An activity theory approach to strategy as practice

Paula Jarzabkowski, Carola Wolf

Research output: Chapter in Book/Published conference outputChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


This chapter introduces activity theory as an approach for studying strategy as practice. Activity theory conceptualizes the ongoing construction of activity as a product of activity systems, comprising the actor, the community with which that actor interacts and those symbolic and material tools that mediate between actors, their community and their pursuit of activity. The focus on the mediating role of tools and cultural artefacts in human activity seems especially promising for advancing the strategy-as-practice agenda, for example as a theoretical resource for the growing interest in sociomateriality and the role of tools and artefacts in (strategy) practice (for example, Balogun et al. 2014; Lanzara 2009; Nicolini 2009; Spee and Jarzabkowski 2009; Stetsenko 2005). Despite its potential, in a recent review Vaara and Whittington (2012) identified only three strategy-as-practice articles explicitly applying an activity theory lens. In the wider area of practice-based studies in organizations, activity theory has been slightly more popular (for example, Blackler 1993; 1995; Blackler, Crump and McDonald 2000; Engeström, Kerosuo and Kajamaa 2007; Groleau 2006; Holt 2008; Miettinen and Virkkunen 2005). It still lags behind its potential, however, primarily because of its origins as a social psychology theory developed in Russia with little initial recognition outside the Russian context, particularly in the area of strategy and organization theory, until recently (Miettinen, Samra-Fredericks and Yanow 2009). This chapter explores activity theory as a resource for studying strategy as practice as it is socially accomplished by individuals in interaction with their wider social group and the artefacts of interaction. In particular, activity theory’s focus on actors as social individuals provides a conceptual basis for studying the core question in strategy-as-practice research: what strategy practitioners do. The chapter is structured in three parts. First, an overview of activity theory is provided. Second, activity theory as a practice-based approach to studying organizational action is introduced and an activity system conceptual framework is developed. Third, the elements of the activity system are explained in more detail and explicitly linked to each of the core SAP concepts: practitioners, practices and praxis. In doing so, links are made to existing strategy-as-practice research, with brief empirical examples of topics that might be addressed using activity theory. Throughout the chapter, we introduce key authors in the development of activity theory and its use in management and adjacent disciplinary fields, as further resources for those wishing to make greater use of activity theory.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCambridge handbook of strategy as practice
EditorsDamon Golsorkhi, Linda Rouleau, David Seidl, Eero Vaara
Place of PublicationCambridge (UK)
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)978-1-107-07312-8
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2015


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