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In Defense of Activity Theory

Carl Ratner


This article elaborates the relationship between practical social activity and psychological phenomena. In particular, I explain how psychological phenomena dialectically contribute to social activity even as they are organized by it. I also explain how individual differences in psychology are accounted for by activity. The article answers objections which have been raised to an earlier paper I wrote on activity and cultural psychology.

In my article (Ratner, 1996) I sought to reconceptualize cultural psychology. Whereas cultural psychologists typically study the manner in which shared symbols shape emotions, personality, perception, and mental illness. I tried to demonstrate that these psychological phenomena are organized by practical social activities such as politics, law, religion, medicine, education, entertainment, publishing, news reporting, the manner in which goods are produced, distributed, marketed, and consumed, the division of labor among these social activities, the rewards and opportunities allocated to them, and the groups of people who control them. One, of several, ways in which these activities organize psychological phenomena is by generating concepts which form these phenomena. My formulation of cultural psychology incorporates symbols and concepts, however it construes them as inspired by practical social activity. [Interestingly, our word for sharing ideas and words originally meant sharing practical duties: communication derives from Latin com (share) munia (duties).] My conception of cultural psychology extended the ideas of prominent "activity theorists." I presented evidence that psychological phenomena are organized by practical activity.

I believe this new direction is necessary for several reasons. First, psychological writings rarely acknowledge the structuring of human psychology by practical social activities.

Secondly, cultural psychology informed by activity theory directs attention at reforming social institutions and conditions in order to enhance psychological functioning. Discovering, for example, the cultural sources of mental illness, aggression, conformity, selfishness, prejudice, low cognitive functioning, and insensitivity directs attention at reforming those cultural sources. Restricting culture to symbolic meanings precludes analyzing and improving social institutions. A semeiotic view of culture thus reifies social institutions, systems, and conditions.

A third reason for emphasizing practical activity is to breathe fresh life into the field of cultural psychology. Members of the field have been rehashing the same concepts and concerns for 2 decades. We repeatedly hear the familiar themes that psychological phenomena take place in a social context, they are mediated by semeiotic symbols and tools, etc. A deeper understanding of culture will lead to productive insights into the social influences on psychology, the manner in which they act, the ways in which psychological phenomena actually reflect cultural influences, and he manner in which psychological processes interact with culture.

Objections of my critics

Josephs (1996) and Lima (1997) express some sympathy for my concerns. However they reject the formulation I propose and they suggest a very different approach to cultural psychology. In the limited space below, I use their critique to expand upon activity theory's distinctive contribution to cultural psychology. Their criticisms of my formulation of activity theory are as follows:

1) Activity theory, especially my formulation of it, is unnecessary because other theorists already employ whatever useful concepts it contains. Josephs & Lima claim that cultural psychologists would be unhappy with my characterization of them as mentalists. They say cultural psychologists do appreciate cultural activities and conditions.

In my paper I present numerous examples of specific research in cultural psychology which fails to include political, economic, legal, medical, educational, and familial activities (including the division of labor among them, the rewards granted to them, the kinds of people who control them, and the power relations within them) within the rubric of culture (cf. Ratner, 1993). I challenge anyone to find any serious consideration of practical social activity in these works. Of course, there are occasional mentions of activities and practices but these passing references are never developed theoretically or empirically.

Interestingly enough, some of the examples which Josephs employs to challenge my mentalistic description affirm my description. She says that Obeyesekere and Boesch have explicitly dealt with "how collective symbols are related to personal symbols." This is exactly my point: that culture is usually described as collective symbols.

Josephs also cites Miller & Sperry's article as an "impressive empirical attempt to relate person and culture in a meaningful way." Yet the research does no such thing. It simply relates the ways in which young children react to anger-provoking situations and their mothers' beliefs (ideology) and statements to their children about the necessity of responding violently to provocative situation. Miller & Sperry's research never mentions cultural activity or cultural values as bearing on aggression. Josephs is therefore quite wrong when she contends that this research "studies psychological functions in the concrete context of their usage without needing the concept of activity." Studying the concrete context would identify the manner in which children's aggression reflects aggression which occurs in economic, political, and military activities; it would also investigate the extent to which children's aggression is a response to frustrated ambitions for economic and social success.

