’.

For example, a spinner is participating in the activity whose object is yarn, although the worker’s goal is wages, and the employers’ goal is profit. (Leontyev 2009) In what follows we will review the general conception of activity, drawing upon the classic work of Leontyev, leading into consideration of how activity is conceived of as the substance of the human sciences. We will contrast this conception of activity as substance with the conception of a ‘unit of analysis’. How these ideas are dealt with by three Russian writers whose work is canonical and frequently cited in the current literature will be considered, and reviewed briefly in relation to two problems of the social sciences: Marx’s critique of political economy and the constitution of social subjects. We will then consider whether Engeström’s response to the problems which have been identified, and the work of Michael Cole in bringing out the importance of context. We will then propose a conception of the ‘unit of analysis’ of activity which provides a foundation for both the human sciences and ethics.

Artículo Completo

Outlines • No. 1 • 2009

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