Journal for The Theory of Social Behavior, 2,000, vol. 30, pp. 413-434 .


Agency and Culture

Carl Ratner


This article analyzes two viewpoints concerning the relation of agency and culture. One viewpoint construes agency as a personal trait that operates outside of culture and is designed to liberate the individual from cultural constraints. I explore this viewpoint in the work of several eminent cultural psychologists. I critique it as a regression to asocial individualism which cultural psychology was designed to correct. I propose an alternative conception of agency as a cultural phenomenon. Espoused by Durkheim, Marx, Boas, and Bhaskar, this conception holds that agency depends upon cultural processes for its realization, forms culture, and has a cultural form. Agency is the active element of culture. Being a cultural phenomenon means that agency is a historical project which must be realized through humanizing society.


In recent years scholars in the field of cultural psychology have endeavored to articulate the role of agency in culture. Their point is that people are not passive recipients of a reified entity called culture. Rather, people play an active role in making and remaking culture, and the manner in which their psychology is culturally organized. More precisely, agency is the intentional causal intervention in the world, subject to the possibility of a reflexive monitoring of that intervention (Bhaskar, 1989, p. 81).

Of course, the kinds of intervention in the world that agency can effect, as well as the sources of intentionality that inspire and constrain the intervention, are subject to different interpretations. The cultural psychologists who espouse active agency construe it as producing individual, personal acts and attitudes. Accordingly, agency makes and remakes culture through creating personal meanings about the significance of things and through acts such as choosing particular kinds of friendships, jobs, or consumer products. According to this conception, individuals negotiate their life styles in interpersonal dialogues, or they construct their psychological "life spaces" individually, independent of even interpersonal, linguistic interactions. In neither case are broader social constraints on these constructions acknowledged. I call this approach an individualistic view of agency because it explains facts about social phenomena in terms of facts about individuals (ibid., p. 27).

The individualistic approach is a curious reversal in cultural psychology because the field originated in order to develop a social view of psychology that corrected the individualistic focus of mainstream psychology. Through critiquing the individualistic model of agency, I shall attempt to reverse this reversal (negate the negation) and develop a cultural model of agency. Although my analysis is confined to the field of cultural psychology, the reader can apply my critique to other fields.


The Individualistic Conception of Agency And Culture

Among the numerous advocates of the individualistic approach to agency-in-culture Jerome Bruner and Jaan Valsiner are prominent figures whose work warrants evaluation. As cultural psychologists they have directly addressed the relation between agency and culture. Much of their work has explored ways in which psychological phenomena are cultural, however, these cultural psychologists endorse a decidedly non-cultural view of agency. It is their articulation of agency, not the entirety of their work, that I address here.

Bruner believes that culture is symbolic meanings which are interpersonally negotiated through linguistic discourse. This interpersonal semiotic negotiation of meanings is the way agency actively constructs culture: "If one is arguing about social `realities' like democracy or equity or even the gross national product, the reality is not in the thing, not in the head, but in the act of arguing and negotiating about such concepts. Social realities are not bricks that we trip over or bruise ourselves on when we kick at them, but the meanings that we achieve by the sharing of human cognitions (Bruner, 1982, p. 837, emphasis added). In Bruner's world, we do not encounter and are not bruised by armies, bombs, wars, inequality, abuse, exploitation, pollution, global warming, power, poverty, wealth, disease, the world bank, congress, the CIA, immigration quotas, emigration restrictions, or prisons. These are not real things "out there in the world" which directly affect us. They are simply meanings which become negotiated through interpersonal communication. We can easily change these concepts by simply renegotiating them with our colleagues.

Bruner espouses this conception of culture because it provides room for individuals to actively participate in cultural construction. If culture is negotiated meanings then all individuals are cultural agents because everyone daily expresses their opinions about cultural things to other people: "It is the forum aspect of a culture [in which meanings are negotiated and re-negotiated] that gives its participants a role in constantly making and remaking the culture -- their active role as participants rather than as performing spectators who play out canonical roles according to rule when the appropriate cues occur" (ibid., p. 839).

Agency for Bruner conducts face to face conversations among individuals. Bruner does not consider negotiations about meanings to occur in organized groups where group processes/dynamics transcend individual behavior (a la Durkheim). He never considers negotiations about meanings to occur in administered institutions (a la Weber). Nor does he consider negotiations about meanings to arise in practical activities such as work, education, politics, law, religion, medicine, book and magazine publishing, entertainment and news industries which are organized in definite roles that carry differential power, opportunities, and rewards (a la Marx). For Bruner nothing outside the interpersonal negotiation of meanings affects that process. He explicitly denies the existence of social conditions, institutions, bureaucracy, wealth, power, physical force, technology, the physical environment, and even customary, normative actions -- since these are all transformed into mental significations. With things, social life, people, and even behavior reduced to figments of the imagination, there are no real societal influences on the individual (i.e., psychology). Nor are there real societal issues to confront. In this sense Bruner's agency operates outside society.1

Valsiner construes agency as even less social and more a personal attribute. Formerly an advocate of Vygotsky’s sociohistorical psychology, he now asserts that culture is a set of "suggestions" which individuals can freely accept, reject, or modify as they wish. Valsiner replaces sociohistorical psychology with a new formulation called "co-constructionism." In contrast to sociohistorical psychology which construes the individual as profoundly affected by culture, co-constructionism grants primacy to the individual's decision about how to deal with culture. Acknowledging that his new position is a wholesale rejection of sociocultural psychology, Valsiner states, "The logic of the argument supporting the relevance of the social environment in human development is reversed in the co-constructionist paradigm" (Branco & Valsiner, 1997, p. 37, emphasis added). According to the new paragidm, "most of human development takes place through active ignoring and neutralization of most of the social suggestions to which the person is subjected in everyday life" (Valsiner, 1998, p. 393, emphasis in original).

