Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds

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Harvard University Press, 2001 - Social Science - 349 pages

This landmark book addresses the central problem in anthropological theory today: the paradox that humans are products of social discipline yet producers of remarkable improvisation.

Synthesizing theoretical contributions by Vygotsky, Bakhtin and Bourdieu, Holland and her co-authors examine the processes by which people are constituted as agents as well as subjects of culturally constructed, socially imposed worlds. They develop a theory of self-formation in which identities become the pivot between discipline and agency: turning from experiencing one's scripted social positions to making one's way into cultural worlds as a knowledgeable and committed participant. They emphasize throughout that "identities" are not static and coherent, but variable, multivocal and interactive.

Ethnographic illumination of this complex theoretical construction comes from vividly described fieldwork in vastly different microcultures: American college women "caught" in romance; persons in U.S. institutions of mental health care; members of Alcoholics Anonymous groups; and girls and women in the patriarchal order of Hindu villages in central Nepal.

Ultimately, Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds offers a liberating yet tempered understanding of agency, for it shows how people, across the limits of cultural traditions and social forces of power and domination, improvise and find spaces to re-describe themselves, creating their cultural worlds anew.


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Holland et al.’s "Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds" beautifully succeeds at deconstructing the concept of identities as they are practiced, formed, and reformed by focusing on four contexts – “figured worlds,” positionality, space of authoring, and making worlds/play. Utilizing a theoretical framework from Vygotsky, Bahktin, and Bourdieu, much of the book addresses concepts of identity that relate to gender as it is played out, or practiced, within society, and the ways in which individuals and groups negotiate these meanings.
The authors do well in making I"Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds" accessible to a large audience, including educators, researchers and the lay public by including case studies of their previous work (e.g. a study about critical song writing/singing by Nepalese women for a yearly festival; the use of stories in Alcoholics Anonymous as a means of identity formation; learning the “figured world” of romance for women at college; and reframing oneself within the context of mental disorders). It is through the use of examples, that readers could have a chance to both see themselves and their own culture within the pages of the book and also the multitude of ways in which people utilize (self) agency to choose an action to proceed with that often does not even seem possible from an outsiders perspective. For instance, even as a doctoral student who has been studying issues of identity and gender, reading about the “devaluing” of women within "Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds" helped me to understand and validate my own struggles as a woman within our culture.
Yet there was one aspect of the book that I found a bit disconnected from the rest of the work. In the final chapter, Holland et al. explain that they have developed a new theory of human action that moves beyond cultural rules of identity development. Unfortunately this one point feels disjointed from the way in which the authors have discussed their work and described identity and agency throughout the majority of the book. Although it could be an important point, if it was incorporated throughout the book, this shift to a discussion of theory in the final chapter is distracting.
However, overall, "Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds" is highly effective at addressing concepts of identity and agency especially as they relate to gender and society – processual, every-changing, and dependent on context. Unlike many “academic” books that tend to focus on theory and critique, the authors, who represent an interdisciplinary background ranging in specialty from medical and cultural anthropology, psychiatry, to child development use a much more reader friendly and engrossing method of writing. Holland et al. utilize a critical theoretical approach along with their extensive professional fieldwork and practice to describe “identities in practice” including agency, improvisation, and resourcefulness, concepts and explanations that could be fairly easily incorporated within a wide array of teaching and learning situations.


The Woman Who Climbed up the House
A Practice Theory of Self and Identity
Figured Worlds
Personal Stories in Alcoholics Anonymous
How Figured Worlds of Romance Become Desire
Positional Identities
The Sexual Auction Block
Authoring Selves
Authoring oneself as a Woman in Nepal
Play Worlds Liberatory Worlds and Fantasy Resources
Making Alternative Worlds in Nepal
Identity in Practice

Mental Disorder Identity and Professional Discourse

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About the author (2001)

Dorothy Holland is Boshamer Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Debra Skinner is Senior Scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Carole Cain is Staff Specialist in the Department of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center.

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