Figured Worlds

Updated: September 15, 2014

We’re slowly getting back in the groove in the Atlanta area. A pair of winter storms shut down our university, so we’re a bit behind on the #walkmyworld project.

I thought I would back up a bit and discuss how we started to fold the #walkmyworld project into our digital media class for pre-service English teachers and curious English majors. When I first learned about the project, part of what captured my imagination was thinking through issues of identity and representation with my students. If we were going to project a particular world to the other participants and interested onlookers, what worlds would we share? How would we position ourselves within those projected worlds? And, how would those worlds be read, taken up, and acted upon by others?

By worlds, I have in mind Holland, et al.’s (1998) concept of a “figured world,” which they define as

a socially and culturally constructed realm of interpretation in which particular characters and actors are recognized, significance is assigned to certain acts, and particular outcomes are valued over others.

These collective “as-if” worlds are sociohistoric, contrived interpretations or imaginations that mediate behavior and so, from the perspective of heuristic development, inform participants’ outlooks. The ability to sense (see, hear, touch, taste, feel) the figured world becomes embodied over time, through continual participation. (pp. 52-53)

We all construct these “as-if” worlds for ourselves and with each other to mediate who we are, what we do, why we do it, and how we relate to others within and without those worlds. We create and re-create these worlds for ourselves and each other through our daily actions. Without getting too far into the weeds of Holland, etl al.’s synthesis of Vygotsky, Bakhtin, and Bourdieu, we have status and positionality within these worlds that inform our identity and how we identify others.

These “as-ifs” are the socially constructed assumptions on which our worlds are based. For example, we go to work with the assumption that the work week is five days and forty hours (an exception from that assumption proves the rule, or “as-if”). However, we didn’t always have this assumption in our country, and this assumption differs across countries.

Other “as-ifs” are problematic when they work to shape power relations and how people interact with one another: light skin is better than dark skin, heterosexual relationships are normal, boys are less emotional than girls, rich people are better than poor people, corporations have personhood, test scores determine students’ potential and worth, and so on.

I’ve always been interested in what happens when worlds collide. What happens when your “as-ifs” are different than mine? How can we examine, question, and interrogate each other’s “as-ifs” as the social constructs they are to consider how they mediate how we relate to one another?

Examples of examining and questioning “as-ifs” include reversals, in which the power relations of the “as-if” are reversed (e.g., homosexuality is normal, gender roles and sexism are reversed). Though these reversals help us “see” the issues, they do not disrupt the problematic “as-ifs” in any way. Other examples of examining and questioning include questioning why a single story (or master narrative) is being told (e.g., #iftheygunnedmedown) and offering up counter narratives to the single story (e.g., #itooamharvard). However, these examples may or may not always include the interrogation of the “as-if” itself as a social construct that shapes power relations and how people interact with one another (e.g., respectability politics). In many cases, the assumptions or the “as-ifs” are in need of refiguring to move toward a more socially just figured world.

With these ideas in mind, when we invite someone to #walkmyworld, we are offering up a representation of a figured world within which we have positioned ourselves in particular ways. And, when we are walking someone else’s world, we bring to bear particular cultural models that we think will help us understand that world. Sometimes, these cultural models get in the way or refract what and whom we’re considering…especially when we have fundamentally different “as ifs.”

To introduce students to cultural models (Gee, 2012) (how we draw on them, how we can work with/against them), I keep coming back to Dawoud Bey’s The Chicago Project. In 2002, Bey asked a group of 12 Chicago high school students the following questions as part of a photography project on identity and representation.

  • Is it possible for a photographic portrait to reveal anything ‘real’ about you or someone else?
  • What aspects of yourself are you willing to share with the world, and how do others respond to these self-presentations?”

Bey worked with the students to create an exhibition that includes portraits of the 12 students and an interview (written transcript and audio) with each.

I isolate the 12 pictures in separate links, so that my students are considering each portrait without the interview: Sara, Isabel, Julia, Leah (Molly), DeMarco, Theresa, Kevin, Simone, Kenneth, Chris, Stephen, and Carolyn.


In small groups, I ask my students to consider the portraits and consider the identity and figured world represented. Who is this high school student? What would we think about them if they were sitting in the class we were teaching?

I specifically ask my students to name the cultural model(s) being brought to bear on the high school students. Because this typically results in silence over the shame of naming problematic cultural models and deficit views of some figured worlds, I use a “distancing phrase” such as, “What would they say?” (Beach, Thein, & Parks, 2008). In this case, “they” is dominant culture, and I ask the students to describe what “they” would say about these high school students. This typically leads to an interesting discussion of the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, language, citizenship, etc. in which students name the cultural models that work on them (and from which they work).

Rather than share with you what models are typically named in relationship to particular portraits, I encourage you to try this with your students. You may find as I have that there are some very stubborn and pernicious cultural models named when describing particular high school students.

The second step of this introduction to cultural models and figured worlds is for the groups of students then to consider the high school students’ interview, both in writing and the audio. I ask them to seek out information that disconfirms or nuances the cultural model in some way. We talk about how cultural models come loaded with particular “as-ifs,” particular figured worlds. We also talk about their frustration when they don’t find the details they are looking for. For example, is not the insistence on knowing a student’s sexuality based on a particular set of heteronormative “as-ifs”?

There are many ways to work with this collection of portraits along these lines. I’m interested in hearing how others would take this up and adapt it. As a supplement, I’ve found Chimamanda Adichie’s widely viewed TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story to be helpful in discussing how not only are single stories (cultural models) incomplete, but they are also based on a set of assumptions that we can describe as a figured world. Our task then does not stop at completing incomplete cultural models; rather, our task is to question the inherently racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, etc. “as-ifs” with which our worlds are figured. And, our task is to figure new worlds based on socially just “as-ifs” and take action and enact identities within those worlds.

So, it is with this framework that we come to the #walkmyworld project. We’re trying to think about how we’re figuring our worlds through our representations. And, we’re thinking about how we are reading the worlds of others across intersections of difference.

We know that the poetry part of the #walkmyworld project is in full swing, so we’ll be meeting this week to consider an appropriate (re)entry point through the learning events.


Beach, R., Thein, A. H., & Parks, D. (2007). High school students’ competing social worlds: Negotiating Identities and Allegiances in Response to Multicultural Literature. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gee, J.P. (2012). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in Discourses (4th ed.). New York: Routledge.

Holland, D., Lachincotte Jr., W., Skinner, D., & Cain, C. (1998). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


3 responses to “Figured Worlds

  1. I love that activity and that study of photos to make assumptions (that’s what it is, right?) about the identity of others through visual literacy, only. It’s fascinating and nicely arcs with the WalkMyWorld idea of documenting who we are with media. I’ll be curious to know how the move into poetry works for you, given your work around identity and digital figured worlds (I agree with you in regards to the way some figured worlds can collide, collapse and then pull apart)

  2. Thanks for the comment. I think for some of my students, this framework provides a way of thinking through how they are (re)figuring their worlds in new ways as undergraduates (and future teachers). The times this activity has been particularly effective is when someone in the room shares how they have been essentialized by one of the cultural models named in class. Then, “it gets real.”

  3. Pingback: Cultural Models | Teaching Reading and Literature·

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