Cultural-historical activity theory: founding insights and new challenges



The article presents central ideas and future challenges of cultural-historical activity theory, focusing specifically on the work of the so-called Helsinki school of activity theory. We first introduce the revolutionary roots of the theory in the works of Marx and Vygotsky, and the evolution of the unit of analysis through different generations of activity theory. We then discuss the foundational role of historicity and dialectics in activity theory. We identify two central epistemological-methodological principles that guide activity-theoretical studies, namely the principle of double stimulation and the principle of ascending from the abstract to the concrete. These principles lead us to emphasize formative interventions as a powerful way to conduct societally impactful activity-theoretical research. We conclude by pointing out some major challenges facing activity theory in the 21st century.

General Information

Keywords: activity theory; unit of analysis; historicity; dialectics; double stimulation; formative interventions

Journal rubric: Jointneess and Creativity

Article type: scientific article


For citation: Sannino A., Engeström Y. Cultural-historical activity theory: founding insights and new challenges. Kul'turno-istoricheskaya psikhologiya = Cultural-Historical Psychology, 2018. Vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 43–56. DOI: 10.17759/chp.2018140304.

A Part of Article

The foundations of cultural-historical activity theory (or activity theory, for short) are in the work of the Soviet-Russian psychologists Lev Vygotsky, Alexander Luria and Aleksei Leont’ev, developed further by scholars such as the educational psychologist Vassily Davydov and the philosopher Evald Il’enkov. Vitaly Rubtsov is a central figure in the current generation of Russian scholars who keep alive and develop further this legacy, to meet grand challenges of the 21st century.


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Information About the Authors

Annalisa Sannino, Professor, Education at University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland, e-mail:

Yrjö Engeström, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Education, University of Helsinki, Professor Emeritus of Communication at University of California, San Diego, visiting professor at University West in Sweden and at Rhodes University in South Africa, CRADLE, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland, e-mail:



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