Valsiner believes that psychological distancing from society enables the individual to construct a personal world of meanings that can "transcend the complex state of any collective culture" (ibid., p. 116). Individuals do much more than selectively synthesize elements from social life. They create meanings which transcend and change it (ibid., p. 114). Culture is continually being changed by ordinary individuals constructing and externalizing new meanings.

Valsiner even contends that babies construct their own personal goals. They utilize culture as an instrumental means for achieving their own goals; they do not adapt themselves to established culture as social scientists formerly believed: "children create what is necessary for reaching their personal goals through social mediation in their interpersonal relations with peers" (Vasconcellos & Valsiner, 1998, p. 86). "The child...utilizes the collective culturally meaningful surroundings to build his or her personal understanding of the world. The ways in which the latter is constructed are the child's own -- each child creates a unique personal world" (ibid., p. 87, emphasis added).

Valsiner's antagonism between individual agency and culturally constructed, shared activities rests on a belief that individuals must protect and insulate themselves from culture:


In order to guarantee relative stability of the personality system, it has to be well buffered against immediate social suggestions. The latter may be filled with dramatisms, hurtful efforts, or declarations of love or hate (or both), yet the likelihood of such single episodes having "long-term effects" of any direct kind need not be taken for granted. Hence, what is usually viewed as "socialization efforts" (by social institutions or parents) [is] necessarily counteracted by the active recipients of such efforts who can neutralize or ignore a large number of such episodes, aside from single particularly dramatic ones (Valsiner, 1998, p. 393).


Valsiner's preoccupation with individual activity to the exclusion of culture is evident in his analysis of the way in which a woman, Jenny, uses language to present herself to people. She is portrayed as having various personal desires and using cultural symbols to express them. Cultural symbols are external to her desires and are freely selected and discarded as needed. In Valsiner's analysis, Jenny uses cultural meanings of words to express her personal feelings toward marriage and to present herself to others (Valsiner, 1998, p. 333). Valsiner never discusses ways in which Jenny's feelings are themselves influenced by cultural activities and values.

Valsiner's insistence that individuals create their own personal meanings in opposition to society contradicts his standpoint that individuals "co-construct" their meanings (and psychologies) in conjunction with cultural processes. Valsiner's actual psychological explanations, descriptions, and analyses disregard any serious impact of culture on psychology.

In summary, the individualistic view of agency in relation to culture proposes:

    1. Agency initiates individual acts of personal significance. These individual acts can be negotiated among several people.
    2. Individual constructions of personal meaning are more creative, profound, and interesting than objectified, socially organized acts and artifacts. This idea is evident in Valsiner's work. Bruner also prioritizes the individual formation and negotiation of symbols over their collective form. He does not consider collective ideologies, propaganda, and doctrines which influence peoples' psychology. Nor does Bruner consider the role of administered social organizations such as the Vatican, the Chinese communist party, the American State Department, American news companies, and corporations in promulgating particular symbolic meanings of things. Bruner only considers local, small-scale, interpersonally negotiated meanings.
    3. Society is composed of individual behaviors. In Bruner's view, society is a forum for individuals to negotiate meanings in face to face interactions. In Valsiner's view, society is the sum of personal meanings devised by individuals.
    4. Society changes as individuals change their personal behavior. Individualistic cultural psychologists never consider agency as working in social movements to alter social institutions, conditions, systems, or ideologies which are directed by vested interests who resist change.

    5. Cultural influences are negligible. They are merely "suggestions" which are readily ignored, circumvented, and negated by individuals. They have no power to affect us, unless we allow them to.


Critique of The Individualistic View

Individualistic cultural psychologists manifest a palpable antipathy to broad culture beyond the individual. Their cultural phobia displaces cultural psychology and obfuscates the cultural origins, features, formation, and functions of psychological phenomena.

The assumptions of individualistic cultural psychologists are unsupported by empirical data. These authors never actually demonstrate the extent to which individuals actually ignore, circumvent, or negate society. This would require a rigorous comparison of personal constructions with social practices and concepts to ascertain whether the former are really unique and creative. The authors never perform this kind of analysis to substantiate their claim. Nor do they demonstrate that personal constructions are more creative and efficient in general than socially constructed activities and concepts. Nor do they provide any examples of societies being formed and transformed by individual behavior.

In fact, existing theoretical and empirical research contradict individualistic tenets. Specifically,

1) Behaviors and thoughts which the cultural psychologists claim to be unique personal constructions are actually selective assimilations of prevalent social practices and values.

In one of Valsiner's cases, a woman was entering a church and encountered a beggar asking for alms at the entrance. She refused his request on the grounds that he was only pretending to be poor and didn't really need the money. Valsiner (1998, p. 120) proclaims that in this refusal the woman "distanced herself (ignored or negated) from a social demand" and engaged in an act of personal construction/agency. However, her refusal reflects a widely held repugnance toward begging. She distanced herself from the immediate social demand of the beggar by invoking a different social concept of begging. The woman simply selected one social value and behavior over others. She did not creatively construct a unique personal meaning that transcended and modified culture.

In another case, Valsiner believed that a year and one-half old baby girl playing with a doll was engaged in "constructing her understanding of the symbolic aspects of her own actions" (Vasconcellos & Valsiner, 1998, p. 96). It is impossible to determine whether the baby was constructing personal understandings and meanings. The authors never stipulated any criteria for identifying them nor did they interview the baby to ascertain what she was thinking. Most of the behaviors that the authors report ostensibly seem to qualify as social conformity rather than active construction of personal meaning. After one boy hit the baby, other boys imitated this action rather than opposing it. Later, in scene 6C, a small boy tried to get into the box where she was playing but she hit him and kept him away. In this act, she was evidently protecting herself from a boy who, based upon previous experience, appeared threatening to her. This behavior is simply a common form of self protection and shows no indication of being a unique personal invention.

