1 - Activity theory and individual and social transformation  pp. 19-38

Activity theory and individual and social transformation

By Yrjö Engeström

Image View Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Introduction

The internationalization of activity theory in the 1980s and 1990s has taken place in the midst of sweeping changes in the political and economic systems of our planet. During a few months, the Berlin Wall came down and Nelson Mandela was freed from prison. Those were only two among the visible symbols of the transformations that continue to amaze the most sophisticated observers.

Many of the current changes share two fundamental features. First, they are manifestations of activities from below, not just outcomes of traditional maneuvering among the elite of political decision makers. Second, they are unexpected or at least very sudden and rapidly escalating. These two features pose a serious challenge to behavioral and social sciences.

The behavioral and social sciences have cherished a division of labor that separates the study of socioeconomic structures from the study of individual behavior and human agency. In this traditional framework, the socioeconomic structures look stable, all-powerful, and self-sufficient. The individual may be seen as an acting subject who learns and develops, but somehow the actions of the individual do not seem to have any impact on the surrounding structures.

This traditional dualistic framework does not help us to understand today's deep social-transformations. More than ever before, there is a need for an approach that can dialectically link the individual and the social structure. From its very beginnings, the cultural-historical theory of activity has been elaborated with this task in mind.