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When Social Change Happens: Observation of Experience and the Paradoxes of Pivot-Making

How to think of social change, in such a way as to see it happening in one's very surroundings?

Published onJul 07, 2022
When Social Change Happens: Observation of Experience and the Paradoxes of Pivot-Making

[This is the pre-print submitted version of an article that has been published on Mind, Culture, and Activity, 2022, where the final accepted version can be accessed.]


The beginnings of social change rarely display the features suggested by the metaphor of “scaling up”, such as the precedence of intention over action and replicability. This article is an attempt to draw attention on passages when social change happens, beginning with people’s efforts to observe demanding experiences in order to work through them. This work is made possible by “pivots”, i.e. resources found in culture (a story, a conversation, a memory, an image) that allow a person to gain an eccentric position for observing his/her experience—and regain the ability to make intentional choices within it. In the process, people add to the trail of “pivots” that can help others make new distinctions in their particular circumstances—and so contribute to social change.

Keywords: cultural sociology, social change, perezhivanie, activity, pivots, intention

1. Introduction

How do “changes in individuals’ perception … ripple out into society at large”? How can these … “be achieved at a scale that can have sectoral or societal impacts”? These questions landed on my desk, in the form of an e-mail from a funder. He was skeptical of my claim that helping individual practitioners make sense of their everyday experience is a contribution to social change—and one he might wish to fund—and not just a form of individual consultation.1

One of the capacities that defines human beings is the ability to make history, by revisiting their earlier experience and altering their ways of acting together. This demands a certain kind of work to help get our human activities into view, so that more complex possibilities might become visible for participating in those activities with others (Sfard et al. 2016). In view of this, the funder’s question might be reformulated as follows: if, indeed, human beings are constantly transforming their activities, how do we know when that is happening? Perhaps, the funder was asking me for a metaphor to help him visualize how social change happens. His use of the term “scale” did, in fact, supply one such metaphor: how can change … “be achieved at a scale that can have sectoral or societal impacts?”. The notion of “scaling” (up)—when applied to social change—seems inadequate because it is reminiscent of the pre-planned efforts of multinationals to expand their operations (Murray, 2013). The metaphor of scale makes social change sound purely like a matter of logistical coordination rather than of culturally mediated choice, such that if people’s activities were coordinated more efficiently through “new structures”, their behavior would be changed in the desired ways. However, I feel its generalized use needs to be challenged, in order to prevent inverting the priority between changes in social “structure” (which are often a consequence of social change having occurred) and the fragile, if ubiquitous, instances in which social change begins to happen in seminal form (Melucci, 1989).

This paper is a long-form attempt to do just that. Moreover, I choose to present this contribution less as a de-construction, and more as a re-construction. Hence, in the sections that follow I bracket the metaphor of “scaling up” … and try instead to turn up the volume on altogether different forms in which social change might manifest. Here, I concur with the late social movement scholar, Melucci (1989), that the moment of collective visibility isn’t how social change usually begins. Rather, this is but the tip of an iceberg that is prepared through more uncertain, and less visible, steps attempted by individuals or small groups.

I also argue that these steps typically happen in response to possibilities for the observation of practice, which were previously unavailable to the individuals or groups concerned.2 These “possibilities for the observation of practice” are what makes it possible to contemplate a wider spectrum of choices in how people take up activity together. To believe the “scaling up” metaphor so much as to lose touch on these less visible beginnings of social change is what happens … when we become hostage to the entailments of the metaphors we use, and compress the metaphor onto the reality it helps disclose (Matte Bon, 1999). If we allow ourselves, instead, to become curious again about the beginnings of social change, then the difficult question we have to answer shifts somewhat, and becomes a version of this: what are these “possibilities for the observation of practice”? And how do they play a role in allowing people to regain authorship of their own history?

