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Changing the world: a case study of transformation, agency and social change Michael Chew

Introduction Motivations

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Context and evaluation Respondents Design assumptions: Questions Analytic methods Personal engagement

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Part 1 - Social-centric transformation


Part 2 - Individual-centric transformation


Part 3 – Individual - Social Transformation


Part 4 – Story telling - Disclosure and agency


Part 5 – My process of learning Design Implementation Analysis

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Interviews Visual Quantitative Future focus Website The development process

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Introduction This paper explores the relationship between self-perceptions of agency and transformational experiences amongst young self-identified social change agents. The extent that these experiences manifest on a social compared to individual level is explored through transformational learning theory. An analysis of the participants’ corresponding learning unfolds in two parts – firstly with respect to their past experiences affecting their self-perceptions of agency, and secondly with respect to their own act of articulating and synthesising these reflections during the surveying process itself. Mezirow’s and Freire’s theories of learning, together with narrative development theory, form the underlying theoretical analysis. Counter-posing the theory is my critical reflection on my own learning as part of the research process. This is achieved in three sections. Section 1 introduces the theories of transformative learning together with the relevant conceptions of the self. Section 2 outlines the investigative survey – context, assumptions, respondents, and how it was run. Section 3 explores the key themes that emerge from the survey, interwoven with my own perspective.

Motivations I have had a long-term interest in questions of agency and social change, derived from key shifts in my own perception of agency during different phases of my life. During my teenage years, due to a combination of extreme shyness and bullying at school, I perceived myself to have no control over my own life, let alone the broader world. However subsequently during my long years at university I became involved in various environmental and social-justice activist groups where - due to the focus on organising, direct action and empowerment - I developed a strong sense of my own ability and necessity to take action in the world. Since then I moved away from this overt political change work to more of an emphasis on empowering people. This paper’s central question of how people perceive their own empowerment is of core importance to developing approaches to empower others. Given my key interest in personal agency, one of the hopes that I have for this survey is that it actually can have a positive effect on the participants’ agency. There is potential for this through the survey providing a space for participants to self-reflect and critically engage with their perceptions of their own agency, and the latter’s relationship with their past transformational experiences.


Section 1 - Theoretical background On a theoretical level, this paper’s research question draws from various theories of transformational learning, with particular emphasis on the latter’s concepts of the self. I primarily focus on the ideas of Paulo Freire and Jack Mezirow whose foundational theories of learning provide for quite different accounts of the self, with loci at the social and personal levels respectively. In addition, over the last two decades many additional perspectives on the self have emerged in the transformation learning literature, including the emotional, imaginal and spiritual dimensions. From these narrative theory provides another exploratory lens for the inquiry. It is useful to first briefly look at Dirkx’s review of the self in transformational learning for an overview. 1 He outlines several key concepts of the self that these theories draw from. Three are described here. In the evolving knowing self, represented by theorists included Mezirow, there is a concept of an innate core self which unfolds and is self-realised through the act of transformational learning, while being influenced by environmental conditions. In contrast, the structured self emphasises the key roles that politico-economic structures have in shaping the self, in which learning occurs through a process of developing critical consciousness in relation to one’s agency and hegemonic forces. Finally, in theories of the storied self, the self is seen as emerging from how we construct our own narratives about ourselves and the world. This idea tends to draw more from post-structural concepts of the decentralised or ‘plural self’ in contrast to the unitary self implied through the knowing or structured self. I briefly outline key ideas from these three theories below. Paulo Freire’s developed his critical pedagogy in the political context of democraticising education in Brazil in the 1960s. His theory of liberation education recognised that the marginalised could not escape oppression within the standard education tradition – what he called the ‘banking’ approach, where active teachers deposit knowledge in ‘empty’ and passive students. He writes: The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world.


Dirkx (2007)

