Sociocultural, Ecological, and Historical Constructions of Agency

Wayne Au’s paper encouraged me to think to Biesta and Galloway’s comments about Freire’s emancipatory education (readings of ours two weeks ago). Au’s thesis that criticisms of Freire are often grounded in an inadequate understanding of his dialectical materialism is what I believe to be the case for Biesta and Galloway, but for this reflection, I will foucs on what Galloway argued and how, according to Au, she inaccurately reconstructs Freire. For Galloway, Freire’s notion of the oppressed is characterized as “…a notion of false consciousness, where people might not understand the reality of their own oppression….”. Two weeks ago, I questioned whether the oppressed in Friere’s conceptualize can understand the world if they have this false consciousness. Reading Au, I can see that the dialectics allow Freire to conceptualize the oppressed to indeed know the objective world however through their subjectivity. Au writes, “Freire did see an objective world outside of our consciousness, by the also recognized that it was a world that we learned through our subjective lens as human beings” (p. 178). This leads me to further question how we understand false consciousness. Perhaps Galloway or myself, considered false consciousness as a deficit of the oppressed, but perhaps should be viewed as a privilege standpoint that according to Freire is the only standpoint that can change the world.

Questions for on Au 2007:
According to Au, Freire argues We cannot name nor change the world on behalf of others? How can this idea be used as a principle for social science research? In other words, what types of research methodologies, including epistemologies seeks to implement this principle?

Does Friere have the notion of tool use in his theory?

The importance of dialectics is also apparent in Wartofsky conception of the child. I think the dialectics of Wartofsky is a powerful understanding of the child because it conceptualizes the child as an active agent in their lives within a historical and cultural context. The child characterized as an active agent, just as active as an adult is what I believe can help explain how the United States views childhood and more specifically, youth engagement. Currently, the US does not recognize children as citizens in their country. Instead, the voting age (age eighteen) is when we consider adolescents – not children – the appropriate age for active civic engagement. This has a multiple of implications as voices of children for civic issues are masked and not taken seriously only in the US. Upon reading Wartofsky, I believe there is a western notion of the child living isolated from social issues, passive, and alienated from how social issues impacts. This is a weak point because adults can also express these characteristics. Wartofsky also raises an interesting point about cultural tools. That these tools shape and influence our genetic code and brain, not just the other way around. This shows the profound significance of cultural tools for agency, emotions, and other psychological processes.

With the topic of cultural tools, I noticed I did not see that in Martin and Sugarman. Although Martin and Sugarman do mention cultural tools, it is presented in a cognitive and mentalist sense: “symbolic and relational tools people come to possess through the ongoing participation in sociocultural milieus allow them to interpret and integrate their experiences meaningfully and to gain some understanding of their circumstances” (Martin & Sugarman, 2000).Although they provided an interesting account of seeking a “middle ground” between the pre-given individual and the extreme relativist position of the postmodern, I believe the notion of cultural tools can be used as another way of finding this middle ground. I think this weakens their argument. For instance, when they claim that “psychological individuals, become capable of conscious reflection, but do not mention the use that cultural tools play in this ability to consciously reflect I wonder where does this ability develop from?

Question: In Martin & Sugarman and also in Harre, Gergen is critiqued for his radical social constructionism? How has Gergen responded to this criticisms?

Lastly, Biesta and Tedder, while drawing from Emirbayer & Mische (1998) had an interesting theory of agency. What I found most interesting is the temporal aspect of it that people’s agency is achieved enacting on the present based on the past with a direction of the future. What thing I would be interested to discuss is whether or not this theory has the notion of identity. I think considering someone’s identity with agency gives the agency a sense of direction and intentionality to it. We are not just enacting agency temporally for the sake of it put doing it based on our subjectivities.


Question: Perhaps I missed it but does does Biesta and Tedder describe what they mean by “contexts for action”?







  • Hi Mike. You asked about Kenneth Gergen’s response to Smith’s attempt to “rescue the self from the ravages of postmodern analysis” (Gergen 1994a, p. 412). Here is the abstract: “In an attempt to rescue the self from the ravages of postmodern analysis, M. B. Smith called into action traditional investments in science and moral vision. However, not only are the grounds for these investments found wanting, they themselves harbor threats to human well-being. Furthermore, by understanding the postmodern conception of language as relational, a certain place can be made for both empirical research and moral deliberation. At the same time, postmodern thought opens new vistas for psychology and new horizons for the self.”

  • Hi Judy,

    Thank you so much for this source! I’ve printed it out and I will be sure to read it.

    See you soon,

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