Setting off from these questions, my aspiration is for this piece to leave behind a trail of “keys” to get into view the early moments when social change happens. Specifically, this paper explores the potentialities of two key terms: perezhivanie and pivot-making.3 Section 2 focuses on the term perezhivanie by reviewing some of the pertinent literature on this term that was often used by Vygotsky. In that section, I argue that perezhivanie captures the complexity of culturally-mediated experience well, and thereby helps describe the sort of passage—when crises come into view as an experience one is finally able to observe and name (Robbins, 2007)—that it is important not to miss in accounts of social change. In Section 3, I zoom into how perezhivanie manifests in practice by looking at the role of “pivots”, following Nilsson and Ferholt’s (2016a, 2016b) reading of Vygotsky (1935/1994). Making pivots stands for the work of producing possibilities for the observation of experience. I also argue that no one pivot can ever exhaust the potential significance of an experience. It is merely a specification, susceptible of yet further specifications. In arguing this point, I rely on Elgin’s wide-reaching analysis of the use of “felicitous falsehoods” in scientific and artistic inquiry. Pivots are “felicitous” because they afford access to unintelligible experience by getting it into view, opening up new domains for intentional action. They nevertheless remain potential “falsehoods”, as vulnerable cognitive operations that bring specific features of a phenomenon into light, without ever embracing the conceivable totality of that phenomenon. Ultimately, this work of making pivots is one of the most fragile and barely-visible passages in catalyzing social change, and this is why it is crucial to have ways of describing it.

As an attempt to try out my own medicine, I punctuate the discussion I have just sketched with attempts to re-describe certain moments “when social change happens”—which would otherwise have been missed or misrepresented by the image of “scaling up”. Those moments are primarily drawn from my own Ph.D. research (Russi, 2015), a key component of which was an ethnographic study of the development of a social movement—the “Transition movement” (which I define further on)—in the English town where it was first initiated.

2. Getting experience into view: perezhivanie

I regard myself as primarily a user of the concept of perezhivanie, rather than a scholar of perezhivanie, or a Vygotsky specialist. Hence, in this section, I track my encounter with this word through a range of secondary literature, with the stated goal of making visible how the term might afford a different entry point for noticing when social change happens.

I first encountered the word perezhivanie in the following sentence: “The coronavirus pandemic is a world perezhivanie”. This is the title of a piece by Blunden (2020) on the companion website of this journal. The same author opens Mind, Culture and Activity’s “Symposium on Perezhivanie” (Blunden, 2016). In his opening piece, he makes a number of important points. First, “perezhivanie” (plur. perezhivaniya) is a countable noun, so it is a distinguishable unit of experience, and not a concept “about” experience. Second, perezhivanie “means the whole process of potentially life-changing experience inclusive of the working over of that experience” (Blunden, 2016, p. 277). Third, perezhivanie isn’t synonymous with the neighboring expression “lived experience”. This is a word that has particular traction in phenomenological conversations. And yet, it suggests an emphasis on subjective experience, as though it could be held separate from the social entailments of that experience. While I would argue it is perhaps a caricature of phenomenology to think of “lived experience” in this psychologistic way, the caricature comes up so often and so regularly—with funders, peer reviewers, colleagues—as to motivate my inquiry into expressions that might dispense with some of the friction. In this respect, perezhivanie can help. This is a term that was originally introduced by Vygotsky in the context of child development, to describe “the particular prism through which the influence of the environment on the child is refracted … in other words how a child becomes aware of, interprets, [and] emotionally relates to a certain event” (Vygotsky, 1935/1994, p. 341, italics added). Perezhivanie gestures to the work of “digesting” experience undertaken by the child, which is a function both of objective features in his/her environment, and of the resources (social and internalized) on which the child is able to draw upon to make sense of that experience.4

In hindsight, perezhivanie is a word I wish I had known at the time of writing my Ph.D. (Russi, 2015). This was an ethnographic study of how an international ecological movement, the “Transition movement”, first developed in the town of Totnes in Devon, UK. This movement formed around the search for a community response to climate change, exploring ways for local communities to reclaim initiative, beyond simply waiting for top-down interventions. A large chunk of that Ph.D. was spent shedding unhelpful images that implied too much about how a movement is born and evolves over time. Retrospectively, I would say that the Transition movement grew from the shared perezhivaniya—in relation to unsettling news of climate change—of a group of activists who lived in the town of Totnes, in the UK. Here, I use perezhivanie to mean this: the Transition movement rose in the wake of a group of people “working through” shared experiences that had been calling their lives into question. A particularly significant experience was the mainstreaming of climate change through striking documentaries, such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim, 2006). I recall being struck at this description a Transition activist made, as she remembered her first encounter with this documentary:

When my son was a year old, a friend of mine invited me to her house and showed “An Inconvenient Truth”. And I knew things were bad, I didn’t know they were that bad, and I had quite a shock. And I thought: Here I have this little baby and, … the future is not going to look at all like I imagined, … it’s not just like a little bit bad and we might be able to make it better. We might just be completely, excuse my language, fucked. I really went into quite a thing about that, particularly—well, you don’t have children but … you can imagine—there is this person who depends on you. And … my life might end in 30 years, but his life, we’re hoping, is going to carry on till way, you know, sort of towards the end of the 21st century. This was like a really big thing: what am I going to do, apart from just crying and panicking and not being able to sleep? And I thought, … I’ve got to do something, ‘cause even if we fail I know I have to do something, so I was looking around for people who might be able to do something positive.