Coles' remedial reading program, which Lima cites as a good example of research, also fails to consider broad social relations, institutions, and conditions. Cole simply primed each student to think about some aspect of a reading assignment in order to focus attention. The artifacts, cultural mediation, structured medium, and role-playing activity that Cole introduced in his program omitted influential factors such as the content and availability of educational materials; the structure and condition of the school buildings and equipment; the educational system, including the educational budget, teacher training, teacher salaries; the students' family lives; their parents' education and occupations and the social and economic rewards which accompany them; the content of media which the children watch; educational and occupational opportunities which will be available to the students. My approach to activity theory would investigate how these factors affect the motivational and cognitive aspects of reading. it would also recommend appropriate changes in these factors to enhance reading.

Even the comparatively successful works which Josephs cites (e.g., Smith & Kleinman's research on emotional management among medical school students) would be deepened by activity theory to more thoroughly analyze the socio-economic-political features of medical education activity which structure emotion management.

The failure to adequately consider practical social activity blinds one to the impact of social systems, institutions, and conditions on psychology. Exempting broad culture from scrutiny is the surest form of reification.

2) Activity theory produces a mindless cultural psychology which overlooks the active subjectivity of individuals.

Josephs makes this charge in several places. She worries that an activity-based cultural psychology will ignore the mind and subjective meaning. She says (p. 437) that the necessity to include the person in cultural psychology is excluded altogether from my discussion of activity theory. She warns activity theorists to not deny the role of semeiotic mediation.

Lima similarly accuses me of constructing a reified account of society. She claims that I espouse a unidirectional social determinism which devalues individual agency and mediating symbolic systems.

The charge of reification misrepresents activity theory. My use of the term activity denotes social relations, systems, structures, institutions, and conditions which are actively created and re-created by humans. By definition, activity includes perceiving, analyzing, evaluating, planning, imagining, reconceptualizing, feeling, and other psychological processes. These subjective processes are included in my conception of culture.

Social life is activity while activity is social. The two are not separate parts, as Lima misconstrues me as postulating. Activity and sociality are integrated from the start. This dialectical formulation precludes reifying society and it precludes rarifying individual processes as non-social phenomena.

In my formulation, practical social activity stimulates and orients consciousness. This means that psychological functions work to implement the orientation that social activity lays out. In other words, consciousness implements the social activity which inspires it. Without psychological functions, social activity would not be effected. Therefore, social organizations do not exist apart from consciousness as reified entities. Marx and Engels, who can be considered to be the founders of activity theory, emphasized the ineluctable shaping of consciousness by practical activity, however they simultaneously emphasized the power of people to revolutionize social systems. Conversely, consciousness is part of social activity; it is not a personal product. Consciousness is shaped by cultural means, to use Vygotsky's term, and it functions within the parameters laid out by activity.

Because conscious processes are subsumed within social activity there is not an egalitarian, bilateral relationship between the two as my critics desire. Dialectical thinkers such as Marx and Vygotsky espoused a heavily asymmetrical dialectical relationship between social activities and individual consciousness. Marx clearly granted priority to labor in its dialectical relationship with consciousness. Vygotsky similarly maintained that psychological functions are internalized relations of a social order and are structured by this order. Vygotsky explained that in modern society,

the influence of the [technological and social] basis on the psychological superstructure of man turns out to be not direct, but mediated by a large number of very complex material and spiritual factors. But even here, the basic law of historical human development, which proclaims that human beings are created by the society in which they live and that it represents the determining factor in the formation of their personalities, remains in force (Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1994, p. 176, emphasis added).