Another of Valsiner's studies revealed more obvious instances of social conformity. Branco & Valsiner (1997) studied 3-year olds in the hope of demonstrating the individual processes that persons generate (p. 55) to continuously reorganize the constraining social system (p. 49) and introduce novelties into the social system (p. 61). The authors' observational analysis of interpersonal interactions found a quite different pattern of behavior: the children conformed to adult social demands and were not creative agents. An adult facilitator encouraged cooperation among the children (p. 56) and the initially rebellious and self-centered William quickly (in two minutes) complied with the adult's exhortations to help others (p. 57).2

2) Personal meanings are not more creative than worldly-oriented ideas and acts. The most profoundly creative achievements in human history -- by geniuses such as Shakespeare, Galileo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Mozart, Einstein, Darwin, Marx -- have comprehended essential features of the world that are inspirational to millions of other people. In no way are they personal meanings that are only significant for the individual inventor. As Hegel said in the introduction to his Philosophy of Fine Art, "the productive imagination of the artist is the imagination of a great mind and heart, the apprehension and creation of ideas and of shapes, and, indeed, the exhibition of the profoundest and most universal human interests in the definite sensuous mold of pictorial representation" (Hegel, 1970, p. 69).

3) Social institutions, structures, behaviors, and dynamics are substantive "emergent" entities which structure people's psychology (cf. Kleinman, 1999). They structure psychology by imposing rules of behavior, benefits, and punishments. They are not simply suggestions or meanings that can be ignored with impunity. Moreover, they are largely controlled by an elite minority of individuals while the majority of people are disenfranchised from negotiating the rules which govern their behavior.

Bruner (1982, p. 840) himself notes that educational institutions have traditionally been authoritarian. Likewise, corporate decisions to terminate thousands of jobs at a stroke are not negotiated with employees, nor are they merely mental significations, nor are they ignored by the workers who suffer from them. The university administrator who reduces expenses by crowding 300 students into a lecture hall and hires a teaching assistant to teach the course does not negotiate with the students yet her action directly affects their experience. Corporate domination of entertainment, sports, government, medicine, and news imposes social relations and concepts on people and impedes the ability of citizens to negotiate their life styles. Discrimination in loaning money, selling houses, and offering jobs is another kind of real action that directly affects behavior without negotiation. The mother who watches television during dinner and does not communicate with her child similarly affects the child's psychology without linguistic negotiation. Valsiner, himself, incongruously acknowledges that sexuality is culturally canalized: "Sambia male 'temporary homosexuality' is part of the cultural canalization of young boys to strict heterosexual orientation, social identity as warriors, and bonding with their age sets" (Valsiner, 1998, pp. 379-380).

4) Social reality is not reducible to semiotic meanings and meanings are not reducible to interpersonal decisions (Hacking, 1999, p. 24; cf. Mayfield & Thorne, 1992, for a critique of the linguistic turn in history; Roseberry, 1982, for a critique of it in anthropology; Bergesen, 1993, for a critique of it in sociology). Actually, symbolic meanings are inspired and constrained by socially organized activities. Moreover, symbolic meanings are collective, emergent representations that are shared by members of a subculture (Flick, 1998). These social aspects of meanings militate against individuals freely inventing idiosyncratic, independent representations.

A vivid example of societal influences on semiotic meaning is the manner in which languages change. Kulick (1992) conducted a fascinating detailed study of "language shift" in a small community, Gapun, in Papua New Guinea. Gapun is a "tidy, windless slit in the jungle." It is 500 meters long by a few hundred meters wide and is surrounded on all sides by rainforest. Villagers live in houses that are 12 meters by 9 meters. Until recently, Gapuners spoke a language called Taiap. They were the only people in the world to speak it. In recent decades Taiap has been replaced by Tok Pisin which is a form of pidgin English that arose in the mid-nineteenth century and has gradually been replacing most of the Papuan languages. The language shift in Gapun began during the first World War when several men temporarily migrated out to work in other areas where Tok Pisin was spoken. The shift intensified during the 1950's when virtually every unmarried male spent at least a year working in other villages (ibid., p. 72). Another reason for the language shift was the introduction of Tok Pisin into the village by Christian missionaries. Finally, in the late 1950's Gapuners relocated their village closer to Wongan, a Tok Pisin-speaking village. Commercial contact expanded, children attended Wongan schools, and intermarriage between the two villages became commonplace (ibid., p. 81). These changes in social activities led Gapuners to shift their language (cf. ibid., pp. 9-10 for an additional example).  

Kulick studied every member of Gapun and he found that the language shift was related to the contact that an individual had with the new economic, educational, religious, and family activities. Tok Pisin was only spoken by males during the first decades of its absorption into the village verbal repertoire. The reason is that men learned it in their migratory work which women did not engage in (ibid., p. 71). The language shift also varied with people's age. All Gapuners older than 10 are currently bilingual because they have participated in a combination of traditional and modern activities. However, none of the 1-9 year olds speaks Taiap. All are monolingual speakers of Tok Pisin, and most do not even understand Taiap (ibid., pp. 70-71). The reason is that conversations with children are primarily in Tok Pisin, especially about important topics that elders want a child to attend to (ibid., pp. 194-195).

The strong, systematic association of language shift with gender and age groups proves that linguistic symbols rest upon social processes for their formation and distribution. Gapuners did not individually create idiosyncratic personal symbols in opposition to social processes; their language shift was itself a social process that was motivated by social changes in work and education. Nor did Gapuners negotiate semiotic constructs in a forum of interpersonal bargaining. Nor did other villagers throughout Papua New Guinea coincidentally decide to renounce their native vernaculars in purely intellectual acts that were removed from social life. In fact, parents do not even understand why they and their children have shifted from Taiap to Tok Pisin. Parents are unaware of the fact that they have developed new forms of linguistic interchange with their children (ibid., pp. 7, 223). Obviously, then, they did not consciously decide to communicate differently. Rather, their use of language unconsciously flows from the manner in which their social lives are organized.

