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Activity is the collaborative pursuit of social ends – the basic substance of human social life.


Action’ and ‘activity’ developed the distinct meanings that they have in CHAT, with the concept of Activity being given a specific scientific meaning by A. N. Leontyev (1904-1979) in his Activity Theory. Although several different currents of Activity Theory have developed since, the concept of Activity remains essentially the same as the generalised notion of activity that was implicit in Vygotsky’s work, which introduced mediation to the concept of activity Marx elaborated in the Theses on Feuerbach in 1845.


The main Unit of Activity is an Activity, the collaborative pursuit of a shared Object or Motive. Note the distinction between the mass noun ‘Activity’ and the countable noun ‘an Activity’ or ‘Activities’. In Russian, there is no distinction between mass nouns and countable nouns (both are Деятельность), and as a result in English language CHAT literature, the distinction is often blurred. However, the distinct advance which Leontyev made over Vygotsky and Marx was the identification of Activities, each with their own object, as the units of Activity. By establishing a unit of Activity, Leontyev produced the scientific concept of Activity, which had formally been known only as a generalised substance.

Leontyev distinguished between activity and “the dynamics of the nervous, physiological processes that realize this activity.” (Leonytev 2009, p. 396) Activity is composed solely of Actions, and involuntary and autonomous processes are not actions. He further specifies that activity is meaningful only in connection with the ensemble of social relations of which it is a part, and is essentially a collaborative process.

This is because activity arose from the development of a division of labour with the emergence of human society:

“Genetically (i.e. in its origin) the separation of the object and motive of individual activity is a result of the disarticulating of the separate operations from a previously complex, polyphase, but single activity. These same separate operations, by now completing the content of the individual’s given activity, are also transformed into independent actions for him, although they continue, as regards the collective labour process as a whole, of course, to be only some of its partial links.” (2009, p. 187)

That is, activity arose when actions were differentiated from activities:

“Processes, the object and motive of which do not coincide with one another, we shall call ‘actions’.” (2009, p. 187)

So that while every action of which an activity is composed is directed at and realises some immediate goal, the goal is not the motive of the action. The motive for each action comes from the activity of which it is a part, and is realised only through a number of actions. The motive (or object) of an activity, the human social need which it meets, is definitive of the activity, and this is the distinction between an action and an activity. Leontyev says that:

“... The main thing that distinguishes one activity from another, however, is the difference of their objects. It is exactly the object of an activity that gives it a determined direction. ... The main thing is that behind activity there should always be a need, that it should always answer one need or another” (Leontyev 1978).

Activity is composed of actions and nothing other than actions, but “one and the same motive may generate various goals and hence various actions” whilst “one and the same action may realize various activities” (2009, p. 401), so an activity is not simply a set of actions. Leontyev sums this up by saying that Actions are not ‘additive’ and ‘activity’ is a molar unit, whilst Action is the main, or molecular, unit of human life.

The study of actions and their goals, on one hand, and activities and their motives, on the other, “deals not with different processes but rather with different planes of abstraction” (2009, p. 401)

This brings us to the question of the implications of this concept of activity for Psychology, that is, for the study of consciousness and personality.

Vygotsky had found that word meaning is the unit of verbal thinking, and Leontyev generalised this idea in taking action is the main unit of activity:

“together with the birth of action, this main ‘unit’ in human activity, there also arises the main unit, social in nature, of the human psyche, i.e. the rational meaning for a person of that to which his activity is directed.” (2009, p. 189)

So for Leontyev there are two units of consciousness:

“(1) There is action as a process directed to a goal recognised in connection with a definite motive; this is the aspect of activity inwardly associated with the ‘unit’ of consciousness that we designate by the term ‘personal sense’.
“(2) We distinguished the content or aspect of the action that corresponds to its conditions; this is the operation. A singular ‘unit’ of consciousness, namely, meaning, is also associated with this content of the activity.” (2009, p. 339)

Meaning differs from personal sense for Leontyev as follows:

“Meaning is the reflection of reality irrespective of man’s individual, personal relation to it. Man finds an already prepared, historically formed system of meanings and assimilates it just as he masters a tool, the material prototype of meaning.”
“The psychological fact proper, the fact of my life, is this, (a) that I do or do not assimilate a given meaning, do or do not master it, and (b) what it becomes for me and for my personality in so far as I assimilate it; and that depends on what subjective, personal sense it has for me.” (2009, p. 203)


“The question of personal sense can thus be answered by bringing out the corresponding motive.” (2009, p. 205)

The difference between the personal sense of action for one person or another is illustrated by Leontyev with the differing personal sense the production of a commodity has for the worker (for whom it has the sense of wages) and the employer (for whom it has the sense of profit), whilst the meaning of the commodity remains the social need which it meets. (2009, p. 237)

Leontyev introduced the distinction between the really effective and merely understood motives, which he explains with the use of an example (2009, p. 365). A teacher may use a reward as an effective motive for a child to do their work, since the motive, to learn the subject matter, the child understands, but it is not sufficient for them to apply themselves. But over time, if the child submits to the teacher, Leontyev claims that the once merely-understood motive becomes a really effective motive.

The above is the conception of Activity of A. N. Leontyev. This conception has been subject to criticism. See ‘system of activity’ for a further development of the concept of activity by Yrjö Engeström.

See Concept for Vygotsky’s conception of activities. Vygotsky sought to make sense of a subject's actions by means of the concept which motivates them. A concept is characterised not so much by the object itself (predmet), but rather by how the subject conceives of the object and consequently the means of addressing the problem. That is, one and the same problem may stimulate quite different actions as means of overcoming the problem.

They [Rimat and Ach] have emphasized that the concept is formed only with the emergence of a need that can be satisfied in the concept, only in the process of some meaningful goal-oriented activity directed on the attainment of a particular goal or the on resolution of a definite task.
... they have failed to reveal the actual genetic, functional, and structural nature of this process. ... In essence, they are reduced to the assertion that the goal itself creates the corresponding goal-oriented activity through a determining tendency. They are reduced to the assertion that the solution is contained in the task itself. (Vygotsky, 1934, p. 127)

See also the article by Kaptelinin (2005)


Kaptelinin, V. (2005). The Object of Activity: Making Sense of the Sense-Maker, Mind, Culture, and Activity (12)1, 4–18.

Leontyev, A. N. (2009). The Development of Mind.

Leontyev, A. N. (1978). Activities, Consciousness and Personality., (in Russian) and (in German)

Vygotsky, L. S. (1934). An Experimental Study of Concept Development, Chapter 5 of Thinking and Speech, in LSVCW, v. 1, pp. 121–166

-- AndyBlunden - 12 Nov 2013


Topic revision: r14 - 22 Nov 2013, AndyBlunden

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