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Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds

Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds

Dorothy Holland, William S. Lachicotte, Jr., Debra Skinner, Carole Cain

ISBN 9780674005624

Publication date: 03/16/2001

This landmark book addresses the central problem in anthropological theory today: the paradox that humans are products of social discipline yet producers of remarkable improvisation.

Synthesizing theoretical contributions by Vygotsky, Bakhtin and Bourdieu, Holland and her co-authors examine the processes by which people are constituted as agents as well as subjects of culturally constructed, socially imposed worlds. They develop a theory of self-formation in which identities become the pivot between discipline and agency: turning from experiencing one's scripted social positions to making one's way into cultural worlds as a knowledgeable and committed participant. They emphasize throughout that "identities" are not static and coherent, but variable, multivocal and interactive.

Ethnographic illumination of this complex theoretical construction comes from vividly described fieldwork in vastly different microcultures: American college women "caught" in romance; persons in U.S. institutions of mental health care; members of Alcoholics Anonymous groups; and girls and women in the patriarchal order of Hindu villages in central Nepal.

Ultimately, Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds offers a liberating yet tempered understanding of agency, for it shows how people, across the limits of cultural traditions and social forces of power and domination, improvise and find spaces to re-describe themselves, creating their cultural worlds anew.


  • This book brings a breath of fresh air into the otherwise unimaginative social discourse on 'social identity' that reigns in anthropology and psychology in our time. The perspective outlined in the book is a practice theory; practice conceived not merely as what human beings do, but also what they imagine in conjunction with doing. The authors restore the centrality of personal positioning in the contruction of cultural worlds, and bring anthropologists and psychologists together after their long intellectual separation.

    —Jaan Valsiner, Clark University


  • Dorothy Holland is Boshamer Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • William S. Lachicotte, Jr., was Adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Debra Skinner is Senior Scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Carole Cain is Staff Specialist in the Department of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center.

Book Details

  • 368 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press