3 This critical consciousness - or ‘concretisation’ - is needed to reveal the social, political, and economic contradictions that form the oppressive matrix that anchors them in an underprivileged position. It is the vital step that paves the way for them to take action in the world against this oppression. Jack Mezirow’s explorations in transformational learning emerged from his pioneering research with adult learners around a decade later. Drawing from Habermas’ theory of communicative action, he explored the types of learning experiences that fundamentally change the way people see both themselves and their world. This theory has evolved considerable over the last two decades in light of numerous critiques 2, but essentially locates the act of critical reflection on one’s lived experiences as the basis for transformative learning. Through this critical reflection, a learner can perceive and subsequently transform her habits of mind – the complex meaning structures that continually filter an individual’s way of seeing the world. The theory of the storied, or narrative self spans a range of thinkers and draws from various disciplines including literary theory, cognitive psychology, theology, and philosophy. In the late 1990s Dan McAdams posited a theory of narrative self based on a ‘life story’. Although he did not develop it as part of a specific transformative learning theory as with the previous two, it useful to examine it in the context of the respondent’s self-reflection. To McAdams, a person’s life story was “…an internalized and evolving narrative of the self that incorporates the reconstructed past, perceived present, and anticipated future”. 3 The core function of the life story is integrative – to bring together separate parts of the self. In doing so, it draws up on both the person’s mental meaning structures, and the socio-cultural constraints and drivers of society. The most intensive periods of this integration are known as ‘selfing’, and in the context of learning, can be seen as points for such transformational learning to occur. In contrast, in other narrative theories based on the poststructuralist decentred self, the self itself is told by the various stories that constitute its identity at a particular time. 4 While the theories situate their analysis on different levels, they all acknowledge the concept of ‘self-in-the-world’5. For Freire’s socio-cultural learner, self-transformation occurs through the development of critical consciousness, while for Mezirow this self-change through transformation of meaning structures occurs in a relational setting. In the narrative self, the stories that the self constructs are 2

Kitchenham (2008) McAdams (1996, p. 307) 4 For a concise comparison between the decentred vs centre theories of the narrative self see Tennant (2005). 5 Cranton (2006, p. 46) 3

4 fundamentally enmeshed with its lived environment. For each of these theories, any transformation in the sense of who we are is fundamentally connected with how we are in the world.


Section 2 - Case Study and methodology In this section, I give an overview of the case study process – its development, engagement, participants and assumptions. This case study was an online survey developed to assess the key research questions: •

How the participants’ self-perceptions of their agency relate to prior transformational experiences?

What effect has the participants’ experience of reflecting on the above inquiry through doing the survey itself have on their self-perceptions of agency?

Context and evaluation This type of broad surveying methodology is far from unique in the literature - Taylor identifies a growing number of studies in the field of transformational learning that are adopting survey techniques as data collection. 6 Many of these methods involve a combination of survey and interviews to invite deeper responses; interviews were planned for this case study, however they were cancelled due to time constraints. I choose online surveying as the means of conducting the case study for a number of reasons: •

It was a simple and quick way of gathering written responses to the research questions under limited time constraints.

The topic and the corresponding survey questions require thoughtful introspection, which can be supported by the privacy of the online environment.

It was a flexible medium that allowed participants to take part in their own choice of time and location (several respondents were in other countries).

There were also several drawbacks to this method: •

The survey was one-directional – collecting data only – it did not allow dynamic questioning of the participant to go deeper or to seek clarification.

The question response input fields were relatively small and made it difficult for the respondents to see their whole response at once.


Taylor (2007)

6 •

The remote textual form of data collection encouraged verbal, literary thinking and reflection, in contrast to imaginal or embodied ways of selfunderstanding.

The online environment in which the survey took place can be a distracting context that makes it difficult to establish a separate space of self-reflection for instance, it has the risk of excessively ‘sandwiching’ the reflective experience in between other cognitive contexts.

Respondents Being motivated by my own observations and reflections about my peer group and colleagues in various social change movements, I was primarily interested in ‘young’ people who self-identified as change agents.7 A second related consideration was the respondents social connection to me. The great majority were all people I knew personally to varying degrees. This was intentional for both ease of access, as well as acknowledging the increased difficulty in comprehending and speaking for people radically outside of my general social, cultural, political and economic background. Having said this however, I was curious about the broader applicability of the survey and so I did invite respondents to forward it on to friends whom they thought may be interested. Nevertheless, these responses formed a minority of the analysed cases.

Design assumptions: There were several key assumptions operating in the survey design. •

As the survey calls for people to define their ‘agency’, what constitutes ‘change’, and their ‘world’ of operation in essentially the their own way, I assume difference as the norm and compare solely across people’s own selfperceptions.

Because respondents were able to complete the survey in their own time, there was no standardised time duration for completing the survey, and this is not taken into account.

I largely took the responses at face value, rather than analyse hidden meanings or making extensive interpretations or inferences when ambiguous.


‘Young’ in this context meant approximately from 20-35 years of age. This was achieved primary through choice of participant amongst the first survey callout.

