[xmca] Fwd: Sawchuk and Stetsenko: Questions

From: Mike Cole <lchcmike who-is-at gmail.com>
Date: Sun Dec 07 2008 - 12:40:26 PST

Hi all-- Here is a note from Peter Sawchuk to whom I sent info on how to
xmca, so perhaps we can get some authors responding to readers as well as
new readers joining into the discussion.
(PS- I am not sure if Anna is on xmca at present or not, so include her in
the cc list again)

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Peter Sawchuk <psawchuk@oise.utoronto.ca>
Date: Sun, Dec 7, 2008 at 12:00 PM
Subject: Re: Sawchuk and Stetsenko: Questions
To: mcole@weber.ucsd.edu
Cc: "eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity" <xmca@weber.ucsd.edu>, "Stetsenko,
Anna" <AStetsenko@gc.cuny.edu>

 *Hi Mike,
Thank you for this email as I was not aware that there was discussion taking
place on this paper. Now, my sincere apologies, but I'm sure that I know how
to reply to messages on XMCA, so perhaps you could load this on for me?
Thank you in advance if you can. It deals mostly with Jennifer's original
post referenced in your email below. I'll also say that think all of Andy's
point in an earlier posting are worth considering but don't have time to do
now, and at the end I do offer at least some information on the
transformation question you raised (hopefully it's not redundant to people).
I think Anna might be able to respond to your first question better than I
can. If you're too busy to load this I understand obviously. Maybe this will
load automatically.
Best wishes - Peter*

