Activity Theory

As the class dives deeper into technical rhetoric heuristics, we are focusing on Situating the Field. In Chapter 6 of “Solving Problems in Technical Communication” (Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber), tools of technical communication are introduced as components that “shapes both the practice of technical communication and the social interactions that technical documents foster” and “shows both the plentitude of tools around us an the subtle ways that they alter our perception of the world” (page 149). These tools “mediate the work of technical communication by shaping and organizing how writers conceive of and carry out their projects” (page 146).

I was really drawn to the concept of using activity theory to study mediation. According to Johnson-Eilola and Selber, activity theory “advocates understanding the mediating influence of a tool in a larger historical and cultural context” (page 151). It “considers a community and its rules, structures, and divisions of labor” (Cole and Engeström 1993). Johnson-Eilola and Selber go on to further describe the application of activity theory:

  • It “suggests that all tools are situated in a social activity, a goal-oriented task, through which one participates in a community” (page 152);
  • It “reminds us that tools also mediate how users relate to other people” (page 152); and
  • It “tell[s] us to look for design histories” because “tools change in significance and meaning as they become associated and disassociated with particular contexts and tasks” (page 153).

When you live in another country – or perhaps even when you travel to another country – this concept of activity theory becomes a necessary consideration. To communicate effectively with those from a culture different than your own, it is vital to understand the historical and cultural context of the environment in which you are communicating. This is also important in writing: I have worked in a role in which most of the company operated outside of the United States, and any technical communications I worked on needed to be sensitive to those other cultures, the tools they had and preferred to utilize, and I was mindful of the context I used in documents.

I did some additional research and found several articles on the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge (TCBOK) website (

The TCBOK has several wiki pages devoted to activity theory. On these, they define activity theory as “a rhetorical framework that is used to understand discourse and how it affects those who both read and use text” ( In this wiki page, “the most basic and most important aspect of Activity Theory is the interaction process, which happens at many levels inside of businesses and organizations.”

Another TCBOK wiki page details five principals of an Activity Theory Model (

  1. Hierarchal Structure of Activity: “The unit of analysis is an activity directed at an object . . . the constituents of activity are not fixed, but can dynamically change as conditions change.”
  2. Object-Orientedness: Our reality is objective, and components of our reality have properties “considered objective according to natural sciences but socially/culturally defined properties as well.”
  3. Internalization and Externalization: “[Internal] activities cannot be understood if they are analyzed separately from external activities.”
  4. Tool Mediation: “[Human] activity is mediated by tools” which “are created and transformed during the development of the activity itself and carried with them in a particular culture”; thus, “the use of tools is an accumulation and transmission of social knowledge.”
  5. Development: As a general research methodology, Activity Theory “is not traditional laboratory experiments, but the formative experiment that combines active participation with monitoring of the developmental changes of the study participants.”

Our text by Johnson-Eilola and Selber does not go into this much detail, but I think the five principals given by the TCBOK are important to consider as we move forward to “situate the field” in our heuristics. If we’re going to consider tools and how they are situated in contexts of activity, we need to keep in mind that the variables (the tools, the contexts, and the activity itself) can change at any moment. We should be open to change and willing to adapt our communication approach accordingly.

Published by Allison Styes

I work from home as a full-time Proposal Specialist for a global education company, and spend most of my free time as mom (aka: driver, personal chef, laundry service, peacekeeper, referee, finder-of-socks) to my two daughters, currently ages 10 and 8.

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  1. Thank you for sharing these links. I did explore them, but I still struggle with the concept of “tools”. On one hand, it should be simple. On the other hand, if it were that easy, we wouldn’t need to develop heuristics to analyze tool mediation. In my most basic understanding, a tool is not necessarily a software program or power point used by a technical communicator; it involves the choices we make in the presentation of information. Yet, I become confused because at times a “tool” seems like a concept; whereas, other times a tool is literally mirrors and lenses” (Johnson-Eilola and Selber, 2013, p. 153). The textbook states, “A person uses all manner of tools as well as mundane artifacts like clothing, to do something within the context of a community, even if all that person is attempting to do is fit in. Given the factors that motivate a person to use a tool, certain operations and functions will be more apparent because of their immediate applicability” ((Johnson-Eilola and Selber, 2013, p. 152). This would be like making a conscious effort to dress professionally for a job interview. Rhetorically speaking, a technical communicator must understand the audience and select the most appropriate mode, or tool, to reach it. I will continue to work through these concepts.

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  2. Allison, I’m so glad you picked activity theory as your focus of this week’s readings. I appreciate your extra work reading and exploring TCBOK! As a teacher-scholar who does research and teaching in transnational communication, I’m so appreciative of what you’ve done in your document design approach that paid attention to cultural situations/contexts. Kirk Amant and others have been working on so many great theories, models, and has been giving examples in this field.


    1. I will have to do some research to explore what Kirk Amant is doing. Probably because of my personal background overseas, this theory and its applications to my own approaches really struck a chord. I was happy to follow the rabbit hole to the TCBOK and would love to dive even deeper with this. Thanks for that suggestion!

      Liked by 1 person

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