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Psychological AgencyReview - Psychological Agency
Theory, Practice, and Culture
by Roger Frie (Editor)
MIT Press, 2008
Review by Jo Doran, M.F.A.
Jul 14th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 29)

Agency is a situated and emergent process of reflection, informed by personal history, and fundamentally embedded in our biological and sociocultural contexts" (Frie, 224).

Between the Modernist and Postmodernist views of self lies Fries' view of agency, contextually situated within the physical (i.e., the body), the social, and the cultural. If this sounds complex, this is exactly what Frie wants: to complicate our idea of psychological agency where the reader must consider "direct clinical implications and a central philosophical issue pertaining to the ethics of choice" (vii). The David Gray song, "It's Not Easy Being Me" comes to mind when reading through Frie's texts; it sounds difficult to 'be' –  to consider how we build an identity amidst the bombardment of family, community, culture, race, etc. Yet it is within the subtleness of slow and gradual immersion where we find ourselves, according to Frie. Consequently, it may also be in the bombardment of globality where we have problems finding our selves. Alternately, it may be that Frie--and others--are only making us look into our own, mirrored lives. My interest in this book originated from my desire to consider the agency of second-language users while working through their academic pursuits in American universities… a desire that is practical in its orientation yet open to considerations of theory. Frie offers a discussion of both.

Frie presents a theoretical grounding of situated agency in his easily approachable and interesting introduction. Here he addresses Behaviorism (Watson, Skinner), a critique of Naturalism (Taylor), and a hermeneutic approach (Dilthey). Frie addresses the tension between the pull of modernism toward an individual self where one can create and maintain oneself--and the draw of social constructionism and postmodernism where human reality cannot be divorced from the social or communal. Frie is honest about the tension between the Cartesian 'I-am-self' and, for one example, to the Gergen focus on a loss of status regarding individualism. One (of many) of Frie's statements that I hope to remember is the following: "Our contexts enable our agential capacity, yet our agency, however personal or private it may feel, can never occur outside of these contexts" (10). It is Frie's willingness to acknowledge and accept this ever-existing dualism that appeals to me--as a reader.

Arnold Modell, "The Agency of the Self and the Brain's Illusions" (Frie, 35-50), distinguishes between mental and physical agency. Each of his subheadings carries a strong point: We are responsible for the interpretation of our ideas… but never the cause of our feelings; A sense of agency results from our seeing that we can effect a response/ reaction in an other; Bodily movement adds to/ results in a sense of agency; Consequently, updates to bodily sensations are necessary to a sense of agency. Model then, very interestingly, discusses that "our sense of agency is linked to the degree of freedom we can bring to this act of interpretation, which, in turn, is dependent . . . on the availability of emotional memory" (Modell, in Frie, 41). This requires the individual to create meaning through the construction of a self-narrative… which can be strengthened (or even healed) by the putting of this narrative into words, i.e., talking, sharing, etc.; Modell also distinguishes three important points related to the difficulty in defining the self: The self "has its origins in our body, in our relation to the Other, and in our culture" (in Frie, 45), and all of these work together--or at least influence each other. Finally, Modell refers to both bodily and mental processes. Whether this is an illusion or a reality, this coherence serves to provide an individual with a sense of agency. Alternately, a discontinuity in coherence can cause a breakdown in the sense (and action) of agency.

Elliot L. Jurist, "Becoming Agents: Hegel, Nietzsche, and Psychoanalysis" (51-72), shows the need for a connection between psychological accounts of agency and philosophical analysis of agency. Jeff Sugarman finishes off the first section in "Understanding Persons as Relational Agents: The Philosophy of John Macmurry and its Implications for Psychology" (73-94) by stressing the importance of dynamic interplay in agency. He relates this to healthy psychological development by stating that "what becomes intelligible as knowledge issues from action" (91).

Jack Martin, "Perspectival Selves and Agents: Agency within Sociality" (97-116), begins the next section, "Clinical and Developmental Contexts," by giving a good explanation of progressive human social/psychological development, from infant to young individual, as a basis from which to discuss psychotherapy. Martin supports others in this anthology in stating that agency is "determined and yet capable of exerting its own determining influences" (in Frie, 98) and uses George Herbert Mead as his grounding. I do wonder about Martin's cultural perspective: "Socioculturally spawned agentic selves are best thought of as 'culture carriers' whose actions in the world serve both to perpetuate and to transform cultural traditions, practices, and ways of thinking, acting, and living" (99). While this is based on Giddens (1984), Martin's inclusion of it seems an oversimplification of the complexities of cultural influences and agency, yet he counters this a few pages later: "[U]nlike natural, noninteractive kinds, human kinds can be understood only within a discursive context in which they interact with the classifications and descriptions applied to them" (111). What is especially interesting in Martin's text is his explanation of and reference to agency as reactive "to first-, second- and third-person perspectives" (113) that emerge throughout infancy to adult--if the child receives a healthy upbringing.

