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Postill, J. Review of Holland et al 2001 Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds

Postill, J. Review of Holland et al 2001 Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds

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Published by: John Postill on Dec 13, 2009
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Review of Holland, D., W. Lachicotte, D. Skinner, and C. Cain 2001 Identity andAgency in Cultural Worlds,
Second Printing 
. Cambridge, Mass.: HarvardUniversity Press.Published in
 Anthropological Theory
(4), 511-512.
John PostillStaatliche Hochschule für GestaltungKarlsruhe, Germanyemail: […]What could Alcoholic Anonymous (AA), US university romance, the mental healthindustry 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’. Afigured world is an ‘as-if’ domain; a simplified, parallel world in which positioned humanagents carry out a manageable range of meaningful acts aided by material and symbolicartefacts. Its significance lies in the context it provides for the formation of socialidentities and institutions. Figured worlds resemble children’s games in that participantsselect certain features of their surroundings to create part-imaginary realms. Thus, AAmembers (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 definedrelationally 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 symbolicartefacts 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 – adramatised 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 womenresort to songs as their main vehicle of social commentary and resistance. This genrestands in stark contrast with the ideal of the good Hindu woman expressed inconversation, bodily movement, clothing, interviews, etc. The more utopian songs,influenced by communist ideals, (re)produce a simplified, as-if world of future solidarityand 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 producersand as social products’ (p. 42). This book certainly offers a thoughtful ethnographicexploration 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 itsauthors’ 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 UScampus life, this armchair domain is hardly comparable to the emic world of AA.

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