Re: [xmca] agency/social/individual/work

From: Andy Blunden (
Date: Mon Oct 09 2006 - 07:12:50 PDT

I've attached a formatted Word version of the review of Stephen Billett's
paper as below:

It is remarkable that in an article on the psychology of work coming out of
a country in which but 20 years ago, 44% of employees belonged to a trade
union, the one and only mention a trade union gets is in its capacity as an
exploitative employer. Doubtless, the employees Stephen interviewed gave
him good grounds to overlook solidarity as a factor in the psychology of
work, but surely, for cultural-historical activity theory, its very absence
is noteworthy?

Similar unconscious accommodation to historical change is evident in
relation to the foundations of social psychology. Although formally about
work (Stephen is a Director of Adult and Vocational Studies), the real
focus of the paper is critique of the foundations of Cultural-Historical
Activity Theory. But the two problems of working life which Stephen does
touch upon illustrate Stephen's fundamental concern:

(1) How is it that employees' valuing of their own work (reflected in how
they describe their role and the social importance of their work, and in
their willingness to innovate) are out of line with the social valuing of
their work (reflected in the wage and status associated with their job), and

(2) How is it that people can resist 'social press' in an 'agentic' way by,
for example, taking an initiative at work, despite work rules which forbid
them from doing so.

The central concern of the paper then is how to modify the foundations
cultural psychology, so as to illuminate 'the role of the individual and
its relational interdependence with the social world' and how 'human agency
operates relationally within and through social structures, yet is not
necessarily subjugated by them'.

Stephen recalls the spectrum of philosophical and sociological views from
the extreme structuralism of Althusser and Foucault through the 'middle
road' of Giddens and Bhaskar to the supposed individualism of Rousseau,
pointing out the need for a social psychology which allows for 'relations
between the individual and the social being mutual or reciprocal'.

The problem with Stephen's idea is illustrated somewhat obliquely by his
discovery that Rene Descartes was _not_ an adherent of Cartesian Dualism.
What he means is that the author of 'Discourse on the method of rightly
conducting the mind and seeking truth in the sciences', did not believe in
the existence of two _separate_ parallel universes, one composed of bodies,
the other of mind. No-one ever did believe in such a dual universe, far
less the man who worked out how to calculate the trajectory of cannon balls
using algebra, but the suggestion opens the way for Stephen to promote a
conception of mind as separate from body, but _linked_, while hoping to
avoid the dreaded charge of Cartesian Dualism.

There are a lot of dichotomies in Stephen's paper which make sense well
enough in the context of contemporary popular imagination, but in the
context of the foundations of psychology, they are utterly confused.

The feeling of powerlessness beneath great institutions and processes is a
common theme of contemporary psychology. But whether we theorise
institutions in terms of ideology, language, rules and norms, discourse
theory or whatever, the fact remains that institutions exist only in and
through the activity of individuals. When Stephen discusses "relations
between the individual and the social world" he conceives of interactions
between an individual on one hand, and on the other, 'social press',
'social suggestion', 'social forces', 'structures' and so on. It does not
seem to occur to Stephen that in every instance such interactions can occur
only by interactions between individuals, person-to-person interactions
which are mediated by artefacts (books, weapons, buildings, uniforms, body
hexis, language and so on) through which definite relations between
individuals are regulated and understood.

For Stephen, the point is to show that while institutions enforce
conformity to rules of various kinds, individuals may, despite everything,
be 'agentic' and exhibit 'intentionality' (i.e., have an effect in line
with their _own_ intentions rather than being simply the agent of
structural change). What does it mean to say that '[individual] agency
enacts relational interdependence with social and historical
contributions'? In what shape do society and history appear when they make
'contributions' if not that of human beings?

I have the same kind of problem with 'interpsychological', presumably
meaning the study of interaction between psyches. What does this mean for
someone who adheres to mind-body dualistics (if not 'mind-body dualism')?
In the context of Stephen's exposition, in which minds are 'linked' to
bodies and no consideration is given to activity systems constituted by the
use of culturally shared material artefacts, 'inter-psychic' activity is
actually inconceivable; bodies are needed.