7 Questions The questions themselves were drafted up and tested out on myself and my partner, following which they were fine-tuned. The analysis focuses on the responses to three specific questions: •

Describe the specific key transformational experience(s) in your life that changed your perceptions your own agency to make positive change? How did these changes occur?

How much of a factor were group or social interactions compared with your own individual growth in these experiences? Please explain.

Please reflect on your experience of completing this survey. How did the process of articulating your experiences and selfperceptions makes you feel? Does it reinforce or weaken particular self-beliefs?

These questions follow four brief framing or ‘warm-up’ questions intended to contextualise the inquiry and initiate thought into self-perceptions of social change and agency. 8 In addition, several questions required numerical responses on scales between 1-10. In the proceeding analysis the respondents quotations are taken largely independently from these scales, given the large degree of overlap between the social and the individual-centric responses. Because of the self-assessed and subjective nature of the numerical responses, there are many limitations on the potential for quantitative analysis. Therefore in this paper I make very limited use of these figures.

Analytic methods The process for analysing the results was not beholden to any one particular analytic tradition. Rather it focused simply on distilling meaning and common features from the responses. There is a some similarity with analytic methods from grounded theory approaches - such as open coding (examining, comparing, conceptualising, and categorising responses); axial coding (reassembling responses into groupings based on relationships and patterns within and among identified categories); and selective coding (identifying and describing the central phenomenon, or “core category,” in the responses sets) .9 Unlike other, more empirically based social 8 9

For the full survey, please see Appendix 1. For further reading, see Starks (2007).

8 scientific analyses that rely on statistical sample sizes to infer generality; I make no claims of universality as resulting from this analytic method. Rather I regard any insights that arise as simultaneously particular to this group and with potentially wider applicability – that is highly context dependent.

Personal engagement From my position as an interested researcher, I sought to capture some of my thoughts and feelings about the process and results of the inquiry as they progressed. For this I made brief notes in a simple journal, some of which is summarised in Section 3.


Section 3 – Analysis of responses In this section we look at some of the key themes that emerge from the surveyed respondents in light of transformative learning theory. Parts 1-3 explore the transformative role that past experiences can have on people’s self-perceptions of agency, investigating the different influence of social, individual, and social-individual respectively. The theories of transformative learning, critical pedagogy, and narrative self are applied to each of the first three parts respectively. Part 4 examines the effects of self-reflection and disclosure through the survey process itself, and Part 5 discusses my own learning through the process.

Part 1 - Social-centric transformation Social-centric responses highlight experiences that are based in a group or social contexts. There was a wide range of responses that privileged this mode as the primary transformative factor that lead to greater self-perceptions of agency. Slightly over half of the respondents indicated on the numerical scale question that the key transformational events or processes were social centric. A common response was that involvement in specific ‘social change’ identified groups as increasing respondents’ agency. Amongst these, some nominated exposure to the group’s diversity of views as a key influence, while in contrast others emphasised the group’s focus and uniform position. A group’s social norm of empowerment can be a crucial influence: …being surrounded by people that care about addressing climate change…is very powerful for me. It helps me to maintain my faith in my agency: because so many of us believe in it and are exercising it; and because by exercising our individual agency together we can create a better world.

Others emphasise their ability to influence such groups as being crucial: I think over quite a long period of time being involved and being encouraged to share thoughts and opinions and actually shape what Activate was/is, and not just participate in it was a massive booster to my sense of agency.

Another positive outcome of group involvement is the latter’s ability to create new spaces as alternatives to the mainstream socio-political environment:

10 The first time I went to a Reclaim the Street Party or the annual Student of Sustainability conference were transformative in that in both it felt participants had collectively entered a world where it felt the assumed logics of capitalist, authoritarian society didn't apply (but then of course with time, I looked deeper, and discovered so many pervasive -isms in radical spaces.....) and it felt like a really different way of socially being with others was possible.

The group’s influence or co-option by mainstream views as mentioned above was backed up by other respondents. With one respondent it was enough to turn them away from the group: Take critical mass as a small example - everything was wonderful and I was very keen on advocating for public use of public space until it seemed like a boys bike riding club then I was scared away from this idea for a few years. I am always very impressionable by social experiences. So for me, the personal is heavily influenced by the social experience I have.

