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

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Mon Oct 16 2006 - 02:20:36 PDT

I think you zero in on an essential question that
Stephen's article stirs up, the relationship
between 'individuated agency' and 'collective
agency'. But I would not interpret the
suggestions in this article as consistent with
CHAT. I think Stephen argues in a different direction.

Take this paragraph from page 61:

"Perhaps significantly, Scribner (1990/1997)
suggested that, having overturned Cartesian
dualism, the task for psychology is to understand
the relations between the social world and
individuals’ behaviour. She characterised these
relations as being irreducible, claiming that to
separate them was akin to attempting to separate
sodium and chlorine yet still retain its
saltiness (Martin & Scribner, 1991). Rogoff
(1990) and Wertsch (1998) also referred to,
respectively, the inseparability and
irreducibility of individuals’ efforts and social
interests including the broader cultural milieu.
However, accounts such as situated cognition,
distributed cognition, activity systems
(Engeström, 1993), and communities of practice
(Lave & Wenger, 1991) run the risk of privileging
situational determinism, at a cost to
considerations of individual agency and broader
social and cultural influences. Just as
behaviourism denied human consciousness (Taylor,
1985), accounts that emphasise situational
determinism risk denying human intentionality,
agency, and identity. Therefore, finding a
pathway between social determinism and highly
individualistic accounts of cognition is
important in understanding their relationship (Miller & Goodnow, 1995)."

This passage is typical of what I see as a
somewhat polemical article on theory trying to
drive a wedge between the concept of the
"individual" and the "social." This article
seems to retreat from some key CHAT proposes
about how "individual agency" and "social agency"
must be understood as a dynamic system that is
culturally and historically transformative, not
as separate entities that "interact" and
"interweave." Sodium and chlorine ions act as
salt, not individual elements in the body, and
the components of human activity must be
understood in the same dynamic way. By lumping
and dismissing such key ideas of cultural
historical activity theory and related
perspectives under the term "situational
determinism," and further linking them to the
mechanical, anti-consciousness notions of
"behaviorism", Stephen appears to be arguing that
these approaches must be abandoned to find a new
pathway. In doing so, significant
accomplishments of Vygotsky, Leontiev, Luria, and
their modern followers such as Scribner,
Engestrom, and many others are challenged.

Stephen's article exploits something that I think
is true about CHAT: its ability to provide
explanations for human intentionality, agency and
identity seems generally weaker than its ability
to explain social dynamics. As I see it,
Vygotsky's program to apply the principles and
methods of historical materialism to human
psychology has been only partially, sporadically,
and hesitantly advanced over the decades, in the
years since the Russian Revolution inspired the
idea of a new psychology. There is certainly
much work to be done, and being done, and I think
some of that is reflected right here on xmca and
in the MCA journal. But I see no indication that
Stephen's article is consistent with these
efforts. He does CHAT a service by bringing up
some of its weak points, but overall, Stephen
seems to be charting a very different kind of
path. Perhaps I am missing something?

- Steve

At 07:49 AM 10/11/2006 -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 'situation'.
>Does that help? Or am I missing something about
>the logic of Stephen's argument?
>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
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>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
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