Review of Holland, D., W. Lachicotte, D. Skinner, and C. Cain 2001 Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds, Second Printing. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
What could Alcoholic Anonymous (AA), US university romance, the mental health industry in America, Nepali women’s songs, and Anderson’s imagined communities possibly have in common? According to Holland et al, they are all ‘figured worlds’. A figured world is an ‘as-if’ domain; a simplified, parallel world in which positioned human agents carry out a manageable range of meaningful acts aided by material and symbolic artefacts. Its significance lies in the context it provides for the formation of social identities and institutions. Figured worlds resemble children’s games in that participants select certain features of their surroundings to create part-imaginary realms. Thus, AA members (chapter 4) enter a figured world where plastic chips originally designed for poker players stand for a member’s length of sobriety. Members’ identities are defined relationally in accordance to their relative seniority and to the degree to which their oft- retold life stories conform to the AA canon. These stories are personalised symbolic artefacts that ‘do social work’ within the confines of the AA figured world. Likewise, university students in America (chapters 5 and 7) enter a figured world of romance peopled by attractive women, sporty men, lovers, fiancés, and a few other personae – a dramatised world full of stories of flirting, falling in love, having sex, and dumping people. Chapter 12 exports the notion of figured world from urban America to rural Nepal. Faced with a patriarchal, caste-ridden parochial ideology, Nepali girls and women resort to songs as their main vehicle of social commentary and resistance. This genre stands in stark contrast with the ideal of the good Hindu woman expressed in conversation, bodily movement, clothing, interviews, etc. The more utopian songs, influenced by communist ideals, (re)produce a simplified, as-if world of future solidarity and hope.
The theoretical aims of Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds are ambitious. With their concept of figured world the authors claim to offer us a way out of the conundrum of human agency, that is ‘the seeming contradiction between humans as social producers and as social products’ (p. 42). This book certainly offers a thoughtful ethnographic exploration of the ideas of Vygotsky, Bakhtin and Bourdieu on language, identity and practice. I am however unconvinced that the concept of figured world lives up to its authors’ expectations. While it works well within the manageable universe of AA or Nepali village life, it is of less help in the more open domains studied in the book. Thus, the idea of a parallel world of college romance is dubious. Abstracted from the flux of US campus life, this armchair domain is hardly comparable to the emic world of AA. Romance permeates American popular culture to such an extent that its higher education forms do not appear particularly remarkable. Instead of romance, the argument would have been better served by a well-bounded organisation such as a college sorority (a female society) or football team. It is presumably within such organisations that figured- world questions of identity formation such as recruitment, exclusion, ritual, positionality, identification, etc, can find a suitable frame of comparison with the AA and Nepali ethnography. I have similar doubts concerning the mental health sector investigated in chapter 9. Surely this huge, warped branch of the US health industry is anything but a unified world. Mental health practitioners, patients and their families often engage in mutually incompatible practices of categorisation. In particular, the social worlds of
‘borderline’ patients analysed in the chapter are more fractured than figured. We are again far removed from AA’s well-trodden, para-cultic paths to identity reformation.
The notion of figured world helps us, nonetheless, to understand the varying degrees in which social worlds are bounded and to retain a sense of human scale and human lives when thinking about agency. It also provides insights into the profound sociality of human creativity, and especially into the role of imagination in producing and reproducing institutions. In this respect, it is surprising that the authors do not engage with existing anthropological texts on institutions (e.g. Mary Douglas’ (1986) How Institutions Think) or with the work of Nigel Rapport and Anthony Cohen on self and identity. To its credit, this volume reminds us that all social worlds have make-believe elements to them, and makes us question the long announced death of small-scale societies. Yet its account of agency suffers from a common ailment: there is no attempt at granting social agency to beings or entities other than humans. In line with Vygotsky’s theory of identity, for Holland and colleagues symbolic and material artefacts (e.g. the poker chips) are patients acted upon by human consciousness. Here the book is out of step with recent efforts by anthropologists of art and material culture, among others, to theorise the joint agency of humans, artefacts and representations (or signs).
The book will be useful to researchers and postgraduate students in anthropology and social psychology. It will be particularly interesting for people working on questions of institutional change and continuity. The chapters on AA and the mental health industry could make good undergraduate reading on these issues.
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