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Leont’ev’s theory of the hierarchical structure of human activity

An activity, according to activity theory, is an integrated unit of purposeful actions in human social life. People organize their social lives through activities, thereby developing their knowledge, abilities, consciousness’s, and personalities. Through activity, people change themselves as they change their circumstances. Thus, such activity can itself be said to be the “substance” that gives rise to our consciousness (Leont’ev, 1977, p. 202). We do not carry out activities based on our consciousness; rather, we carry out activities, and our consciousness arises on this basis. That is, our shared activities give rise to our shared consciousness.

In this sense, an activity can be said to correspond to the “unit of analysis” given the greatest emphasis as a research methodology' in Vygotsky’s main work Thinking and Speech. According to Vygotsky (1934/1987, pp. 46-47), the method of “partitioning the whole into its units” does not entail “decomposing the whole into its elements,” but rather finding the smallest “unit” that still maintains “all the basic characteristics of the whole.”

For instance, in explaining the characteristics of water, “its molecule and its molecular movements” become the unit of analysis, and in investigating the basic characteristics of life inherent in the living organism, the “living cell” is considered as the unit of analysis (Vygotsky, 1934/1987, p. 46). In Thinking and Speech, Vygotsky states that a “word meaning” (the inner aspect of the word) is the unit of analysis of human consciousness (p. 47). In his view, a “word meaning” is a unit that “possesses the characteristics inherent to the integral phenomenon of verbal thinking and that cannot be further decomposed” (p. 47). On the other hand, the concept of activity, which is our focus here, attempts to capture the basic characteristics of the actual life processes of people that underlie this consciousness, and can be said to be an expanded unit of analysis (see Leont’ev, 1978, p. 50).

As referred to in Chapter 1, Section 3, in activity theory, this concept of activity originates from the notion of “sensuous human activity, practice” proposed by Karl Marx (1976, p. 3) in “Theses on Feuerbach.” This sensuous human activity' involves practical ties of people with the outside world surrounding them and is the basic form by which human beings live (Leont’ev, 1978, p. 12). Activity in this sense, therefore, is indigenously “social”; thus, “[u]nder whatever kind of conditions and forms human activity' takes place, whatever kind of structure it assumes, it must not be considered as isolated from social relations, from the life of society” (p. 51). It develops only “under conditions of cooperation and sharing by people,” which itself is incorporated into “the system of interrelationships with other people” (p. 59).

The concept of activity thus theoretically connects, mediates, and bridges over the segregation or gap between the individual and society' or the subject and the object. All actions carried out by a subject (an individual or group) are mediated by historically accumulated social constraints and cultural meanings. The concept of activity constitutes an attempt to understand the agentive, constructive potential of people to create their own lives and futures by working actively upon such environment and social conditions and trying to transform them.

In the 1930s, Leont’ev began to formularize the basic principles of activity theory as a framework for analyzing the development of such social practical

Activity theory as a new framework for educational research 25 activity and to gain a structural understanding of human activity; activity theory, then, was historically developed upon this foundation. Vygotsky built the ideas that became the cornerstone of Leont’ev’s (1978) structural understanding of practical activity as developing historically through the mediation of culture. He states the following:

The idea of analyzing activity as a method of scientific human psychology was proposed ... in the early works of L. S. Vygotskii. The concept of tooled (“instrumental”) operations, the concept of purposes, and later the concept of motive (“motivational sphere of consciousness”) were introduced. Years passed, however, before it was possible to describe, in a first approach, the common structure of human activity and individual consciousness.

(p. 62)

It is true that in the final chapter of Thinking and Speech? a work focusing on the formation of verbal thinking, Vygotsky (1934/1987, p. 282) likens thought to a “hovering cloud that gushes a shower of words” and regards the “wind that puts the cloud in motion,” that is, “the motivating sphere,” as the final problem of thinking and consciousness. He holds that “the motivating sphere of consciousness, a sphere that includes our inclinations and needs, our interests and impulses, and our affect and emotion” or the “affective and volitional tendency” (p. 282), lies behind the deepest place where verbal thinking originates.

Mentioning the theater he loved since his youth as an example, Vygotsky (1934/1987) states: “[B]ehind each of a character’s lines there stands a desire that is directed toward the realization of a definite volitional task” (p. 282). Therefore, thinking cannot be separated from emotion, and also “[a] deterministic analysis of mental life cannot begin by ascribing to thought a magical power to determine human behavior, a power to determine behavior through one of the individual’s own inner systems” (p. 50).

At the final stages of his studies, which were interrupted by his early death, Vygotsky (1934/1987, pp. 282-283) found the key to “the most secret internal plane of verbal thinking” in “its motivation,” or alternately, “its real, affective-volitional basis.” Leont’ev (1978) interprets Vygotsky's great insight into human consciousness as follows: “[F]or Vygotskii, an opposite thesis remained unshakable: Not meaning, not consciousness lies behind life, but life lies behind consciousness” (p. 62).

How then did this concept of motive become the cornerstone of activity theory?

