3.1 Situativity and social mediation of meaning

I develop my view on social mediation, identity, and learning in Articles 2 and 3. My basic point is that context-dependency and social mediation are themselves context-dependent. I acknowledge the significance of negotiating positions in social space for opportunities to learn and the claim of situated learning theorists that individuals do not have equal access to and opportunities for taking up such positions (Greeno, 2011; Greeno & Gresalfi, 2008; Greeno & van de Sande, 2007; Nielsen, 1999; Tanggaard, 2005, 2006; Østerlund, 1997). With the analogy of a jazz band jamming freely together I even argue in Article 2 that differences in access to socially negotiated positions need not be a matter of a person’s skill and may not be up to the person herself to change. Playing a solo in a jam session, I contend, is a process of the social system, not of the individual who plays the instrument, because the difference between playing a solo and imprudently taking the lead is a matter of the way the music as a whole (and therefore the musicians as a group) positions the leading instrument (and therefore the player). ‘Positioning’ in social space is thus fundamentally an interactive and reciprocal negotiation of roles and expectations in the ‘social system’ made up of the group of people present in the given situation. It is ongoing, and former positions and interactions condition possibilities for current and future ones. Acknowledging this, however, does not imply social determinism for opportunities to learn, nor does it involve a claim to the effect that the content of what is learned is socially constituted. Though knowledge is situated, and social negotiations are essential parts of most situations, this at most implies that social mediation plays a role in providing form and content to knowledge. It does not imply that social mediation dictates form and content. As I stress in Article 3, acknowledging social dependency is not equal to asserting social determinacy. Moreover, the degree and kind of social mediation may well vary across domains and situations. To illustrate this, consider the following quote from Wenger:

“…our engagement with the world is social, even when it does not clearly involve interactions with others. Being in a hotel room by yourself preparing a set of slides for a presentation the next morning may not seem like a particularly social event, yet its meaning is fundamentally social. Not only is the audience there with you as you attempt to make your points understandable to them, but your colleagues are there too, looking over your shoulder, as it were, representing for you your sense of accountability to the professional standards of your community. A child doing homework, a doctor making a decision, a traveler reading a book – all these activities implicitly involve other people who may not be present. The meanings of what we do are always social. By “social” I do not refer just to family dinners, company picnics, school dances, and church socials. Even drastic isolation – as in solitary confinement, monastic seclusion, or writing – is given meaning through social participation.” (Wenger, 1998, p. 57)

I agree with Wenger that ‘the meanings of what we do are always social’. But I do not think they are exclusively social, nor do I find it satisfactory to stop as he does at pointing out their ‘sociality’. One needs ways to discriminate the sense of ‘social’ involved in all ‘engagement with the world’, including ‘drastic isolation’, from the one involved in what he – in concurrence with ordinary language usage – refers to as ‘social events’. One also needs ways to discriminate between the senses in which reading a book is social when done as homework, as pastime whilst traveling, as leisure enjoyment etc. Not least, one needs to be able to discriminate these senses in order to ask how they interrelate. The analytical scheme of context levels, developed in Articles 7 and 10 and presented above, helps to do so, especially when two further levels are added. These two levels are:

  • The activity-enabling structure-level (corresponding to the level at which learning in the Western world is organized in school systems, and at which practice within some religions offer the opportunity of monastic seclusion). Requirement characteristics at this level concern e.g. the starting age and duration of compulsory education, general demands on curriculum and/or national standards, general expectations concerning parents’ engagement (or non-engagement) in their children’s schooling, and the need for specific educational degrees to apply for a number of professional jobs.
  • The cultural practices-level (concerned with the cultural tools and ways of behaving which are prevalent in a culture across different specific practices, e.g. the manufacturing of stone into tools in the Stone Age, reading, writing, internet-based communication in our present age). Requirement characteristics at this level concern e.g. the demand for increased digitalization of educational, governmental, and public service practices.

At the cultural practices level, all three examples of book-reading situations (homework; pastime whilst traveling; leisure enjoyment) are fully dependent on the person living in a culture where writing, dissemination of writing, and reading exist as cultural practices, i.e. as socially meaningful activities. At this level, the three examples have the same social meaning. At the activity-enabling structure-level, all three examples also have social meaning, albeit different ones: The overall structure of modern day society is involved in the characterization of an activity as ‘homework’, in that it implies the societal structure of schools as places for learning in distinction from homes as – among others – places where students prepare for school. Similarly, characterizing an activity as ‘leisure’ is dependent on the societal structuring of time into ‘working time’ and ‘leisure time’. Arguably, the meaning of ‘travelling’ as contrasted with e.g. the ‘wandering’ of nomads or the ‘fetching of a doctor’ (in times before modern telecommunication) to a village far removed also depends on societal structure – and with it the meaning of ‘pastime whilst travelling’.

