Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-77c89778f8-vpsfw Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-17T12:39:05.109Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Chapter 15 - Agency As the Direction and Reach of Actions

A Theoretical Outline

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 November 2023

Nick Hopwood
University of Technology, Sydney
Annalisa Sannino
Tampere University, Finland
Get access


We need theories that help us join the struggle for alternative futures. Cultural-historical approaches frame agency as something people do rather than something they have or sense. Building on this, I conceptualise agency in terms of the direction and reach of actions. Direction concerns movement from distinctive subject positionings towards desired endpoints. Reach concerns the extent of this movement. Direction and reach can be both outward (transforming the world) and inward (transforming the self). This acknowledges individuals’ contributions to changing their own lives and those of others without evacuating actions from the activities in which they are embedded. Motive, mediation, and motion are key to this. I illustrate these ideas in relation to existing research on young people’s environmental activism, a Latino boy in foster care, and a mother struggling to care for her infant child, as well as examples from prior research and other chapters in this volume.

Agency and Transformation
Motives, Mediation, and Motion
, pp. 355 - 382
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2023

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Bal, A., Afacan, K., & Cakir, H. I. (2019). Transforming schools from the ground-up with local stakeholders: Implementing learning lab for inclusion and systemic transformation at a middle school. Interchange, 50, 359–87. Scholar
Bal, A., Bird Bear, A., Ko, D., & Orie, L. (2021). Indigenous Learning Lab: Inclusive knowledge-production and systemic design toward Indigenous prolepsis. In Cavendish, W. & Samson, J. F. (Eds.), Intersectionality in education: Toward more equitable policy, research and practice (pp. 122–50). Teachers College Press.Google Scholar
Baldwin, J. (1966). Unnameable objects, unspeakable crimes. In Ebony (Ed.), The white problem in America (pp. 173–82). Johnson.Google Scholar
Bierria, A. (2014). Missing in action: Violence, power, and discerning agency Hypatia, 29(1), 129–45. Scholar
Carlone, H. B., Johnson, A., & Scott, C. M. (2015). Agency amidst formidable structures: How girls perform gender in science class. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(4), 474–88. Scholar
Chaiklin, S. (2019). The meaning and origin of the activity concept in Soviet psychology – with primary focus on A. N. Leontiev’s approach. Theory & Psychology, 29(1), 326. Scholar
Clot, Y. (2008). Travail et pouvoir d’agir. PUF.Google Scholar
Cunha Jr, F. R. D., Kruistum, C. v., Kontopodis, M., & Oers, B. v. (2019). Students on Facebook: From observers to collaborative agents. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 26(4), 336–52. Scholar
Edwards, A. (2017). Revealing relational work. In Edwards, A. (Ed.), Working relationally in and across practices: Cultural-historical approaches to collaboration (pp. 121). Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Edwards, A. (2020). Agency, common knowledge and motive orientation: Working with insights from Hedegaard in research on provision for vulnerable children and young people. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 26. Scholar
Edwards, A. & Hedegaard, M. (2019). Rethinking professional support for challenging transitions: Enabling the agency of children, young people and their families. In Hedegaard, M. & Edwards, A. (Eds.), Supporting difficult transitions: Children, young people and their carers (pp. 118). Bloomsbury.Google Scholar
Engeström, Y. (2016). Studies in expansive learning: Learning what is not yet there. Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Engeström, Y. & Sannino, A. (2021). From mediated actions to heterogenous coalitions: Four generations of activity-theoretical studies of work and learning. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 28(1), 423. Scholar
Engeström, Y., Nuttall, J., & Hopwood, N. (2022). Transformative agency by double stimulation: Advances in theory and methodology. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 30(1), 17. Scholar
Freire, P. (1970/1987). Pedagogia do oprimido. Paz e Terra.Google Scholar
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary edition). Bloomsbury Academic.Google Scholar