The language shift was also tied to collective significations that the two languages had for the villagers. Taiap came to be devalued by Gapuners as stubborn, backward, anti-social, anti-Christian, and not useful, while Tok Pisin was admired because it came to be associated with men, wealth, sophistication, and interesting foreign people (ibid., pp. 20, 252-253). These changes in the signification of the languages were collectively shared among the villagers. They were not individual constructions.

These new meanings clearly originated in the changed social activities of migratory work, religion, and education. Since work brought new wealth and experience, of course the language associated with it came to be valued (ibid., pp. 250-251). A complete formulation of the language shift would be that changes in activities along with corresponding changes in the value of the two languages led to the language shift.3

5) The emphasis on personal change overlooks the fact that psychology is organized by cultural processes and that substantial psychological change requires major alterations in these formative social relations, conditions, and institutions. It is a mistake to believe that individuals can effect substantial psychological change on their own. Individuals can only generate slight psychological and behavioral changes as long as social influences on them remain unchallenged. A good example is the recent attempt of parents in a small suburban community in Minnesota to spend more time with their children. Their children had been devoting most of their free time to extra-curricular activities such as sports, plays, ballet, and music practice at school, churches, and in youth groups. Parents requested that these organizations reduce the time that kids were required to spend so that they could have more time at home with family members. Although many children and team leaders agreed with the ideal, they resisted the change because they feared that it would lead to a decline in their performance and ultimately to losing in competition with teams from other communities which would practice more than they did. One parent said, "less competitive programs can hurt your chance for a college scholarship" (New York Times, June 13, 2000, p. A14). Thus, competitive pressures from the broader society constrained the behavior of a local community despite the desire by many to change.

If community change is difficult to effect amidst broader social constraints, individual change is more difficult to achieve in isolation.

6) Social institutions, conditions, systems, and ideologies do not change through piecemeal changes in personal thinking and behavior. On the contrary, they change via organized social groups -- from medical associations to business councils to labor unions to feminist organizations to anti-abortion groups -- engaging in systematic, massive campaigns to reorganize obdurate, objectified social entities. Social change involves legal, political, social, economic, and often military campaigns to overcome the enormous resistance of the establishment to qualitative change (cf. Ratner, 1993a, 1997a, b, 1999 for further critiques of the individualistic approach to cultural psychology).

7) Individualistic cultural psychologists overlook social aspects of agency -- the fact that agency is oriented toward, depends upon, and is constrained by social activities, institutions, conditions, and movements. All of the insights from sociohistorical psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, and political philosophy concerning the social formation of agency are simply dismissed and replaced by the notion that agency is a personal capability. Individualistic cultural psychologists commit what social psychologists call "the fundamental attribution error" -- the tendency to attribute behavior to personal dispositions rather than situational influences (Norenzayan & Nisbett, 2000).

Believing that microscopic interpersonal processes are personal constructions, individualistic cultural psychologists fail to comprehend that they actually appropriate and recapitulate broader collective processes.4


A Cultural Conception of Agency

A cultural conception of agency is needed to correct the errors of the individualistic view. Ingredients of a cultural view have been propounded by psychologists (Vygotsky, Sampson), anthropologists (Boas, Mead, Kroeber, Kluckhohn) political philosophers (Marx, Marcuse, Charles Taylor), and sociologists (Durkheim, Levy-Bruhl). From this standpoint, agency always operates within and through a social structure. Agency does not precede society and create it as a voluntary agreement of independent individuals. Individuals are always socially related. Therefore, any action that individual agency initiates (including action to transform society) always takes place from a social basis (Bhaskar, 1989, pp. 36-37). "The social cannot be reduced to (and is not the product of) the individual [and] society is a necessary condition for any intentional human act at all…Society is both the ever-present condition and the continually reproduced outcome of human agency" (ibid., p. 34). From a cultural perspective, agency is "the temporarily constructed engagement by actors of different structural environments which, through the interplay of habit, imagination, and judgment, both reproduces and transforms those structures in interactive response to the problems posed by changing historical situations" (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998, p. 970). Bourdieu employed the concept of habitus to denote intentional action that is socially constrained: "the notion of habitus restores to the agent a generating, unifying, constructing, classifying power, while recalling that this capacity to construct social reality, itself socially constructed, is not that of a transcendental subject but of a socialized body, investing in its practice socially constructed organizing principles that are acquired in the course of a situated and dated social experience" (Bourdieu, 2000, pp. 136-137).

As a social phenomenon, agency depends upon social relations for its realization. It therefore forms social relations and it has a social form that reflects them (cf. Ratner, 1993a, b, 1994, 1997a, b, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2000 forthcoming for further discussion of this perspective). Agency constructs and promulgates social relations because it gains strength from cooperating with other people in life activities (Ratner, 1991, chap. 1). Agency needs social relations to become real (realized) and objective (objectified). Just as thought is objectified and realized in social language, and intelligence is objectified and realized in successful performance, so agency is objectified and realized in social relations. As merely an individual wish or action, agency is as ineffable and impotent as thought without language and intelligence without performance. Consequently, agency seeks to participate in and promulgate social relations. It has social intentionality in that it is sensitive to and integrates itself in social relations.5

Social intentionality is necessary if social life is to occur. Agency must adapt to and promulgate social patterns. Otherwise, there would be no common, stable, or predictable social life. Qualitative social change is possible, however only if individuals are socially oriented to cooperate in mass movements to transform the social organization of activities and associated cultural concepts.