At the activity framing context level, however, the sociality of the meaning of ‘doing homework’ (i.e. following teacher directions in preparing for teacher-initiated activities together with other children in school the next day) is much clearer and has much more specific impact on the reading than the sociality involved in ‘reading as pastime whilst traveling’ if this is done in a place where no one else is present. If the reading takes place in public, there will be some social mediation of the concrete way in which the reading is undertaken. That is, the way one sits, one’s potential outbursts or facial expressions in reaction to what is read, the time one spends on the book before doing something else etc. will be influenced (with or without propositional awareness) by the presence of others in what Goffman has called ‘impression management’ (Goffman, 1959). Actually, the very fact that one reads for pastime may itself be part of the impression management, if one does so e.g. to ‘look intellectual’, to ‘not look like one wastes one’s time’ – or simply to remedy the negative impression of loneliness which ‘being on one’s own’ gives (being a Single instead of in a With, in Goffman’s words, cf. Goffman, 1963, 1971). In this last case, reading for pastime will have quite as much ‘social meaning’ as ‘doing homework’ – even more – since it is done the way it is precisely for the sake of negotiating one’s social role. As for reading for leisure, framing one’s reading in this way depends on the societal value placed on doing so. Therefore there is some social meaning involved. Nonetheless, the social meaning here has much less specific impact on how the reading activity proceeds than in the case of doing homework and ‘pastime reading for impression management’.

Because of these differences at the activity-framing context level there will also be divergences in the significance of social mediation at the activity-internal context level. This is the level where one finds e.g. the ‘reading strategies’ discussed within literacy research (e.g. Afflerbach, Pearson, & Paris, 2008; Kamil, 2011). It is also the level at which one may speak of reading as a ‘dialogue with the author’ or with ‘the text’ (Bakhtin, 1981, 1995). It should be noted, however, that this kind of ‘dialogue’ is not on a par with the kind of dialogue one can have with people one interacts with (though it is sometimes described by Bakhtin and followers of him as if it were, cf. e.g. Bakhtin, 1981; Bostad, Brandist, Evensen, & Faber, 2004; Clark & Holquist, 1984; Igland & Dysthe, 2003; Lotman, 1988; Todorov, 1984): Though a book may ‘talk to you’, ‘blow your mind’ and ‘provide you with new perspectives’, it quite banally can only do so if you let it. It cannot answer back in the same way as a human being with whom you interact, and if you decide to give up on reading it, there is nothing it can do about it. The dialogue is fully at your command. If you read for your own sake – for leisure or pastime – that is. On the other hand, whilst reading one may imagine what others would think of the book which may influence both one’s understanding and one’s enjoyment of it. This observation corresponds to Wenger’s point that one’s colleagues will be present with their standards of professional accountability whilst one is preparing a lecture. As for reading strategies, there need not be any when one reads for leisure or for pastime, whereas there had better be – and be the one’s expected by the teacher – if one reads as homework. The upshot of these considerations is that the degree of social mediation need not be very high at the activity internal context level when reading for pastime or for leisure – only as high as one allows oneself as regards letting the text ‘speak to one’ and considering others’ opinions of it whilst reading. When reading for homework, however, the social mediation of the activity framing context level will determine the requirement characteristics at the activity internal context level in such a way that meeting them will involve a high degree of social mediation here, too.

At the domain internal context level, social mediation of requirement characteristics will concern e.g. genre conventions and expectations (Swales, 1990). Abstractly viewed, the requirement characteristics at this level will be the same in all three examples if the book is the same, but they may be realized and met differently in the three situations because of differences at the activity framing context level (and corresponding differences at the activity internal context level). A reader may e.g. have more patience with a rigid poetic style – or indeed less – if the homework reading of the book is part of a course on poetic styles in different centuries than if he had chosen the book for relaxed leisure reading without knowing of its specific poetic style. The way the poetic style has been described by others (as for instance ‘a bit hard to read but paradigmatic for its century’, ‘only the very educated and intelligent person will get all the hidden meanings’, ‘really stiff and boring’ etc.) will in all probability also influence the experience of it in all three examples. As will the expectations of what others would think of the style, were they to read it. These observations correspond to examples of how social mediation at the activity internal context level may influence the realization of requirement characteristics at the domain internal context level and thus transform into social mediation at this level, too.

With this prolonged analysis of the similarities and differences between three instances of ‘reading a book on your own’ I hope to have shown that it is too crude to simply state as Wenger does that “the meanings of what we do are always social” and that any activity, however secluded, will “involve other people who may not be present”. That is true, but the statements ignore important differences between ways in which people are involved. The three instances provide examples of such differences. Even larger differences exist, of course, between situations in which one undertakes an activity on one’s own and situations where one is engaged in activities together with others. Being totally engrossed in a book, ‘forgetting all around you’ including cares about what others might think of the book is as illustrated not socially unmediated, but definitely much less socially mediated at some of the analytical levels than being absorbed in an (actual, not imagined) academic discussion with colleagues about the book. And this latter activity again involves social mediation of a different kind (at some of the analytical levels) than engaging in a light conversation about the book at one of the ‘social events’ mentioned by Wenger, primarily with the intent of avoiding awkward silences. Differences such as these between forms and degrees of ‘social mediation’ point out one sense in which – as I stated in the beginning of this section – situativity and context-dependency themselves are context-dependent.