A phrase like 'the social genes of human and cultural development' seems to
counterpose 'culture' to 'human', but what is a 'social gene'?

Stephen points to Vygotsky's ideas about play as evidence that 'Vygotsky
also held that in the development of psychological functions, individual
agency predominates over social guidance'. How does the conception of
agency as exhibited in children's play challenge the claims of
structuralism, for whom even powerful political leaders are mere agents of
social forces?

Stephen's proposals for explaining how an individual is able to act in
contradiction to 'social press' and the rules and norms of the situation in
which they are acting, are worth looking at, even if the theoretical
foundations are somewhat confused.

Firstly, Stephen points out that any individual acting within a situation
comes to that situation with prior knowledge and experience; consequently,
their action necessarily transcends the 'social suggestion' (norms, shared
assumptions) of the immediate situation. Even further, they may be just
passing through, so to speak; people may be more or less subject to 'social
press', more or less ready to resist or ignore the rules of the game being
played in the given situation.

These are valid points. An individual is by definition something concrete
which is not subsumed by any single context or experience. The notion of
'situated learning' is a concretisation of the notion of learning in
general, a step towards understanding learning as a process taking place at
a definite location in a social and historical universe. To build a theory
of learning, one needs concepts _intermediary_ between the most universal
and general (such as 'society') and the most abstract and simple (such as
the given learning activity). 'Situation' plays just this intermediary role
in the science of learning; no-one suggests that a situation _exhausts_ the
conditions for learning. Likewise 'distributed cognition', 'activity
systems', 'communities of practice' and so on, are concepts which are used
to theorise the broader systems of relations in which individuals are
caught up, intermediary between 'late capitalism' and a single individual
action. But to propose the notion of 'individual' to theorise the
open-endedness of any context or activity system misses the point.

Secondly, Stephen points out that individuals are always more or less ready
to defy and resist the norms imposed upon them, and that cultural change is
largely attributable to individuals 'bucking the system' at some point.

This observation has some merit as well. But it is wrong to suppose that
collectivities are the repository of norms and restrictions while the
gallant individual is the bearer of creativity and change. The historical
milieux from which Cultural-historical Activity Theory grew -
post-revolutionary Russia, the Progressive Movement the 1920s, and the
social movements of the 1960s - were communitarian, but hardly
conservative. The central tenet on which this theory arose was that people
change, but people change _en masse_. Contemporary ideology holds of course
the opposite, that every individual writes their own biography.

I personally agree with Stephen's concern that CHAT needs some development
in order to cope with the social-psychological problems of today, when
commodification of all social relations has progressed to such an extent
that the very word 'solidarity' is foreign and education is a 'service
industry'. Etc., etc. Those who were part of great social movements in the
process of changing the world felt no such need. But the liberal,
anti-communitarian ethos of today's society does need social-psychological

But the danger is that in the very process of theorising post-modern
capitalism in social-psychological terms we may become _expressions_ of
that psychology rather than its theorisers, far less its foes. In Stephen's
terms, we may become 'subjugated' by postmodernity at just the moment when
we think that we can individually rebel against it.

>At 12:47 PM 7/10/2006 -0700, you wrote:
>>The article members voted on for discussion has at last been posted at the
>>erlbaum website. The title is "Relational Interdependence Between Social
>>and Individual Agency in Work
>>and Working Life". It is by Stephen Billett from Griffith U in Australia.
>>It is available at
>>Its premise is: A greater acknowledgment of relational interdependence
>>between individual and social agencies is warranted within conceptions of
>>learning throughout working life.
>>This topic at this time seems more than a little relevant to XMCA
>>discussions. Too bad we cannot get all the article posted
>>for free, but this one requires a click of a button and adobe reader.
>>Of those who contributed to the 867 visits to xmca in the past week,
>>including many from Australia, might someone have an
>>interest in commenting on this paper?

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