For another respondent, the initial disempowerment facing a repressive group eventually had an empowering effect: It was the group/social interactions which facilitated my individual growth. It was extremely difficult in the beginning because I was only just beginning to grow in confidence, but I didn't feel that I knew the subject matter as well as I should. Standing up in front of 20 police officers who believe that you are wasting their time, or that you are trying to tell them what to do, is daunting. But if it wasn't for these very difficult interactions, my individual growth would have been stunted.

We can examine these diverse comments through the transformational learning theories outlined above. A Freirean analysis is well suited to the social-centric comments – in his critical pedagogy, self-transformation is inseparable from socialtransformation. People working together in a group that fosters a liberatory agenda can form a powerful collective transformational process – fostering dialogic interactions – active co-questioning of dominant regressive practices – that work to support the conditions for critical consciousness to emerge and be nurtured. Through this questioning, participants’ awareness is validated and refined, and the potential for relevant social action can be explored. Many of the groups mentioned by the respondents aim to effect a transformation of society – the issues of homelessness, disability rights, environmental destruction, gender inequality, and human rights were just a few. For many if not all of these issues there is not necessarily a utopic foreseeable end point to arrive at – rather the nature of their work is to continually improve society.

11 Similarly for Freire liberation is a continual unfolding social dynamic, “ ...akin to a painful childbirth that never completely ends, as oppression continuously mutates and morphs into unprecedented forms in new epochs”.10 This continual process infers that agency is not a fixed quantity either – it grows and morphs in response to the challenges at hand. In addition, to be able to shape the agendas of the groups themselves - as indicated by one response above - allows for the collective space for people to develop critical consciousness through their own dialogic processes. In contrast, if groups exclude genuine participation and input, then it they approach the same disempowering logic of mainstream society that they are actually seeking to transform – the ‘banking method’ where knowledge (or cultural conditioning) is depositing in the passive learner. Some of the negative reactions to group involvement above can be read as an outsider disturbing the group’s well-defined internal educational or social norm forming processes, from the boys’ bike club to the police workshops. In looking at participant reflections on transformational events, many people nominated time periods where change occurred, alongside discrete events. Although I had framed the question to focus on the latter - intending to use a similar specific event methodology such as Ligon’s study 11 - the responses forced me to reconsider the primacy of the discrete transformational event. This focus on the period time as opposed to a catalytic event to is present in numerous other studies in the transformational learning literature, as reviewed by Taylor.12


Kincheloe (2008, p.71) Ligon (2008) used life narrative approach in the context of leadership development, but its event taxonomy is indicative of a possible further direction for investigation in the agency context. 12 Taylor (2007). 11


Part 2 - Individual-centric transformation Although smaller in total, there was similarly a diverse range of responses that emphasised the personal as the locus for transformative experiences. Approximately one-fifth of the respondents indicated on the numerical scale question that the key transformational events or processes were individual-centric. A few respondents mentioned that being self-aware was a crucial basis for their agency in the world: I believe that by remaining aware and as true to myself as I can be in every situation I encounter in some way I am contributing to making the world a better place. I feel more capactitated [sic] when I have periodic time for reflection, silence and escape from the world of thought.

The actual act of belief itself can have a dramatic effect, as one respondent writes: my BELIEF in my agency gives me confidence that I have capacity to bring about change... the most important change is the change I can bring about in myself (ie. 'be the change you want to see'). Believing in one's own agency is central, and probably comes about from a degree of self-confidence, having supportive and inspiring relationships and being more of an optimist than a pessimist.

Summoning up the emotional resources to overcome a negative personal experience or condition was also regarded as transformational: A key transformational experience for me was recovering from depression. I rejected conventional remedies (drugs and therapy) and decided to try my own way. ...This all worked for me: for the first time in my life, I realised that I was not a victim and that I could actually re-define my own reality (including my world view), not to mention my perception of myself...

One respondent located a source of her disempowerment to be in her perceived lack of comprehension of world issues: Where I feel I hold myself back is with my difficulty in learning about what is happening in the world... This comes from a lack of trust in my own mental abilities to understand and synthesis information. It may also be a fear that if I really learn where the world is at it might shatter my comfortable life.

13 Some respondents expressed a sense of their agency being nascent and linked to their position and influence at a point in time: Just how much difference I personally make is something that will change over time I think. As I learn more and gain more skills (and perhaps more salary!!), I think I will be able to perhaps create more change. At the moment I feel I have the greatest capacity for change through immediate relationships or connections with people. I don't have any great faith in my capacity to influence politicians or other 'high level' decision makers to do anything that I want to do, either alone or as part of a group. Perhaps this will change as I rise in the ranks of influence, with age and occupation.

