Activity Theory is a rhetorical framework that is used to understand discourse and how it affects those who both read and use text. Activity Theory captures interaction in motion, and because of this, there is no isolation of subject and object. The openness of this theory allows components of the Activity Theory model to be examined in their inherent state of motion, rather than away from their natural context.
As technical communicators, we are given a responsibility to portray ideas, fact, theories, etc., in a manner which engages audiences and provides companies with what they need. For years, the idea of genre has shaped arguments and document style, and many “scholars have risen to the challenge of theorizing this loose, baggy concept,” (Wegner, 2004, p. 411). Activity Theory concretes this “loose” concept by providing communicators with a model (and theory) that challenges and explains the learning process and production process of a document.
The most basic and most important aspect of Activity Theory is the interaction process, which happens at many levels inside of businesses and organizations. As a thought, your reading of this wiki is an interaction, one which would be called human-machine interaction. What is important to realize, however, is that although the computer is part of the interaction, you interact with the information that you’re reading, and not the computer. If technical problems existed, then you would be interacting with the computer, and not the information. We must see “these actions as successive, momentary instantiations of a wider and more stable system of collective activity,” (Engestrom, 2000, p. 961). This collective system is Activity Theory.
Evolving from the work of Soviet psychologist Vygotsky, who formulated a new method of studying thought and consciousness, Activity Theory finds its basis in his cultural-historical philosophy. “Cultural-historical activity theory is a new framework aimed at transcending the dichotomies of micro- and macro-, mental and material, observation and intervention in analysis and redesign of work,” (Engestrom, 2000, p. 960).
Activity Theory is a relatively new framework used by communicators in response to the lack of a useful theory of context. Writers, Wegner argues, develop “a rhetorically appropriate text…through a process of authentic participation and innovative, expansive cycles of activity. (Wegner, 2004, p. 413). Activity Theory, then, is a cyclical process, one in which users create tasks and useful tools in order to produce results.
In organizations and corporations, the situations in which professional writing is most relevant, policies and procedures outline and help define standards of the organizations. The knowledge of policies and the basis of policy construction is based on Activity Theory. Professionals in certain situations, “give concrete meaning to ambiguous policy terms and develop knowledge of how policies relate to practice only in specific contexts. Individuals make decisions and take action, then, based on that constructed meaning and knowledge,” (Canary, 2010, pg 22). In a similar fashion, those using and developing Activity Theory as a strong rhetorical framework are attempting to give concrete purpose to the tools that they are developing as they interact with audiences and texts. Canary argues that the same technique is applied to the process of understanding policy and policy construction.
So, why spend all this time on policy? Policies are one of the best interactive tools within an organization or business, and the best way to develop these policies is through Activity Theory. “Structurating activity theory is grounded in structuration theory by focusing on connections between macro- and microsystem features as explanatory mechanisms in the knowledge construction process,” (Canary, 2010, pg 23). This knowledge construction process depends on taking in and properly applying opinions, results, and individualization in an effort to create appropriate and working policies. Most importantly, “policies give individuals a sense of continuity and predictability in their interactions within and with organizations,” (Canary, 2010, pg 23). The sense of continuity and fluidity that comes with the creation of policies is reflected in the Activity Theory Model.