These are the words of someone whom an encounter has called into question, and who’s left with the task of working out what to make of that encounter. I think perezhivanie is an apt word for this sort of work. Moreover, the tone in which I remember the words being uttered suggested a dramatic experience, which in fact also belongs to the semantic field of perezhivanie (Veresov & Fleer, 2016).

2.1. Perezhivanie as social process

The rupture involved in perezhivanie entails that working through it “is an activity which cannot be successfully completed without the support of others” (Blunden, 2016, p. 281). This is a consequence of Vygotsky’s (1935/1994) position that the resources for working through one’s experiences are initially found in the environing culture and internalized during the growth process.5 Anticipating the argument of Section 3 a little, I want to underscore here this crucial point. Namely: that the resources one needs, to work through threshold experiences that appear to shake one’s life-project, are usually found in the world of culture. For example: in the trails left behind—in the form of books, recordings of various sort, artistic artifacts—by others who have met similar challenges, and which afford a first entry point into otherwise intractable experience.

Blunden’s sentence goes at the heart of what I see a social movement accomplishing: producing resources to help people imagine ways of going on beyond the crises that make them unsteady (I will call this “pivot-making” in Section 3). In many ways, my experience in the study of the Transition movement afforded me with a privileged vantage point to witness just that. The growth of this movement wasn’t entirely one of scale (even though it did physically branch out beyond its place of origin), but—crucially—one of cultural articulation. By this, I mean that it put an increasingly diverse array of cultural resources in place, so that through those resources a small rural community could begin to imagine a life for itself—negotiating the perezhivaniya (i.e. the demanding experiences) of climate change and, a little later, of the financial crisis of 2008.

I am able to offer here a brief example of what I mean, when I argue that the movement grew in cultural articulation. Take, for example, the 2008 financial crisis, which brought home to Transition movement activists the awareness that jobs in rural Devon could be lost because of financial wizardry on Wall Street. In response to this emerging “inconvenient truth”, the Transition movement became very active in promoting local and complementary currency experiments, and in encouraging the incubation of locally based entrepreneurial ventures. In terms of scale, both of these strands of activity were quite niche at the time of my undertaking the Ph.D. Still, that statement doesn’t account for their important role as cultural experiments that made possible the observation of a global economic crisis, in such a way that revealed responses that might be initiated at the community level. For example, complementary currencies were extremely effective—not so much as actually functioning “currencies” (their circulation was rather limited)—but as resources for people to observe how money works, and for understanding how it might be governed to promote well-being in the community.6

2.2. Perezhivanie as reinstatement of intentional action

The above considerations help one see how the work of transforming demanding experiences into a “life really lived” is simultaneously personal and social (González Rey, 2016). This is the work that such experiences call forth. Namely: the work of restoring the ability to pursue intentional choices, upon finding oneself thrown into circumstances not of one’s choosing (Buckingham, 2009, p. 117). If social change begins as “working through a perezhivanie”, this discredits the suggestion that “scaling up” could contribute meaningful insights into this process. On the contrary, “scaling up” appears to imply the intentional rollout of something akin to an already formed blueprint. In that case, while the metaphor of scale can be of use to visualize how local experiments enter the “public domain”, the cost of describing such passage as “scaling up” takes for a starting point … that which is only a point of arrival. Namely: social movements begin with the rupturing of intention, and are explorations into how intentional choices can become available once again. Hence, intentional action isn’t a starting condition, but it is precisely what social change initiatives work to reinstate. That work is the work that an expression such as perezhivanie helps make visible: the capacity to act out of conscious intention being one of the consequences—not one of the causes—of social change taking place.

The consequence of this shift in terminology is that the questions one might ask, in order to account for social change, are bound to shift—from asking about the implementation of a group’s intentional commitments, to asking about the “scarcity” of intentional action a certain initiative is trying to correct.