In "Agency and its Clinical Phenomenology" (117-136), Jill Gentile elaborates, interestingly, on the idea of "the Third" in great detail and complexity. If I understand Gentile correctly, in her discussion of "the relation between symbol, symbolized, and an interpretant," the Third evolves as the situation or icon allows the infant (in this case) to see his/her feelings mirrored in a close--but not exact--way, thus allowing the infant to reflect on his/her own feelings. If/when these healthy interactions (of mirroring) are disrupted or absent, the individual can create problematic psychological responses, such as 'twoness,' or "paranoid-schizoid" (123), or worse. Gentile continues her discussion in a 'therapeutic action' vein with an application of therapy possibilities, where agency is achieved through a trust between the patient and the therapist--where the therapist acts "as a member of the Third" (131).

Pascal Sauvayre, "Agency as Fluid Process; Clinical and Theoretical Considerations" (137-154), does an excellent job of dissecting the tension between agency and determination, addressing the "entanglement" of reality, and distinguishing between analytic and linear time. Sauvayre focuses on a dialectical perspective that addresses what he terms 'interexistence.' His willingness to engage in the complexities of agency with such practical applications is honorable and certainly worth the reader's time. John Fiscaline follows, in "Dimensions of Agency and the Process of Coparticipant Inquiry" (155-174), by presenting historical background of the 'objective' and 'interpersonal turn' clinical models and discusses the "self-as-subject and self-as-object" throughout his text, where he addresses the "multidimensional Self," the "Interpersonal Self," and the "Personal Self," ending with "Clinical Implications" (155-169).

A. H. Jenkins, "Psychological Agency: A Necessarily Human Concept" (177-200), moves us (back) into the social/cultural aspects of agency and states his goal is to discuss "a developed conception of psychological agency [as] an essential component of a theoretical effort to understand human individuality and experience" (177). He works through this goal using a critical social constructionism lens and presents a clear history of the theoretical basis of the evolution of agency. What I appreciate about Jenkins portion is his willingness to address theoretical undertones and foundations that, so far, have refused to face complex yet very applicable issues related to agency. Jenkins does not accept generalized explanations of theory or even practice, by others, that cannot stand up on their own… especially when these overly generalized explanations are used to develop practice or 'practical' applications. While Jenkins deals with the more common avoidance of determinism in understanding agency, he goes further to question the origin and movement of individual ability, "wishing, believing, and expressing emotions" (180, 184) and to discuss "individual psychological agency . . . to account for human experience and behavior" (195).

We are offered a women's perspectives through Linda Pollock's exceptional chapter of "Sexual Agency in Women: Beyond Romance" (201-222). Here, Pollock's presents a proactive account of sexual agency via subject/object: "It is the capacity to move back and forth between the roles of sexual subject and sexual object that defines the basic function of sexual agency" (213). Pollock moves through a discussion on the complementary and mutuality, where awareness of the other individual's reality and the ability to 'cross-identify' (215). Pollock's approach is similar to Sauvayre in that they both acknowledging the need for the individual to identify with the 'other' with/from whom the stated individual is trying to obtain freedom or release.

Frie readdresses the 'possibilities and constraints' of agency (228) in the last chapter, "Navigating Cultural Contexts: Agency and Biculturalism" (223-240) and how the navigation between both is seen in the clinical aspects of agency. Again, and similar to Sauvayre and Pollock, Frie discusses the need for the bicultural individual to "recognize, understand, and appreciate the ways [he/she is] situated both within and across cultures" (229) within an application of a South Asian immigration experience (230-237).

Frie does an excellent job of addressing agentic tensions through individual perspectives that base their focus on the tensions between deterministic and interrelational views of agency. Frie's three divisions, "The Situated Nature of Psychological Agency," Clinical and Developmental Contexts, and "Social and Cultural Contexts" remain true to their focus and offer the reader a holistic view of psychological agency. Frie sandwiches each writer's discussion between his own introduction and the final chapter, "Navigating Cultural Contexts: Agency and Biculturalism."

David Gray mentions heroes in his song "It Isn't Easy Being Me," saying that "even heroes have the right to bleed . . . even heroes have the right to dream . . . and it's not easy to be me."  While this point is clearly supported in Frie's anthology, Frie gives his readers positive points on which to reflect and proceed, whether we consider ourselves heroes--or not.

 

© 2009 Jo Doran

 

 

Jo Doran, M.F.A., is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Rhetoric and Composition at Purdue University, where she teaches professional writing focusing mainly on international/L2 students. Her main research is in the area of English as a Second Language. She has also published poetry in various journals.


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