Vygotsky specifically criticized explanations of psychology which postulate a reciprocal interaction of factors and which fail to identify social causes of psychological phenomena. For example, Vygotsky chastised Piaget's notion of genetic analysis. Piaget believed that phenomena could be construed as functions of each other A is a function of B and B is a function of A. In this functional interdependence all factors are causes and effects. No definite cause stands out and this leaves phenomena fundamentally unexplained. Vygotsky complains that,

Piaget attempts to replace a causal understanding of development with a functional understanding of it. Though he does not notice it, he deprives the concept of development of any real content in the process. In this view of development, everything is conditional. Phenomenon A can be viewed as a function of phenomenon B, but B can also be viewed as a function of A. The result is that the issue of cause, the issue of the factors that promote development, disappears...Piaget comes to the paradoxical conclusion that a description that is given in the language of sociology in one situation may --with equal success-- be reduced to the language of biology in another (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 81).

3) My view of culture is monolithic and does not allow for individual variations in cultural psychological phenomena.

Central to my formulation of activity theory is the idea that society is composed of numerous, contradictory social activities. It is not monolithic. In my paper I discussed Bourdieu's concept of social fields which emphasizes the division of labor among social activities. Science, art, and family life occupy distinct areas which have different norms from work, politics, and law. Division of labor among genders introduces additional variations in social activities.

These heterogeneous social activities generate variations in social psychological processes. This is the answer to Josephs' question about how individuals in a competitive society can be loving. The social division of labor between family life and work, which is characteristic of Western society, provides a field in which love can exist in proximity to competitive activities.

Activity theory as I use it identifies the social sources of diverse psychological phenomena such as love, competition, tolerance, patience, and aggression. It also evaluates the strength of these various sources to predict whether particular psychological phenomena will become more or less predominant. Activity theory would predict that love and caring will become eroded in family relations by the inroads which economic competition, consumerism, and individualism is making into the family. These economic activities will also probably exacerbate aggression and diminish tolerance and patience. Activity theory would additionally identify the powerful interest groups which promote changes in social activities that alter the character and cultural distribution of psychological phenomena.

Activity theory explains individual variations in psychological functioning in two ways. One source is the division of labor which lays out different fields of activity. Individuals occupy different combinations of fields. Different configurations of social experience will generate different psychological phenomena among individuals. Vygotsky explained this as follows:

The life of a society does not represent a single and uniform whole, and society is subdivided into different classes, so, during any given historical period, the composition of human personalities cannot be said to represent something homogeneous and uniform...The various internal contradictions which are to be found in different social systems find their expression both in the type of personality and in the structure of human psychology in that historical period" (cited in Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1994, p. 176).

Another source of individual variations in psychological phenomena is individuals giving new expressions to social activities and values. As I mentioned in my paper, individuals often transpose activities and values from one social field into another. In addition, individuals develop new forms in which to express given activities and values. In both cases, seemingly novel psychological forms are actually reflections of given activities and values. For example, Willis (1977) and Jankowski (1991) observe how deviant behavior in working class youth actually reflects their disenfranchised social position as well as prevailing social values. Middle class attempts at deviating from the status quo are usually also coopted by prevailing social activity. Even psychotic symptoms and dreams, which are creatively constructed by individuals, embody definite cultural values (Ratner, 1991, pp. 264-278; Sass, 1992, pp. 355-373; Lakoff, 1993).

It is exceedingly rare for individuals to devise psychological phenomena (meanings, symbols, emotions, needs, motives, perception, reasoning, personality) which transcend prevailing social activities. Even when they do, they are still inspired by the actual possibilities which the social system make possible. Marx said that his vision of socialist society was drawn from the advanced technology and cooperative aspects within large capitalist enterprises, as opposed to the competitive principles which governed the relationships between firms. Einstein's revolutionary concepts in physics were also inspired by social activity (Feuer, 1971). The most creative conscious processes are rooted in social activity. In fact, it is only because they are socially rooted that conscious processes are creative at all (Ratner, 1991, pp. 181-182).

Cultural psychology as I conceive it is concerned with the cultural patterning of psychological phenomena. It is not concerned with why a particular individual ascribes to a particular social psychological phenomenon. Why a given person is more cooperative than competitive, more jealous than altruistic, more rational than irrational is a question for clinical psychologists. It is not a question for cultural psychologists who are concerned with the prevalence of competition, cooperation, jealousy, altruism, rationality, and irrationality in a society, the social activities which promote their increase or decrease, and the cultural distribution of these phenomena among ethnic groups, classes, and genders.