2.3. Crafting accounts of perezhivanie

How might perezhivanie present itself in real life? To answer this question, it is useful to examine a few examples—taken from Mind, Culture & Activity’s special issue on perezhivanie—of other researchers’ attempts to describe perezhivaniya, and the work they involve. Clarà (2016), for example, describes the situation encountered by a schoolteacher, who was met with a frustrated child punching the classroom wall in response to her requests. Clarà begins his presentation by introducing the teacher’s perceived contradiction: between feeling that she has certain duties to perform in the situation she was meeting, and her perceived inability to fulfill those duties—the more she tried the more she would end up in a corner. For her, working through that contradiction manifested in terms of her eventually being able to allow for a new response to the child’s behavior, beyond the one she initially envisioned: “[her] duty is no longer equated with quashing children’s disruptions, but rather with respectfully listening to the children’s expressions as signified by these disruptions” (p. 292). This change was prepared by the teacher’s exploring different positions for observing her interaction with the child (“Let’s look at why he isn’t doing his homework. Let’s look at what’s going on with this child”, p. 292). In this way, she was able to expand her sets of interventions: no longer assuming responsibility for the child’s emotional regulation, and focusing instead on responses actually available to her in the moment.

Another description of perezhivanie is provided by Roth and Jornet (2016), who follow the exchange between a second grader and her teacher. The second grader had begun grouping solid shapes that were on the floor, according to some implicit sense of geometrical similarity. Not knowing how to go on, she stopped, and was then “offered” a question by the teacher to help her observe what she had done. The teacher’s question, and the student’s response, “accented” (p. 322) a possibility that was always present in the situation, so that it could be observed as a perezhivanie (having an experience) of mathematical reasoning.7

3. Felicitous falsehoods: the paradox at the heart of pivot-making

The general description of perezhivanie—as both an experience and the working over it—falls short of a satisfying account of what exactly it entails, so as to be able to notice it as it takes place. In this sense, Vygotsky (1966/2015) used the word “pivot” to describe how play helps preschoolers move beyond conditioned responses to situational constraints. To this end, he remarked their need for a “pivot”, i.e. some object that helps observe a situation (like using a stick to “observe” the act of riding, by detaching it from the presence of a physical horse) by helping children release from unreflective absorption in that particular situation. Vygotsky’s discussion of pivots has subsequently been taken up by Lindqvist (1995). Drawing in part on Lindqvist’s methodological posture—but moving beyond her work—Ferholt and Nilsson (2016a) have made an original attempt to describe in greater detail the process of “working over” an experience, which is implicit in the word perezhivanie. They draw attention to the importance of a “frame” (p. 295) to observe the unfolding of experience from a different position, and thereby to appreciate new dimensions of depth in that experience. They specifically call this frame a “pivot” (p. 299), and add that what makes a pivot particularly useful is its ability to allow both identification with, and differentiation of, experience. They give the example of an actor performing on stage, where he or she is not the character, but he or she is also “not not” the character (Schechner, 1985). As in: something, in the pivot—which is not me—also belongs to me, in such a way that I may use it to observe myself, to “double” on my own experience, and so come to experience myself going through that experience.

Even a term like “pivot” demands additional clarification of the many ways in which people find one, in order to reconfigure their access to a situation that appears stuck or inaccessible. For example, Ferholt (2018) describes the making of “poetic” films, e.g. short films mixing video excerpts with soundtrack, that do not merely “record” an event, but actually make it possible to “re-feel [the event] from a different perspective”, and thereby come to a place that enables observation of that event. In a similar vein, I want to offer a description of one of the “stratagems” that I—along with colleagues Martin Daly and Patricia Shaw—have been using in a practice-based research community, to help researchers find such pivots for themselves (and make them available for other people). We encourage researchers to begin their inquiries from “striking moments” in their everyday, and ask them to go over them in writing (Shaw, 2021). In theory, the point of this would be precisely to afford—through the process of iterating written accounts of an event—a place of observation from which the researcher might meet his/her experience anew (I write “in theory” because, sometimes, the medium of writing gets in the way—internalized assumptions that writing ought to show logical or causal connections can undermine its usefulness as a medium to observe one’s lived experience afresh). At its best, this iterative process of writing yields pivots, whereby a person’s stance in relation to his or her experience is reconfigured. For example, pivots might often manifest as images that afford a new way of seeing. Take Evelyn Roe, a researcher trying to get into view what actually happens to her during ethnobotanical fieldwork, beyond an oft-rehearsed professional notion of detached “memorialization” of vernacular plant knowledge. Through writing out scenes from her fieldwork, she revisits one in particular, in which she remembers sitting next to a man that was weaving a rope from leaves. Through this re-visitation in writing, the image of “weaving” comes forward as a pivot. That is, it becomes for her an imaginative standpoint from which to observe what she was experiencing in that scene: not simply being there to memorialize a rope-weaving technique, but being present to an invitation to “become woven” alongside another, as joint participant. “Weaving” subsequently allows Roe to pivot in relation to her fieldwork experience, by helping her make sense of different possibilities for acting in similar occurrences:

