Sub-theme 41: Activity Theory and Formative Interventions in Organizing

Yrjö Engeström
University of Helsinki, Finland
David K. Allen
Leeds University Business School, United Kingdom
Annalisa Sannino
University of Tampere, Finland

Call for Papers

As organization studies face today’s global challenges, many scholars are searching for theories and methodologies that could provide solid foundations for interventionist and activist research. Cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) and its methodology of formative interventions offer such an alternative in constructive dialogue and debate with related approaches such as critical realism (Allen et al., 2013), actor-network theory and other practice-based approaches in organization studies (Miettinen et al., 2012).
Activity theory is widely applied in studies of organizational change, organizational learning and knowledge creation, agency and organizational authorship, and information systems in organizations (Allen et al., 2011). Activity theory is increasingly used as a framework in intervention studies such as Change Laboratories, aimed at supporting and understanding complex emancipatory transformations in heterogeneous coalitions of formal organizations, communities and social movements (Sannino & Engeström, 2017).
In activity theory, materiality is understood through the lens of productive actions to create objects of use value. This comes close to the idea of material agency suggested by Malafouris (2013). However, material engagement is more than an encounter between a subject and a material object. Such encounters are embedded in historically evolving activity systems, mediated by instruments, rules, communities and divisions of labor (Vetoshkina et al., 2017).
Being a dialectical approach in search of movement and development, activity theory looks for inner contradictions in activity systems as the source of movement and change. Developmentally significant contradictions cannot be effectively dealt with merely by combining and balancing competing priorities. Seeing contradiction as an inconsistency or competition between separate forces or priorities corresponds to the general mechanistic tendency to replace inner systemic contradiction with outer, external oppositions. Inner contradictions need to be creatively and often painfully resolved by working out a new “thirdness,” something qualitatively different from a mere combination or compromise between two competing forces. Contradictions are historical and need to be traced in their real historical development (Engeström & Sannino, 2011; Foot & Groleau, 2011).
Activity theory sees agency as action, not as a trait. Transformative agency may be understood as breaking away from the given frame of action and taking the initiative to transform it. The generative mechanism behind transformative agency is called double stimulation (Sannino, 2015). Human beings may break out of a paralyzing conflict of motives by employing material artifacts as second stimuli. Studies of double stimulation in formative organizational interventions are an important focus on current studies based on activity theory.
Formative interventions based on activity theory are increasingly involved in creating alternatives to capitalism in attempts to deal with the grand challenges of poverty and ecological crisis. Such interventions often encompass heterogeneous organizational coalitions, thus expanding the unit of analysis and taking steps toward 4th generation activity theory.
This sub-theme invites contributions focused on analyses of materiality, contradictions and transformative agency in different organizational settings and cultural contexts. We especially encourage the submission of papers reporting on formative interventions in heterogeneous organizational coalitions involved in creating alternatives to capitalism.


  • Allen, D.K., Brown, A., Karanasios, S., & Norman, A. (2013): “How should technology-mediated organizational change be explained? A comparison of the contributions of critical realism and activity theory.” MIS Quarterly, 37 (3), 835–854.
  • Allen, D.K., Karanasios, S., & Slavova, M. (2011): “Working with activity theory: Context, technology, and information behavior.” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 62 (4), 776–788.
  • 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.
  • Foot, K., & Groleau, C. (2011): “Contradictions, transitions, and materiality in organizing processes: An activity theory perspective.” First Monday, 16 (6), June 6, 2011,
  • Malafouris, L. (2013): How Things Shape the Mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Miettinen, R., Paavola, S., & Pohjola, P. (2012): ”From habituality to change: Contribution of activity theory and pragmatism to practice theories.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 42 (3), 345–360.
  • Sannino, A. (2015): “The principle of double stimulation: A path to volitional action.” Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 6, 1–15.
  • Sannino, A., & Engeström, Y. (2017): “Co-generation of societally impactful knowledge in Change Laboratories.” Management Learning, 48 (1), 80–96.
  • Vetoshkina, L., Engeström, Y., & Sannino, A. (2017): “On the power of the object.” In: J. Sandberg, L. Rouleau, A. Langley & H. Tsoukas (eds.): Skillful Performance: Enacting Capabilities, Knowledge, Competence, and Expertise in Organizations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 73–102.

Yrjö Engeström Engeström is Professor Emeritus and Director of the research center CRADLE at University of Helsinki, Finland. He applies and develops cultural-historical activity theory as a framework for the study of transformations in organizations, work activities and communities. He is known for his theory of expansive learning and the methodology of formative interventions, including the Change Laboratory method. Yrjö’s most recent books are “From Teams to Knots” (2008), “Learning by Expanding” (2015), “Studies in Expansive Learning” (2016), and “Expertise in Transition” (2018), all published by Cambridge University Press.
David K. Allen is Professor of Information Management in Leeds University Business School, UK, and Director of the AIMTech Research Group. He has spent most of his academic life exploring information management practices and the influence of technology on organizational work. He has explored the use of activity theory in the design and analysis of information systems. David’s recent projects have focused on information practices in high velocity environments and understanding the information sharing practices and innovation processes related to the development of novel technologies.
Annalisa Sannino is Professor of Education at University of Tampere, Finland. She studies transformative agency as a dialectical process of mastering historical contradictions and related conflicts of motives. She has written on the relations between discourse and activity and on the interventionist nature of activity theory. Her work demonstrates how transformative agency can be discursively identified, supported and enhanced with organizations and communities. Annalisa’s current work focuses on transformative agency in a heterogenous work coalition aimed at the eradication of homelessness in Finland.