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Reframing Learning: Performance, Identity and Practice

Len Holmes

The Business School, University of North London (at time of presentation)

Presented at Critical Contributions to Managing and Learning: 2nd Connecting Learning and Critique Conference, Lancaster University, July 2000


"Few can seriously doubt that learning has come of age. Over the past 20 years or so, it has moved centre stage and shows no sign of being sidelined."
(Honey, 1998: 28)

The term 'learning' has certainly moved 'centre stage' in the discourse of UK economic and social policy in respect of education and training, and in the discourse in which education and training practice is advocated, theorised and debated. In such discourse, learning is presented as the route to success, for individuals, for organizations, for communities and nations, promoting both endogenous economic growth and social inclusion (Ball, 1996; Kennedy, 1997; DfEE, 1998). So, it is argued, individuals must become lifelong learners, firms must become learning organisations, the nation must become a learning society. These 'imperatives' are the topics of a burgeoning literature, particularly texts which summarise, comment on and engage with other texts (eg see Jarvis et al., 1998; Ranson, 1998; Knapper and Cropley, 2000).

This discourse of learning may be seen as having incorporated and subsumed the discourse of competence (Holmes, 1995) within the management education, training and development (METD) field, and cognates such as 'capability', 'transferable skills', 'key skills' within higher education (Barnett, 1994; Edwards and Knight, 1995). Such terms are now increasingly referred to as 'learning outcomes' (Jessup, 1991; Otter, 1991; Burke, 1995). Where previously the processes by which such outcomes are to be achieved would be referred to as 'education', 'teaching', and/or 'training', now the notion of learning as a process is being used. So the practice of teaching or training is increasingly talked of as 'learning facilitation'; students, trainees, etc. are now referred to as 'learners'; 'teaching methods' have become 'learning methods'; and so on.

This emphasis upon the purported process of learning, and its outcomes (especially understood as practical competence) lies at the heart of various interventions by the state, by managers of educational institutions, by senior managements of work organisations, by practitioners of education and training. If the concern is with competence, what people can do, then (it is argued) effort would be well-placed in seeking to identify and specify what constitutes competence, so that its achievement may be assessed efficiently and effectively. Moreover, since competence is the outcome of the process of learning, an emphasis should be placed on learning per se, rather than with teaching/ training; a better understanding of the process of learning would enable more effective and efficient achievement of the desired outcomes. In particular, the ability of the 'learner' to manage her/ his own learning (having 'learned to learn'), and to learn 'naturally', through experience and reflection (Kolb, 1984), would allow for the informal and incidental learning that arises in workplace and other locations, rather than in settings for formal education and training (Marsick and Watkins, 1990; Boud and Garrick, 1999).

The assumption in all this is that learning is an identifiable process sui generis, and that learning outcomes are unequivocally and temporally fixed, so as to be objectively measurable at specific points in time. Moreover, the location of the purported process of learning, and of its outcomes, is assumed to be internal to the individual (and, by extension and analogy, to other entities such as organisations, communities, cities, society). By contrast, the validation that learning is taking place and has taken place is to be located in the 'external world'. The 'concrete reality' of the external world is the basis for 'experience' and the place in which new learning is 'tested out' through 'experimentation' (Kolb, 1984); competence may be assessed by means of the 'evidence of performance', real-life practical activity rather than tests of knowledge and understanding in 'unreal' examination rooms.

Such assumptions appear to be based in an 'entitative' understanding (Hosking and Morley, 1991; Hosking et al, 1995) of the nature of social reality, what Sampson (1988) terms 'possessive individualism'. They retain the Cartesian duality of a separate inner and external nature, the mind and the world. Learning takes place, happens, occurs within the individual, and does not necessarily require the engagement and involvement of any other individual. The outcome is some change of state within the individual, an internal attribute in the form of a disposition to act in a certain way rather than another way; this disposition may be referred to as competence, capability, ability, skill, know-how or whatever.