We can explore these comments through the lens of Mezirow’s transformational learning theory to tease out further meaning. Learning is seen here as the crucial process of “…examining, questioning, validating, and revising our perspectives”13. These perspectives form a largely invisible filter to our experiences, determining what we evaluate, judge and believe subsequently based on them the experiences. Mezirow identifies habits of mind as a key part of these perspectives, and describes six interlinked and interconnected types; epistemic, sociolinguistic, aesthetic, philosophical, moral-ethical and psychological. Transformational learning occurs when these implicit habits of mind are self-reflectively called into question. This self-reflection is occurs on three different levels - content reflection examines the basic components of the issue or problem, process reflection looks at the processes or problem solving strategies used, and finally premise reflection fundamentally questions the actual basis of the issue of problem itself. It is premise reflection that has the potential to transform one’s way of viewing the world. Self-awareness of one’s own ability to effect change as seen here can be viewed from the perspective of the psychological habit of mind - the set of self-beliefs that we carry about ourselves, a person’s “…self-concept, needs, inhibitions, anxieties, and fears”14. In this case, the self-awareness emphasised in the first set of comments above implies the importance that the respondents hold in this continual reflection on these beliefs. The nature of this critical reflection has developed through Mezirow’s writings, with most of his early work focusing on rational reflective processes. His later writings acknowledge other processes outside of the rational, such as the intuitive and meditative experiences mentioned above.15


Cranton (2006, p.23) Cranton (2006, p.34) 15 See Kitchenham (2008) for an overview of the evolution of Mezirow’s transformative learning theory. 14

14 This self-awareness can have far-reaching and liberatory responses, as indicated in the response outlining recovery from depression. The shift in selfawareness entails a premise reflection – the rejection in the depressive identity of being a passive consumer of therapy or medication to an active agent in pursuing alternative healing strategies. This is mirrored in Crowe’s research into transformative learning experiences emerging from people employing a range of selfdirected processes to engage positively with their depression, they led to an “…expanded meaning perspective entailing a reconstructed and more useful frame for making meaning of their experience with depression”.16 As seen in the second response, the act of simply believing in one’s agency whether stemming from premise reflection or psychological qualities such as optimism or self-confidence – provides confidence to act and to see oneself as capable to bring about change. However, there is a key question here around the context that this belief manifests in. Several studies confirm that transformational experiences in one context do not necessarily translate into other contexts or life areas.17 Rather, this core belief can be viewed as a transformational learning experienced in a particular context can then invite further self-reflection on behaviour and thinking in other contexts – which may or may not lead to transformational change. Thus the development of personal agency is likely to be an ongoing process rather than a singular transformative experience. Disempowerment can be seen as one result of an inability to critically question a negative belief regarding a habit of mind. For instance, with one respondent citing a lack of knowledge in world issues, a specific epistemic habit of mind could be a barrier. The latter reflects the implicit way a person evaluates the different ways of knowing the world - for instance the linking of specific factual world knowledge as a prerequisite for action in the world. Content or process reflections may bring awareness about the nature of these facts - such as their context and the processes of inquiry to engage with them - but it is premise reflection that can challenge the core assumption of needing factual knowledge itself.

16 17

Crowe (2009, p.497) See Hoggan (2009) for an overview discussion.


Part 3 – Individual - Social Transformation By focusing on the individual and the social aspects of transformation separately, the previous two sections may give the impression that the responses were sharply divided amongst these two poles. However many responses expressed how their transformational experiences operated on fundamentally both individual and social levels, with approximately one-quarter expressing a balanced score on the numerical scale. Some examples: I have found that social interactions and individual growth are intimately linked. In the first example it was definitely about gaining my own independence and sense of self and this included leaving where I had grown up and finding my own path. But it was not until I moved into a more social setting where I was living with others and part of a community that I felt I had been successful in creating a life for myself. I had the support of a community of like minded people around me and this was the basis if you like from which I could have agency in the world. Kat - I think group process were essential but I think personal work sustained those changes and made them embodied, not just theoretical or external. But its cyclical...its also essential that I have support from others who are walking a different path. My own individual growth needs at its heart a willingness to receive the lessons and challenges from being involved in groups and social interactions. I need to take the time, energy and space to reflect and constructively engage with these interactions.

