Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

I/O Psychology and the Bridging Potential of A.N. Leont'ev's Activity Theory

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

I/O Psychology and the Bridging Potential of A.N. Leont'ev's Activity Theory

Article excerpt


Soviet activity theory, largely developed by A. N. Leont'ev, can be seen as a European complement of American I/O psychology and an important current of action theories in general. This paper identifies the major strength of Leont'ev's theory as the bridging potential it achieves by situating activity between each of several major pairs of opposite poles: mind and matter or body (exemplified by thinking workers and their work tasks), subject and object, understanding and explanation, theory and practice, humanist psychology and behaviourism. Some implications of activity theory and its bridging potential are pursued in the contexts of I/O theory-construction and research methods, and in the substantive problem areas of job design, job analysis, organization development, and personnel training.

An Overview of Activity Theory


"Die Tat ist alles - The deed is everything," wrote Johann Wolfgang Goethe in Faust, Part 2. For Martin Heidegger, the major problem of Western philosophy since Plato seems to have been the exclusive focus on abstractions and theory which obscure the practical activity and pre-theoretical knowledge out of which concepts and categories really evolve in the first place. G. W. F. Hegel moved away from static essences to dynamic processes, an orientation which greatly influenced the action- and revolution-oriented Karl Marx. In America, pragmatism is the philosophical school of thought most immediately associated with a focus on "the deed," on the Greek pragma ("act," "business"). Skinner (1989) reminded us that "to define" once meant "to mark the bounds or ends," that "to distinguish" was originally "to mark something by pricking it," and that "to determine" meant "to locate the end of something." On the level of human evolution, Dennett (1984, pp. 38-41) humorously traced the development of thought from overt acts of communication between "Bob" and "Alf" back in the early stone age, to internalized conversations with others and eventually with oneself.

Activity theory is a conceptual framework based on the idea that activity is primary, that doing precedes thinking, that goals, images, cognitive models, intentions, and abstract notions like "definition" and "determinant" grow out of people doing things. What is unique about activity theory is that it pursues the ramifications of this idea in contexts ranging from broad philosophical issues such as the development of mind, to political economics, and to practical questions of how work impacts on the long term well-being of workers.


Originated by L. S. Vygotsky, developed by A. N. Leont'ev (1978, 1981), influenced greatly by the general psychology of S. L. Rubinstein, and applied with vigour in both West and East Germany as well as in Scandinavia and Switzerland, activity theory can be seen as a European complement of American I/O psychology and the management practices it supports.

In both Eastern and Western Europe, activity theory has emerged in two contexts. The first is the philosophical issue of the relationship between subject and object, the second is the issue of how work should be designed and executed.

The two contexts overlap. Activity theory sees workers as deliberating subjects and promotes job and work design interventions which allow workers to engage in the human, i.e., thinking and reflecting, way of being. In concrete terms, activity theory seeks to increase two kinds of opportunities available to workers: Opportunities to regulate their own behaviour on the job and, in the long run, opportunities to learn and develop.

Corresponding to the two contexts of the subject versus object dichotomy and the broad issue of how work should be designed, we pursue two related objectives in this article. The first is to examine this European way of looking at basic dichotomies that underlie psychological theorizing and practice with a view to bringing extremes closer together. …

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