TALE: A Possible Theme called “Expansive Activity Analysis”

Oliver Ding
Published in
12 min readMar 29


A Multi-level Approach to Design and Innovation

The above picture represents a Possible Theme called “Expansive Activity Analysis”.

The theme of “Expansive Activity Analysis” is a response to the challenge of curating my knowledge frameworks about activity analysis and modeling social practices.

In the past several years, I worked on connecting THEORY and PRACTICE, especially Activity Theory/Ecological Psychology/Social Practice Theories and Design/Strategy/Innovation. The outcome of my journey is 18 possible books, a set of knowledge frameworks, and six knowledge centers.

One week ago, I used the diagram below to represent a network of knowledge centers.

I only set up an independent website for Activity Analysis Center (https://www.activityanalysis.net/). I use Medium to host three blogs for the following knowledge centers: CALL, TALE, and Curativity Center.

It seems that ActivityAnalysis.net is only for Activity Analysis which only refers to a unit of analysis.

However, I detached my view from the concept of “Activity Analysis” and attached it to a new concept called “Expansive Activity Analysis”. See the new diagram below.

I use “Pre-Activity Analysis” and “Post-Activity Analysis” to name some units of analysis.

In addition, I name all units of analysis as a new meaningful whole: Expansive Activity Analysis.

In this way, I turn several units of analysis into a meta-framework for curating knowledge frameworks.

A Multi-level Approach to Design and Innovation

Last year, I used Ping-keung Lui’s theoretical sociology as a frame of reference to curate four frameworks into a new theory of Creative Life.

You can find more details in Slow Cognition: Three Paths of Creative Life and A Semiotic System.

This time I am going to make a practical toolkit for theory-based reflection. So I decided to use multiple unit analysis as a frame of reference.

The notion of “a multi-level approach” is inspired by the following ideas:

A. N. Leontiev’s three-level hierarchy of activity is a primary framework of the field of Activity Theory. See the diagram below.

Source: Victor Kaptelinin and Bonnie A. Nardi (Acting with Technology, 2006, p.64)

Later, Activity theorists expanded it into four levels. In 2013, Clay Spinuzzi published Topsight: A Guide to Studying, Diagnosing, and Fixing Information Flow in Organizations and introduced his research methodology and related tools. He still uses three levels of scope for Topsight, however, we have to notice that the “macro level of activity” refers to two models: Activity systems and Activity networks. The concept of “activity network” is not a part of Leontiev’s original theoretical framework, it was introduced by Yrjö Engeström’s in 1987.

Source: Topsight (Clay Spinuzzi, 2013, p.167)

If we consider the activity network as a new layer, the hierarchical structure of activity should expand from three levels to four levels:

  • Activity Network
  • Activity System
  • Actions
  • Operation

In fact, some activity theorists have argued there is a need to expand Leontiev’s three-level hierarchical structure to a four-level hierarchical structure. However, there are many versions of this kind of argument.

On Sept 29, 2020, I reviewed this issue and wrote a long article titled Activity U (VI): The Hierarchy of Human Activity and Social Practice.

Human activity and social practice are extremely complex, the hierarchy is a great thinking tool for understanding them. The above sections present various perspectives on the hierarchy of activity and practice, I summarized them in the following table. You can also view its original file on Google Spreadsheet.

Perspectives on the Hierarchy of Activity and Practice (Oliver Ding, 2020)

Perspectives on the Hierarchy of Activity and Practice (Oliver Ding, 2020)
Based on perspectives from activity theorists and other researchers, I found there are eight levels of the hierarchy of activity and practice. The six mid-levels are adopted from activity theorists. The top level is adopted from anthropologist Morris Opler (1945). The low level is adopted from ecological psychologist James J. Gibson (1979).

What I learned from this study is that the hierarchy of activity and practice is invariant while the number of levels of analysis is variant. In other words, you can define many units of analysis as much as you want if you can perceive them and analyze them.

