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

From: Steve Gabosch (
Date: Tue Oct 17 2006 - 00:31:54 PDT

I left out a key word - I meant that Stephen
Billet's article seems to retreat from key CHAT
ideas that propose ways of viewing "individual
agency" and "social agency" as not **just**
interacting and interweaving. I accidentally
left out "just". The metaphor of a rope with
interwoven fibres is a very good one for certain
kinds of illustrations. Like all metaphors, it
is good so far as it goes. I like the quote Mike
provides from William James illustrating
part-whole dynamics in the way individual rope
fibres combine to be a rope, and must be seen
lengthwise, not just in cross sections, to
understand how they work together as a whole.

To stir the pot some more, here is a little more
commentary on Billet's article. Billet proposes
a "relational interdependency" approach, but as I
see it, this term is just another description of
the simple "interaction" approach popular in
social science today. I see nothing in Billet's
article that goes beyond pragmatic "interactive"
descriptions of the individual and the
social. It is the old mechanical dichotomy,
which Billet reveals with his identification with
Descartes' approach to the "mind/body"
problem. A least some modern CHAT writers, such
as Scribner, Engestrom and others, have been
seeking to go deeper than these traditional
mechanical dichotomies, beyond just affirming the
"interdependency" and "interaction" of the
individual and the social. These writers have
been seeking to understand how ontogenesis
(individual development) and sociogenesis
(sociocultural development) mutually transform
one another in the process of everyday
activity. This was Vygotsky's essential
approach, which he directly linked to Marxist
historical materialism. It is a transformational
approach, that digs well below the surface
interactive level and seeks ways to understand
how underlying cultural-historical processes
shape both societies and individuals, and how
individuals in return participate in and
transform their worlds. Billet dismisses this
side of CHAT by reducing it to "situational
determinism" and scolding CHAT-influenced
thinkers for ignoring or downplaying human
agency. Billet correctly sees that much more
must be done to understand individual agency and
intention in human affairs, but I think his
article retreats from the accomplishments of
cultural-historical activity theory to a
"relational interdependency" perspective that
loses touch with the underlying
cultural-historical and transformational dynamics of human development.

At 02:20 AM 10/16/2006 -0700, you wrote:
>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

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