Re: [xmca] agency as product?

From: Lois Holzman (
Date: Tue Nov 14 2006 - 15:51:20 PST

The question asked by Lara and David's response are helpful to me. I rarely
use the work agency myself and also find that it has varying political
weight depending on who's using it. (I may be the only one who doesn't know
what a weasel-word is though.) I think development is the process (the tool
and result) of participating in the activity of transforming environments
which, of course, include us (I believe so from what I see and I give that
reading to Vygotsky) and so the phrasing I've come to like at the moment is
that kids, adults, people are/can be activity-ists and to the extent that
we/they are, we develop. To build on David's example, V's example of the
child with the pencil who incorporates the broken point of the pencil into
what he's doing and says and draws a broken train is such an instance. I
don't know I'd invoke volition here though‹too much unjustified cognitive
weight. I do agree that its a product of development, although again a funny
kind of uniquely tool and resulr one.

> From: Kellogg <>
> Reply-To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <>
> Date: Wed, 15 Nov 2006 08:21:46 +0900
> To: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <>
> Subject: Re: [xmca] agency as product?
> Dear Lara:
> I think that the reason why it's hard to find anything (at least in the work
> of the founding fathers) on "agency" is that "agency" is something of a
> latter-day weasel-word.
> When Foucauldians use the word, they use it to claim that the persons we
> imagine are disempowered are really not so; this is part of their general
> argument that power is not something wielded by one class against another but
> rather a fine network of capillaries distributed throughout the social tissue,
> bringing nourishment as well as poison to every cell.
> When people in the travel business and the real estate trade use the word,
> they mean almost exactly the opposite; they mean that you, the client will
> make the decisions and they will slavishly carry out your every whim, albeit
> with greater knowledge and skill than you ever could on your own.
> When Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (and other feminist linguistic
> anthropologists) use the term, they mean something rather in between: men have
> power, but women have agency, where agency is the subsidiary power wielded by
> people who, because of the underlyin organized violence of society, must
> derive power through the manipulation of those who wield it more directly.
> That is why girls in high school are more concerned with "popularity" than
> boys.
> I think that the term Vygotsky used was "volition", and it's really a much
> better and more useful idea than "agency".
> As you suggest, it is in a very clear way a product of development. If we
> watch a child with a pencil we often notice that his movements are at first
> random, and then repeated, and then varied slightly to create a block of
> color.
> This block may turn into a long rectangle of color, but it is only when
> recognizeable shapes emerge (a snake, a sail, a tendril of smoke) that the
> child hits on the idea of deliberately drawing something.
> By moving the idea of the snake to the beginning of action (instead the end),
> the child inverts the cause of the action and its effect. Vygotsky would say a
> new relationship between psychological functions is created, by inverting the
> ratio of action/meaning to meaning/action.
> I think we can say in this instance that "volition" is created. But to call
> this "agency" rather confuses matters, no? To me "agency" suggests neither
> other-regulation nor self-regulation, but rather the regulation of other
> people and thus the negation of their volition.
> David Kellogg
> Seoul National University of Education
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