Although Mezirow and Freire’s theories place different emphasis on the individual with respect to society, both recognise the fundamental interweaving of the self and world. Considerations of the self that cross both individual and social perspectives on transformative learning are implicit in the concepts of both critical consciousness and self-reflection.18 The importance of community and relationality to individual growth and agency as indicated in the first respondent is echoed by numerous studies of transformational learning reviewed by Taylor.19 In this response we see the basic cycle of individuation through first separation from others, a period of traveling on one’s own path, followed by a (re)integration with others. The cycle may repeat itself

18 19

For further discussion see Dirkx (2007). Taylor (2007).

16 several times with different ‘others’ and a different sense of self. The last response above may also be read in this way. The second response’s comments on the body draws in an element not discussed so far – the relationship of embodiment to transformative learning. Powis explores this in her paper, commenting that: ..the inter-subjective experience of being of the world as an embodied spiritual, sentient being, rather than in, on, or witness to the world. Such body knowing implies a unitive consciousness, being in connective relationship with all that is, not separate from it.


Thus by the respondent doing ‘personal work’ herself, the learning are embedded in her bodily awareness, which in turn has a concrete, intersubjective effect on others that she engages with.


Powis (2005, p.384)


Part 4 - Story telling - Disclosure and agency

So far we have been examining the content of what respondents have been saying – the statements themselves. However a crucial factor in the self-perception of agency is the influence that the very process of articulating these responses can have on how people see their agency. This forms the second part of the initial research question, which is expressed in survey as the following question: Please reflect on your experience of completing this survey. How did the process of articulating your experiences and self-perceptions makes you feel? Does it reinforce or weaken particular self-beliefs?

For many the act of reflection confirmed the beliefs that they specified in the earlier questions, whether it was individual-weighted, social-weighted, or a more balanced view. In confirming this, respondents often viewed the process of completing the survey positively: This survey definitely forced me to reflect on my own experiences and journey and by doing so it made me feel proud to be committed to positive change. Self-reflection is a wonderful space to be invited into, now that I see it as a fruitful experience to gain from. I think it's been good for my ego, and also for my attitude towards activism, becuase it's made me think of all the lovely things people have said, as well as heaps of positive experiences I've had with other active and inspiring people. It actually makes me feel proud because I think that I have made a difference... It does reinforce my more positive perceptions

Many respondents welcomed the survey as it provided them with a space for reflection on their beliefs that were not normally present in their busy world: In the grind of my day job (as a public servant) and self-focused stuff (like mortgage repayments, bills and being pregnant) I hardly ever get a chance to reflect in depth and alone about my place in the world. It's great to talk about this because it is helping me to tune into what I really believe in... sometimes it's easy to lose track of all that with everything else going on in life. I quite enjoyed this experience of reflecting in a way that I may not have chosen to do myself.

18 Another key theme was the self-realisation of the social basis for the sense of personal agency: It highlighted the importance that other people have played in my life and the fantastic contributions that they have given me. It made me realise how social a creature my sense of agency is. It grows out of my ability to see change in people around me, and is augmented by working closely with people who share some sense of agency with me. In particular, when thinking about moments of intense personal change and how it they were always the combination of changing how I understood myself, but that was not a individual experience by brought about, mediated or reenforced through interactions with others.

Some participants wrote about the relevance of self-reflection on their ability to inspire other people: I like having to reflect & be concise about my story, that is helpful in distilling the essence so that I can communicate more clearly with others. Telling my story, moreover, thinking that somebody values this, encourages me to encourage others and further develop my own sense of agency.

There were also a few critical comments: ‌there was an implicit value judgment in the questionnaire which is that to answer that you think you do affect change in the world is a 'good' answer and that you don't is a 'less good' answer. Completing the survey has been a bit of a struggle as from its point of view I appear to be an outlier and my personal story barely is.

To explore the responses above, we turn to the third theory outlined in Part 1 – the narrative concept of the self. There is a certain ease or naturalness that comes with the narrative form, as Tappan puts it: Whenever it is necessary to report `the way it really happened' ... the natural impulse is to tell a story, to compose a narrative that recounts the actions and events of interest in some kind of temporal sequence


The responses here form a type of narrative knowing – complex mix of reconstructions in the present of both transformational events from the past, and reflections on the present experience of filling in the survey itself. Thus people are


Tappan (1991, p.8)

