Situated cognition is a new movement in cognitive psychology which derives from pragmatism, Gibsonian ecological psychology, ethnomethodology, the theories of Vygotsky and the writings of Heidegger. However, the key impetus of its development was work done in the late 1980s in educational psychology. Empirical work on how children and young people learned showed that traditional cognitivist 'rule bound' approaches were inadequate to describe how learning actually took place in the real world. Instead, it was suggested that learning was "situated": that is, it always took place in a specific context (cf contextualism). This is similar to the view of "situated activity" proposed by Lucy Suchman, "social context" proposed by Giuseppe Mantovani, and "Situated Learning" proposed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger.

Situated cognition emphasises studies of human behaviour that have 'ecological validity': that is, which take place in real situations (i.e. outside the laboratory). In more traditional laboratory studies of (for example) how people behave in the workplace, real-world complications such as personal interruptions, office politics, scheduling constraints, private agendas and so forth, are generally ignored, even though these necessarily change the nature of the activity. Situated cognition attempts to integrate these complexities into its analytic framework.