Fuchs, S. (2001). Beyond agency. Sociological Theory, 19(1), 2440. Scholar
Grant, C. (2022). Double stimulation and transformative agency for leadership development of school learners in Southern Africa. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 30(1), 5370. Scholar
Gutiérrez, K. D., Becker, B. L. C., Espinoza, M. L., et al. (2019). Youth as historical actors in the production of possible futures. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 26(4), 291308. Scholar
Haapasaari, A., Engeström, Y., & Kerosuo, H. (2016). The emergence of learners’ transformative agency in a Change Laboratory intervention. Journal of Education and Work, 29(2), 232–62. Scholar
Hopwood, N. & Gottschalk, B. (2017). Double stimulation ‘in the wild’: Services for families with children at risk. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 13, 2337. Scholar
Hopwood, N. & Gottschalk, B. (2022). From volitional action to transformative agency: Double stimulation in services for families with young children. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 30(1), 3552. Scholar
Jones, P. E. & Magalhães, M. C. C. (2020). Marx, Vygotsky and Freire: Methodological discussions on the role of language in social transformation. DELTA: Documentação de Estudos em Lingüística Teórica e Aplicada, 36(3), 121. Scholar
Kajamaa, A. & Kumpulainen, K. (2019). Agency in the making: Analyzing students’ transformative agency in a school-based makerspace. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 26(3), 266–81. Scholar
Leontiev, A. N. (1978). Activity, consciousness, and personality. Prentice-Hall Inc.Google Scholar
Liberali, F. (2019). Transforming urban education in São Paulo: Insights into a critical-collaborative school project. DELTA: Documentação de Estudos em Lingüística Teórica e Aplicada, 35(3), 126. Scholar
Lotz-Sisitka, H., Mukute, M., Chikunda, C., Baloi, A., & Pesanayi, T. (2017). Transgressing the norm: Transformative agency in community-based learning for sustainability in southern African contexts. International Review of Education, 63(6), 897914. Scholar
Lund, A. & Vestøl, J. M. (2020). An analytical unit of transformative agency: Dynamics and dialectics. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 25. Scholar
Mäkitalo, Å. (2016). On the notion of agency in studies of interaction and learning. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 10, 64–7. Scholar
Roth, W.-M. (2008). Agency and passivity: Prolegomenon to scientific literacy as ethico-moral praxis. In Rodriguez, A. (Ed.), The multiple faces of agency: Innovative strategies for effecting change in urban school contexts (pp. 135–55). Sense.Google Scholar
Roth, W.-M., Tobin, K., Elmesky, R., Carambo, C., McKnight, Y.-M., & Beers, J. (2004). Re/making identities in the praxis of urban schooling: A cultural historical perspective. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 11(1), 4869. Scholar
Sannino, A. (2015a). The emergence of transformative agency and double stimulation: Activity-based studies in the Vygotskian tradition. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 4, 13. Scholar
Sannino, A. (2015b). The principle of double stimulation: A path to volitional action. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 6, 115. Scholar
Sannino, A. (2016). Double stimulation in the waiting experiment with collectives: Testing a Vygotskian model of the emergence of volitional action. Integrative Psychological and Behavioural Science, 50(1), 142–73. ScholarPubMed
Sannino, A. (2018). Counteracting the stigma of homelessness: The Finnish Housing First strategy as educational work. Educação, 41(3), 385–92. Scholar
Sannino, A. (2020). Enacting the utopia of eradicating homelessness: Toward a new generation of activity-theoretical studies of learning. Studies in Continuing Education, 42(2), 163–79. Scholar
Sannino, A. (2022). Transformative agency as warping: How collectives accomplish change amid uncertainty. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 30(1), 933. Scholar
Sannino, A., Engeström, Y., & Lemos, M. (2016). Formative interventions for expansive learning and transformative agency. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 25(4), 599633. Scholar
Shotter, J. (1993). Cultural politics of everyday life. Open University Press.Google Scholar
Smagorinsky, P. (2012). ‘Every individual has his own insanity’: Applying Vygotsky’s work on defectology to the question of mental health as an issue of inclusion. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 1(2), 6777. Scholar
