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The elementary forms of educational life: understanding the meaning of education from the concept of “social responsivity”

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This article makes a theoretical contribution to social psychology of education by applying Johan Asplund’s social psychological theory to the educational context. More specifically, the article discusses how the question of purpose of education (Biesta in Educ Assess Eval Account 21(1):33–46, 2009; God utbildning i mätningens tidevarv [Good education in the age of measurement]. Liber, Stockholm, 2011) could be conceived from Asplund’s (Det sociala livets elementära former. [The elementary forms of social life]. Bokförlaget Korpen, Göteborg, 1992) concept of “social responsivity”. Adopting Asplund’s concept, I problematize, discuss, and supplement Biesta’s model, especially his concept of “subjectification” and from here tentatively examine “existentialisation”. Existentialisation is proposed as a tool for understanding the overall meaning of education. To illustrate the theoretical argument, a brief classroom episode is analyzed in detail.

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  1. The transcription is based on video documentation of classroom interaction. For an introduction to the study from which the episode is chosen, see Aspelin (2006).

  2. Asplund’s works have not been translated into English and are unknown to the non-Scandinavian audience. To my knowledge, Asplund himself has not explicitly and specifically dealt with educational issues. On the whole, educational implications of his theory have hardly been discussed.

  3. The concept of socialisation was developed by Emile Durkheim. In Education and Sociology (1956), he defines it as the process in which children and young people adapt to society by incorporating social norms.

  4. Asplund (1992, p. 20) acknowledges Mead as his major source of influence. Asplund's (1992) reconstruction of Mead's theory—including the concept of “role taking”—is based on the 1934 book Mind, Self and Society. This volume is controversial, considering that it is composed of student notes taken at Mead's courses, along with manuscripts that Mead himself left. It is also well known that the book is largely influenced by its editor. Moreover, various researchers—for instance Hans Joas (1985)—has pointed out that there is a huge difference between the book and Mead's earlier work. I would like to thank professor Gert Biesta for reminding me of this problem. However, in this article I choose not to discuss the problem any further. I try to stay close to Asplund's (1992) theory, and, consequently, accept the idea that Mind, Self and Society actually contains Mead's thought.

  5. I will not go into any details regarding the relationship between Asplund’s and Mead's theories. However, let me make one comment: from my reading of Asplund, the phases “social” and “responsivity” are counterparts to Mead's concepts of Me and I. Still, I think that Asplund’s concepts, even more distinctly than Mead's, change our focus from the subjective level to a reality that is actually located between subjects.

  6. A third aspect could be the relationship between subject and object. Asplund (1992) primarily applies social responsivity to situations in which people are acting face to face. Yet, he also stresses that the relationship between individuals and objects—for example, when he refers to activities such as flying a kite and driving a car—could be experienced as social activities. In such situations, the individual attributes human qualities to the object, that is, responds to the object as if it were an actual partner in interaction. A prerequisite for counting objects as relevant in terms of social responsivity is that they function in a similar way as living beings do, that is, they express responses (Asplund 1992, p. 52).

  7. As was indicated before, I choose to stick to Asplund's reading of the concept of role taking, based on Mead (1934) and will not discuss alternative interpretations of Mead's concept.

  8. This concept, Asplund (1992) borrows from information technology.

  9. The distinction between two essential aspects of social life, implied in the argument here, finds support in several pairs of concepts, developed in more or less classical social theories (see Aspelin 2010).

  10. Asplund (1992) develops the concepts of “concrete sociality” and “abstract sociality”. For reasons of space, I do not discuss them here.

  11. It should also be added that Buber’s philosophy of dialogue includes several concepts and ideas that make it possible to understand the educational relationship as a personal, symmetrical encounter between I and Thou.

  12. The Swedish word for purpose is syfte and it has “meaning” (mening) as one of its synonyms.

  13. Please note that I give a radically different meaning to this term than, for instance, Theo van Leeuwen (2008) does. In his critical discourse analysis, van Leeuwen distinguishes between three types of “deagentialisation”: eventuation, existentialisation, and naturalisation.

  14. Cf. Aspelin (2012), in which the connection between social relationships and student achievement is discussed.


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Correspondence to Jonas Aspelin.

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Aspelin, J. The elementary forms of educational life: understanding the meaning of education from the concept of “social responsivity”. Soc Psychol Educ 18, 487–501 (2015).

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