Activity Theory and its Research Applications

MA Social Research module

Module Outline

In recent years activity theory has become a widely used analytical framework in social research, particularly in research into work-related, professional and informal learning. Derived from the early twentieth century social psychology of Vygotsky, activity theory is concerned with the dynamics between social actors (subjects), the tools (artefacts) that they use to act upon different dimensions of the world (i.e. the objects of activity) and the rules, divisions of labour and communities in which activities are embedded. The innovations of Engestrom, which are termed ‘Developmental Work Research’ (DWR) have produced an applied form of activity theory that has had major impact on intervention-based education and social research.

This module will provide: a critical introduction to activity theory’s cultural and historical context; its underpinning concepts; its relationship to Developmental Work Research and expansive learning; its relationships to other approaches to working with organisations such as action research and situated learning (Communities of Practice). The latter part of the module will offer opportunities to examine case studies that have drawn upon activity theory in their design, intervene and analysis. Students will be encouraged to apply concepts from activity theory to the development of their own research.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of how activity theory has been shaped by its cultural and historical origins;
  • Demonstrate a critical understanding of the relationships between the underpinning concepts of activity theory;
  • Critically evaluate different applications of activity theory in education and social research;
  • Critically evaluate activity theory as a research and intervention tool in comparison with related research approaches;
  • Reflect upon how activity theory might apply to their own research.

Course Assessment

A 3,000 word assignment on one of the following topics:  Provide a critical evaluation of one activity theory derived research study; Provide a critical review of the development of activity theory as a framework for social research, considering both its conceptual strengths and potential disadvantages; Outline a rationale for incorporating an activity theory derived approach into the design of a particular project (this could be the student’s own research project or a similar project); Present an analysis of a particular set of data, using an activity theory derived approach.