Why it’s a mistake to surrender learning to psychology…

Archer’s (2004) dispute with Collier concerning the relation between practical and theoretical knowledge illustrates this well, as both draw upon the same example (learning to ride a bike as children) to make opposing theoretical points regarding the role of discursive knowledge in acquiring practical skills. The former arguing that this is a matter of ‘catching on’, acquiring a ‘feel’ for the positive and negative feedback we encounter through embodied participation in a practice, whereas the latter argues that the acquisition of practical skills is dependent on the guidance afforded by discursive knowledge. Or to put the issue more concretely, Collier “learnt to ride a bike by following the instructions to ‘turn the way you’re tipping’” whereas Archer “’caught on’ through using the bike as a scooter and coasting with the right foot on the near pedal and the left ready to touch ground when tipping threatened” (Archer 2004: 122). Rejecting the possibility that this impasse leaves no possibility for further debate, Archer considers that we might argue, contra Collier, that hearsay (i.e. the experience of others) does not necessarily precedes the acquisition of practical knowledge. This pathway is rejected because “it would only invite an investigation of individual (psychology or perhaps physiological) differences” (Archer 2004: 122).

However this framing in terms of psychological or physiological difference seems overly hasty and we might, instead, ask what other variables pertain to the attempted acquisition of practical skill by an embodied learner within a concrete situation. The aforementioned example of a child learning to ride a bike introduces additional (though unrelated) theoretical complexity, namely the sense in which a child rather than an adult attempts to acquire a practical skill, so for the sake of argument we can alternatively consider the example of an individual coming to learn to ride a bike as an adult. This might be done in secret, as a private project to correct what is perceived as a personal deficiency, intending initially to proceed through commitment alone (“after all, if all these children can pick it up, how hard can it be?”) but after some frustration searching the internet for guidance about learning to ride a bike as an adult. Alternatively it might be pursued through recruiting a friend as a guide to aid, as far as they can, in the acquisition of the skill, only to find that said friend, an enthusiastic rider of many years, lacks the capacity to relate the experience and act as an effective guide to action in the way that had been hoped. Or the individual might use the internet to locate a class specifically orientated towards adults seeking to learn to ride, attracted by the commonality of experience (or rather lack thereof) that might be expected within that social environment and the expertise of the instructor.

While wishing to distinguish, with Archer (2000), the distinct characteristics of engagements in the natural order, it nonetheless seems that she too readily assumes, excepting the account of autonomous reflexivity in Archer (2003, 2007, 2012), that empirical variability in human  engagements within the practical order (as opposed to practice in itself) is a matter outside the domain of sociology. Instead we might suggest that central aspects of this variability can only be explained sociologically:

  • What leads an individual to attempt to acquire practical skills?
  • Where do they habitually look for guidance to such an end? Their own resources (i.e. throwing themselves into the activity in a committed and exploratory way), other people, expert guidance, books/internet/magazines?
  • To what extent are they able to access guidance from these different sources? To what extent is it able to effectively impact upon their practical learning?

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