Activity theory as established by Leont’ev is a theory of object-oriented activity. Its basic principle is, above all, the “object-orientedness of activity.” This fundamental nature of human activity is, as closely considered in Chapter 1, Section 3, intimately connected with the way of dialectical mutual formation of subject and object in object-oriented activity. Leont’ev (1978) points out such mutual transfers between subject and object:

In activity there does take place a transfer of an object into its subjective form, into an image; also in activity a transfer of activity into its objective results, into its products, is brought about. Taken from this point of view, activity appears as a process in which mutual transfers between the poles “subject-object” are accomplished.

(p. 50)

The reciprocating movement takes place in object-oriented human activity, which involves “the two opposing ‘metamorphoses’—forms of activity and forms of things in their dialectically contradictory mutual transformations” (Ilyenkov, 1977, p. 99). Moreover, the ideality of things is generated and exists only in this movement of human activity'—the ideal.

Leont’ev (1978) describes such an object as a decisively key factor, which stimulates the subject to activity as follows:

The main thing that distinguishes one activity from another ... is the difference of their objects. It is exactly the object of an activity' that gives it a determined direction. According to the terminology, I have proposed, the object of an activity is its true motive. ... It is understood that the motive may be either material or ideal, either present in perception or exclusively in the imagination or in thought. The main thing is that behind activity there should always be a need, that it should always answer one need or another.

Thus the concept of activity' is necessarily connected with the concept of motive.

(pp. 62-63)

An activity cannot occur without an object, that is, a motive. In other words, there is no such thing as “non-motivated” activity; if there were, it would be an activity' with “a subjectively and objectively hidden motive” (Leont’ev, 1978, p. 63). The motive that takes effect in reality', that is, the object of activity', is the concern that stimulates the subject to activity, and the attention, effort, and meaning of the subject arise based on this focal point.

Regarding such object-oriented activity, Leont’ev (1981) offers the concrete example in which “a student, preparing for an examination, reads a book on history” (p. 400). This example considers what happens if a friend visits the student and tells the student the book he or she is reading is completely unnecessary to prepare for the examination. If the student stops reading and immediately lays the book aside, the motive that had directed the student to read was not “the content of the book per se but only the need to pass the examination” (p. 400). In this case, it could be said that the student’s activity was not reading itself, but rather preparing for the examination.

Next, what does this type of reading, wherein the activity is preparing for an examination, mean to the student? The three-level hierarchical structure of human activity proposed by Leont’ev plays an important role in clarifying this.

Leont’ev’s pioneering contribution to the creation of activity theory was his clarification of the hierarchical structure of human activity, which comprises three levels of collective: “activity,” individual “action,” and automatic “operation” (Figure 2.1). According to this notion, an activity that is oriented toward an object (a purpose or motive) is accomplished through a structure wherein multiple “goal-oriented actions” (action a, b, c ... ») form a chain.

For instance, in the “primaeval collective hunt” that Leont’ev (1981) mentions as an example, linked roles and actions were assigned to various participants depending on goals and tasks, such as the role of beater frightening a herd of animals and sending them toward other hunters hiding in ambush, and the final act of killing the game. The activity of the collective hunt was formed by the execution of this string of actions (p. 210). In other words, collective activities characterized by elements such as “division of labor” and “cooperation” are carried out on a collective dimension in a higher-order context than the participants’ individual actions. In the case of the “primaeval collective hunt,” such activity' is stimulated by and oriented toward a motive shared among the participants on a collective dimension, such as surviving by obtaining food and clothing.

In addition, in the previous example of reading a book to prepare for an examination, reading itself does not motivate the student. Therefore, the activity' is not reading. In other words, reading is in this case an activity whose purpose is passing an examination, the true motive of the student; it is one of the actions that comprise the activity of preparing for the examination.

The level of “operation” of an activity' is “the mode of performing an act” (Leont’ev, 1981, p. 406). Operation is not identical to action. Even the same action can be performed by different operations. Conversely, different actions may be accomplished by the same operation. Operations relate to, and are defined by, surrounding “conditions” that are beyond the control of the subject. For example, the act of memorizing verses can be accomplished

Unit of Analysis

Orientating Factor



Object'societal motive

Collective or community




Goal limited to a particular tune and place

Individual or group



Operation routme

Conditions (including tools)

People and machines that act regularly

Figure 2.1 The three-level hierarchical structure of human activity (adopted from Leont’ev, 1978)

by different operations, such as writing them down when sitting at home or repeatedly reciting them in other conditions (p. 407).

As described above, Leont’ev’s theory of activity structure provides a very important perspective on human development. This theory maintains that the development of individuals is nothing more than a change in the structure of their activities that serves to create a new relationship with actuality.

Leont’ev (1978, pp. 180-183), for example, cites children’s “aviation circle” activities held in an institution outside school. In this activity, children worked with great fascination on preparing model airplanes but did not show sufficient interest in the physical knowledge and theory targeted by the question, “Why does an airplane remain in the air?” However, the introduction of the task described below significantly tweaked the children’s interests. This task took the form of a contest that tasked the children with building a model for the purpose of “flying” it over a determined distance along a straight line as quickly as possible. This string of goal-oriented actions newly motivated the children. In other words, students were motivated to gain the requisite theoretical knowledge to figure out “why the model falls precipitously” and “what must be changed in it for the next flight.” Here, initially, a transformation of activity structure is produced as a result of a transition to a new motive. This transformation of activity structure then leads to a new relationship with actuality for the subjects.

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