Sub-theme 17: Activity Theory and Organizations

Yrjö Engeström
University of Helsinki, Finland
Anu Kajamaa
University of Helsinki, Finland
Zlatko Bodrožić
University of Belgrade, Serbia

Call for Papers

Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT), rooted in the legacy of Vygotsky, Leont'ev and Luria, is a multi-disciplinary theory, which has gained increasing popularity and relevance among researchers in the field of organization studies (Adler, 2005; Blackler, 2009). CHAT is a theory oriented towards analyzing and supporting the development of practices in organizations. It offers a framework for researchers and practitioners to become involved in collective reflection and learning processes within historically evolving organizations. CHAT provides analytical, conceptual tools, such as models of activity systems, concepts of contradiction and zones of proximal development to examine organizations as designed by human beings (Engeström, 2006; Engeström & Sannino, 2011).

CHAT has proven to be a useful theory, for example in the following areas of organization studies:

  • Strategic management, practices of strategy making
  • Organizational learning and competencies
  • Organizational change management and knowledge management

CHAT includes an interventionist methodology for enhancing reflection of collective activities, development, learning and change in organizations. The methodology has various applications in which theory and practice intertwine, such as the Change Laboratory method and the Clinic of Activity. The use of CHAT in the study of organizations has, however, not yet deeply anchored in discussions within organization studies.

The aim of this sub-theme is to bring together scholars using activity-theoretical frameworks and to develop and cultivate the use of CHAT in organization studies further. In this sub-theme we identify a range of themes concerning activity theory and organizations. We welcome papers examining themes such as:

  • Transformative agency in organizational change efforts
  • Expansive learning and concept formation in and between organizations
  • Dialectical contradictions and their resolutions in organizations
  • Multivoicedness and critical encounters in organizations
  • Organizational boundary crossing and knotworking
  • Multiple tool constellations and their roles in reflection and innovation processes in organizations

We also invite contributions that deal with other related themes and appreciate papers establishing a dialogue between CHAT and other practice-based theories (Miettinen et al., 2009). We are also interested in theoretical papers taking a critical stance towards CHAT as a theory. We welcome innovative, theoretical and empirical work as well as both micro- and macro-level analysis. We especially appreciate empirical papers using CHAT as a methodological tool in the study of organizations.




  • Adler, P.S. (2005): "The evolving object of software development." Organization, 12 (3), 401–436.
  • Blackler, F. (2009): "Cultural-historical activity theory and organization studies." In: A. Sannino, H. Daniels & K.D. Gutiérrez (eds.): Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 19–39.
  • Engeström, Y. (2006): "Activity theory and expansive design." In: S. Bagnara & G. Crampton-Smith (eds.): Theories and Practice of Interaction Design. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 3–23.
  • Engeström, Y., & Sannino, A. (2011): "Discursive manifestations of contradictions in organizational change efforts: a methodological framework." Journal of Organizational Change Management, 24 (3), 368–387.
  • Miettinen, R., Samra-Fredericks, D., & Yanow, D. (2009): "Re-turn to practice: an introductory essay." Organization Studies, 30 (12), 1309–1327.


Yrjö Engeström is Professor of Adult Education and Director of the Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE) at the University of Helsinki, Finland. He is also Professor Emeritus of Communication at the University of California, San Diego, USA. Yrjö applies and develops cultural-historical activity theory as a framework for the study of transformations and learning processes in work activities and organizations. He is widely known for his theory of expansive learning and for the methodology of developmental work research. His current research focus is new forms of expansive learning in activity fields characterized by co-configuration and knotworking between producers and customers/users.
Anu Kajamaa is a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE) at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Her doctoral dissertation – titled "Unraveling the Helix of Change: An activity-theoretical study of health care change efforts and their consequences" – is an activity-theoretical study of change management and long-term evaluation of organizational change efforts within formative interventions. Anu has conducted extensive collaborative research and intervention projects in the Finnish health care system and produced several refereed publications in national and international journals.
Zlatko Bodrožić is leader of a research group on Organizational Innovation at the Institute of Psychology, University of Belgrade, Serbia. He received his PhD at the University of Helsinki, Finland. His PhD thesis is titled "Post-Industrial Intervention: An Activity-Theoretical Expedition Tracing the Proximal Development of Forms of Conducting Interventions". His research interests include the use of cultural-historical activity theory as a framework for the study and support of organizational innovation. Zlatko's current research focuses on applying and developing methods of intervention to support transformations and learning processes in work activities in Central and Eastern Europe.