Agency is cultural in several ways. Not only is it intentionally oriented toward objectifying itself in social relations. Agency is also cultural in that its quality or character is a function of the quality and character of social relations in which an individual participates. An individual deprived of social stimulation and support would not develop agency just as she would not develop psychological functions. Agency has heterogeneous forms which correspond to the heterogeneity of social relations within a social division of labor. Capitalists have different social relations from workers, and workers themselves have different kinds of social relations depending on their particular line of work. Each pattern of social relations fosters different characteristics in agency.

Bourdieu emphasized this point in his notion of the habitus. The habitus is a set of expectations, assumptions, and dispositions to react which result from particular forms of social experience with particular social conditions. Therefore, people's actions are not freely constructed, rather they are guided by the socially built-up habitus. Bourdieu (2000, pp. 138-139) explains this as follows: "the agent is never completely the subject of his practices: through the dispositions and the beliefs [the habitus] which are the basis of engagement in the game, all the presuppositions constituting the practical axiomatics of the [social] field find their way into the seemingly most lucid intentions." Social experience is profoundly embedded in the habitus and in ensuing psychological functions and behavior. Social experience is not only internalized intellectually; it becomes inscribed in our bodies. Reiterating Mauss' conception of the habitus, Bourdieu says, "The most serious social injunctions are addressed not to the intellect but to the body, treated as a `memory pad'. The essential part of the learning of masculinity and femininity tends to inscribe the differences between the sexes in bodies (especially through clothing), in the forms of ways of walking, talking, standing, looking, sitting, etc." (ibid., p. 141). The social habitus operates automatically like a habit to guide action (ibid., p. 143).

Personal meanings spring from idiosyncratic experiences with particular people and situations. Personal experiences do not transcend normative cultural patterns. They are simply minor variations within these patterns (Bourdieu, 1990, p. 60). For instance, adolescents have idiosyncratic experiences with unique sets of friends and parents, however their experiences, senses, and meanings are nevertheless extremely similar. The vast majority of adolescents engage in a very similar range of behaviors -- which the vast majority of parents attest to with shared patterns of dismay and despair. The case studies of Valsiner demonstrate that individual acts recapitulate cultural activities and concepts (cf. Ratner, 1997a, pp. 141-142 for an analysis that elucidates the cultural basis of such a case).

What defines experience is the social activities and concepts in which it occurs. What is crucial in the experience of adolescents is the social position of adolescence as a distinctive transition period from the social roles of childhood to adulthood in a society of highly individualized activities and self-concepts. This general social position (and its specific differentiation across classes, genders, and ethnic groups) is far more important in determining the experience of adolescence than the particular identities of one's parents.

An individual will have a far greater awareness of his cultural experience if he understands its social position than if he understands the personal identities and actions of the participants. An adolescent will have a deeper understanding of being an adolescent if he comprehends the social position of adolescence than if he merely reflects on the individual actions of himself and his parents. Of course, if he wants to understand his idiosyncratic personal inclinations then he must understand his individual parents. If he wants to understand why he dislikes playing the trombone in the school band, he needs to understand the pressure his mother put on him, the condescending personality of the conductor, etc. However, these details do not significantly affect the overall experience of adolescence. They are minor variations in the general pattern that is similar for teenagers who like to play trombone and who don't.

The encompassing of personal experience within general social activities and concepts can be seen in the act of forming a personal identity. "Although individuals are highly active in the process of self-making, the materials available for writing one's own story are a function of our public and shared notions of personhood. American accounts of the self, for example, involve a set of culture-confirming ideas and images of success, competence, ability, and the need to `feel good'" (Oyserman & Markus, 1998, p. 123). "The public representations of selfhood that characterize a given sociocultural niche function as common denominators -- they provide the primary structure of the selves of those who live within these contexts. These shared ideas produce necessary, although often unseen, commonalities in the selves of people within a given context" (ibid., p. 109). "Although making a self appears to be an individual and individualizing pursuit, it is also a collective and collectivizing one" (ibid., p. 107). Identify-formation must be a collective and collectivizing process because, "From a societal perspective, self-construction is too important to be left as a personal project. Social integration and the social order require that individuals of a given group have reasonably similar answers to the `who am I' and `where do I belong' questions" (ibid., p. 107).

Blumer (1969) provides another vivid example of how individual agency is subsumed within general activities and concepts. He studied the behavior of dress designers and buyers in the Paris fashion industry. At a seasonal opening of a major Parisian fashion house there may be presented a hundred or more designs of women's evening wear before an audience of from one to two hundred buyers. The buyers are "a highly competitive and secretive lot" who decide which designs to purchase independently of each other, without knowledge of each other's selections. One might expect such competitive and independent buyers to select widely different designs. In fact, the more than 100 buyers only purchase seven styles all together. Their individual agencies uncannily act within a very small range of behaviors although theoretically they have the freedom to act in very disparate ways. Blumer explains this commonality as stemming from their common participation in the women's fashion industry: "by virtue of their intense immersion in this [activity] the buyers came to develop common sensitivities and similar appreciations. To use an old but valuable psychological term, they developed a common `apperception mass' which sharpened and directed their feelings of discrimination, which guided and sensitized their perceptions, and which channeled their judgments and choices" (ibid., p. 279). For the same reasons, dress designers create remarkably similar designs despite the fact that they work independently of each other and are also competitive and secretive (ibid., p. 280).