19 reflecting on the experience of both remembering the past and synthesising it in the present. For the many respondents who found that the reflection tended to confirm their beliefs, it is indicative to look at an insight from Crites's work that discussed the temporal direction of the self-narrative. 22 He suggests that the narrator can construct the story from two directions – from the past to the future, or from the future to the present. Explicating this through our example, the act of completing the survey reinforces certain respondent’s beliefs regarding agency (I am active, I am ‘good’ change agent, I am skillful because of my knowledge… etc). When considering their agency through time, they project these beliefs into the future to act as a horizon for future possibilities. Depending on the nature of these beliefs, this may constrain potential future development into one or more particular paths - for instance with the belief that 'agency come from knowledge’ may suggest an agential development path that neglects non-knowledge approaches. There can exist in the narrative context a dynamic tension between a more stable present identity and transformative potential future self. The opposite narrative direction, from the future perspective to the present situation, implies a present born from a future vision. This perspective, relying on such a defined vision, may be less commonly found. However, it may be that the transformation experiences themselves as described by the respondents may induce a different personal vision. As many respondents felt positive overall in the reflections above, this may correspondingly contribute a favourable influence on how they move forward into the future. The fact that the practical time constraints of respondents’ busy lives limit the degree of their critical reflection is hardly a new insight - yet it is telling here as the nature of the comments demonstrate a high degree of self-awareness amongst the participants. Narrative theory provides one way of looking at this - that the respondents are living out multiple competing stories. For instance, one story sees time as running out for changing the world, versus the story that emphasises the importance of time spent in continuous critical reflection. This former story may relate more to a respondent who leans towards an outer, more social sense of agency, and the former to individual-leaning respondents. When taking into account the quantitative self-assessment of agency, the responses imply a mild correlation between those indicating this time constraints explicitly and a more outwardly social sense of agency.


Crites, cited in Rossitor (1999, p.63)

20 The responses that expressed finding an unexpected social emphasis for their agency underscore the importance of relationality to the ability to make change both individually and in the world. The narrative approach stresses this relationality through viewing the ‘person-in-context’ as a unity – that is, an essential construction of both psychological and socio-cultural elements.23 Here the socio-cultural domain spans from individual people – colleagues, mentors and students – to larger structures such as groups, organisations and ultimately society itself. In each area, one’s story of agency may be told in a different way. This differs quite profoundly from the mainstream view of the autonomous self, making its story through the world, rather than with it. Through the respondent’s process of telling a transformational story, they may actually shift between the two paradigms – starting off as the sovereign narrator and emerging with a wider conception of self. It is important to consider the critical comments, which bring attention to potential bias in the survey. The issue of the survey coming across as not relevant to some participants is a complex one. Its focus is on a person’s ability to make positive change in the ‘world’. The survey’s explanation to the participant states: …a 'world' is any context outside of yourself. Anywhere from your household to the global stage.

This bias is intentional and is inseparable from the particular focus on this kind of change. However, it is important to acknowledge that there are theories and ideas of change in which the self alone is the key actor, and which would require a survey with different emphases to explore these questions properly.


For further discussion, see Rossiter (1999).


Part 5 – My process of learning Undertaking this research project has been a formidable task and one that I have learnt during each stage of the process. In this section, I reflect on these learnings across the project’s three stages – design, implementation, and analysis.

Design As mentioned earlier, I had a key hope that the process of completing the survey itself would have the potential to produce transformational change in the participant, through the successive acts of critical reflection that it calls for. The topic of reflecting on previous moments of transformational change seemed to provide for that opportunity, and the poles of the individual vs the social influence mapped closely with the transformational learning theories of Mezirow and Freire. Developing the questions were an iterative process whereby I would write a question and then try to answer it myself. This was a difficult cycle where I found I was repeating the same answers to different questions – seemingly resisting the difficult critical reflection that I was planning to impose on others.

Implementation Despite the technological ease of sending out the survey (via email), I found it personally challenging to be continually asking people to participate. I perceived it to be a burden and a favour that people were doing for me, based on my assumptions that the critical reflection process involved was difficult – a chore to do for me rather than something that could benefit them. This was despite of the initial premise that I held above regarding the transformational potential of the survey.

