Kenneth Burke, identity / identification, Activity Theory

While I’m at it with Kenneth Burke, here’s another favorite passage , on “identification,” illustrated with a provocative, if not downright disturbing, classroom scenario.

Included in the two pages linked above, Burke writes:

The human agent, qua human agent, is not motivated solely by the principles of a specialized activity, however strongly this specialized power, in its suggestive role as imagery, may affect his character. Any specialized activity participates in a larger unit of action. “Identification” is a word for the autonomous activity’s place in this wider context, a place with which the agent may be unconcerned. The shepherd, qua shepherd, acts for the good of the sheep, to protect them from discomfiture and harm. But he may be “identified” with a project that is raising the sheep for market.

Of course, the principles of the autonomous activity can be considered irrespective of such identifications. Indeed, two students, sitting side by side in a classroom where the principles of a specialized subject are being taught, can be expected to “identify” the subject differently, so far as its place in a total context is concerned. Many of the most important identifications for the specialty will not be established at all, until later in life, when the specialty has become integrally interwoven with the particulars of one’s livelihood . The specialized activity itself becomes a different thing for one person, with whom it is a means of surrounding himself with family and amenities, than it would be for another who, unmarried, childless, loveless, might find in the specialty not so much a means to gratification as a substitute for lack of gratification.

I don’t know how deliberate was the contiguity of the shepherd/sheep example with the classroom scenario; but I am struck by the insights that are independently corroborative of socio-cultural historical activity theory (CHAT).

What do you think?

One Comment

  1. martha
    Posted April 25, 2007 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Tony, In some ways, I am losing my identity with all of these new ideas. And I think that is what happens when we work with our students. Right now, I am hesitant,even after numerous readings and thinking about all of this for two days, to even respond. I do see a puzzle in the shepherd analogy, because in the second scenario, the shepherd is not a participant in the process of identification. In the classroom analogy, the particpants would appear to be initiators of the identification process, though the example is somewhat curious and incongruent in the context of the piece.
    Are we talking about schema? I thought so initially, but now I see that schema is what we know, identity is what we are. In the 90’s, praise became the “15 minute” issue in our instructional world. I remember one day, in an attempt to celebrate a breakthrough for a student in writing, I asked Thomas to come to the front of the room, read his piece, applause – and then silence from him for over a week. We talked, but I wish I had known about identity then. I had intruded in his personal and core identity. Was he fearful that I was going to ask him to leave the identity behind, before he was ready to do so. How many other students…?
    I so wanted to be smarter about all of this by now.


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