Wertsch similarly found that college students who independently wrote essays about the origins of the United States employed a common cultural explanatory concept. All the students believed that the founding events in American history were motivated by a quest for freedom. Wertsch's conclusion is worth quoting because it emphases the shared perspective that results from appropriating common cultural concepts ("narrative tools"):

one of the most striking facts about the texts is that all of them were fundamentally grounded in the quest-for-freedom narrative tool. No matter how much or how little the subjects seemed to accept and agree with this narrative tool, they all used it in one way or another… [Even] subjects [who] conveyed that they were resisting the quest-for-freedom narrative, in the end still employed it. In fact no student even attempted to employ another narrative tool in any extended way…In such cases, individuals may try to resist the ways in which such cultural tools shape their actions, but they are often highly constrained in the forms that such resistance can take (Wertsch, 1998, pp. 107-108).6

These examples demonstrate that, "It is in each agent, and therefore in the individuated state, that there exist supra-individual dispositions capable of functioning in an orchestrated or, one could say, collective way" (Bourdieu, 2000, p. 156). The dispositions among disparate individuals are shared because they occupy similar social positions which results in similar experiences. Common experience with similar conditions leads to acquiring shared dispositions even without interpersonal communication or agreement among the individuals (ibid., pp. 145-146).

If agency is a social habitus, then the kind, or quality, of agency depends upon the social experience with social conditions that fosters a particular habitus. Where social relations are democratically controlled by the majority of citizens, their agency is stimulated in the process of deciding important, complex issues. Unfortunately, most societies are dominated by a small group of powerful individuals who struggle to wrest control of social relations from the majority of people. The agency of the resulting classes then reflects their positions in the social system. The agency of the powerful rulers runs the major social institutions and makes wide-ranging decisions about fundamental issues. The agency of the populace is much more limited because it has been subjugated by the ruling elite and deprived of the ability to control major life activities -- politics, work, education, medical care, religion (cf. Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts for the classic statement of this alienation).

In contemporary capitalist society, the agency of most people is limited to individual mundane tasks such as finding a job, a friend, a house to buy, a vacation spot, a hobby, a movie to watch, a candidate to vote for, and to interpersonal interactions with individual friends and relatives. The agency of most people does not control the manner in which social activities such as work, religion, education, government, and medical care are socially organized. Within the personal areas that agency does navigate, it has legal and moral authority to make decisions according to its own point of view which will benefit the individual. This (limited) individual freedom is a principle of the market economy (Ci, 1999).

Thus, agency which concentrates on individual mundane tasks is a historically situated, culturally specific form of agency. Individualistic agency is not natural or universal. Marx, Durkheim, Simmel, and Merton all recognized this. Durkheim eloquently expressed this fact when he said,

Rights and liberties are not things inherent in the nature of the individual as such. Analyze the given constitution of man and you will find there no trace of the sacred character with which he is today invested and form which his rights are derived. He owes this character to society. It is society that has consecrated the individual and made of him the thing to be respected above all. The progressive emancipation of the individual thus does not imply a weakening but a transformation of the social bond (cited in Giddens, 1995, p. 120).

The fact that individualistic agency is fostered by, adapts to, and functions to perpetuate specific social relations demonstrates that it is socially intentional like all agency is.

If agency has a social character that depends upon social relations, it is not intrinsically creative, fulfilling, or empowering. It only becomes so by creating social relations that will promote these characteristics. In this sense, agency is a historical project. It needs to be realized and perfected through historical processes. It is akin to justice, morality, intelligence, sensitivity, and language in the sense that all of these need to be realized historically through reforming their social bases. None of them exists in true (fully developed) form as an a priori, intrinsic quality of the individual (cf. Marcuse, 1964, 1987).

Language exemplifies this point. Everyone has the capacity for language and everyone expresses some language to some degree. However, the specific kind and level of language that a person expresses depends upon her position in a particular society. In the same way, agency is merely a potential (capacity) which must be developed through social intercourse into a specific form. Throughout the world, individuals no more possess the same kind of agency than they use the same language.

If social relations are the essence of agency, enhancing the creativity, fulfillment, and power of agency requires implementing fulfilling, empowering, democratic social relations. Agency is only enhanced by enhancing social relations which constitute it. Ironically, improving agency requires going beyond it to related things -- social relations. If one tries to alter agency by focusing exclusively on it, one will fail because one has neglected its constituent social relations. The more one narrowly focuses on changing agency by itself, the more agency will conform to social relations because these constituents of agency have remained intact. Barber (1984, p. xv) eloquently expresses the point that creative, fulfilling agency requires humane social relations:

Autonomy is not the condition of democracy, democracy is the condition of autonomy. Without participating in the common life that defines them and in the decision-making that shapes their social habitat, women and men cannot become individuals. Freedom, justice, equality, and autonomy are all products of common thinking and common living; democracy creates them…We are born in chains -- slaves of dependency and insufficiency -- and acquire autonomy only as we learn the difficult art of governing ourselves in common;...we acquire equality only in the context of socially sanctioned political arrangements that spread across naturally unequal beings a civic mantle of artificial [cultural] equality.

Social reform requires collective understanding of and action on the social organization of activities and concepts. Even understanding and improving oneself requires understanding and improving one's social relations. Each person must understand the manner in which his ideas and actions reflect social practices and concepts. He must repudiate adverse social practices and concepts in his own life, and he must engage in social action to uproot them from society at large so that they no longer influence himself and other people.

Freire called this burgeoning awareness of the integration of personal and social change concientizacion. Martin-Baro explains that the term "supposes that persons change in the process of changing their relations with the surrounding environment and, above all, with other people" (Martin-Baro, 1994, p. 41). Through critically understanding their social system, people grasp the constraints on their psychology and behavior. This awareness opens up the horizon to new possibilities for social action and for new forms of identity and other psychological processes.

Bourdieu explains that Flaubert and Baudelaire were creative agents in literature because they re-made the entire field of literature. Bourdieu (1996, pp. 48, 55-56, 67) emphasizes "how much Flaubert contributed, along with others, notably Baudelaire, to the constitution of the literary field as a world apart, subject to its own laws." Individuals who would create new things "must invent against established positions and their occupants, everything necessary to define it" (ibid., p. 76). Thus, Bourdieu recognizes that the habitus can be innovative if it comprehends and remakes the conditions of its existence.