4) Activity is a nebulous concept a --pseudo concept. It is too broad and encompasses too many disparate things. It is used inconsistently and encompasses contradictory phenomena.

Josephs accuses me of portraying Vygotsky in inconsistent terms. On the one hand, I identify him as an activity theorist. But then I criticize him for holding a mentalistic conception of culture. What, then, can activity mean? Is it mentalistic or practical, abstract or concrete?

This criticism typifies Josephs' confusion about my position. It also typifies her strategy of fabricating a problem that is extraneous to my position and then attacking that phantom. With regard to Vygotsky, I made a very simple point: his theory emphasizes activity as a ground for mental concepts; however, his actual analyses of psychological phenomena neglect socially organized practical activity. This is a problem in Vygotsky's inconsistent treatment of activity. It is not a fatal flaw in all versions of activity theory. It is not a relevant objection to my approach because I relate psychological phenomena to activity.

Josephs further claims that activity is too broad a concept because it equates activity with culture in general. "Culture" is too broad to adequately explain the specificity of psychological phenomena. Josephs recommends a corrective to my position. She says we need to understand the complexity of cultural domains along the lines Bronfenbrenner indicates. There is no need for Josephs' correction in this case because I specifically said that society is divided into social fields according to a division of labor.

Lima similarly says that my use of terms such as class structure and the division of labor in society are as abstract as the terms I criticize in mentalistic cultural psychology. This contention is clearly wrong. Stipulating a society's class structure as composed of proletarians, capitalists, petty bourgeoisie, nobility, peasantry, slaves, mandarins, and stipulating its division of labor as integrating or differentiating work, family, and religion are vastly more specific than terms such as "culture" or "social." The fact that I espouse concrete terms vitiates Josephs' misplaced criticism that I employ a broad concept of culture. In my formulation of activity theory, psychological phenomena shall be related to the specific activity(s) which generates them.

Josephs further attacks my definition of culture as being "a statement in which everything is and means everything." After all, I said that culture is institutionalized practical activity that includes concepts and values, psychological phenomena, and human purpose. Her attack is surprising to me because she claims to espouse something quite similar-namely, a non-reified view of culture which includes individual, subjective agency and social institutions. Her attack on me suggests that she does not really seek an integration of social activity and psychology. As I shall explain in the conclusion, she really counterpoises social relations and subjectivity.

Josephs accuses me of being inconsistent when I provide different descriptions of the relation between activity and psychology. She has problems with my juxtaposing Aristotelian ideas of causality with dialectical relationships. However, Josephs does not specify what is wrong with integrating these two philosophies. She simply "has problems" with my drawing on diverse philosophical sources. Lima confesses to having a similar problem. Their problems and opinions do not, however, constitute an argument. It seems to me that Aristotelian concepts can help us understand how activity stimulates and directs psychological phenomena. It does so as a goal (final cause) which inspires psychology, and as a prior condition (efficient cause) which constrains the form that psychological development can take.

In a few cases I admit to using the term activity inconsistently. Whereas I normally use activity to refer to practical, socially organized behavior which stimulates and guides mental processes, in a few instances I used the term to denote mental processes themselves. Rogoff similarly says that remembering is an activity. I regret this usage because it blurs the distinction between social activity and mental processes (which are differentiated moments despite the fact that they are also unified). However, these few lapses cannot disqualify the entire theory. It does not mean the concept of activity is empty, nebulous, and incoherent as Josephs charges.

Lima states that my use of activity is nebulous because the concept has complex intellectual roots and I do not specify which of these I follow. The history of activity theory is indeed a complicated and interesting one, and Vygotsky, Luria, and Leontiev employed the concept in somewhat different ways. However, I did not have space to recount these differences. [A good discussion can be found in Zinchenko (1995).] Moreoever, these differences are not central to my purpose. My aim is to develop activity in productive new ways which can further the study of cultural psychology. Securing the viability of activity theory is more important than authenticating its ancestry.

