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The Learning Conference 2003

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Presentation Details


Socio-cultural Perspectives meet Critical Theories: Producing Knowledge through Multiple Frameworks

Cynthia Lewis, Elizabeth Birr Moje.

In this workshop, we reconceptualize socio-cultural theory in a way that foregrounds issues of agency and power in the production of knowledge. While we are committed to the broad definitions and roles of mediation, language, and culture in learning as described in socio-cultural theory, we question its emphasis on individuals in particular contexts. Our research suggests that power does not reside only in macro-structures; but rather it is produced in and through individuals as they are constituted in larger systems of power. Our aim, then, is to generate a socio-cultural theory that accounts for these larger systems of power as they shape and are shaped by individuals in particular cultural contexts.

We will use data from our research with young people and teachers in two different parts of the United States to theorize about what various socio-cultural perspectives offer to the study of human interaction and development. In particular, we examine the way that socio-cultural theories typically account for how social systems produce and are produced in the everyday micro-practices of individuals and local communities. To carry out the workshop, we will begin by asking participants to engage in a brief coding exercise around constructs such as identity, agency, space, and power, after which we will share our own analyses of the same data. As we analyze the data, we will discuss how different socio-cultural theories frame our analyses. We will use our data to argue that these theories, while offering important insights into how people make sense of the world in particular contexts, do not address why two young people in the same urban context – with the same demographic characteristics – use language and literacy differently, construct their physical and social spaces in different ways, and hold different goals for the future. To close the session, we will draw from a number of critical social theories to suggest possibilities for developing socio-cultural perspectives that explicitly articulate the dynamic and dialogic power relationships between the social and individual, the global and the local, the institutional and the everyday.


Cynthia Lewis  (United States)
Associate Professor
Language, Literacy, and Culture Program
University of Iowa

Elizabeth Birr Moje  (United States)
Associate Professor of Educational Studies
Literacy, Language and Culture progrram
University of Michigan

  • Socio-cultural theory
  • Critical theory
  • Literacy

(60 min Workshop, English)