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

From: Andy Blunden (
Date: Wed Oct 11 2006 - 14:58:16 PDT

As I said Paul, I think we have some work to do on the social psychology of
modernity, but I question whether CHAT can be 'accused' of theorising
internalisation as 'absorbing' and whether participation in
cultural-historical activity is rightly to be thought of as 'baggage'. How
*can* CHAT express a "third position" between "postmodern culturalism" and
"postmodern constructivism"?

But really, I would like to her what others think. Perhaps I am too
pedantic about theoretical foundations?

At 07:49 AM 11/10/2006 -0700, you wrote:
>Andy -- I found Stephen's article a bit hard to follow, but a more
>generous reading of it than you offer in your response to Helena would be
>that he wants us to see all the actors in the situation coming to it with
>their historical-cultural baggage, a baggage that is largely shared but
>also partly individuated. He is, I think, calling on us not to
>underestimate this individuated aspect.
>I read his piece as rather consistent with CHAT. As concerns learning,
>without denying the key role of "internalization" (the weight of common
>historical-cultural heritage absorbed by the individual), he wants us to
>recognize the individual's "constructive" role in this process. This is
>entirely consistent, I think, with Mike Cole's skepticism concern in
>"scaffolding" -- that it understates the constructive role of the learner.
>My concern would be a bit different from yours: I am happy to go along
>with Stephen on the importance of recognizing individual agency... but we
>should avoid old romantic-individualist ideology (resusitated by a lot of
>post-modern theorists, with Nietzsche lurking in the background): we
>shouldn't give individual agency theoretical priority other elements of
>the activity system/situation; more specifically, communities (collective
>subjects) have agency too. This collective agency may be less visible
>and/or less effective in workplaces that lack union representation and
>strong collective identity -- but that's an empirical issue, not a reason
>to lose sight of the manifold ways in which collective agency and
>individuated agency coexist and mutually condition each other ... in the
>Does that help? Or am I missing something about the logic of Stephen's
>BTW: calling this "relational interdependence" may not have been the best
>move: it's too vague, and the term already has a strong denotation in
>mainstream social psych.
>At 9:03 AM +1000 10/11/06, Andy Blunden wrote:
>>Helena, let me clarify with one observation.
>>Stephen observes that an finite context (e.g. situation, community) is
>>transcended by the experience and socialisation of any individual acting
>>within that context.
>>The necessary conclusion from this observation is the obvious fact that
>>any individual is an individual *of* an entire culture, even of the human
>>species, and not only of that day, but of their whole life and in fact
>>the whole history of humanity, and consequently the comprehension of a
>>learning activity or other group process solely in terms of the finite
>>context will fail. "Situation" formally needs to be expanded to
>>"Culture-History". We can in fact conceive of learning (and all activity)
>>as taking place within a "nested" hierarchy of contexts from the
>>immediate partners to interaction to the group to the institution to the
>>industry or community to the country/culture, ...
>>What I suspect Stephen wants to do is to see the individual as the owner
>>or carrier of an entire history and culture which they "carry into" a
>>finite situation (e.g. going to work at a hairdressing salon), and rather
>>than seeing this as the situation of that hairdressing salon within a
>>whole cultural and historical process - including *all* the employees,
>>their languages, prejudices, expectations, equipment, clients, etc.,
>>etc., subsumed within a whole history and culture, which make their
>>interaction meaningful - he sees it as a collection of individuals each
>>with their "own" history and culture.
>>That is not CHAT.
>>At 06:41 PM 9/10/2006 -0500, you wrote:
>>>My take on this article (Stephen Billet. Relational Interdependence Between
>>>Social and Individual Agency in Work and Working Life)
>>>Billet lists 4 ways to approach the relationship between the individual and
>>>the social with regard to work: Communities of practice, activity systems,
>>>situated cognition and distributed cognition. These limit the relationship
>>>too narrowly. (Page 61, middle of the page). He wants to add "a more
>>>interdependent account of learning," by which I take him to mean that he
>>>wants to explain the relationship between an individual and his or her work
>>>by drawing on life experiences prior to work or outside of work as well as
>>>directly from the work context ("individual agency and broader social and
>>>cultural influences").
>>>Am I oversimplifying to the point of getting it wrong?
>>>As Andy says, Billet wants to know how to understand a person who takes his
>>>work seriously even though that work is not "emancipatory," does not have
>>>positive social purpose, or is not high status and "worthy of individual's
>>>engagement and the exercise of their interest, passion, desire and agency."
>>>(64) He answers this question by drawing a direct link between engagement in
>>>work and the way the work is central to identity. His overall argument is
>>>that individuals don't just "accept social suggestion" but "have the
>>>capacity to shape their development and remake cultural practice in
>>>transformative ways." I don't think Billet is asking HOW people resist
>>>"social suggestion." At least, he doesn't investigate how.
>>>Andy, you say "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'." In what direction would you take that development? I
>>>gather not toward theorizing the individual....
>>>Eric, just out of curiosity -- where did you come by the belief that "By
>>>definition, union trade workers are masters of their craft and should only
>>>be studied in that context"?
>>>Helena Worthen
>>>Thank you for the summary (an opinionated summary at that) of the Billett
>>>article. I understand that your expertise and research is based in the
>>>solidarity movement of trade unions but I fail to understand how that
>>>translates to all studies about work need to include a study of union
>>>workers. By definition, union trade workers are masters of their craft and
>>>should only be studied in that context. Therefore, rather than union
>>>workers being the target population of cultural-historical activity theory
>>>it would make more sense to me that union workers should be a specialty
>>>study such as Lave's "community of practice." Have I misunderstood your
>>>criticism? Have I explained my thinking clearly enough? I appreciate a
>>>researcher such as Billett who addresses individual agency in the context
>>>of cultural-historical activity theory. If I have any complaints it is
>>>that he does not separate the ideographic study from a nomothetic study
>>>that can assist in understanding how a specific study arrives at its data.
>>> Andy Blunden
>>> <ablunden who-is-at mira.n To: "eXtended Mind,
>>>Culture, Activity"
>>> et> <>
>>> Sent by: cc:
>>> xmca-bounces who-is-at web Subject: Re: [xmca]
>>> 10/09/2006 09:12
>>> AM
>>> Please respond
>>> to "eXtended
>>> Mind, Culture,
>>> Activity"
>>>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),
>>>(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.
>>> Andy
>>>>At 12:47 PM 7/10/2006 -0700, you wrote:
>>>>>The article members voted on for discussion has at last been posted at
>>>>>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?
>>>(See attached file: Billett.doc)
>>>xmca mailing list
>>>xmca mailing list
>> Andy Blunden : tel (H) +61 3 9380 9435, AIM
>> identity: AndyMarxists mobile 0409 358 651
>>xmca mailing list
>* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
>Prof. Paul S. Adler,
>Management and Organization Dept,
>Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California,
>Los Angeles, CA 90089-0808
>Tel: (818) 981-0115
>Fax: (818) 981-0116
>Bio sketch, c.v., and course outlines at:
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>xmca mailing list

  Andy Blunden : tel (H) +61 3 9380 9435, AIM
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