Last month a few of us held a workshop to discuss agency in a way that was relevant to our work. Discussion time is invaluable, and we’re gradually widening our research post-graduate network to include colleagues in other disciplines so this all adds value to our sessions. I circulated an open invitation to our school and our online community and in the end three education research students (myself, Anna and Beth) and Avril from the NMAHP Research Unit signed up. Small is still beautiful! We each brought a paper on agency to explain and share with the group. We used the tried and tested democractic teachmeet format and stuck rigorously to our seven minute presentations. However we did without the sponsorship and round tables etc. as there were only the four of us! A quick pause after the presentations for coffee and then onto an enlightening discussion.born1945_-_A-

The papers we chose were all very different. Beth was first up with a funny, quirky and very interesting Actor Network Theory view of a very everyday phenomenon – a door-closer. Door closers can of course be human or automated (non-human), but either way, they each cause a number of effects, therefore each has agency, and the paper explores social relations, effects and the ways in which agency can be demonstrated by a non-human object. I really enjoyed this paper and I’ve only just realised it was actually written by Bruno Latour!

Avril was up next and she, like me is taking a critical –realist view of agency for her study on interventions in speech and language therapists’ practice. This paper was by Sam Porter and was taking a swipe at Pawson’s realist-evaluation interpretation of critical realism. In this paper, Porter suggests a notion of agency that is based on an understanding of causation and is more consistent with the original philosophy of Roy Bhaskar. In Bhaskar’s thinking, structure (any form of organisation made up of components) and agency (the capacity to make a difference to outcomes) are mutually constitutive through causation (or generative mechanisms), but are analytically distinct, unlike in realist evaluation where they are conflated (as far as I can work out, in realist evaluation resources and reactions in combination are understood to constitute agency).

We next heard from Anna who had chosen a theoretical paper by Kathryn Hayles discussing the use of metaphor in the work of Richard Dawkins and Deleuze / Guattari. All three have “displaced” the notion of agency from the human domain; Dawkins suggests genes, not humans have agency and Deleuze and Guattari talk about desire, not agency. This paper, I think suggests a theoretical framework using the language of the extended metaphors these authors espouse but recognises that constraints are needed if the work is to be useful empirically and give us a way of understanding agency (this was the most challenging paper for me and I haven’t read it all).

My paper was the most empirical and returned to a critical realist view of agency. The paper will be a chapter in a forthcoming book by my supervisor, Mark Priestley and others and is about the role of teacher beliefs in agency. Drawing on a wide range of theorists and authors on agency and teacher beliefs (Archer; Biesta and Tedder; Emirbayer and Mische; Priestley; Nespor; Meirenk), it adopted an ecological perspective on agency, whereby agency results from the interplay of many factors, including resources, environment, structural arrangements and individual efforts. The paper aims to find out how teachers achieve agency in the context of the new curriculum and what might promote or inhibit agency in this context. Findings are interesting and expose varying degrees of tension and contradictions in teacher beliefs relating to how they view young people; how they see their own roles; what their understandings of the purposes of education are and the apparent inadequacy of the available discourse to express these purposes. There was a very useful theoretical framework outlining the conceptualisation of agency used. It combined ideas of agency as a result of interactions and structural/cultural elaborations and Emirbayer & Mische’s iterational, practical-evaluative and projectional view of agency. I’d have liked to learn more on how agency in the teacher-participants in this study was actually determined using this model.

So this was our first edu-research meet. We have another one planned for the 24th March and the theme this time is professional learning. We enjoyed the session and the format worked really well so we’re going to use it again. Details have been posted on our google+ community and an open invitation is extended to anyone interested. Please get in touch if you’d like to come along – remember your 7 minute presentation on a paper of your choice!

Refs: (sorry about the mess)
Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer
Jim Johnson Social Problems Vol. 35, No. 3, Special Issue: The Sociology of Science and Technology (Jun., 1988), pp. 298-310

Desiring Agency: Limiting Metaphors and Enabling Constraints in Dawkins and Deleuze/Guattari Katherine Hayles, 2001 SubStance 30 (1&2)

The uncritical realism of realist evaluation. Sam Porter (2015) Evaluation, 21(1), 65-82.

Biesta, G., Priestley, M. & Robinson, S. (2015, in press). The Role of Beliefs in Teacher Agency.Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice


About catrionao

I'm a PhD student at Stirling University, studying a school based practice of teacher professional learning. I also do online facilitation for various organisations such as SELMAS and the Strategic Leadership Development Programme.
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