Activity Theory: Mapping the Terrain

This is the second post related to my participation in tomorrow’s New Research Trajectories event, Contemporary Art of Walking. Curated by Alison Lloyd, it aims to explore wandering and journeying, mapping or the notion of getting lost as a practice / methodology through participant contributions, discussions and performances.

Spatial and geographical metaphors are frequently employed in educational theory, particularly to describe domains of practice and knowledge. There is something instinctive about seeing how we orient our way through these domains as trajectories and pathways. Yrjö Engeström (2010) describes the landscape in which we practice “as a terrain of activity to be dwelled in and explored,” possessing both opportunities for being controlled, and possibilities for individual agency.

All ‘dwellers’ and ‘explorers’ we interact with the environment and each other to create multiple and intersecting trails. Similar to Cussins’ (1992) concept of cognitive trails, where movements of information create traces or trails, our movement through this terrain is described by patterns and directions of motion representing activity which is simultaneously cognitive (in the mind), physical (in the world), and discursive (in the social space).

Whilst linear types of movement can be seen as describing traditional practices associated with craft and mass production, emergent forms of ‘mycorrhiza’ activities exhibit movement akin to ‘pulsation’ and ‘swarming’ describing practices of social and peer production (including Web 2.0).

The terrain has pre-existing trails, as well as landmarks and boundaries made by others through historically-located social, cultural and power-related activities. When new dwellers enter the terrain, they “both adapt to the dominant trails and struggle to break away from them” (Engeström, 2010). In this conceptual context, the nature of agency is described through the increased capability to move in the terrain effectively and independently of institutional and organisational frameworks.

Similarly, Deleuze and Guattari (1988) describe space as either striated or smooth, conceptualised through a series of contextual models. Bayne (2004) suggests striated space is formal, structured, closed, and sedentary. Movement in stated space is limited to pre-existing trails between fixed and identifiable points aligned with hierarchical and institutional knowledge structures. Smooth space is informal, amorphous, and infinite. Here, movement is free, open and nomadic and aligned with rhizomatic knowledge structures.


Bayne, S. (2004). Smoothness and Striation in Digital Learning Spaces. E-Learning. 1(2). 302-316.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1988) A Thousand Plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Continuum.

Engeström, Y. (2010). The Future of Activity Theory: A Rough Draft. In A. Sannino, H. Daniels, & K. D. Gutiérrez (Eds.), Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 303-328.

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