This paper takes issue with such assumptions about learning and competence. It will argue that these are based on confusions over the meaning of the terminology used in respect of learning. By analysing the concepts of learning and competence, it will be argued, we can gain a better understanding of their meaning in use, particularly in respect of their connection with the notion of performance. Performance will be shown to be a situated interpretation/ construction of activity or behaviour, implicating issues that may be addressed through the concepts of social practices and of emergent identity. Moreover, where attributions of learning and of competence are socially consequential, as is the case in educational and work-related contexts, they primarily concern the warrantability of anticipations of future performance. As such, their meaning, ie the criteria and/ or symptoms (Wittgenstein, 1958: 24ff) by which we may understand such attributions, lies primarily in the relational processes by which such meaning is socially constructed. The paper therefore seeks to contribute to the development of a social theory of learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Nespor, 1994; Wenger, 1998), particularly by the analysis of the notion of 'performance'.

The Meanings of 'Learning'

Clearly the term 'learning' is used in a variety of modes of discourse and the contexts for these. In particular, we may note the following contexts:

  1. mundane, ie as used in everyday interaction and conversation;
  2. the arena of education and training, especially in relation to credentialisation;
  3. professional and academic psychology, particularly in respect of various modes of experimental research and related theorising;
  4. the management of employees within work organisations, in relation to decisions about selection, deployment, and training and development;
  5. the management of such organisations themselves, as in, eg the notion of the 'learning organisation;
  6. the political-economic arena, ie in policy discourse.

To assume that the term 'learning' is used synonymously in each mode of discourse is to render us liable to a fallacy identified as long ago as Aristotle. Flew (1979) uses the term 'systematic ambiguity' for

"words or expressions that may always have the same meaning when applied to one kind of thing, but have a different meaning when applied to another kind of thing."
(Flew, 1979: 11)
Given the variety of contexts of its use, the term 'learning' is a prime candidate for possible systematic ambiguity, and we must beware of the fallacy of assuming that it has the same meaning when applied to individual persons and to various collectivities such as organisations and societies (Note 1). Rather we should engage in sound conceptual analysis of the term 'learning' in order to avoid what Wittgenstein warns us as the 'bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language' (Wittgenstein, 1953: 109). Moreover, given the social, economic and political consequences deemed to be at stake, we should heed Andreski's warning that
"constant attention to the meaning of terms is indispensable in the study of human affairs, because in this field powerful social forces operate which continuously create verbal confusion..."
Andreski, 1972: 61)
Of course, in ordinary mundane discourse we have no real problem with the term 'learning' and of associated terms such as 'competence', 'skill' and so on. Problems only occur when, as with Augustine's difficulty with 'time', we try to explain such terms; more problematic is when we try to act on our attempts to explain. Thus, when we speak of 'learning outcomes', or express these as 'competences', 'skills', 'capabilities' and so on, this superficially seems to suggest that we are reporting the existence of some state of affairs concerning that individual, some dispositional quality or attribute. As 'outcomes of learning', these appear to be statements based on the use of the past tense of the verb 'to learn'. So when we talk about someone 'learning' (in the present, ie using the present tense of 'to learn'), there appears to be the implied assumption that some event or occurrence is taking place. It may therefore seem sensible to attempt to analyse such purported states of affairs of individual and such events, as part of any enquiry into learning. However, these purported states and events are not amenable to any form of observation, and thus seem to require belief in some metaphysical realm.

The logic and language of learning

Dispositions (states) and occurrences (events) are given particular attention by Ryle (1949) in his attack on the Cartesian doctrine of two substances, corporeal and mental, body and mind. Dispositions, in Ryle's analysis, rather than being regarded as 'descriptions of occult causes' (of behaviour), should be taken as semi-hypotheticals, ie statements about how someone would be expected to behave, under certain sorts of conditions. To say of someone that 'he knows French' is to say

"that if, for example, he is ever addressed in French, or shown any French newspaper, he responds pertinently in French, acts appropriately or translates it accurately into his own tongue."
(Ryle, 1949: 119)
Dispositional statements are law-like, which may be true or false, but not in the same way as statements of fact to which they may be applied. Their job is different, argues Ryle, to act as what he terms an inference-ticket (Note 2), licensing the move from asserting factual statements to asserting other factual statements:
"They apply to, or they are satisfied by, the actions, reactions and states of the object [a thing or a person]; to predict, retrodict, explain, and modify these actions, reactions, and states."
(op. cit.: 119)
Since the use of the past tense of the verb 'to learn' normally carries the same meaning as words such as 'can', 'knows', 'understands', and so on, we must treat it as a dispositional word. The same applies in respect of attributions of competence, capability and so on. As such, its function is in the construction of hypothetical and semi-hypothetical statements, rather than in the reporting of some occurrence. That is, to say that someone has learnt something, or has learnt to do something, or to say that they are able (to), are capable (of), are competent (at), have competence, and so on, is to make an inference claim which is used to "explain, retrodict or predict" performance. So the use of past tense of 'to learn', or the term 'competent' and cognates, should not be taken as a meaningful empirical description of the execution in the past of some identifiable activity called 'learning'.

