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Activity has an hierarchical structure, and can be analyzed at different levels: activities, actions and operations. (Leontiev 1974)

The structure of human activity (source: interaction-design.org)

The top level is activity itself, oriented towards its motive. At a lower level lie conscious goal-directed actions that must be undertaken to fulfill the object. Goals can be decomposed into sub-goals, and so forth, meaning actions can have a hierarchical structure of their own. At the lowest level lie automatic processes which happen subconsciously, called operations. This is how actions are eventually carried out.

I'm not entirely sure where the distinction lies between motives and goals. A motive is an object that meets a certain need of the subject, while actions are goal-directed processes that must be undertaken to fulfill the object. (Kaptelinin 2009)

It seems like as long as a certain action has some underlying higher motive it is only part of an activity, while as no higher motive can be identified it should be considered an activity instead.

  • Do you arbitrarily decide on what to define the activity, and what to define as the underlying actions?
  • How does e.g. a potential underlying motive for all actions as 'survival' fit into this picture?

Leontiev, Aleksei N. (1974). The Problem of Activity in Psychology. Soviet Psychology, 13, 4-33.
Kaptelinin, Victor & Nardi, Bonnie A. (2009). Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design. The MIT Press

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I guess you have alredy found your answer or no longer need it. If you are still looking for an answer, the page you link to has it. You must remember that this theory was developed in a Marxist context and is closely tied to the concept of the division of labor. The motive is the fullfillment of a need (e.g. food). The goal is what you have to do to achieve that motive in the context of society. For example, to build a car (motive) one individual or team in a factory will aim to attach the wheels (goal) while someone else will paint the body (goal). Both have the same motive but diff goals. –  what Jan 3 at 21:04
While individuals can have motives (food) and goals (consume a meal in a restaurant), too, the background to the development of activity theory is the political system of the early Soviet Union. As a theory developped at a Soviet university it must be interpreted from that background. –  what Jan 3 at 21:16

2 Answers 2

Do you arbitrarily decide on what to define the activity, and what to define as the underlying actions?

As Christian stated in his answer, there seem to be no concrete (unambiguous) steps to follow. This most likely has to do with Activity Theory being a 'framework for analysis' rather than a theory in the traditional scientific sense. It thus highly depends on what you choose as the point of analysis.

However, some guidelines exist, as stated on interaction-design.org.

Revealing the ultimate motives of a person or the fine-grain structure of automatic operations may prove to be difficult, if not impossible. This limitation of Leontiev’s three-layer model as an analytical tool can be overcome by employing an expansive “actions first” strategy. This strategy involves starting analysis from the actions layer which relatively easily yields itself to qualitative research methods. In particular, people are usually aware of their goals and can report or express them in a certain way. Then the analysis can be expanded both “up”, to progressively higher level goals and, ultimately, motives, and “down”, to sub-goals and operations. The expanding scope of analysis may not cover the entire structure of the activity in question but be sufficient for the purposes of the task at hand (see also Kaptelinin and Nardi, 2006).

As for the second question:

How does e.g. a potential underlying motive for all actions as 'survival' fit into this picture?

This question seems to imply that any given action can only be part of one activity system. This is not the case. Actions can be polymotivated, that is, subordinated to several motives and/or higher-level goals at the same time. (Leont'ev A. N., 1978)

Kaptelinin, V., & Nardi, B. A. (2006). Acting with technology: Activity theory and interaction design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press Leont’ev, A. N. (1978). Activity, Consciousness, and Personality. Prentice-Hall Englewood Cliffs, Nj.

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I think the confusion arises because the hierarchy of "activity" as described in that figure exist in the context of an ontology that is closer to dynamical perception-action cycles than to the evolutionary information processing ontology typically used in cognitivist approaches.

The world is structured; it comprises discrete objectively existing entities, that is, objects. Subjects’ interaction with the world is also structured; it is organized around the objects. Objects have their “objective” meanings, determined by their relationship with other entities existing in the world (including the subject). In order to meet their needs, the subject has to reveal the objective meaning of the objects, at least partly, and act accordingly. — interaction-design.org, section

Activities are relations between subjects and objects (as in interests), so motives are objects. They exist in the sense that the grammar of a language exists, and are independent of any one person. Goals relate individual conscious processes (e.g., decision-making and planning) to these motives in order for the subject to concretely attain their object, and actions relate individual behavior to the goals.

However, these are only facets of the same continuously evolving system. There is therefore no way to describe an action without reference to an object and motive in an activity theoretical sense. In activity theory, all behavior is directed towards some motive as a matter of definition, and it is the motive which defines the activity. Motives entail goals, goals entail conditions, and reciprocally the other way around in a continuous dynamically evolving cycle.

The motive is the object that the subject ultimately needs to attain. For instance, in some cultural contexts people reaching a certain age need to learn how to drive a car (and get a driver’s license); it is a general prerequisite of being a fully functional member of society. Learning how to drive a car is an activity which is organized as a multi-layer system of sub-units directed at getting a driver’s license. Actions are conscious processes directed at goals which must be undertaken to fulfil the object. Goals can be decomposed into sub-goals, sub-sub-goals, and so forth. For instance, one may decide to enroll in a driving school, purchase instructional materials, make a schedule of theoretical lessons and practice sessions, etc. Actions are implemented through lower-level units of activity, called operations. Operations are routine processes providing an adjustment of an action to the ongoing situation.interaction-design.org, section

A potentially helpful tool in understanding this ontology may be to notice the remarkable similarity with the Gibsonian concept of affordances as objectively existing perceptual entities (e.g., Chemero, 2003), only seen from a socio-cultural point of view. The relation between affordance and organism seems closely parallel to the relation between subject and object in activity theory.

Much like ecological psychologists need to define an ontology of objective affordances that define behavior for specific organisms within a specific environment before anything they say makes any sense, activity theorists need to define an ontology of objective motives for specific subjects within a specific socio-cultural context. Unlike EP, activity theory does not appear to provide a concrete way to identify objectively existing motives, nor exactly define the subjects or the socio-cultural context, so AT is ambiguous with respect to any individual case (e.g., a 'survival' motive or goal). See also what's comments about AT being implicitly situated within a Marxist context.


  • Chemero, A. (2003). An outline of a theory of affordances. Ecological psychology, 15(2), 181-195.
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