Another sense is got at when one notes that although the meaning of activities may at some levels be characterized as ‘fully social’, this does not mean that the activities are fully socially constituted at these levels. In the case of reading, the activities at the cultural practices level for example hinge on material qualities of paper, ink, publishing presses etc. as well. At the activity internal context level they similarly hinge on e.g. light conditions and the reader’s having eyes to see with (if the book is not in Braille). The degree to which an activity, its meaning and its appraisal are socially constituted, versus its degree of dependency on biological, physical, chemical etc. conditions, however, itself varies with context, domain, and situation, especially at the activity internal and the domain internal context levels. Contrast for instance mountaineering and interior decoration. Both activities will be highly culturally dependent – and thus involve social mediation – at the activity framing context level((They will also be socially mediated to a large extent at the cultural practices and the activity-enabling levels.)), since the meaning of ‘mountaineering’ (as opposed to e.g. ‘crossing the mountain to get from A to B’) appears as contingent on specific social practices as ‘interior decoration’ does. Nonetheless, the question of whether one has undertaken the given activity successfully will be less open for discussion – depend less on social mediation – at the activity internal and domain internal context levels in the former case than in the latter. Especially if one considers the extreme of ‘absolute failure’. Falling to one’s death is easily identifiable and non-negotiable as absolute failure in the former case, whereas instances of it in the latter case will to a much higher degree be a matter of negotiation of standards and styles.

Summing up on the issue of ‘social mediation’, my argument has been that cultural dependency is in general high at the higher analytical levels whereas it depends on domain, activity, and situation how and how much the requirement characteristics at lower levels are socially mediated. Three points should be reiterated here, though, to make sure that the gist of this statement is quite clear: Firstly, the analytical levels are exactly that: levels distinguished analytically in order to aid analysis of situational demands. In real empirical situations the situational demands will be realized as a unity of requirement characteristics which are actualized in concrete interrelation with one another. That is, the requirement characteristics of each level never exist on their own, unmodified by requirement characteristics at other levels. In real empirical situations, the requirement characteristics of e.g. the cultural practices level will exist in concrete realization with requirement characteristics at the other levels, leading to overall differences in degree and kind of the social mediation of the situational demands. This means that the way in which the socially mediated meaning of the higher levels determine the unity of situational demands as ‘socially mediated’ will itself be context-dependent. Secondly, following on from the first point, cultural practices do not exist in the abstract, but are always realized in concrete activities. Stressing the need for an analytical cultural practices level should not be confounded with the purporting of a Platonic essentialist claim to the existence of cultural practices in abstraction from empirical reality. Thirdly, cultural practices are not arbitrary. Instead, as discussed above, they may be viewed as different ‘styles of being’ with a pre-structure in accordance with the “human constants” that matter to us as human beings. Since furthermore these constants have material grounding in our human biology and physicality, requirement characteristics at the cultural practices level are never fully socially constituted even if their meaning is fully socially mediated.

As will be clear from the above, my take on these issues is an instance of a general Hegelian approach to existence, present in my understanding of knowledge as well, i.e. that full existence involves concrete realization. Abstraction, far from leading to representations of the essential by stripping off contingency, leads away from it to representations distorted through the weighting of only one aspect and in need of re-contextualization in order to gain meaning (Hegel, 1807/1986). I likewise agree with the further Hegelian point that the humanness of a person is developed in interaction with others and the world and that a person’s self is always ‘coming-into-being’ in a social field of recognition and positioning (illustrated forcefully in the Herrschaft und Knechtschaft passage in Hegel, 1807/1952, pp. 146-150 where Hegel develops the mutual dialectic dependency of master and slave). My specific examples above of impression management and of the role of non-present peers’ opinions illustrate this point, as does my stress on the importance of social mediation of requirement characteristics at the higher analytical levels. But notably these two basic Hegelian claims for me combine into an emphasis on the need in each specific case to investigate empirically what significance different factors have, without postulating on beforehand that one or more of them are overarching, pervasive, constitutive, or the like. If this is so, it should show up in the empirical analysis. In further combination with my Scandinavian inspired Wittgenstein reading, the Hegelian emphasis concretizes into a focus on what we actually do. The term ‘practice’, I submit, should be taken first and foremost to mean ‘context of doing’, not ‘social practice’ (as situated learning theorists would claim). Not because ‘contexts of doing’ aren’t social, but because by not stipulating sociality as a defining characteristic of practice one has the option to investigate questions about social mediation. The Wittgensteinian-cum-Hegelian point thus is that we become who we are through the practices we partake in, and that it is an empirical question how content domain, material conditions, social negotiation, and personhood combine and interrelate in determining these practices. The corresponding methodological demand is that analysis of concrete activities should be the locus for deciding issues of situativity, context-dependency, and social mediation.