This is a significant insight for understanding human activity and social practices.

The new solution of multiple levels comes from the Project Engagement approach (v2.1). See the diagram below.

Initially, I used the term “Project Engagement” to name the second part of my 2020/2021 book Project-oriented Activity Theory which introduces Andy Blunden’s “project as a unit of analysis of activity” to Activity Theory.

In 2022, I expanded the Project Engagement approach from v1.0 to v2.1 and use the above multiple levels to curate a set of frameworks.

Now I can use it to curate more related knowledge frameworks and build a Multi-level approach to design and innovation.

Moving up and down

The term “Expansive” is inspired by Yrjö Engeström’s Expansive Learning theory.

Yrjö Engeström is a Professor of Adult Education and Director of the Center for Research on Activity, Development, and Learning (CRADLE) at the University of Helsinki.

In 1987, he published his keystone work titled Learning by Expanding (1987/2014) in which he developed the now-famous Activity System model, the concept and model of Expansive Learning, and the early version of the methodology of development work research. You can find more details in Activity U (IV): The Engeström’s Triangle and the Power of Diagram.

The diagram below is the model of Expansive Learning. According to Yrjö Engeström (2010), “The process of expansive learning should be understood as construction and resolution of successively evolving contradictions. The entire ideal-typical expansive cycle may be diagrammatically depicted with the help of Fig. 3. The thicker arrows indicate expanded scope of and participation in the learning actions. The cycle of expansive learning is not a universal formula of phases or stages. In fact, one probably never finds a concrete collective learning process which would cleanly follow the ideal-typical model. The model is a heuristic conceptual device derived from the logic of ascending from the abstract to the concrete. Every time one examines or facilitates a potentially expansive learning process with the help of the model, one tests, criticizes and hopefully enriches the theoretical ideas of the model. In this light, it is necessary that the model of expansive learning is more detailed than for instance the very general sequence of ‘unfreezing, moving, and refreezing’ suggested by Lewin (1947).”

Yrjö Engeström and other researchers use the Expansive Learning model with the Activity System Model together. First, they use the Activity System Model to build a model of a real-life activity or a social practice. After analyzing the model, they find problems and offer a new model of the activity as a solution. In this way, the original activity is expanded.

I don't consider the Expansive Learning Model as the primary method of Expansive Activity Analysis because we can use many methods. Also, the Activity System Model is not the primary model of Expansive Activity Analysis too.

What does the term “Expansive” mean for “Expansive Activity Analysis”?

In a 2010 paper titled Studies of expansive learning: Foundations, findings and future challenges, Yrjö Engeström mentioned the development of the theory of Expansive Learning:

The theory of expansive learning currently expands its analyses both up and down, outward and inward.

Moving up and outward, it tackles learning in fields or networks of interconnected activity systems with their partially shared and often contested objects.

Moving down and inward, it tackles issues of subjectivity, experiencing, personal sense, emotion, embodiment, identity, and moral commitment.

I adopt this notion for “Expansive Activity Analysis”.

  • Pre-Activity Analysis: Moving down and inward
  • Post-Activity Analysis: Moving up and outward

This is the essential meaning of “Expansive Activity Analysis” because it expands the original unit of analysis of “Activity Analysis” from mezzo to micro and macro.

A Meta-framework

Activity Theory is a large knowledge enterprise including several theoretical approaches and various knowledge frameworks. In Activity U (II): Unit of Analysis, Niches of Analysis, Levels of Analysis, I used the table following to compare a set of approaches.

The “Expansive Activity Analysis” is a meta-framework and we can use it to curate knowledge frameworks for our situational needs. So, it doesn’t tie to a particular theoretical approach or a knowledge framework of Activity Theory.

However, I will use it to curate my creations about Activity Theory. In this way, I will name the outcome as the “Expansive Activity Analysis” Toolkit.

A Toolkit

The “Expansive Activity Analysis” Framework has three sections. The first section Pre-Activity Analysis has two units of analysis.

  • Level 1: The “Human—Material” Interaction
  • Level 2: Interpersonal Interaction

Level 1 (The “Human—Material” Interaction) is about individual persons, objects, and the environment. I select the following three frameworks:

Level 2 (Interpersonal Interaction) is about interpersonal interaction and social relationships. I select the following three frameworks:

The second section Activity Analysis has two units of analysis.

  • Level 3: Human Activity / Social Practice
  • Level 4: Platform, Network, and Ecosystem

Level 3 (Human Activity / Social Practice) refers to the normal unit of analysis of human activity and social practices. For example, Yrjö Engeström’s Activity System Model. My own version of Activity Analysis refers to the following three frameworks:

Level 4 refers to Platform, Network, and Ecosystem. For example, Yrjö Engeström’s Activity Network. My own version of Activity Analysis refers to the following three frameworks:

The third section Post-Activity Analysis has three units of analysis.

  • Level 5: Lifelong Development
  • Level 6: Themes behind Social Practices
  • Level 7: The All-in-one Wholeness

Level 5 (Lifelong Development) refers to individual biography and it considers the following three frameworks:

Level 6 (Themes behind Social Practices) is about abstract themes and concepts of social life. The following frameworks were selected:

Level 7 (The all-in-one wholeness) is about multiverse including knowlege, curativity, potential, etc. The following frameworks were selected:

I have curated several toolkits for different themes. This time the outcome is quite unique because it offers a multi-level approach to activity-based theoretical reflection.

Update: Expansive or Expanded?

May 10, 2023

Why did I use Expansive to name this new toolkit? It seems that I just expanded the original Activity Analysis framework.

What’s the difference between “Expansive” and “Expanded”?

This is an issue. I think there is a reason that I have to use Expansive. It is not a simple expanded version. 1) there are many levels for understanding social practices (“expanded”), 2) each level always leads to other levels (“expansive”).

The term “Expansive” is inspired by Yrjö Engeström’s Expansive Learning theory. However, my “expansive” approach is different from his approach. His “expansive” approach is staying at the same level while my “expansive” approach encourages detaching from one level and attaching to a new level.

On Feb 3, 2023, I made a possible theme called “The Hierarchy of Fit”. Now we can use it to develop a sub-framework to discuss the Expansive Activity Analysis toolkit.

Let’s use the following three steps:

  • Equilibration: If there is a fit at a unit of analysis, we don’t need to detach from a unit of analysis. There are no expansive moves.
  • Contradiction: If there is no fit in a unit of analysis, we can find contradictions. If the cause of contradiction is located at the same level, we can solve it without taking expansive moves.
  • Expansion: If the cause of contradiction is located at other levels, we have to move from a single unit of analysis to multiple units of analysis.

In this way, you can say the Expansive Activity Analysis toolkit is quasi-system thinking. You can use system thinking if you really need it.

Three Types of Equilibration

The term “Equilibration” is inspired by Piaget’s cognitive equilibration theory. According to Piaget, there are three types of equilibration (Constructive Evolution, 1988, Michael Chapman, p.293):

  • Equilibration #1 occurs between action schemes and external objects by means of assimilation and accommodation.
  • Equilibration #2 occurs among the various subsystems of a total system through the reciprocal assimilation and accommodation of the respective schemes to one another.
  • Equilibration #3 occurs between subsystems and the total system of which they are a part through a simultaneous differentiation of the parts and their integration into the whole.

We can see this typology as a general description of the part—whole relationship.

  • Equilibration #1: Between Parts and the external influences
  • Equilibration #2: The Parts themselves
  • Equilibration #3: The Parts and the Whole

For the Expansive Activity Analysis toolkit, each level is a system. If we apply Piaget’s typology to our toolkit, then Equilibration #1 refers to cross-level Fit while others refer to the Fit at one level.

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Oliver Ding

Founder of CALL(Creative Action Learning Lab), information architect, knowledge curator.