Analysis My assumption around difficulty and respondents’ attitudes was challenged as I began to read the incoming surveys. Over two-thirds mentioned that the process of completing the survey was positive in some way, with many expressing gratefulness for the opportunity. What made this experience of reading these reflections powerful for me was that I was simultaneously feeling moved by the respondents’ openness and depth of reflection. I felt privileged, and at times, humbled, to be a witness to such offerings. Many responses drew me into their world, where I could for a

22 moment glimpse how this person saw change and their part in it. This in turn challenged my own beliefs and assumptions. The survey process unfolded in a spiral growing around the alternating poles of individualism and collectivism - developing the questions individually, sending them out collectively, analysing them individually, and then collating and representing them collectively. This oscillation can be compared to what Marshal describes as the poles of agency and communion: Agency is an expression of independence through self-protection, selfassertion and control of the environment. Communion is the sense of being ‘at one’ with other organisms or the context, its basis is integration, interdependence, receptivity.24

Reflecting on my learning’s using this approach locates my initial desire to ‘create change’ as an expression of extending my own agency, together with the idea of sending the responses back out into the world through a website. In contrast, while developing the questions and considering all the possible respondents, alongside actually reading all their responses, was in effect developing and broadening my communion and connectivity to others people’s perspectives.


Marshall (2008, p.457)


Section 4 – Future Directions This research paper has provided some initial insights into the topic of selfperceptions of agency in social change. It represents the first stage of a potentially larger project to extend this inquiry. Some of the possible processes for this are: Interviews Interviews were planned but were not executed because of time constraints. As mentioned above, the interview medium would allow dynamic face-to-face interactions and give greater adaptability to pursue topics and questions that arise on the fly. Visual Relying on text based and/or verbal responses alone privileges the linguistic form over other ways of knowing. By inviting participants to draw images or diagrams representing their reflections, the door is opened to a different kind of knowing. Quantitative Although several questions a numerically based, they ask very general questions which are difficult to assess numerically. Breaking down these general questions into more specific sub question may increase the validity of the method; in the meantime it is more the respondent’s process of coming up with a numerical response which is important, rather than the actual result. Future focus The survey has so far queried the participants experiences in the past (transformational events) and in the present (completing the survey). A natural extension would be to investigate perceptions of agency for the future, and gauge whether such future visions can have a transformative effect on the present. Website As mentioned in the survey instructions, my intent is to collectively assemble the responses and post them all to a website to allow others to view. The initial viewers would be all those who had participated in the survey, and from there I would ask them to pass it along to their friends etc. Developing an automatic mechanism for

24 posting responses to the website would make the system largely autonomous and therefore easily to keep going.

The development process The concepts of agency and communion, as described above provide a framework for advancing the inquiry. By continuing the cycle of action and reflection, the survey can be honed further and its responses spread to a wider audience.


Concluding remarks The concept of agency - seen here in this inquiry as one’s ability to make positive change in the world - is a complex and challenging idea to grasp. The theories of Mezirow, Freire, and the narrative self all act to illuminate different parts of the a person’s agency-concept, corresponding to the social, individual and storied aspects. In this theoretical context, the online survey took participants through critically reflecting on both their transformational past experiences, and the present act of this reflection during the survey process. Social transformational experiences were the most commonly expressed as influencing agency; with several respondents being surprised themselves that their reflection lead them to this conclusion. For many being involved in social change groups provided connections with other likeminded people and spaces for dialogic engagement that challenge, distil, and advance ideas around social change. For respondents who reported individual transformative experiences, the process of critical reflection was crucial, with the latter encompassing a variety forms from the rational to the meditative. Despite these variations in individual and social emphasis, the majority of respondents acknowledged both as contributing factors, reflecting the complex interwoven nature of transformational learning processes. The final exploration of the reflective process during taking the survey yielded strong evidence that these practices contributed to transformative learning. The surprise that many respondents found in actually enjoying completing a potentially burdensome survey underscored this, with many indicating that it had made them more sensitised to their thoughts and assumptions behind their self-perception of agency. In conducting this project, my own learnings have developed through challenging my own assumptions. Although my initial desire for the survey to contribute to positive social change ‘out there’ was largely successful, it was the personal engagement with respondents contributions which ultimately had the most effect on me. This act of witnessing these candid and personal responses en mass was a privilege that deepened my understanding of the complexities of social change and one’s place in it. This exploration has only scratched the surface of the topic of agency and social change, an area so crucial for our present time. We have caught glimpses of change occurring through the eternal cycles of transformation of the world and

26 transformation of the self. A key challenge of the future will be transform these sporadic glimpses into a steady gaze - a way of seeing that reveals the endless variety of transformational changes occurring around us and that can reflect them back onto ourselves.


Appendix 1 – Survey questions



Survey form can be found here Compiled survey results can be found here


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Changing the world-a case study of transformation, agency and social change  
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