What does it mean to be an efficacious agent? Some sketchy notes on critical realism and educational sociology

In the last few months, I’ve been trying to define my interest in education and often find myself coming back to the idea of the efficacious agent. This is a placeholder really but it rests on my sense that education (in the broadest sense of the formal or informal) leaves people variably placed in terms of their capacity to (a) identify what matters to them (b) establish projects in their life which manifest these concerns (c) integrate those projects into a singular life. The risk in talking in this way is that social stratification drops out when it’s clearly the case that access to resources (financial, social and cultural) exercises a significant influence over each stage of this process. But I’d see this framing as a matter of better understanding the vectors through which inequality manifests, as well as the capacity of agency to in turn exercise an influence over the inherited conditions of inequality. Once we accept that structural influences don’t exercise a deterministic influence (as can be seen by the fact that distributions of capital aren’t static over the life course) then we’re back to the perennial problem of structure and agency, with a biographical approach to understanding the development of agency being a potential solution to integrating these elements over time in explanatory accounts.

I think this helps if we want to understand a concept like flourishing or character in a sociological sense. They too often obscure how there’s a structure/agency dynamic operating in relation to (a), (b) and (c) as well as the relationships between them. To keep a grip on these dynamics necessitates retaining a macro-social framing in the initial stage, recognising how scarce resources are differentially distributed in ways which reflect pre-existing patterns of social stratification, which in turn influence each stage of this developmental process. The more micro-social sensibility which tends to be implied by concepts like flourishing and character need to be seen against this background, understanding how dispositions are always formed within pre-structured contexts which leave young people differentially placed to form them and with differing consequences when they do.

I’d like to understand how to incorporate insights at a higher level of generality into this fundamentally sociological framing. For example in Experience and Education pg 48 Dewey talks about “the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur” and its developmental significance. As he goes on to write on pg 48-49:

When preparation is made the controlling end, then the potentialities of the present are sacrificed to a suppositious future. When this happens, the actual preparation for the future is missed or distorted. The ideal of using the present simply to get ready for the future contradicts itself. It omits, and even shuts out, the very conditions by which a person can be prepared for his future. We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.

If this is a generic tendency of a particular pedagogical orthodoxy (embedded in school systems as well as manifested in school practice) then how we would go about thinking about its effects through a sociological lens? In part it’s a matter of recognising the variability of its effects i.e. the quite obvious recognition that not every student will be impact equally by the same generic tendency. But we need to understand this variability as a reflection of pre-existing patterns rather than some mysterious randomness, which is where the pre-structuring of educational micro-interaction becomes so significant. It then opens us up to think about how the outcomes of these processes will tend to feed back into the structuring of new situations, by contributing to the stratification which could always and already be found within the classroom.

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