Archive: October 7th, 2008

Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, Cain: Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds

[Readings] (10.07.08, 7:16 pm)


The authors are interested in looking at identity as a process rather than a product. The study descends from Vygotsky and Bakhtin, both of whom belong to a particular school of Russian Cultural Theory. What is unusual about this perspective, as compared to a great deal of cultural theory, is that it presents a very complex perspective on the development of identity, and frames identity as something that is both culturally affected, but something that individuals have agency over.


The Woman Who Climbed up the House

Identity is partially a cultural product, and relates to self-interpretation. This idea of acting to become an identity strongly resembles Goffman: The self is elusive, but ultimately is a performance, even internally. Mead (who was a significant influence on Goffman) is referenced, and remains a strong influence on the discussion throughout the book. Identity is something that is proactive, put forward as an active force within an individual’s behavior and actions.

“It is not that we have an inclination to the idea of a unified subject; we conceive persons as composites of many, often contradictory, self-understandings and identities, whose loci are often not confined to the body but ‘spread over the material and social environment,’ and few of which are completely durable.” (p. 8) The study is spread over different cultural worlds, which enable different modes of understanding. These are worlds of meaning and conflicting value systems.

Holland recollects an example that occurred during field work in Nepal. The culture system in Nepal involves a strict caste system, where lower classes cannot transgress onto the upper classes in a number of ways. Specifically, it is culturally offensive for a lower class person to go into the kitchen of a higher class person. The incident occurred when Holland was going to interview a woman belonging to one of the lower classes, who would need to pass through the kitchen of the household (which belonged to an upper class family), in order to reach the balcony where the interview would take place. The woman instead chose to climb up the side of the house to reach the balcony.

Climbing the house can be thought of as a certain kind of conceptual blend. It is an emergent property of cultural conditions and this particular frame of interaction, the interview. There are two perspectives to this situation. The first is the theme of cultural logic, which uses a theme of embodiment, where individuals are compelled via forces operating according to history. A second possibility is subject position theory, which looks at subjects as being forced into explict positions, and this is supported by a constructivist approach (Irvine). Another possibility is that agents are forward planning and perform some sort of explicit planning and optimization strategy, but this lacks much of the subtlety and depth that is put forth by the other theories.

The culturalist theory: Humans are products of culture and cultural forces. Constructivisim: Individual negotiation of subject positions. Resolution: Use both perspectives, but focus on the emergent phenomena themselves. Focus on improvisation and spontaneous behavior because of or in spite of cultural context.

A Practice Theory of Self and Identity

A great deal of challenge to conventional theories of identity (individual/relational, as relates to the interaction of self and culture) comes from Foucault. The above theories of identity require an unproblematic relationship between the individual and culture. Foucault is highly critical of ordinary subjectification, which would enable such a relationship. His criticism is used to expose the complexities of subjectification.

The authors move in the direction of using activity theory. It is used as a way to understanding identity. The perspective here does not look at the self as completely autonomous, or completely socially or culturally driven, but rather: looks at a complex dialogue between the two, and this is activity. Sources: Leontiev (Vygotsky’s student) and Bourdieu. The focus here is on what people do, and that defines identity as a matter of practice.

Figured Worlds

The human understanding of cultural worlds is figured. The idea is that all understanding of the world is imagined. Essentially: meaning only exists within certain domains of understanding. This idea rejects that understanding works at a whole or total level, but instead asserts that meaning can only exist within focused domains or systems: figured worlds. Some of this hinges on Vygotsky’s notion of play, where symbols are substituted for objects. The argument can be that substitution is an every day, adult phenomenon. Figured worlds resemble Goffman’s notion of framing.

