I've been using activity theory ever since David R. Russell introduced me to it in—was it 1995? And one of the most useful tools that activity theory gives to us is the notion of the activity system.
The activity system is the analytical unit of activity theory: it's what we have to study in order to understand what people are trying to do in an organization or other social unit. Roughly speaking, the activity system allows us to study the material and social context that surrounds a repeated activity.
For instance, suppose we want to examine how people work in an organization. We wouldn't focus (exclusively) on their tools, their education, or the posted rules that they have to follow. We wouldn't (exclusively) isolate each one and give them IQ or perception tests. Sure, we might do any of these things as part of a larger study, but in isolation, they don't tell us much about the shared activity.
So what would we do?
Activity theory would suggest that we first figure out: (1) What's the objective that they're trying to accomplish over and over again? And (2) why—What's the outcome they want to produce?
Once we figure those out, then we can go to other components that make up the activity. First the easy part, easy because these components are generally visible: (3) What tools do they use as they try to accomplish their objective? (4) Who is directly using these tools to achieve the outcome?
Then the harder part, harder because these components are generally invisible: (5) What formal and informal rules do people follow in this activity? (6) What community stakeholders are indirectly involved? And (7) What's the division of labor at the site—how do people formally and informally divide their roles?
By dissecting context in this way, we can start to understand how all these components fit together.
Okay, so this description gives us a conceptual overview. But to do this sort of analysis ourselves, it really helps to have step-by-step directions. And maybe a worksheet to fill out.
For step-by-step directions, you'll have to wait to read my book Topsight, where I show how to use field research to construct activity systems. But you can see the Topsight worksheet for activity systems now. Here it is.
on my book site so that people can download it and write in the blanks.
Of course, part of what makes activity systems useful is that once you describe the activity, you can start to detect systemic tensions. Activity theorists call these tensions contradictions. They're sources of disruptions—but also, as Yrjo Engestrom tells us, engines of innovation. Naturally: When a system isn't working, people try to fix it. So detecting those contradictions, and the innovations that cluster around them, becomes extremely valuable.
Detecting these contradictions takes a new set of questions, a new set of instructions—and a new worksheet.
In this worksheet, you can use the same field data to begin identifying contradictions: contradictions within each point (say, two incompatible tools) and contradictions between points (say, a mismatch between a tool and a rule). You write a description, indicate the contradiction with a dashed line, and then you have a depiction of the underlying tensions in an organization.
This brief description makes activity systems sound easy to produce. They're not, of course. Like topsight itself, an understanding of an activity system takes a while to develop. But you'll find the tools for developing it in Topsight.
One more thing. Activity systems don't just float around by themselves, like beach balls in the ocean. They constantly connect and overlap. And those connections and overlaps create contradictions too. Soon I'll talk about how to model those contradictions as well.