For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"The French-speaking ergonomists' approach to work activity: cross-influences of field intervention and conceptual models"

by Daniellou *, François (2005)


French-speaking ergonomists generally consider the concept of activity to be central in their approach to work and to changing it. However, their understanding of the term developed in a specific context, combining the influence of Soviet psychology with that of other forms of thinking already developed in France. Since then, the notion has received considerable input. The concept of activity as it has been developed in French-speaking countries (and thereafter in others like Brazil as it has spread) is not exactly identical to that developed by Engeström, even if there are obviously many common points. The aim of this article is not to make a systematic international comparison of approaches all referring to the concept of activity. Rather, the author's objective is limited to explaining the emergence of the concept as it is taught in France with its theoretical and methodological consequences. The reader should, therefore, not be unduly surprised by the focus on French-speaking ergonomists; this is not testimony to ignorance of the international literature, but constitutes the specific nature of this essay. If other authors attempt a similar clarification of thought at a later date, it will be easier for the international ergonomic community to distinguish the resemblances and differences between the approaches on an international level.

Key Passage

Just before and after the Second World War, the analysis of work was developed in France by two teams, whose main area of study was not ergonomics but psychotechnics and the training of adults (Laville 1988, Leplat 1993, Clot 1996, de Montmollin 1997).1 In the laboratory of psychotechnics founded by J.M. Lahy in the National Railway Company, Pacaud (1949, 1954) looked particularly at how tests could be rated and validated. This led her to analyse work in real situations and to conduct observations in the field. In the ‘Centre d’e´tudes et de recherches psychotechniques’ (CERP), psychologists selected adult candidates for courses in continuing education, Ombredane, a neuropsychologist, and Faverge, a statistician, examined the limitations of psychotechnic tests, which they found not to correspond to the characteristics of real work tasks.In 1955, they published ‘L’analyse du travail’ (Ombredane and Faverge 1955) which is considered to lay the foundations for the subsequent development of ergonomics in the French-speaking world. This work, which is strongly marked by the information theory of Shannon, in particular contains an introduction in which Ombredane (1955, p. 3) states the following: ‘Two fundamental issues are to be taken into consideration when analysing work: the What and the How. What workers do and how they do it. On the one hand, we have the requirements of the task; and on the other the operational attitude and sequences with which the individuals observed really meet these requirements’. The authors insist particularly on the fact that, to complete tasks, workers must themselves constitute indices allowing them to follow ‘the ways in which these task requirements vary’. ‘The analyser of work must therefore identify all these indices, which at any given moment can provide the workers with the most useful information about these task requirements and thereby reduce their uncertainty to a minimum’. The authors (p. 3) question ‘the underlying reasons for selection in terms of professional training and the flexibility of work, which is tantamount to saying to what point are problems of aptitude in fact false problems’.  (p.409)


Ergonomics, Activity Analysis, History Of Ergonomics, Working Conditions, Human Activity, Psychoanalysis, Soviet Psychology



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