People can overcome alienation if they develop a new form of agency which comprehends and humanizes their social world. Their existing individualistic agency cannot accomplish significant personal or social improvement because it is stultified and misdirected. A new form of agency must be developed out of the alienated form. The process is a kind of spiral in which alienated agency (collectively) takes initial steps to humanize its social relations, then these improved social relations foster enhanced agency which then takes greater steps toward reforming social relations which then promote enhanced agency (cf. Martin-Baro, 1994, p. 218).

In its current form, agency is not yet actual (actualized). It is only the potential for real agency. In its current form, agency has internalized alienated social relations. Individuals actively deal with conditions of alienation. This is the grain of truth in the individualistic view of agency. However, this view is wrong in its understanding of the content and function of agency in alienated conditions. Individualists believe that agency distances itself from all social conditions and produces freedom, creativity, and fulfillment. Agency therefore seems free even under alienation. In reality, however, the agency of most people under alienation adapts to it and internalizes it (internalizing oppression). Alienated agency does not escape from alienated social relations. It only contains the potential for liberation. It must realize this potential by engaging in social action to humanize the social organization of activities and concepts.


The Scientific and Political Value of Conceptions of Agency


If agency is a cultural phenomenon and the individualistic account of agency is wrong, then what accounts for the popularity of this misconception? The answer is that the individualistic account reflects certain aspects of agency as it exists in contemporary capitalist society. It reflects the personal choices that people have -- the legal right to change jobs and residences, travel freely, choose a spouse, read whatever one wishes, buy and sell property, and vote for government officials. The emphasis which individualistic cultural psychologists place on personal choices corresponds to the emphasis which people in everyday life place on their personal choices. This is what makes the individualistic account plausible.

However, this account is only partially accurate. It misconstrues many aspects of agency in contemporary society. The individualistic account also misconstrues itself -- its own origins, point of view, limits, and social implications. I shall examine these two misconceptions in order.

Oxymoronically, individualistic cultural psychologists have no interest in or comprehension of the cultural character of agency. Ironically, their perspective is so dominated by the privatized form agency takes in contemporary society that it overlooks social aspects of agency. The social ignorance of individualism is akin to believing that the exchanges which take place in a market economy are freely decided and have nothing to do with background conditions such as the amount of capital one has at one's disposal and competitive pressures from others' actions.

Individualistic cultural psychology ignores the specific organization of social life that imparts the existing form to agency. For instance, it ignores the capitalistic organization of work, education, politics, law, and the family which limits the agency of most people to personal acts and precludes control over social relations, institutions, conditions, and dynamics. Individualistic cultural psychologists presume that the focus of agency on personal acts is natural and universal. They never acknowledge cultural variations in ways that agency acts on cultural phenomena and is influenced by them. Like most naturalistic theories of psychology, individualistic cultural psychology fails to recognize that the characteristics of agency which it touts as natural are actually current cultural characteristics (cf. Cushman, 1991 for a related analysis of ideological bias in individualistic psychological theory).

The individualistic view is so fascinated by the personal decision-making of contemporary agency that it overlooks the alienation inherent in this form of agency. It fails to see that the personal, mundane acts which it glorifies as freedom and creativity are stultified, conformist, alienated, isolated, self-centered acts. It fails to see that, "our great modern world is all too often a world in which men and women do not exist for others; in which, although there are no public censors, there can also be no public goods; in which monolithic social ends are prudently outlawed by imprudently proscribing all social ends; in which altruistic behavior is discouraged in the name of bargaining efficiency and utility accounting" (Barber, 1984, p. 71). Most of the choices which people today make are clouded and prompted by massive social influences such as advertising and the media.

Defining agency as constructing personal meanings further mystifies social reality because it creates a false sense of equality, democracy, and fulfillment. All people appear to be equally fulfilled and active because they construct and negotiate personal meanings. A loader of milk bottles is as agentive in this sense as a President. Personal agency erases social differences. Society also appears to be democratic and fulfilling because its citizens are construed as agents. Bruner believes that since people negotiate meanings, society is a democratic forum. Social problems and inequalities in wealth and power are erased by the notion of personal agency.

The individualistic notion of agency exempts society from critique because it presumes that each individual is responsible for his own problems. Since each individual can deal with social events any way he wishes, any difficulties he may suffer are due to his style of dealing with events, not to the events themselves. People who suffer under poverty, war, discrimination, and autocratic leadership could disabuse themselves of any problems by simply learning to ignore, circumvent, or negate them. If they don't, it's their fault. There is no need to criticize or alter the social system.

Lacking a cultural analysis and unwittingly endorsing alienated agency as normal and natural precludes the possibility that agency and society could have different forms. Peoples' agency could be much more meaningful, insightful, creative, and fulfilling if it directed social activities as well as individual acts. However, individualistic cultural psychologists never entertain this possibility because they mistakenly believe that agency is already realized in making personal choices in the existing society. Utilizing an alienated, individualistic view of agency and culture prevents cultural psychologists from seeing beyond it. Seeing things through this view prevents "seeing through" it.

The individualistic conception of agency not only misconstrues its object (agency in the real world), it also fails to understand itself -- its origins, standpoint, limits, and social implications. The individualistic viewpoint touts itself as scientifically comprehending the true, essential nature of agency. Actually, it comprehends nothing of the true, essential social nature of agency. The individualistic view is therefore not at all scientific. It only has the limited perspective of lay people whose impressions of social life do not comprehend it. Individualistic cultural psychologists lack the scientific sophistication which comes from critically understanding the origins, character, development, and functions of phenomena. The individualistic standpoint unknowingly reflects cultural features of agency instead of reflecting on its origins, development, and functions. The individualistic conception of agency in culture is ethnocentric because it touts limited, limiting notions of agency and culture as scientific concepts that represent the full, true, natural, universal character of these phenomena. In Bourdieu's terse words, "personalism is the main obstacle to the construction of a scientific vision of the human being" (Bourdieu, 2000, p. 132).

