There is a growing need for research on culture, cultural differences and cultural effects of globalization in medical education, but these are complex phenomena to investigate. Socio-cultural activity theory seems a useful framework to study cultural complexity, because it matches current views on culture as a dynamic process situated in a social context, and has been valued in diverse fields for yielding rich understandings of complex issues and key factors involved. This paper explains how activity theory can be used in (cross-)cultural medical education research. We discuss activity theory's theoretical background and principles, and we show how these can be applied to the cultural research practice by discussing the steps involved in a cross-cultural study that we conducted, from formulating research questions to drawing conclusions. We describe how the activity system, the unit of analysis in activity theory, can serve as an organizing principle to grasp cultural complexity. We end with reflections on the theoretical and practical use of activity theory for cultural research and note that it is not a shortcut to capture cultural complexity: it is a challenge for researchers to determine the boundaries of their study and to analyze and interpret the dynamics of the activity system.