Sub-theme 64: 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 multidisciplinary theory, which has gained increasing popularity and relevance among researchers in the field of organization studies (Adler, 2005; Blackler, 2009). CHAT offers lenses and tools for researchers and practitioners to analyze work and to become involved in dialogical learning and change processes during which dysfunctional power structures are challenged (Blackler, 2009; Engeström, 2011). 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 & Sannino, 2011). In this framework, the endresults of learning are not predetermined by the interventionists and the outcomes are designed by the participants as they work out expansive solutions to the developmental contradictions in their activity systems (Virkkunen & Newnham, 2013).
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 struggles, competing interests and contradictions in collective activities and views them as drivers for change and learning in organizations (Engeström, 2011). 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:

  • Participatory interventions for overcoming struggles in organizations and workplaces
  • Manifestations of contradictions and power and their resolutions in organizational interventions
  • Expansive learning and concept formation in and between organizations
  • Multivoicedness and agency in organizational transformations
  • Organizational boundary crossing and knotworking
  • Tool constellations and their roles in interventions and in promoting sustainability

We also invite contributions that deal with other, related themes and appreciate papers establishing a dialogue between CHAT and other practice-based theories (Miettinen, Samra-Fredericks & Yanow, 2009). We will devote one of the sessions of our sub-theme to dialogue between actor-network theory, critical realism, and CHAT. We will invite a speaker representing actor-network theory, a speaker representing critical realism, and a speaker representing CHAT. Each speaker will have a talk about key commonalities and differences between the three approaches. After that, there will be a general discussion on the potentials and challenges of dialogue and collaboration between the approaches. 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, 19–39.
  • Engeström, Y. (2011): “From design experiments to formative interventions.” Theory and Psychology, 21 (5), 598–628.
  • 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.
  • Virkkunen, J., & Newnham, D.S. (2013): The Change Laboratory. A Tool for Collaborative Development of Work and Education. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
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. He is widely known for his theory of expansive learning and for the methodology of developmental work research for the study of learning processes in work activities and organizations.
Anu Kajamaa is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE) at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Her doctoral dissertation is an activity-theoretical study of change management and long-term evaluation of organizational change efforts within formative interventions. She 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 Reader 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 current research focuses on applying and developing methods of intervention to support transformations and learning processes in work activities in different European countries.