5) The concepts proposed by activity theory cannot be empirically tested. Society is so multifaceted that it is impossible to link particular activities and particular psychological phenomena.

Josephs claims that this methodological difficulty is the reason that cultural psychologists have not endorsed activity theory. Their reluctance "is simply an indicator of the enormous difficulty of the task." Josephs never substantiates this contention and I dispute it..

The reason cultural psychologists have not considered activity theory is not because of methodological problems. It is because they are theoretically committed to an intellectualist view of culture which overlooks practical, institutionalized activity. Of course, this intellectualist view is grounded in social activity, one surely being the isolation of intellectuals in academic institutions.

I also deny Josephs' contention that identifying social activities which bear on psychological phenomena is impossible or arbitrary. The psychological anthropologists, whom she praises at the beginning of her paper, have done a fine job of linking cultural templates to emotions, personality, decontextualized reasoning, and mental illness. Sociologists and historians have made additional contributions to this endeavor. They, all, by the way, make the connection through ex post factum explanation which she decries. They identify common characteristics of social activity and psychological phenomena, and conclude that the commonality is due to an interpenetration between the two. Astronomers and paleontologists reason in this way all the time. They know that two events happened simultaneously millions of years ago and they conclude that characteristics of one of them are due to the impact of the other. A field of comparative sociology uses natural experiments to further identify social influences on psychology. I discuss empirical ways of researching cultural psychology in my book Cultural Psychology and Qualitative Methodology: Theoretical and Empirical Considerations (New York: Plenum).

6) The attempt by activity theorists to identify cultural origins, characteristics, and functions of psychological phenomena is an elitist endeavor to understand people better than they understand themselves.

Josephs objects to the goal of activity theory which is to relate psychological phenomena to particular social activities. She complains that this goal sets the researcher up as an omnipotent figure who makes decisions about which activities are and are not relevant to psychology. Josephs rhetorically asks whether we are omnipotent scientists who stand outside the world and know what is relevant and what isn't (p. 441). This frivolous remark caricatures rather than critiques my position. Neither I nor any other activity theorist has claimed to be omnipotent or omniscient. All scientists realize that comprehending the relationship between social activity and psychology is a struggle which has successes and setbacks. Knowledge always imperfectly reflects reality. To set activity theorists up as omnipotent or ominscient figures is a complete fabrication.

In this frivolous criticism, Josephs not only impugns activity theory, she impugns all science. For all scientists try to understand what is relevant and irrelevant to their subject matter. Attacking this effort as elitist questions any attempt to scientifically understand things. Josephs' own research would fall prey to the charge of elitism since she tries to understand what's relevant and irrelevant to developmental processes.

7) Activity theory can never comprehend the cultural aspects of psychological phenomena because the social scientist is inevitably bound by his culture which forces him to misrecognize social psychological reality (Josephs, p. 441).

Like the preceding point, this charge invalidates all scientific effort to comprehend reality beyond the individual researcher. If all research is distorted by cultural filters then there is no point doing it at all. Merton (1972) correctly repudiated the belief that only Insiders of a group can know their mentality, while Outsiders never can bridge the gap. Such a viewpoint is ethnocentric and solipsistic.


By way of conclusion it will be instructive to try to understand why Josephs and Lima and possibly other cultural psychologists are so hostile to activity theory and why they misunderstand it so egregiously.

