Andy Blunden October 2006

Individual Agency

Relational Interdependence Between Social and Individual Agency in Work and Working Life, by Stephen Billett, Mind, Culture and Activity, Vol 13 (1) pp. 53-69.

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), and

(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 analysis.

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.