Turning to present-tense usage of the verb 'to learn', we should note Ryle's argument that there is an important class of occurrence or episodic words which, because they are active verbs, have tended to make us oblivious to their logic. These are, he argues, success or achievement verbs; the examples he gives are 'win', 'unearth', 'find', 'cure', 'convince', 'prove', 'cheat', 'unlock', 'safeguard', 'conceal'. These correspond with task verbs, with the force of 'trying to'. Sometimes we use an achievement verb as a synonym for a task verb (or verbal phrase):

" 'Hear' is sometimes used as a synonym of 'listen' and 'mend' as a synonym of 'try to mend'."
(op. cit., p. 143)
A major difference between the logical force of a task verb and its corresponding achievement verb is that, in using the latter,
"we are asserting that some state of affairs obtains over and above that which consists in the performance, if any, of the subservient task activity."
Thus, for a doctor to cure a patient, she must both treat the patient and the patient must be well again. Ryle notes that there may be achievements without a task performance: for example, success may also be ascribed to luck. In addition, we may use a success verb in anticipation, with the possibility that we will revise the usage in the event of failure (p.144)

Our language has a range of task verbs and verbal phrases associated with learning. In educational settings we say we are 'studying' a subject (Note 3). Other terms include 'exploring', 'practising', 'researching', 'trying to', 'having a go at', 'working at', 'looking into', 'reading up on', and the like. There are also passive formulations: 'being taught', 'being shown', 'receiving instruction' (Note 4). Such task verbs and verbal phrases carry no necessity, in their meaning, that success has been achieved: 'He practised the bagpipes every day but he still can't play a single tune', 'She studied biology at school, but failed the exam'.

The key point to note is that the use of both a task verb and a success verb together does not describe two different activities:

"When a person is described as having fought and won, or as having journeyed and arrived, he is not being said to have done two things, but to have done one thing with a certain upshot."
As Ryle says, success verbs belong, put crudely, 'not to the vocabulary of the player, but to the vocabulary of the referee' (p.145). So too, we may argue, with learning. An undergraduate studying motivation theory and learning Herzberg's two-factor model is not doing two separate things, but one thing (studying) successfully. To say she has learnt is to say she has studied successfully. We can also apply this to teaching (demonstrating, explaining, telling, etc.) and the increasingly fashionable notion of 'facilitating learning'. The use of the latter is as a phrase to indicate success in teaching; it is neither the same as teaching (which may be unsuccessful) nor a separate, superior activity.

The nature of performance: observation vs interpretation

It is clear, from the application of Ryle's mode of analysis to the usage of the term 'learn', that we have to consider how the term is used in relation to statements which, as Ryle puts it, 'predict, retrodict, explain' a person's action or conduct, ie what they do, will do, or have done. This would seem to locate Ryle's philosophical position in consonance with the Watsonian behaviourist stance in the science of psychology, a position which Ryle himself seems to suggest. However, there is a further step which now needs to be taken in the analysis, that of gaining a proper understanding of the nature of performance.

Within most scientific psychology, particularly in the behaviourist and cognitivist traditions, it is assumed that behaviour is objectively observable, at least in principle. However, whilst this may be appropriate in the context of psychological experiments on animal behaviour (Note 5), it is not so with respect to socially significant human behaviour, where issues of the meaning of behaviour are of vital importance. Even studies of human learning of experimentally-defined tasks are problematic, as their relationship to what constitutes learning in everyday social life is questionable (Louch, 1966); their ecological validity is questionable (Eysenck, 1984; Usher and Bryant, 1989). As Blumer points out,

"To ignore the meaning of the things towards which people act is seen as falsifying the behaviour under study. To bypass the meaning in favour of factors alleged to produce the behaviour is seen as grievous neglect of the role of meaning in the formation of behaviour."
(Blumer, 1969: p.3)