I abandoned my somewhat academic approach, shedding my self-appointed role of “recorder of knowledge”, and simply sat with people, chatting, cooking on the hearth, and sharing stories. I found it helpful to make the first move, offering a story from my own culture in the Scottish Highlands. From there, we would often sit together for hours, facing the light and warmth of the fire, darkness hugging our backs, the re-collecting of one memory sparking off the next. It intrigued me that our disparate memories brought forth a mutual understanding. There was something in the process of remembering together that reached across the chasm, bridging the gap (Roe, 2021).

Or take Elisa Hornett, another researcher, who carefully documents the steps she took to “observe” certain passages in children’s play that had struck her. She took photos, traced them with pencil on paper whilst omitting some detail, printed them, and eventually made different kinds of cutouts from them (readers can view her notes, pictures, and recorded “manipulations” first hand in Hornett, 2021). At each step, she is able to behold different details as they are made salient by each manipulation. This goes on, until one of her cutouts physically yields children “hanging by a thread” from their play scenes, i.e. with their cutout figures attached to the photo only by a “tiny bond”:

When cut and partly detached, connected only by a tiny bond, the photographs accentuate the uncertainty of these children’s experiences. Tiny joints and pivots reveals the precariousness … What before was caught, steady, frozen, portrayed as a static image suddenly ‘releases’ … Something—maybe everything—is revealed as precarious. We could perhaps even say we sense an existential risk, more than the risk of being hurt, getting dirty, being late, losing a button …(Hornett, 2021).

It is oftentimes figures of this sort (the “rope-weaving” or the “tiny bonds”) that come forward as pivots. As such, they make it possible to cultivate an intentional direction for re-entering a situation, where there would have previously been just an outpouring of confused detail.

Finally, Ferholt and Nilsson (2016a) call the outcome of really working through the perezhivaniya of our lives the development of an “aesthetic form of consciousness” (p. 295). I find it provocative to interpret “aesthetic” as shorthand for the craft of making imaginative pivots, in order to open up a greater sense of mobility about one’s life and social milieu. This, in turn, raises the question of the extent to which the making of such pivots is to be understood as a purely personal, even private, process, or whether such pivots might not also be the way in which the personal becomes political—in the sense of providing cultural resources that other people might be able to use to lean on in their own wayfaring.

3.1 Pivot-making as the ability to conceive of alternatives

My understanding of the term “pivot” is colored by associations to basketball, which I played at young age. In basketball, when a player isn’t dribbling, he or she is forbidden from lifting one of his/her feet. Thus constrained, basketball players will begin pivoting on the “pivot” foot. This involves the imaginative rehearsal of new lines of movement around a position that’s given. The pivot, in other words, is a place of “constrained mobility”, from which the offensive player can explore possible ways to play on. This image of a pivot resonates for me with Ferholt and Nilsson’s (2016a) suggestion that a pivot is neither “me”, nor “not not me”: it is a position from which identification and difference remain simultaneously available. In so doing, pivots afford access to an awareness of contingency in one’s circumstances, and thereby make available a degree of intentionality in choosing how to move on (if one’s circumstances are contingent, this entails they might have turned up different: being able to see how this might be the case provides a lead for exploring how one might then intervene in those circumstances to shift them). Eventually, a regained sense of intentional agency is what marks the shift from merely undergoing an experience, to being able to craft an account of that undergoing as “an experience” that one has worked through—the cathartic sense implicit in the Russian verb perezhivat.

These considerations bring into focus what a pivot “does”, rather than get stuck in a discussion of what a pivot “is”. This is useful because—for instance in the context of developmental psychology—the image of a person (another adult or teacher figure) as pivot can totalize imagination of what a pivot could be, as Ferholt and Nilsson (2016b) perceptively note. Instead, a functional perspective helps explore how the production of cultural resources might in fact also be an activity of making pivots.8 That is: we might view it as the sustained attempt to produce resources for affording mobility, in relation to an inheritance of socially and historically determined circumstances. Cultural “pivots” allow a way of observing those circumstances anew: namely as being open to many contingent continuations. Becoming intimately aware of contingency allows a move past a sense of necessary repetition, and into responsible intentionality: the ability to conceive of alternatives.

Let me illustrate one of the forms “pivot-making” might take, with another example taken from my doctoral work on the Transition movement. Central to the success of the movement was the work of its founder, Rob Hopkins: a prolific author and eloquent speaker. Hopkins mentioned in a personal interview how he paid special attention to crafting “stories” on the basis of the movement’s initiatives, undertaken in the town of Totnes where the movement was based (2015, 2015, p. 190). So it was, for instance, that a local project involving the planting of edible trees in town was narrated as the establishment of the “Nut Tree Capital of England”. Another example: when a local brewery was established on a reclaimed industrial site, it was named The New Lion Brewery—the “Lion Brewery” being the name of Totnes’ historical (and then defunct) local brewery. The opening of the new Lion Brewery thus became an “example of” how a small town—through Transition activism—was able to reclaim its traditional brewery (and, perhaps, its traditional character, too). While these nuances around naming might seem small, I would say that naming an experience presupposes a position from which that experience is being observed. Hence, to claim an event as being an “example of” something is simultaneously to offer it as an imaginative pivot that invites a renewed sense of agency in front of a potentially fixed predicament. The above also illustrates how accounts that might look bound to a specific situation—the perezhivanie of this or that person or group—can double as pivots, whenever they afford other people a new position from which to begin observing their own experience, in such a way as to wonder about the choices available to them.9

3.2. Not becoming hostage to our pivots

Building on Vygotsky, Shotter (1987) laments that, all too often, accounts of experience are not approached prospectively as pivots—i.e. in terms of the mobility they might afford in relation to circumstances—but retrospectively. That is: they are taken as “realist descriptions” of causal mechanisms (a form of determinism), as opposed to “persuasive testimony” that makes it possible to observe one’s circumstances afresh—and open up questions on how to go on within them. He gives the example of Beckett’s characters in Waiting for Godot (Beckett, 1956): by misconstruing their waiting as “caused” by Godot’s absence, they remain unable to observe their waiting as something they may—or may not—choose to continue doing. One might say they stop short of becoming aware of the experience they are undergoing: they aren’t working through a perezhivanie. They just can’t conceive of any way of moving beyond waiting. Shotter is describing here an inversion from “a developmental process … into a seemingly mechanical sequence of episodes, in which not people, but certain mechanisms, laws, principles, scripts or plots, ‘function’, and people are … animated by them” (p. 10).

This inversion can lead participants to misread the passages “when social change happens” between them. Once again, an illustration from my doctoral fieldwork helps. In an interview with me, Rob Hopkins described a possible use of examples within the movement, which had less the flavor of “making pivots” and more that of “replicating models”. During a journey to the US, in order to present his early books on Transition, Hopkins noticed with surprise that people were literally trying to replicate the examples presented in the books, treating his texts like instruction manuals. When “examples” start to be seen as outcomes of a mechanism that needs to be exploited in a replicative manner—as though they could be re-enacted irrespective of people’s ability to observe their experience—you know the inversion is at work. “Examples” then become like Godot, holding Beckett’s characters hostage on stage, rather than resources that free them to observe their own predicament, and recognize it as an experience they are living through—a perezhivanie. Instead, when they function as pivots, examples merely supply accounts of experience that can make a predicament “observable”, inviting new questions of the circumstances other people find themselves in.

3.3. Felicitous falsehoods

In a perceptive monograph, Elgin (2017) notices a similar inversion to the one lamented by Shotter (2017), this time in relation to scientific knowledge. In this domain, it easily happens that features of reality that scientists are able to disclose using models and other cognitive devices … are ultimately identified with the totality of observable reality, becoming separated from the process of observation based on pivots (such as analytical formulas or statistical models) that brings those features to light. In contrast, Elgin argues that scientific accounts ought instead to be judged pragmatically, in terms of what they enable a scientific community to “observe”. On this view, the nature of the cognitive resources on which scientists rely for observing the phenomena they are studying isn’t too dissimilar from the “pivots” mentioned earlier with reference to social change. If one accepts her account, it is possible to observe scientific practice as a highly disciplined instance of perezhivanie—experience coupled with awareness of (i.e. the ability to observe) that experience. Elgin’s picture of scientific practice is of a domain where “felicitous falsehoods”—including statistical models and formal equations—are ubiquitous. Felicitous falsehoods both bring into awareness, yet remain formally different from, the phenomenon under observation. This distance is what enables them to act as “pivots”: they allow scientists to specify those features that draw their attention. Finally, following Goodman (1968), Elgin’s (2017) argument isn’t restricted to hard science, and suggests that the craft of making pivots—or as she calls them: “felicitous falsehoods” (p. 23) or “true enough” (p. 28) approximations—lies at the root of all cognitive pursuits, including (but not limited to) those of hard science.

3.4. How felicitous falsehoods work: the use of examples

Elgin (2017) also goes on to illustrate how “felicitous falsehoods” work—across artistic practice and scientific inquiry—to enable the observation of experience, by focusing on the use of “examples”. Examples enable to observe a phenomenon through the prism of a salient instance, in such a way that certain features of that phenomenon are specified—when these would otherwise be easily overlooked by contemplating the phenomenon in its unfettered complexity. Examples, in other words, are “artifices” people deploy to be able to pay attention to particular features of their experience. Hence, their value resides in the observational possibilities they afford, and in the follow-up action they make possible. What they provide access to are features of an experienced phenomenon that they specify, rather than to “laws” or “patterns” that have “caused” the phenomenon, and which are meant to constrain its possible form to that instantiated by the example. When the portrayal of an example is used to make a claim that it should be “replicated out”, this betrays the just mentioned confusion: it misses that examples are specifications of certain distinct features of a phenomenon, and not the totality of the phenomenon itself. This confusion is nevertheless extremely pervasive, as portrayed by the following account of “examples” by a Transition activist. This is what he had to say:

lots of what happens in Transition is about telling stories: making good stories and then telling them to people, and that’s quite powerful … [a good story] has to excite people … and it has to be true, so we’re not creating a fantasy. … It has to appeal to what people really want … and it also has to be something we do ourselves, and we’re not asking government or local authorities or councils to do something for us, we have to be able to do it ourselves, that’s a key thing to making it replicable (p. 181).

On the one hand, the interviewee uses terms that appear coherent with an understanding of examples as “pivots”. Namely: as rhetorical artifices (“[a good story] has to excite people … it has to appeal to what people really want”) that invite addressees to observe their circumstances from a different position. On the other hand, the activist lapses (in my judgment) into a deterministic register when he brings up replicability. Replication—like “scaling up” in my correspondence with the funder—presupposes some mechanism that, once activated, simply leads reality to conform.

In contrast, by describing examples as “pivots”, I am seeking to distance myself from the notion that the world should be made to standard, so that it validates the features we know how to recognize through the examples we have. This, I would call being held hostage by the examples handed down to us! Instead, the liberating import of Elgin’s scholarship is that, once one understands how examples work as “felicitous falsehoods”, it seems logical that they can proliferate and overlap, as a way of bringing out many possible specifications of a given situation.

3.5. “Artifices” of observation

So far, I have argued that observation of experience is what enables to develop an awareness of it, and to nurture a sense of intentional mobility in relation to one’s circumstances. I have then turned my attention to the work involved in attaining a capacity of observation vis-à-vis experience. In connection to this, I took from Ferholt and Nilsson (2016a) the idea of a “pivot”, i.e. of some resource that is sufficiently proximate and sufficiently distant to enable both awareness of experience, and a sense of contingency and choice in relation to it. I have then considered Elgin’s explicit discussions of the pervasiveness of “felicitous falsehoods”—of the sort examples are—that do just that. Elgin especially stresses the “felicity” of being able to specify distinguishable features of experience, which enables claiming some knowledge of that experience.

