Engestrom’s Human Activity System and Western Limb


1. Introduction

Western limb is an initiative that was set up by Kevin Williams in the aftermath of the Marikana tragedy in August 2012.  While the platinum resources which have led to have fuelled the area’s growth would not last forever, Kevin believed that a different future for the area was possible, that all the elements are there for the area to be a healthy, thriving community.  What is missing is communication among stakeholders, leading to a shared commitment and accountability to creating and implementing a plan for the future of the area.

Western Limb’s objective is to become the premier platform for information sharing and developing a vision and strategy for alternative sustainable livelihoods for people and communities in the Western Limb platinum mining region, and to serve as a model for similar projects in other mining regions.  Western Limb focuses on community engagement, academic research, and film music and the arts.

The Western Limb team comprises policy analysts, lawyers, consultants in sustainability and community engagement, film-makers, and others who are interested in a community-led initiative to engage with the Western Limb.

This blog entry provides a proposed strategy for the unfolding, documenting and monitoring of the initiative .

2. Initiatives as activity systems

What is proposed , is a conceptualisation of  the initiative as a process in which different stakeholders interact in a common activity. According to Engeström, human activity can be analysed using an activity system’s approach, which is presented in the figure below. Each such system includes a subject, an object, a community, tools, rules and a division of tasks and power . 


Figure 1: Human activity system (Engestrom 1987)

The subject of an activity is an individual or a group whose viewpoint is used in analysing the activity. In the case of Western Limb it will be those spearheading the initiative. The object refers to the “problem space” at which the activity is directed, and which is transformed into outcomes with the help of physical and symbolic tools.  The community comprises of multiple individuals and or subgroups, which share the same object of the activity, and the division of labor relates to both, the division of tasks and power between the members of that community. The rules refer to the explicit and implicit regulations, norms and conventions that constrain actions and interactions within the activity system.

Using Engeström’s activity triangle, the Western Limb initiative can be described as follows. It has an object (development of a vision for post mine closure in the Western Limb area), uses particular tools or strategies (i.e workshops, formation of associations, films, research, etc) and involves different stakeholders (the initiators, the target communities, donors, mining companies, regulators and others who may become involved). Each stakeholder executes specific tasks (i.e.  donor agencies provide funds, film makers provide visibility to the project, communities identify priorities etc).

Initiatives, however, typically involve stakeholders from very different socio-cultural backgrounds, often with little prior exposure to each other. As a result, their perceptions of the object of the the activity, in which they are initiated, the role they apportion to the stakeholders and the values they bring to the programme, may be divergent and contradictory.

Engeström argues that those contradictions are the driving forces in a process of what he calls ‘learning by expansion’ Expansive learning refers to learning something new, which is generated from the old. It is a process of constructing a new object for an activity involving the participants in the system. The object construction begins with analysing the existing situation and the contradictions inherent in it. After the analysis, instruments are modeled for transforming the activity. These new models are applied to the activity at hand, and gradually a new, more developed activity will occur on the basis of the old. In terms of the Western Limb initiative this process may create a new creative vision for the post closure livelihoods of the communities.

The above conceptualisation of learning by expanding provides a basis for the development documenting and   monitoring of the initiative 


Engestrom, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding: An activity theoretical approach to developmental research. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit.


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