Historical roots and underlying assumptions
The immediate conceptual roots of activity theory can be traced to Russian/Soviet psychology of the 1920s and 1930s (footnote 2). During that time theoretical explorations in Russian psychology were heavily influenced by Marxist philosophy. A collective effort of a number of prominent psychologists, most notably Lev Vygotsky and Sergey Rubinshtein—which effort also involved much disagreement and even open conflicts—gave rise to a socio-cultural perspective (understood in a broad sense) in Russian psychology (e.g., Vygotsky, 1978; Rubinshtein, 1946;Rubinshtein 1986).
The main conceptual thrust of the socio-cultural perspective was to overcome the divide between, on the one hand, human mind, and on the other hand, culture and society. As opposed to most psychological frameworks of that time, the perspective considered culture and society generative forces, “responsible” for the very production of human mind, rather than external factors, however important, that merely constitute conditions for the functioning of the mind without changing its basic nature.
The work based on the socio-cultural perspective produced a number of fundamental insights. Some of the most important contributions were as follows:
Vygotsky’s universal law of development, according to which human mental functions first emerge as distributed between the person and other people (i.e., “inter-psychological ”) and only then as individually mastered by the person himself or herself (i.e., “intra-psychological”), and
- Rubinshtein’s principle of “unity and inseparability of consciousness and activity”, according to which human conscious experience and human acting in the world, the internal and the external, are closely interconnected and mutually determine one another.
Aleksei Leontiev’s activity theory (footnote 3) emerged as an outgrowth of the socio-cultural perspective. The theory employs a number of ideas developed by Vygotsky, Leontiev’s mentor and friend. It is also strongly influenced by the work of Rubinshtein, a major figure in Russian psychology and a long-time colleague of Leontiev’s (Brushlinsky & Aboulhanova-Slavskaya, 2000). Arguably, activity theory also features some other important influences which are more difficult to discern, such as the framework developed by Mikhail Basov (Basov, 1991). The basic assumptions of activity theory are the same as those underlying the socio-cultural perspective in general: namely, the assumptions of the social nature of human mind and inseparability of human mind and activity.
At the same time, Leontiev’s activity theory is not a simple imprint of all these influences. As discussed below, while the theory incorporates?a variety of ideas developed by Vygotsky, Rubinshstein, and others, these ideas have been revised and elaborated upon by Leontiev to form his own distinct and consistent conceptual framework.
This is extracted from interaction-design.org