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What is an Activity Theory?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Activity theory is an approach to understanding human behavior by examining the social context of the behavior and the motivations of social pressures on people as they engage in activities. Russian researchers were among the first to start developing and studying activity theory in the early 1900s and this research has been applied to a number of topics. Looking at the origins and motivations behind human behavior can provide researchers with information about how people view themselves.

According to activity theorists, as people interact with their environment and each other, they achieve a series of outcomes leading to the development of tools. These could be literal tools, as in the case of someone who spends time constructing a computer, or more metaphorical ones, like social skills. Sometimes, an individual outcome only makes sense within the context of a shared and collective activity. Students working together on a project, for example, are participating in a collective activity where the outcome benefits all the participants.

As people engage in activities, they are influenced by the roles they play and are assigned by society, and the rules dictated for people in those roles. As people grow older, their roles may change, and this can alter the way they feel about themselves. One area where activity theory has been applied is in the understanding of changing emotions among aging adults as they retire. Researchers have found that replacing employment with activity meaningful to the individual can improve quality of life, as people benefit from having defined roles and rules in their lives.

Activity theory differs from some methods of explaining and evaluating human behavior by looking beyond internal motivations to external ones. Rather than looking at topics like the reward mechanisms within the brain, for example, researchers are interested in the social setting of activities and interactions. Activity theory can be used to develop everything from better approaches to teaching in classroom settings to activity programs for older adults living in group facilities.

As with many schools of psychology, activity theory has split a number of times since its initial inception, with researchers taking the concept and the accompanying research in different directions. Some schools of thought may contradict each other, while others work on complementary projects and research. Researchers have also integrated other concepts in psychology into their work on activity theory to learn more about how people function both collectively and alone in society.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By lovealot — On Jun 30, 2011

After workers retire, their lives do change. Most of them have many choices. Some choose to work part-time at something they really have a passion for, some want to do a lot of traveling, and some prefer to enjoy family and do some volunteering.

Many studies have shown that older people stay healthier and avoid chronic illnesses if they eat healthy food, exercise their minds and bodies and share life socially with others.

Of course, as senior citizens age, many become fragile and need varied amounts of assistance. But, the more independent they can be, the better.

Setting goals, either personal or as part of a group are great ways to stay strong and vital.

I believe that there should be a variety of living situations available to seniors from independent quarters (with some degree of support and assistance, to group homes, with individual apartments and meal service, to facilities with more medical care.

If all these types of facilities were clustered together, with grocery stores, drug stores, doctors, a recreational facility, exercise gym, etc., the elderly without cars could walk or ride a shuttle to what they need. This independence is so important to well-being.

By miriam98 — On Jun 29, 2011

@Charred - I don’t think any learning theory is completely restrictive in the sense you define. Some inventions will happen in isolation, some will happen through interaction.

All inventions, however, are borne of some need felt by the society at large; therefore I think it would be difficult to argue that in most cases, social interaction didn’t contribute to much of our innovation.

By Charred — On Jun 29, 2011

@allenJo - I think this theory of social activity has some merit. My only disagreement would be with the idea that social interaction leads to invention. Is this meant to be an exclusive definition?

What about people who build things in isolation? Many geniuses and savants through the years were loners; their inventions benefited society, to be sure, but those inventions didn’t necessarily come about through social interactions.

I’m just thinking out loud here – what do others think?

By allenJo — On Jun 28, 2011

So if I understand correctly activity theory would come down on the nurture side of the nature versus nurture social theory. It states that people are more defined by their surroundings than by internal motivations.

I’m not sure I buy in to the premise, although I do agree with one of its conclusions – that elderly people are better off in a retirement setting where they can interact with others and remain productive. That’s why I like the idea of retirement communities over nursing homes.

I believe that our brains and faculties remain sharp even into old age, if we are allowed to keep exercising them.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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