Stetsenko, A. (2016). Moving beyond the relational worldview: Exploring the next steps premised on agency and a commitment to social change. Human Development, 59(5), 283–9. Scholar
Stetsenko, A. (2017). The transformative mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s approach to development and education. Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Stetsenko, A. (2018). Creativity as dissent and resistance: Transformative approach based on social justice agenda. In Lebuda, I. & Glaveanu, V. (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of social creativity research (pp. 431–45). Palgrave.Google Scholar
Stetsenko, A. (2019). Radical-transformative agency: Continuities and contrasts with relational agency and implications for education. Frontiers in Education, 4. Scholar
Stetsenko, A. (2020a). Critical challenges in cultural-historical activity theory: The urgency of agency. Cultural-Historical Psychology, 16(2), 518. Scholar
Stetsenko, A. (2020b). Hope, political imagination, and agency in Marxism and beyond: Explicating the transformative worldview and ethico-ontoepistemology. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 52(7), 726–37. Scholar
Stetsenko, A. (2020c). Personhood through the lens of radical-transformative agency. In Sugarman, J. & Martin, J. (Eds.), A humanities approach to the psychology of personhood (pp. 6583). Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stetsenko, A. (2020d). Research and activist projects of resistance: The ethical-political foundations for a transformative ethico-onto-epistemology. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 26. Scholar
Stetsenko, A. (2021). Scholarship in the context of a historic socioeconomic and political turmoil: Reassessing and taking stock of CHAT. Commentary on Y. Engeström and A. Sannino ‘from mediated actions to heterogenous coalitions: four generations of activity-theoretical studies of work and learning’. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 28(1), 3243. Scholar
Stetsenko, A. & Arievitch, I. (2004). The self in cultural-historical activity theory: Reclaiming the unity of social and individual dimensions of human development. Theory & Psychology, 14(4), 475503. Scholar
Stetsenko, A. & Arievitch, I. (2014). Vygotskian collaborative project of social transformation: History, politics, and practice in knowledge construction. In Blunden, A. (Ed.), Collaborative projects: An interdisciplinary study (pp. 217–38). Brill.Google Scholar
Stetsenko, A. & Selau, B. (2018). Vygotsky’s approach to disability in the context of contemporary debates and challenges: Charting the next steps. Educação, 41(3), 325–33. Scholar
Valsiner, J. (2000). Culture and human development. Sage.Google Scholar
van der Veer, R. & Valsiner, J. (1991). Vygotsky and gestalt psychology. In van der Veer, R. & Valsiner, J. (Eds.), Understanding Vygotsky (pp. 155–80). Blackwell.Google Scholar
Verhoeven, M., Polman, J. L., Zijlstra, B. J. H., & Volman, M. (2021). Creating space for agency: A conceptual framework to understand and study adolescents’ school engagement from a Funds of Identity perspective. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 28(2), 125–37. Scholar
Vianna, E. (2009). Collaborative transformations in foster care: Teaching-learning as a developmental tool in a residential program. VDM Verlag.Google Scholar
Vianna, E. & Stetsenko, A. (2011). Connecting learning and identity development through a transformative activist stance: Application in adolescent development in a child welfare program. Human Development, 54(5), 313–38. Scholar
Vianna, E. & Stetsenko, A. (2019). Turning resistance into passion for knowledge with the tools of agency: Teaching-learning about theories of evolution for social justice among foster youth. Perspectiva, 37(4), 864–86. Scholar
Vygotsky, L. S. (1999). Tool and sign in the development of the child: Conclusion. In Rieber, R. (Ed.), The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky, Vol. 6: Scientific legacy (pp. 61–8). Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.Google Scholar
Williams, J., Ferholt, B., Jornet, A., Nardi, B., & Vadeboncoeur, J. (2018). Development: The dialectics of transgression and social transformation. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 25(3), 187–91. Scholar

Save book to Kindle

To save this book to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save book to Dropbox

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats