Invited talks by Yrjö Engeström at CNAM, Paris

Yrjö Engeström visited CNAM (Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers), in Paris on December 3-5, 2018.

A first talk (co-authored with Annalisa Sannino, University of Tampere) was given at the Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Economic Sociology (Laboratoire interdisciplinaire pour la sociologie économique, LISE) as a keynote in the International Colloquium on Activity in Theories: Crossing Perspectives on Work, organized by Professor Corinne Gaudart.  

Title and abstract:


Activity-theoretical studies of work may be traced through multiple generations of theory formation and corresponding methodological development. The first generation, based on Vygotsky’s ideas, focused on work actions and their mediation (e.g., Scribner, 1985). The second generation, drawing on Leont’ev, focused on work understood as a collective, object-oriented activity system (e.g., Engeström, 1995). The third generation emphasizes interplay between two or more activity systems (e.g., Engeström, 2001). The emerging fourth generation zooms on heterogenous work coalitions aimed at resolving wicked societal problems and creating sustainable alternatives to capitalism (Sannino, 2017; Sannino & Engeström, 2018).

The four generations share the view that work is to be understood in its development and transformations, making learning a central aspect of work; that transformative agency and willful action are of crucial importance in the human shaping of work; and that formative interventions are the most appropriate way to study work.

In this presentation we will examine two research programs, one representing the third generation and the other one representing the fourth generation of activity theory. The first case is that of studies on the work of medical care of patients with multiple chronic illnesses in the Helsinki area in Finland (Engeström, 2018). The second case is a research program on the heterogenous coalition working to eradicate homelessness in Finland (Sannino, 2017).

The two research programs are examined with the help of four questions: (1) What is the unit of analysis? (2) How does learning take shape? (3) How does transformative agency emerge? (4) What kinds of interventions are conducted? We will conclude by discussing the implications for the future of work and studies of work.


Engeström, Y. (1995). Objects, contradictions and collaboration in medical cognition: An activity-theoretical perspective. Artificial Intelligence in Medicine, 7(5), 395-412.

Engeström, Y. (2001). Expansive learning at work: Toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization. Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), 133-156.

Engeström, Y. (2018). Expertise in transition: Expansive learning in medical work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sannino, A. (2017). Researching work and learning for enacted utopias: The struggle to overcome homelessness. Keynote address at the 10th International Conference on Researching Work and Learning, Rhodes University, South Africa, 6.12.


The second talk titled "Activity-Theoretical Studies of Expertise" was given at the Center for Research on Work and Development (Centre de recherche sur le travail et le développement) in a seminar organized by Professors Yannick Lemonie, Jean-Luc Tomás and Vincent Grosstephan. The hosts also presented their current work on "Contradictions and Development of Activity in Disadvantaged Schools Networks"