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Anne Edwards on the development of relational agency in professional practices

Abstract It takes as its starting point a view of practices as knowledge-laden and emotionally...

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Giota Alevizou
10 March 2010


It takes as its starting point a view of practices as knowledge-laden and emotionally freighted sites of purposeful and expert activity. Arguments therefore draw on cultural historical analyses of activities, practices and the institutions that shape them. Relational agency in inter-professional activities is a capacity for fluid and responsive work. It involves working with others to recognise and respond to what matters for each profession in complex professional tasks. It is seen to be mediated by common knowledge which is built in interactions at the points where the boundaries of practices intersect. The focus will be the development of common knowledge, described by Carlile (2004: 557) as a capacity to 'represent the differences now of consequence and the ability of the actors involved to use it', at the sites of intersecting practices. The argument, supported by evidence from four recent studies of interprofessional work, is that building and using common knowledge is an important feature of the relational expertise required for working across the practice boundaries on complex tasks.

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Anne Edwards from Oxford University.

Use of Activity theory

Her position is to work on using Activity Theory to rethink practice and the rethinking of expertise. Identifying in the literature both a system view[Engeström and Middleton, 1996] and a more person-based view [Karvinen-Niinoski]. Her own work sits more in the latter linked to work by Holland and Dreyfus & Dreyfus. Expertise can in turn be linked to intentionality and engaged agency (C. Taylor). In this view “Professional practice” is resourceful, intentional, negotiate, problem-solving. And also imbued with knowledge and values-led. Divided [Julia Evetts] into occupational professionalism and organisational professionalism (e.g. Social Work & Teaching – monitored and controlled professionalism).

Relationary agency

Anne considers “relational agency” as a stage before systemic change – aligning with others, expanding object of activity, work with sense-making of others. Means that system may be needs to change “rule-braking”. Her example comes from Teacher and Social worker using their “tools” to influence a Child’s trajectory. Relationary agency compensates for organisational professionalism by being driven by professional values.

Teacher – Tool            –|

                                             - Child’s trajectory

Social Worker – Tool –|

Relationary agency more obvious in social work context than teaching context: complexity more apparent and a team-based approach allowed breaking the rules in an effective way. Teachers on the other hand were more isolated and so more likely to be conforming. BUT actually they were also facing complex situations and as a result simplifying them.

However she concluded that this does not/should not mean that “know-what” and “know-how” can be replaced by “know-who” [Lubdvall]. E.g. of social worker in “team around the child” to develop easy meetings about allowing break up of task based on understanding roles and division of labour.

Diffused expertise:

(Nowotny, 2003) identifies that diffused expertise is a problem: knowledge that seeps across boundaries perceived as expert knowledge – such as the availability of medical information allowing patients to see themselves as more expert than the Doctor.

Common knowledge and collaboration

Basis for share understanding depends on working with intentions of others but may not have access to their background. To get common position may need to use transfer, translation or transformation (Carlile, 2004) to reach a position of “common knowledge”.

So reflationary agency has preparation stages:

Building common knowledge in summary “need meetings” v “have quick training event”:

  • -       similar long-term open goals
  • -       reveal categories
  • -       recognise and engage with categories

One approach to this could be Development Work Research (DWR) but also alternatives exist. Common knowledge then allows “enough” shared position to allow understanding.

Example from PhD supervision: year 1 – building common knowledge v year 4 using common knowledge.

Example from preventing social exclusion: need to take an accumulated risk view across a child’s life. This brings in multi-faceted approach and collaboration with and recognition of expertise in others. Approach:

  • -       take standpoint of others
  • -       be explicit about what matters for you
  • -       recognise what matters for others

Learning form and learning about each other:

  • -       not precious about information
  • -       share knowledge
  • -       bounce ideas


Expertise: the relational turn

  • -       knowledge and expertise distributed (Lave)
  • -       relational agency to work with expertise of others: but know-who not enough in itself (Edwards)
  • -       interactional expertise (Collins)
  • -       Common Knowledge (Carlile)
  • -       Attunement (Barnes)
  • -       Defined division of labour
  • -       Alternative is “organisational professionalism”

Question: What about power relationships? And what about common knowledge with the “object”?

Answer: Power is important. Expert can lead discourse. There are hierarchies of power that get reflected in conversation. Also do need to bring the “service users” into the system. Concern is that often work is on relation between practitioners and risk of cutting out the client as an “object”

Question: What about “trust”?

Answer: Trust is central – can not do any of this without trust. Reflected in the sharing of long term goals to allow trust to grow.

Patrick McAndrew
10:52 on 10 March 2010 (Edited 10:53 on 10 March 2010)

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