Harré and Secord (1972) seek to develop a mode of analysis of human behaviour through distinguishing between movements, actions, and acts. Bodily movement may arise through causal sequences, eg the movement of a person's arm may be a reaction to being prodded by a sharp implement, or the symptom of some physiological disorder such as Tourette's syndrome. It may, on the other hand, be intentional action. However, even the recognition or assumption of intentional action may be insufficient for full understanding of the behaviour, for we also need to understand what act or acts the person intended to accomplish by such action. There is no one-to-one correspondence between movement or ('mere') behaviour, actions, and acts, for the same action may bring off different acts (eg raising one's arm may be an attempt to hail a taxi, wave farewell to a friend, make a bid at an auction, and so on). Moreover, the same act may be brought off by different actions (eg bidding may be accomplished by raising an arm, a nod of a head, continued eye contact with the auctioneer, and so on).

Adopting the term 'performance', as is now commonplace in the discourse of competence, for acts in the Harré and Secord analysis, and the term 'activity' to refer to actions (or movement-action sequences), we might illustrate the analysis by the model in figure 1.

Figure 1: Interpretation of Activity as Performance

That is, activity must be interpreted or construed as performance of a particular kind in order for it to have meaning in the social world.

This now poses the question of how this process of interpretation/ construal is made: what conditions are necessary for an instance of situated activity to be taken as performance-of-a-kind. Two components would seem to be critical. First, there is deemed to exist a set of practices appropriate to the situation, such that the activity may be viewed as an instantiation of a practice from that set. Second, the person whose activity is being so construed/ interpreted is deemed to be a certain sort-of-person, to have an identity appropriate to such a performance. Of course, these elements are not completely self-contained and separate, for the attribution of an identity to someone implicates some understanding of the practices they are likely to engage in, and practices are associated with particular identities.

These two elements may be noted, under various terms, in a variety of theoretical literature concerning how human beings make sense of each others' behaviour. The notion of practices may be related to that of 'stocks of knowledge' and 'interpretive schemes (Schutz, 1932/ 1972), 'typificatory schemes' (Berger and Luckmann, 1966); 'recurrent and constant meanings' used in the production of joint action (Blumer, 1969), 'rules' (Harré and Secord, 1972). The notion of identity may be related to that of 'role' which was a key term within much of the symbolic interactionism literature, and of 'position' in more recent literature (Hollway, 1984; Davies and Harré, 1990; Harré and Langenhove, 1999). Garfinkel's 'breaching studies' (Garfinkel, 1967) may be understood in terms of the manner in which other actors attempt to make sense of a situation in which an individual is acting differently from that expected of someone in the assumed role or identity. The diagram presented in figure 1 might therefore be elaborated as in figure 2.


Figure 2: Practice-Identity Model of Interpretation of Activity as Performance


By combining the above analysis based on Ryle with that based on Harré and Secord, we can thus say that the attribution that someone has learned is made on the basis of interpretation of situated activity as performance, drawing upon a set of practices and a set of identities appropriate to the situation. Past activity is interpreted as performance-of-a-kind, the instantiation of a particular practice or combination of practices appropriate to the situation, by someone who may be identified as having an appropriate identity to perform in such a manner; and the now-constructed fact that they have so performed warrants the 'prediction' that they would perform in like fashion on future occasions.

Prediction vs anticipation: the importance of confidence

Performance, then, is socially constructed, based on interpretation of activity as instantiation of social practice by a person-of-a-certain-sort (ie 'with' a certain identity). Because attributions of learning and competence are made in relation to such interpretations of activity as performance-of-a-kind, these too must be treated as socially constructed. Such an analysis is convivial with recent social theorising of learning, particularly the legitimate peripheral participation model (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). However, this analysis might still be acceptable to many proponents of the competence approach and the 'learning agenda' (eg Honey, 1998). Thus the occupational standards on which National Vocational Qualifications in the UK are based, and similar work in other countries, might be presented as attempts to elaborate the social practices appropriate to particular arenas or 'communities of practice' (Lave and Wenger, 1991). Notions of 'key skills' and 'personal competence' might be taken as expressions of the characteristics of relevant identity. Indeed, Boyatzis' (1982) approach to managerial competency appears to combine elements. It may still be possible to regard attributions of learning and competence as having stable meaning in respect of their correspondence with some objectively observable reality.

However, this would be to ignore the social processes by which such interpretations, construals, attributions and anticipations are made, and the social salience these have in respect of the degree to which other social actors are willing to commit themselves to the consequences which may arise. This is particularly important in respect of the arenas of education and of training and development, where the attribution that someone has learnt ie is competent, has skill and knowledge etc, is the 'inference-licence' for 'predictions' of future performance. Such predictions warrant the decisions to allow them to progress within a programme, be awarded a qualification, be selected for employment, to promote (or demote) them, and so on.

Here we must be clear that 'prediction' is meant in a soft sense, that is 'anticipation', rather than as certain expectation. To say someone has learnt, is (or has) competence, in the context of making such decisions is to warrant the anticipation of future performance. Now such decisions are not taken in some extra-social context, but are taken in a socially structured, institutionalised setting. They are usually made not merely as a matter between the person making the decision and the individual concerned. A variety of persons may be involved in the selection decision for employment, and this is certainly so in the case of decisions regarding progression and award of qualifications in an educational setting. Each of these various persons will wish, or may be required (or may anticipate being required), to present their decisions as being based on what are taken as adequate grounds; such presentation will have a variety of audiences. Furthermore, those who rely upon or are affected by such decisions will require some means of understanding how the decisions were warranted in respect of their own concerns. Immediate supervisors of employees selected on the basis of attributed competence, representatives of qualifications awarding bodies, teachers on the subsequent parts of a course, managers of educational institutions, and a host of other parties share a common concern that future performance will be as desired.

However, future performance is essentially unknowable, given that it lies in the future. We may talk of predicting the future, but prior to events unfolding to provide confirmation or disconfirmation, predictions are merely anticipations of the future which we make with a certain degree of confidence. The basis for decisions regarding selection for employment, progression within a course, award of a qualification etc, in so far as they concern future performance, may thus be seen as anticipations made with a degree of confidence (Holmes, 1994). Moreover, given the distributed nature of involvement with these decisions, such confidence will itself be distributed. Any system involving these various parties relies upon the achievement of a high level of confidence for its stability and continuation, no less than is the case for various other features of modern complex society (Note 6). Following Donaldson's depiction of the banking system (Donaldson and Farquhar, 1988), we might refer to the achievement and maintenance of confidence within the areas of concern here as a 'confidence trick' (Holmes, 1994).

The 'reality' of whether or not someone has learnt, or is competent and so on, is thus a matter of construction within a web or network of actors and of (socially constructed) systems, procedures, discourses, artifacts and so on (or 'actor-networks': cf Callon, 1986; Latour, 1987). The idea that competence may be objectively measured and certificated may be appealing to many seeking certainty for decisions about the deployment of employees and for promoting greater social inclusion based on meritocratic principles. However, it is illusory as may be demonstrated by the way that attributions of competence may be reversed, as in the case of the 'fall-from-grace' experienced by senior executives such as the former chief executive of British Airways, and in the disproportionate difficulties experienced in seeking appropriate employment by many graduates from minority ethnic groups. Such problem areas suggest that 'higher level' occupations present an area for particular analysis of the social construction of learning and competence.

Practice vs identity: relative importance

Whilst the interpretation/ construal of activity as performance-or-a-kind implicates issues of both practice and identity, these are not necessarily of equal importance in any particular situation. Here may consider the relative importance of each in relation to the type of situation in which activity-performance arises. First, we may consider situations in respect of their degree of formality. At one extreme, there are many social situations we encounter in ordinary, mundane, everyday life, in which the identity of the persons with whom we interact and the interpretation of their actions in terms of specific practices are of relatively little social consequence (eg causal conversation with a stranger, or someone we know slightly). At the other extreme, some situations are highly formal, situations we may refer to as ceremonials, rituals, rites and so on; for these it is important that the various actors involved has the appropriate identity and engage in actions which are deemed proper for the performance of the relevant practices (eg a wedding service). In between are situations which we might term 'semi-formal', in which identity and/ or 'correct' performance of practice may be important. The latter would include much of the everyday activity within educational and work settings. Using the notions of practice and of identity, we may construct a simplified grid as in figure 3, which locates different types of situations in terms of the four quadrants.

Figure 3: Practice vs Identity: Relative Importance


On this analysis, it is quadrants 2 and 3 that are of most interest in respect of educational and work situations. In some cases, it is important that the person whose activity is under interpretation or construal carries out such activity in such a way that it is clear that a certain practice of set of practices is being undertaken (quadrant 3). This may be required in order that others may understand what they themselves may or must now do, for the orderly continuation of the collaborative action that constitutes organisational work. Where it is unclear, the question 'what are you doing?' may be posed to the individual with the expectation that an account would be given as to what practice is being engaged in.

There are other cases, however, where it may be the identity of the individual that must be determined (quadrant 2); the relevant question in cases of uncertainty would be 'who are you (to be doing that)?'. The difference between these different types of situations may be also be shown by the type of answer that would serve as an acceptable account to the question 'why are you doing that?': a statement of what the activity/ performance is intended to achieve (practice related) or a reference to the required or expected actions of the kind-of-person the actor is or claims to be (identity related). Of course, most of the episodes of everyday life in educational and work settings take place without such questioning, such that the practices and/ or the identities of the participants are taken for granted. However, as Garfinkel's 'breaching' studies demonstrated, when the routines of everyday life are disrupted by activity which does not match the normally expected requirements of appropriate practices and/or identities, repair is necessary (Garfinkel, 1967).

The specification of the requirements for 'proper' performance of work practices has been a key feature of the modern era, promoted by Taylor (1911, 1967) and his followers, and analysed by Braverman (1974) drawing upon Marx and within the subsequent deskilling debate. A certain degree of success in such specification may be claimed in respect of the relationship between the physical characteristics of objects upon which work is done and the physiological characteristics of human beings undertaking such work. However, it is clear that much of human work performance lies outside such limited cases and is, rather, subject to social specification, ie relies upon normative judgements within social groupings. Moreover, the degree of discretion which the individual actor has, or is permitted, in interpreting how particular practices may be performed may vary significantly. In particular, the performance of the practices which constitute managerial and professional is marked by a high level of discretion. This is indexed, for example, by the extensive use of such terms as 'appropriate', 'relevant', and so on in the Management Charter Initiative's attempt to specify the 'occupational standards' for managerial occupations.

Taking such issues of specifiability, we may consider the relative importance of practice and of identity in the process of interpreting activity as performance-of-a-kind, ie as instantiation of a particular practice or set of practices. Where performance may be relatively highly specified in respect of activity, the interpretation will rely primarily upon the understanding of the practices deemed appropriate to the situation. Conversely, where performance is not amenable to a high level of specification, it is the identity of the person which is likely to be primary significance. This may be represented as in figure 4. (Note 7).

Figure 4: Specifiability of practice in terms of performance

On this basis, the analysis of learning in respect of 'higher-level' occupations, including management, professions and generally those for which higher education is deemed appropriate, must take a special interest in issues of identity.

Personal vs social: emergent identity

The term 'identity' was glossed above by the phrase 'a certain sort-of-person', passing over the debates that have arisen in recent years concerning that term and others such as 'self' and 'subjectivity' (eg Henriques, et al, 1984; Taylor, 1989; Rose, 1990; Gergen, 1991; Giddens, 1991; Hall, 1996; Jenkins, 1996; Craib, 1998; Harré and van Langenhove, 1999). The term 'identity' is here being used as a 'sensitizing concept' (Strauss, 1959; Denzin, 1978) to enable us to address the issues involved in examining how, in the 'definition of the situation' (Thomas, 1928), the interpretation of activity as performance implicates some understanding of who-a-person-is. Identity is thus to be taken non-essentially, as relational (Clegg, 1990), the emergent outcome of situated social processes of identification; identity is socially constructed and negotiated, always subject to possible contestation, fragile. Jenkins (1996) refers to 'the internal-external dialectic of identification'. To distinguish the concern here from notions of identity as social ascription or of identity as self-concept, the term 'emergent identity' will be used.

Emergent identity may thus be viewed as arising from, or (as we might say) 'in', the interaction between the individual and significant others in respect of the kind of person the individual is to be taken to be in, and in relation to, the particular situation. The individual may seek to lay claim to an identity, and this claim may or may not match the ascriptions by others, ie the claim may be affirmed or disaffirmed. The ascriptions by others may be accepted by the individual, or may be resisted. Of course, as the process is one of negotiation, there may be intermediate positions in which the individual and/or the significant others may be ambivalent or equivocal in their judgements. For simplicity, we may regard the possible outcomes in terms of positions or 'zones' on a grid based on the dimensions of claim-disclaim and affirmation-disaffirmation, with the range of possible equivocal positions reduced to the central zone of 'indeterminate identity' (figure 5) (Note 8).

Figure 5: Modalities of Emergent Identity

The utility of this claim-affirmation model of emergent identity lies not so much in terms of the positional locating of a person's situated identity as in respect of the identity trajectories that may be undertaken (Note 9). As an identity project (Harré, 1983), the aspiration of the individual is to move from zone 1 ('indeterminate identity') to zone 4 ('achieved identity'), but carries the risk (Goffman, 1961) that the identity claim will not be affirmed. Moreover, even a position of 'achieved identity' may be subject to contestation at some later stage. All positions must be seen as relationally produced; emergent identity is relational positioning and may be subject to relational repositioning. Furthermore, other identity ascriptions may come into play which the individual may seek to resist or disclaim; and as noted above, claims and ascriptions may be equivocal. There is thus a multitude of possible identity trajectories which may arise in the path to the stabilised position of 'achieved identity' or to, from and through any position.

Careers, particularly of managers, graduates, and others in 'higher-level' occupations may thus be examined in terms of such trajectories, particularly in respect of the ways that managers attempt to deal with disaffirmation or equivocal ascription in respect of their claim on the desired identity. In addition, studying the trajectories of those who seek but are unsuccessful in moving to the 'achieved identity' position would help illuminate the critical factors in play; for example, the case of members of minority ethnic groups experiencing difficulties in gaining entry to managerial position. Rather than treating these as either issues of discrimination (in effect, a counsel of despair) or matters of personal deficiency of, for example, competencies or style of self-presentation, the particular critical points within the trajectory may be established and examined to consider alternative courses of action (Holmes and Robinson, 1999).

Critical to such analyses is the consideration of how claim/ disclaim and affirmation/ disaffirmation is made. Recognising the semiotic, particularly discursive, role of these processes, we may draw upon the notions of accounts (Scott and Lyman, 1968) and warrants (Draper, 1988; Gergen, 1989), ie discursive modes of seeking legitimacy for actions undertaken. An individual's claim on an identity is more likely to be affirmed when it is presented in terms of such legitimated modes of discourse, or what Gergen (1989) calls 'conventions of warrant'. Similarly, identity ascriptions by certain actors are more likely to gain acceptance by others when expressed in such terms. Under different social conditions different conventions of warrant may arise. Moreover, given the network character of the social constructing of confidence outlines above, we should note that in any particular social setting there may be multiple conventions of warrant available (Note 10). In the contemporary scene, we may note that the vocabulary of competence, as an outcome of learning, is highly legitimised in the processes by which identity claims and ascriptions are warranted, particularly at the point of entry to occupations and organisational positions (Holmes, 2000). Qualifications may provide support for such warranting, albeit that certain qualifications may carry higher status than others (Note 11). Of course, in many cases, the determination of what qualifications are to be made available, and to whom, may come under the control of a particular group, eg a professional association, and/or may be subject to contestation.

Reframing Learning

The foregoing analysis has sought to extend the conceptual analysis of 'learning' by examination of the interpreted/ constructed nature of performance. Whether or not someone has learned (is competent, etc) is not amenable to objective assessment but is, rather, constructed through relational processes implicating, particularly in the case of 'higher-level' occupations, the warranting of claims and affirmations (or their contraries) of emergent identity. The search for learning within individuals (whether these are conceived in terms of the information processors of cognitive psychology or as the sovereign, monadic self-actualising persons of humanistic psychology) fails to take account of the thoroughly social nature of context in which the term learning is used and the phenomena in relation to which it has its meaning. The idea that learning is a process sui generis lacks 'ontological depth' (Bhaskar, 1979), unless transcendant and metaphysical notions, such as 'the mind' and hypothetical states (eg 'competence') are introduced. However, such manoevres prevent empirical investigation, rendering any interventionist programmes lacking the evidence base on which currently espoused policy directions are purportedly to be founded. The connection between the 'internal' realm of such purported states and the 'external' world of empirical observation remain unexplicated. Even if an explanation were to be given as to how such internal states (such as physical events in the brain) gave rise to a person's bodily movement, there would still be an explanatory chasm between that and the socially consequential performance which is of prime concern. Such 'internalist' and 'entitativist' theorisations of learning thus lack ecological validity.

In contrast, a focus on the nature of performance as the situated constructed interpretation of activity yields a set of conceptual issues which generate empirically examinable concerns. The discursive and semiotic character of the practices which are taken to be appropriate to a particular arena affords a range of methods of empirical investigation. More especially in the case of 'higher level learning', the modes of warranting identity claims and ascriptions, particularly in critical moments of transition within an ongoing trajectory of emergent identity, provide a potentially rich site for empirical investigation and analysis. Thus, for example, a research programme, based on such issues, has recently started at the University of North London, concerning employability amongst graduates who appear to have disproportionate difficulty in gaining appropriate employment, ie 'older' graduates (over the age of about 27 on graduation), those from minority ethnic groups, and those of working-class background (ACGAS, 1999; Berthoud, 1999; Purcell and Hogarth, 1999). Similar studies might be undertaken in respect of the difficulties experienced in entering managerial positions by women and persons from minority ethnic groups (Holmes and Robinson, 1999).

The contemporary emphasis upon learning and competence thus raises serious matters, both of theory and of practice, which expose the conceptual poverty of naïve realist ontological and epistemological assumptions of the internalist-entitative approach. Taking a relational-constructionist perspective (Hosking, Dachler and Gergen, 1995; Hosking and Bouwen, 2000) generates new insights and new modes of investigation. It extends the social theorisation of learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998) by demonstrating that the notion of 'performance' cannot be taken as the conceptual 'anchor' (Holmes, 2000) for establishing the facticity of learning and competence. Performance is itself socially constructed through the relational processes involved in warranting claims and affirmations that situated activity is the instantiation of social practices by persons whose emergent identity is appropriate to the situation. Learning is inescapably social, and its sociality provides the basis the reframing of both theorisation and empirical investigation of interventionist programmes intended to accomplish the desiderata of contemporary social and economic policy presented under the rubric of 'lifelong learning' and the 'learning society'.


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1. We might also note Wittgenstein's (1953) notion of 'language games', and 'family resemblances' between these; the such various contexts of the use of the term 'learning' may be viewed as different language games. Back to text

2. Toulmin makes use of this notion of inference-ticket in his development of the concept of warranting in forms of argumentation. Back to text

3. We should also note the use of the term 'reading' when applied to undergraduate study. This usage seems to be confined to older universities; it would seem pretentious if used in relation to study at a newer university. This is yet another mark of the displacement by the language of learning. Back to text

4. The term 'train' is usually taken as a transitive verb, applied more to occupants of lower status positions (or animals). However, we might also note phrases such as 'training to be' and 'training for', especially in respect of high status occupations eg 'She is training to be a priest/ lawyer/ doctor', and 'She's training for the priesthood/ the bar'. This reinforces Wittgenstein's exhortation to 'look and see' usage rather prescribe meaning through definition. Back to text

5. Even here we should note that ethological studies of naturally ocurring behaviour raise serious doubts issues about the validity of findings from experimental studies. Back to text

6. cf. Simmel's comment on confidence as 'one of the most important synthetic forces within society (1964: 318). Back to text

7. Figure 3 is intended to be taken as a heuristic representation rather than as showing a fixed, quantitative relationship. Back to text

8. See also Holmes and Robinson (1999) for a discussion of the model, minus the 'under-determined identity' zone. Back to text

9. Lave and Wenger (1991) appear to consider identity primarily in terms of membership (of communities of practice), as determined by existing members; the model presented here views identity as emergent in the interaction between the individual's claim and the affirmation by others. Moreover, those others may not be members of a coherent 'community of practice', but, eg, members of other communities of practice, customers, and so on. We might better talk of arenas of practice. Back to text

10. cf the 'modes of ordering' in Law (1994). Back to text

11. The UK Government is currently proposing to introduce 2-year 'associate degrees' as a key element in its plans to increase participation in higher education. The analysis here suggests that such plans may be counter-productive if these qualifications are regarded as lower status. Back to text

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