Artifacts relate to the construction of figured worlds. They are symbolically endowed, pivots for opening the conceptual space of a world. This relates to Tomasello’s cultural ratcheting. Artifacts enable history. Also, recollect the use of artifacts in The Sims. Artifacts are keys for enabling certain kinds of activities, and certain structures of meaning. They are lenses and keys that let us view the world through the figured world that they unlock. An artifact may be more than a physical object, but can also be certain kinds of words, symbols, or ideas. (p. 61)

Personal Stories in Alcoholics Anonymous

AA is a figured world, associated with the identity of the alcoholic. Along with this identity is a large set of symbolic values and meanings particular to this world. One major artifact in the process of understanding the alcoholic’s identity is the personal story. The figured world of AA is limiting and in conflict with other worlds, specifically to the world before the individual’s introduction to AA. This section focuses on the agency of individuals via personal stories.

The alcoholic identity is defined by drinking. Acceptance of identity requires a reformulation of self-perception in AA’s terms. Instead of one’s neurosis leading to drinking, the drinking is seen to cause the neurosis. The personal story is a structured narrative for perpetuating this figured world, which redefines the world in the terms of alcohol.

How Figured Worlds of Romance Become Desire

This section is on the world of romance among college students. Formulation here is a sort of narrative (or model) defined by this figured world of romance. The active question is how the figured world leads to desire or compulsion to act in its terms. A figured world is more than just a means of interpretation, but it also an active model, which compels and encourages the individual to act in the world’s terms. Romance is seen as a sort of modeled world, where individuals are cast in terms of concepts of “attractiveness,” a sort of value or capital for this world.

The issue with romantic identity: The romantic or relationship-going identity is one that individuals may devote time to. Each identity comes bundled with a world of meanings and internal logics. What is the relationship between identity and role? Varying degrees of commitment to an identity relates to the figured world’s salience.

There is a reference to Dreyfus: The authors compare Dreyfus’s approach to the types of experience and knowledge, and the states of learning and mastery as applies to the figured world of romance. According to Dreyfus, knowledge and mastery is gained from experience and pattern matching, and thus becomes known as higher level symbols. Melford Spiro: Symbols are motivating. The authors use Dreyfus’s account of expert knowledge to be a formation of identity. “The individual comes to experience herself not as following rules or maxims taught by others but as devising her own moves. Dreyfus describes this change as obtaining a sense of responsibility in the system. Perhaps a better phrasing would be that the individual gains a sense of being in the system–understanding herself in terms of the activity.” (p. 118)

Positional Identities

Social position is important within figured worlds. It becomes incorporated into ones own identity within the world, and becomes a disposition.

The Sexual Auction Block

Figured worlds may also be used as tools to leverage power against others. Through invoking pivots, one can shift a situation to one in which they have power over another. In this point of view, values formed by different figured worlds may become forms of capital to exert influence in different figured worlds. The examples provided in this chapter focus around sexual abuses and harassment, but the principle of leveraging power extends beyond gender and sexuality.

Authoring Selves

The self is a variable, not just constructed, but actively formed. From Bakhtin, it is dialogue, from Levi-Strauss, it is a bricoleur. Referencing Mead, the self is built in relation to others.

Forming the self in relation to other worlds, one can imagine the frames defining the other figured worlds as taking on the voices of others. The self can be considered to be authored dialogically between these voices. For example: one can imagine the figured world of the good citizen taking on the voice of a parent or teacher.

Play Worlds, Liberatory Worlds, and Fantasy Resources

Play is a means for the emergence of new figured worlds. Play is also a domain of mastery. This ties together experimentation with sociological roles (think Goffman and Turkle), development of practices (Bakhtin), and internalization of discourse (Foucault). Play originates as a ground for experimentation and adaptation to roles, but can lead to indoctrination and immersion.

“Courtly Love” reflects a socially shared imagined world. Not exactly a fictional setting, but rather a fictional figured world. This is expressed as an ongoing literary tradition. In some conceptions, courtly love might be considered a genre, which as I understand, is a model in of itself, but here it is expressed as a world.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorHolland, Lachicotte, Skinner, Cain
TitleIdentity and Agency in Cultural Worlds
Tagsspecials, anthropology, sociology
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon