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.