It seems that the reason my critics do not perceive what my version of activity theory has to offer lies in their hostility to concrete culture. Like mainstream psychologists they believe that grounding psychology in concrete, practical, social activity strips individuals of their agency and autonomy. Despite their nominal interest in the social construction of mind, my critics espouse an asocial view of subjectivity. In their view, social and personal worlds are separate and equal in power. Each contributes something to the interaction, and each is eventually influenced by the other, however each has its distinctive characteristics and origins. Thus, Josephs & Lima object to my dialectical formulation in which social activity is more influential than psychological phenomena. They advocate a dialectic in which the individual is as influential as the social. Lima criticizes me for transposing sociological discourse into psychology. Josephs (p. 437) says that people externalize their "personal world" and through this add novelty to "the side of culture." Josephs & Lima additionally use terms like "personal symbols" and "personal sense" which have a decidedly asocial flavor. They are said to be subjective constructions which the individual constructs to perceive and interpret the objective world. Moreover, personal symbols and meanings have no stated social origin, character, or distribution among cultural groups. Josephs does comment that people don't interpret the world in social isolation, however this vacuous remark is extraneous to her discussion and is never developed. Instead of exploring shared cultural features of psychological phenomena, both critics emphasize individual deviations from prevailing norms. Lima is concerned with the manner in which mediating symbolic concepts "are put to different uses by different individuals." She emphasizes the "interindividual heterogeneity" among people as "necessary for individual and social development." Evidently, the cultural sharing of psychological phenomena stultifies development.

Josephs & Lima cannot see how consciousness can be part of activity and shaped by it as well as being active. My critics erroneously believe that an asymmetrical dialectic, in which social activity leads psychological processes, is tantamount to mechanical determinism. They cannot understand that an asymmetrical dialectic does allow for the subordinate moment to be active and influential in affecting the dominant one.

For my critics consciousness is either reduced to an epiphenomenal by-product of social institutions and conditions, or else it stands outside social activity as a personal world of meanings. Consciousness is either a passive resultant or else an autonomous phenomenon. My critics are trapped within the antimonies of mechanism and idealism. They cannot appreciate the fact that consciousness is both directed by activity and is also an active agent. Nor do my critics appreciate the dialectical nature of social activity namely that activity is institutionalized practical behavior which is (also) constructed and reconstructed by human agency. Josephs & Lima regard social activity as either impersonal, institutionalized, reified relationships devoid of subjectivity, or as interpersonal relationships where personal agency is primary and institutional power and economic, political, and legal features are absent.

My critics' viewpoint is a regression from advances made by symbolic cultural psychologists. At least these latter speak of conceptual templates organizing the psychological processes of groups of individuals. Josephs & Lima adopt a far less cultural position in emphasizing personal processes which moderate cultural influences. Josephs' attack on the whole endeavor of social science as elitist and biased further impedes developing cultural psychology.


Feuer, L. (1971). The social roots of Einstein's theory of relativity. Annals of Science, 27, 277-298, 313-344.

Jankowski, M. (1991). Islands in the street: Gangs and American urban society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Josephs, I. (1996). Does cultural psychology need the concept of activity? Cultural Psychology, 2, 435-456.

Lakoff, G. (1993). How metaphor structures dreams: The theory of conceptual metaphor applied to dream analysis. Dreaming, 3, 77-98.

Lima, S. (1997). Will adding halves make a whole? Comments on Ratner's "Activity as a key concept for cultural psychology." Culture & Psychology, 3, xxx

Merton, R. (1972). Insiders and outsiders: A chapter in the sociology of knowledge. American Journal of Sociology, 78, 9-47.

Ratner, C. (1996). Activity as a key concept for cultural psychology. Cultural Psychology, 2, 407-434.

Ratner, C. (1993). Review of D'Andrade and Strauss, Human motives and cultural models. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 14, 89-94.

Ratner, C. (1991). Vygotsky's sociohistorical psychology and its contemporary applications. New York: Plenum.

Sass, L. (1992). Madness and modernism: Insanity in the light of modern art, literature, and thought. New York: Basic Books.

Van der Veer, R., & Valsiner, J. (1994). The Vygotsky reader. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Collected works (Volume 1). New York: Plenum.

Willis, P. (1977). Learning to labor: Working class kids get working class jobs. London: Gower.

Zinchenko, V. (1995). Cultural-historical psychology and the psychological theory of activity: retrospect and prospect. In J. Wertsch, P. Del Rio, & A. Alvarez (Eds.). Sociocultural studies of mind (pp. 37-55). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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