A response from Peter Sawchuk:
From: Jennifer Langer-Osuna
Date: Wed Dec 03 2008 - 12:05:07 PST
Ok, here's my stab at it...
The focus on collaborative projects (same as joint activity?) does
seem promising as a way to capture the dialectic of structure and
I would say that 'collaborative' and 'joint' need to be defined for people.
This may be what Andy and others are thinking of doing currently. In this
context and in relation to Anna and I's paper it may be a unnecessary but
I'll simply add that I see narrow and broad notions of both. A narrow
version thinks of these terms as necessarily 'cooperative'; whereas an broad
version recognizes collaborative-ness/joint-ness as including both
cooperative and conflictual relations (e.g. fighters in a boxing match, or
workers and management in a strike each actor orients to rules, divisions
of labor and a whole host of shared mediating artifacts that makes their
conflict a collaborative or joint achievement). Anna and I were developing
on the broad version.
For example, in a reform-oriented algebra classroom students
take up the classroom resources for particular task-related functions
that are largely defined by the norms of the classroom, which are
largely defined by the goals of this particular, new, reform-oriented
school. And yet the students have a great deal of agency not only in
terms of whether they engage in, merely comply with, or resist the
tasks but also in using those same classroom resources for other,
unintended (by the teacher) functions. For example, students use the
internet both to research task-related topics, but also to download
music (however, even this function of downloading music comes from the
norms of another "collaborative project" in youth culture that of
collecting and sharing valued songs). In any case, students' agency
feeds back to the classroom itself, such that it is certainly a
negotiated, emergent, co-constructed relationship. Say, if many
students resist the task, the teacher may start to focus more on
disciplinary issues which may change the form of the classroom as a
whole, or perhaps a more sensitive teacher may respond to this
resistance by shifting the tasks such that they are of more interest
to the students, and so on.
An important question here to my mind concerns overlapping activity systems
and object-relatedness since teachers and students orient to several objects
in the course of their daily practices which overlap and contradict one
However, this paper focuses largely on sociology, not so much
anthropology, which says to me that the importance here is on the
dialectic between the agency of people and the larger, broader social
structures that go beyond, say, a particular classroom or school. This
is where I stop being able to follow the argument and need
clarification (if indeed what I wrote earlier is actually a sensible
The meaning of a focus on 'conduct' was a way of flagging that not only
large structures are the focus of a sociological contribution to CHAT. Or
perhaps better but, 'conduct' is the entry point to considering the everyday
interactions as well as the macro societal structures (and their
interrelations). Some sociology is strongly rooted in and begins (and some
even end) with this macro level analysis. This is a traditional realm of
mainstream Euro-American sociology. These are forms of sociology that have a
good deal to teach us about the meaning of the motive/structural dimensions
of activity. Vygotsky's frequent reference, for example, to the structures
of class society in his approach were a contribution to seeing how these
matters connect to human development, but macro structures boiled down
simply to these matters miss a great deal. I am primarily a Marxist
sociologists, but the German sociologists Max Weber, for example, offers
some additional insights into the relationship of meaning, rationality and
authority as expressed at this macro level as well that Marx did not. How
carefully do CHAT researchers attend to these macro structures? That's a
debate that could be traced through MCA possibly. More importantly, though,
is the fact that there's a lot of sociology that makes contributions to
other dimensions of activity, and that's the point of Anna and I's paper.
Jennifer mentioned Goffman for example. He's a favourite of mine and he
shows vividly how people present themselves (and, if successfully carried
out, are thus treated accordingly within the course of participation in
activity; i.e. they carve out a standpoint and through this realize a
certain subject position within activity allowing particular access and
forms of use of artifacts, etc.; the sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and his
concept of habitus is very helpful in this regard but he is dealt with in
other pieces of my work not Anna and I's paper). Our point in the article is
that some invaluable research from sociology, specifically focussing on
conduct, sheds some important light on how people engage in activity, and,
importantly, how this activity is part and parcel of the ongoing
contradictory relationship between social reproduction (reproducing the
status quo) and changes necessarily manifest at the individual, group,
organizational and societal levels.
Take, for instance, the recent U.S. presidential
elections. There is the larger political body of the nation and there
are the individual people in an arguably collaborative project to
elect a President. We could look at this process through what I think
the paper is offering. That is, the political structure constrains
people's participation in several ways: what parties are available,
which candidates we have to choose from, the legal process and
existing political system, the responses and policies of the current
administration that have shaped how we make meaning of this election,
and so on. There are also larger structures of media and so on that
have powerful institutional roles in shaping this dialectic as well.
Then there are the people who, with their agency, aligned with, merely
complied with, or resisted the electoral process. This is where I get
confused. When I read these more sociological (and especially those in
a liberatory political vein) arguments, I find myself imagining some
complex, but ultimately more or less united effort by the individuals.
Yet the individuals themselves live in such varied and hybrid spaces
that, while they may all working be on the collaborative project of
electing a president, are also in strong and often opposing conflict
with one another. That is, their positionality in the process differs.
Take, for instance, the Cuban-American community in Miami. Many
members of this community, due in large part by their history in the
Castro-led Cuban revolution and their subsequent exile to Miami, took
on positional identities with respect to the U.S. elections that
interpreted Obama's popularity, charisma, and rhetorical style to be
very similar to that of Fidel Castro's back in 1959. As Obama's
popularity increased, as his beloved speeches became more popular, and
so on, many in this community saw it only as increased evidence that
Obama was indeed a socialist/communist revolutionary. What was hope
and excitement for many in this country was a sense of dread for
others, based on differing personal histories, and in this case in an
almost inverse linear relationship. Technically, as American voters,
the Miami Cubans were afforded no less power than the Miami liberals
living just down the street. Their positional identities were not
simply constrained by a sense of oppressor/oppressed with respect to
their roles as American citizens, but rather how they made sense of
the elections due to their histories and the other socio-political
worlds that have shaped them. In this sense, the participants in this
collaborative project were being shaped by an almost endless hybridity
of socio-cultural practices past and present. The agency of the Cuban
Americans' participation in the presidential election was also shaped
by their past trauma in Cuba. Its as if agency can be seen as the
degrees of freedom inherent in the inevitable plurality of structural
forces that act upon us and our ability therefore to choose among them
how to frame each situation. I suppose in this way, I'm agreeing with
Goffman. Yet I'm not sure how much neutrality Goffman places in what
"frame" we enact. In the case of the Cuban Americans, many of them
framed Obama in this way due to a very strong, visceral reaction to a
past experience. Those who had lived in the U.S. long enough were
certainly also conflicted, but ultimately couldn't get past that fear.
Others, such as those from my generation who had never actually
experienced Castro's Cuba but were certainly indoctrinated into the
anti-Castro perspective were much too "American" to choose that same
"frame" in viewing the elections. That fear, and that history, was not
sufficiently ours. And so, I guess to sum this long mental outpour, I am
wondering how
hybridity of practices and of histories is embedded into this
discussion. No collaborative project is purely of a particular
structure nor of a homogenous people and their histories. And how is
this hybridity captured in the structure-agency dialectic? (P.S. This
brings to mind Dorothy Holland's (and colleagues) work on figured
worlds and am wondering if anyone else feels that her work is very
pertinent to this discussion.)
There's lots of specifics here to think about, but I think this notion of
hybridity is place I can start. The examples Jennifer gives show the
enormous variation of people's orientations and practices, and yet there
remains clearly distinguishable patterns of behaviour. How do we understand
it in our research? People are different; they come from different places;
have different biographies; they engage in different projects; etc., but we
should ask ourselves how on earth any patterns and regularity could possibly
exist amid the potential chaos of differences? (this is what sociologists
have traditionally referred to as the 'problem of order'). In either of
Jennifer's examples (the classroom and the election) what I think I see is
that we would have a difficult time understanding hybridity without an
awareness of the macro social structures (e.g. the legal, media, electoral,
immigration, economic system, and specifically the communal history of
either America or Cuba for example). This would be necessary but not
sufficient to understand what's going on. This is because these
macro-structures do not simply stand over us all emitting some form of
regulartory force (as some macro-sociology gives us the impression they do).

One way of thinking about these macro structures and hybrity would be that
macro structures are always locally realized (e.g. the election took place
one 'kitchen table' at a time along Joe Biden's route home every night).
>From this perspective, the macro is primarily a conglomeration of local
achievements in some ways this is the dimension of social life that
people like Harold Garfinkel (referenced in the article) wished to emphasize
explicitly because he saw other sociologists of the day talking about macro
structures as simply 'emitting a regulartory force' on all us dupes.
A third way of thinking about this relationship between macro and micro,
structure and agency is to begin with the analytic tools offered by CHAT
from which we might appropriate resources from sociology. Specifically, to
begin by thinking in terms of overlapping, distinguishable (both
analytically and in terms of lived practice) and contradictory
object-relatedness of different forms of activity, and hence we arrive at
the importance of the symbolic and material artifacts and an argument that
artifacts, in effect, conjoin the macro and micro levels of analysis
(another phrasing of this, one that we use in our article, that recognizes
implicitly the importance of Garfinkel's approach would be to use the terms
extra-local and local). The claim here would be that it is the artifact that
travels through space and time to distribute social regulation. In relation
to what I'm talking about here, artifacts are, in essence, the history and
the structure, of locally realized activity (that Garfinkel for example
really didn't pay enough attention to); when they come to be powerful forces
of social (vs. merely idiosyncratic) regulation these artifacts are
'extra-local' as well because they appear in other localities (texts being
the sine qua non of this in contemporary life as sociologist like Dorothy
Smith and Giddens argue; the post-structuralist theorist Michel Foucault
takes this even further showing how artifacts such as text create not just
procedures but identities of people who carry these procedures out, i.e.
subjectivity; as others on this list have pointed out Dorothy Holland and
co. have made some important links in this area generally). But while
artifacts express and bring to life elements of regulation, determination or
structure in their local activation/use, they also allow possibilities of
human freedom or agency since amidst the landscape of many available
artifacts (which are not equally available to everyone, or at least are not
equally available to all participants in the same way, whis is another form
of structure based on subjectivity and skill in use), artifacts can be
combined, used differently than intended and/or altered locally. As the
sociologists Anthony Giddens (referenced in the article) would say, this
would be an example of structured agency or rather the 'structuration
process'. This was basically the point of my work in 2003 that Helena
Worthen mentioned in an earlier post. There I didn't use the term hybrity,
but I can say that hybridity is closely related to agency in two ways then:
1) there is variation in social practice found even where there are widely
shared motive-structures (and obviously where this motive structure is
disputed), there is competing forms of object-relatedness, as different
people operate within a complex field of possible goals and local
operational conditions of activity; and 2) the combination of, differential
uses of, or alteration of artifacts provide further sources of variation.
Though hybrity and agency are not the same thing, both are closely related
in these two situations.
Finally, since Mike Cole brought this up in another post and it relates
here, I'll simply add that the notion of "transformative" non-cannonical
approach to CHAT, which Anna and I argued is important, emerges when we talk
about, in turn, hybrity (and in particular hybrity, or social differences,
based on social standpoints that reflect deep social rather than merely
idiosyncratic and local contradictions) and then practices of agency (or
resistance) that hybrity is a resource for. For both sociology and CHAT, the
contradictions that become identifiable at what sociology traditionally has
referred to as the macro level through to the meso and micro/local levels of
society (cf. from a CHAT perspective the phrasing, contradictions
identifiable at the motive level of activity through to the variations in
goals and operations) are among the most powerful animators of human
development because they represent shared problems which in turn offers the
potential for shared, joint, collaborative responses. That is, strictly
speaking left alone with our problems we merely cope with them rather than
solve them. Our article argues that these multiple levels of analysis are as
fundamental to understanding social change as they are to particular
instances of human development. Sociology offers lots of resources to an
approach that recognizes there is no social development without human
development, and (dialectically) vice versa.

The question of a transformative approach to activity, to me is rooted in
the long debate about the degree to which - or for some researchers such a
Kozulin even the question of 'if' - Vygotsky's work was rooted in Marxist
dialectical materialism. One might ask whether, by virtue of context
(immediate post-revolutionary Russia) - if V's orientation to Marxism was
pro forma rather than bona fide. My view is that the latter. Evidence for
this argument lies throughout V's work. Some specifics to help though: the
volumes of *Collected Works* in a variety of places, but V's chapter
entitled *"Two Psychologies"* may be a good starting point; likewise the
overall framing provided in V's *Educational Psychology* (particularly near
the end) is also useful in this regard; alternatively, all of this
summarized very nicely in V's "The *Socialist Alteration of Man* article [I
often send students to the Marxist Archive (
http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/index.htm) for easy access some of
this material]. Beyond the primary sources, many authors have carried out
this work of accumlating evidence already however (Ratner, Elhammoui and
others) in analytic terms and others in biographical terms.

In sum however, beyond the fact that V is grappling with psychological
discourses of the day making his writing necessarily a negotiated one, and
thus less pristine, more committed to detailed critique and dispersed in its
effect of orienting toward understanding Marxist roots and
historical-transformation question, there is the more general difficulty
that emerges with a lack of familarity with Marxist concepts. Not everyone
has the time or energy to undertake this work (and hence the rarity of forms
of inter-disciplinary thought), but the result, very reasonably, is that
this lack of familarity allows one's reading to glide over V's
encouragements toward a radical, historical transformational approach with a
sense that it is merely moral posturing (this is certainly what many
sociologists have done; as Anna and I mention in our paper) rather than an
inherent part of the theoretical framework. In this sense, it is difficult
to read V without some orientation to terms like 'the forces and social
relations of production' (i.e. the mode), 'class struggle', 'labor', to say
nothing about the break that on the one hand 'dialectical thought' and on
the other the notion of a 'materialist approach' to it provides. Before
digging into Marx himself, I have encouraged people to pick up a good
introductory book like David Riazanov's classic *Karl Marx and Frederick
Engels: An Introduction to their Lives and Work* [which can be downloaded
free at http://www.marxists.org/archive/riazanov/works/1927-ma/index.htm]
and some of Raymond Williams' beautiful *Problems in Materialism and Culture
* as well as a copy of Tom Bottomore's *Dictionary of Marxist Thought* as a
way to do some individual reading. Proceeding from there to my mind a basic
orientation to Marxist thought re-shapes the reading of the entire corpus of
V's work; that, while it necessarily focuses on particular psychological
mechanisms a perspective on how these mechanisms fit into a transformative
model flourishes, to be further sharpend and advanced.

Cheers - Peter
Peter H. Sawchuk, PhD
Associate Professor
Sociology and Equity Studies in Education
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
University of Toronto
252 Bloor Street West
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
M5S 1V6
(t) 416-978-0570
(e) psawchuk@oise.utoronto.ca
(f) 416-926-4751

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Received on Sun Dec 7 12:41:26 2008

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