The individualistic view of agency and culture is a form of "scholasticism" which ignores "the demands of the situation, the constraints of economic and social necessity, and the urgencies it imposes or the ends it proposes" (Bourdieu, 2000, p. 12). Bourdieu points out that scholastics (and individualists in particular) are not only ignorant of social constraints on individual behavior; they are also unaware of their ignorance of the social basis of behavior; and they are unaware that their ignorance has a social basis (Bourdieu, p. 15). The individualistic view is a product of modern society: "It was only with the Renaissance the man's essential aloneness came to be construed as a liberation rather than a purgatory" (Barber, 1984, p. 69). Norenzayan & Nisbett (2000) similarly point out that the individualistically based fundamental attribution error is characteristic of western society but not of Asian countries where people explain behavior as determined by demands of the situation rather than individual dispositions. One feature of modern society that promotes individualism is the private ownership and exchange of economic resources, including labor power. Another structural contribution to the individualistic standpoint, according to Bourdieu, is the large degree of autonomy that academics have in their work, along with the specialization of academic work apart from other activities. These characteristics of academic activity lead many academics to disregard political, economic, and familial influences on individuals.

Since individualistic social scientists are unaware of the social conditions that foster their ignorance, social life must foster cultural concepts that obfuscate it. Mystifying ideology is a hidden effect of certain social activities (Bourdieu, p. 14; cf. Ratner, 1994 for a cultural psychological analysis of the unconscious).

In contrast to the individualistic approach, a truly cultural psychological view of agency emphasizes the dependence which agency has on social relations. It emphasizes the fact that agency forms social relations and has a social form that is rooted in the way activities are socially organized. A cultural psychological view elucidates the concrete social character of agency, critiques it, and suggests improvements. It critiques the particular historical organization of social life that fosters the social character of agency. And it encourages collective movements to humanize social activities as the key to humanizing psychological well-being.

A cultural psychological view of agency applies a cultural analysis to its own standpoint. It recognizes that its conception of agency rests upon cultural values and has cultural implications. The notion that agency is socially intentional rests on the value that humans depend upon each other and need to establish harmonious social relationships. The critique of existing forms of agency rests upon the value that existing social life (i.e., social activities) has deleterious features which can be made more humane and democratic. The cultural implications of this position are that social change is necessary and possible. Cultural psychology maintains that the cultural values which underlie its analysis of agency strengthen its analysis and make it more accurate and useful. Contrary to popular opinion which regards cultural values as biasing objectivity and utility, cultural psychology argues that certain cultural values aid the understanding of particular issues. The spectacular progress of the natural sciences was certainly abetted by cultural values of capitalism -- which is why the natural sciences are so much more advanced in capitalist countries. In the same way, the cultural perspective that I have utilized in this paper helps to deepen an understanding of agency and other psychological phenomena. 7

A truly cultural psychology links individual psychological understanding and improvement to social understanding and improvement. It directs people toward understanding the social bases and characteristics of their individual psychology, circumventing deleterious social activities and concepts where possible, and collectively uniting with other people to transform deleterious social activities and concepts into humane ones. In these ways cultural psychology can use its scientific analysis to help people develop their agency. People's potential will become actual when the existing social actual is recognized to be the potential for a better, new social actuality.



1. Harre (1984) incisively explains the individualistic nature of interpersonal formulations such as Bruner's. Harre points out that the idea of social plurality can take several forms. It can be a distributive plurality (or an "aggregate group," or "taxonomic group") in which a group is the sum of individual traits. Or it can be a collective plurality (a "structured group") which emerges from a social process that transcends particular individuals. Bruner's collectivity, like Moscovici's and Tajfel's, is a distributive one that is in the last analysis a version of individualism. Only structured or collective groups are real social entities. There the properties of individuals are a function of the group organization into roles and relationships. Only collective groups grant a decisive role to social processes. In aggregate groups social processes are purely the result of (derived from) individual acts.

2. These findings did not alter Valsiner's notion of a primordial non-social person who circumvents society. Valsiner focused on the minute divergences and convergences of personal goals during the interactions and he disregarded the social relations that were embedded in them.

3. However, Kulick claims that changes in cosmology, or meaning, were the most significant cause of linguistic shift. He goes so far as to state that, "Gapun might be held up as a case in which the macrosociological changes that are occurring can be said not to have caused language shift, but rather, to have been caused by shift: in attitudes, perceptions of self, and ideas about language" (p. 260). This is an odd and unwarranted conclusion considering that Kulick extensively documented changes in social activities that were instrumental in the shift of meanings and language.

4. This individualistic viewpoint also exists in sociology – espoused by Goffman and his followers (cf. Giddens, 1987, pp. 109-139) – and in philosophy – espoused by Winch and Wittgenstein (cf. King, 2000).

5. Cooley's "looking glass self," Mead's "taking the role of the generalized other," plus social referencing, attachment, joint attention, and imitation all express this human social intentionality. Social intentionality (rather than egocentrism) seems to be a basic characteristic of humans. At 8 months, babies follow the pointing of other people and observe whether others have followed their pointing (cf. Bruner, 2000; Ratner, 1991, chap. 4; Tomasello, 1999).

Unfortunately, most authors restrict social intentionality to interpersonal interactions with individuals and they ignore organized social life.

6. Wertsch recognized the dominance of common cultural concepts in individual thinking although it contradicts his belief that individuals create novel, disparate personal meanings in their transactions with information (Wertsch, 1998, pp. 112-119).

7. This argument, that culturally based subjectivity can comprehend reality, has been propounded by Popper under the name of critical realism, by Campbell under the name of fallible realism, and by Bhaskar under the name of critical naturalism (cf. Ratner, 1997a, pp. 191-201; Bourdieu, 2000, pp. 109-122 for discussion of this point).




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