An activity is modelled as a three-level hierarchy. Kuutti schematises processes in activity theory as a three-level system.

Verenikina paraphrases Leontiev as explaining that “the non-coincidence of action and operations... appears in actions with tools, that is, material objects which are crystallised operations, not actions nor goals. If a person is confronted with a specific goal of, say, dismantling a machine, then they must make use of a variety of operations; it makes no difference how the individual operations were learned because the formulation of the operation proceeds differently to the formulation of the goal that initiated the action.”

The levels of activity are also characterised by their purposes: “Activities are oriented to motives, that is, the objects that are impelling by themselves. Each motive is an object, material or ideal, that satisfies a need. Actions are the processes functionally subordinated to activities; they are directed at specific conscious goals... Actions are realised through operations that are determined by the actual conditions of activity.”

Engestrom developed an extended model of an activity, which adds another component, community (“those who share the same object”), and then adds rules to mediate between subject and community, and the division of labour to mediate between object and community.

Kuutti asserts that “These three classes should be understood broadly. A tool can be anything used in the transformation process, including both material tools and tools for thinking. Rules cover both explicit and implicit norms, conventions, and social relations within a community. Division of labour refers to the explicit and implicit organisation of the community as related to the transformation process of the object into the outcome.”

Activity theory therefore includes the notion that an activity is carried out within a social context, or specifically in a community. The way in which the activity fits into the context is thus established by two resulting concepts:

  1. Rules: these are both explicit and implicit and define how subjects must fit into the community.
  2. Division of labour: this describes how the object of the activity relates to the community.