I now want to stress the “falsehood” (or “artificiality”) prong, and I do so through the work of Anna Sfard. Sfard (2008) studies mathematical reasoning and, through that focus, she demonstrates an acute discernment of what happens when we compress our activity of “finding pivots” (to observe our experience) into “reified” statements about experience itself (apart from the operations we perform to observe it). In mathematics, this is readily visible: rather than using the word “counting” to describe the acts of manipulation we perform on a set (e.g. uttering number-words as we focus on each element sequentially), we swiftly tend to move towards talk of “numbers” as entities existing in the world, independently of our acts of counting. In a rather counter intuitive move, Sfard is acute in pointing out that this kind of cognitive operation—like taking “number” as a shorthand noun for the process of “counting”—is important, precisely because it is “false” (read “artificial”) enough to simplify the ground for further mathematical exploration, something which would otherwise become impracticable. Indeed, the ambiguity whereby “number” refers both to a computational process and to the product of such process is precisely what makes it a useful artifice to pivot around, in order to observe—and to explore further—one’s experience of counting.

For Sfard (2017), the ambiguity only becomes misleading when we forget to see the pivots we make (e.g. talk of “numbers”, use of symbolism, graphs, or tables) as something we do for a cognitive purpose—i.e. for enabling observation of our experience—because they specify a certain property felicitously, in a way that makes it intelligible. However, when the purpose of doing all this is forgotten or hidden, the “salient features” one tries to observe can get over-identified with the examples that instantiate them—so that examples come to define what experience is conceivable (as though examples were Platonic ideas), rather than experience being merely specified by the examples we deploy to make it intelligible. Pivots make the observation of experience possible. This is the “felicitousness” prong. At the same time, it is important to hold simultaneously the sense of the “artificiality” (and, hence, the “falsehood”) of those pivots, as “artifices” we deploy to bring a phenomenon to light by a specific instance, instead of identifying the conceivable totality of that phenomenon with this or that example.

Here, I particularly like the term used by Howard Becker (1998): “tricks”. A trick “is a specific operation that shows a way around some common difficulty” (p. 4). It is an operation, and it is specific. There isn’t a generalized method of coming to observe experience, only “artifices” for which we are called to account for, whenever we adduce them as enablers of our having specified a particular experience as this or that distinguishable event (Russi, 2021). In this sense, social change is inherently fragile because the consensus around how these “artifices” might specify awareness of one’s experience (by enabling insightful observation) is a consensus that is continually being negotiated. This is why, when a person’s experience first becomes visible to him/her, there is a follow-up piece of work that involves describing not simply the experience itself, but also delivering a vulnerable account of the “artifices” that helped him/her observe that experience.

Finally, the availability of such “artifices” within culture makes possibilities for observation available to other people, in such a way that they too might try them out to specify aspects of their own experience that previously appeared unintelligible and—therefore—unavailable for intentional response. To go back to an example from my Ph.D. that was mentioned earlier: there is marked difference between people simply trying to “replicate” the experiences Hopkins described in his books … and people being able to revisit their surroundings in the light of Hopkins’ accounts of his experience! The latter process is how a movement grows from being a “menu of projects” that people might choose from, to a “form of life” that people might think with, as they observe their unique circumstances through the “artifices” they glean from publicly available pivots (e.g. in the case of the Transition movement, Hopkins’ books).

4. Conclusion

In this paper, I have made the argument that Vygotsky’s discussion of perezhivanie offers a useful concept to account for the beginnings of social change that are routinely missed by metaphors like “scaling up”. Vygotsky appreciates experience both as chronological unfolding, and as observation of that chronological unfolding. Moreover, I have argued that observation of experience occurs from some place that is sufficiently “in” the unfolding (to enable experiencing the event as an event one is undergoing) and sufficiently removed to allow observation of the experience as though through a frame—so as to make it possible to describe an event as an experience one has made.

I have called the work that goes into finding such positions for observing one’s experience—and therefore turn it into lived perezhivanie—as the work of “making pivots”. I have deliberately stayed general, calling pivot any “artifice” that affords a particular position: one that is false/artificial enough to fail to hide its role as an action one performs to open a new entry point into experience, and yet “true enough” to specify some features of that experience that were hitherto unintelligible (Barros et al., 2020).

I have additionally argued that pivots have a social life, in the sense that—once they enable a person to observe his or her experience—they can open up that possibility for others, too. For this reason, the beginnings of social change really begin in the cognitive endeavors one undertakes, to understand what might be happening to him/her. When they produce resources (such as narrations, artifacts, witnessed performances) that are publicly available, those endeavors can act as pivots for other people, too, who might thereby find a different position for relating to their particular circumstances.

This work seems to me to come close to a more granular description of “what makes it possible for an individual achievement to transcend the boundaries of the achiever’s physical existence … [so that] the end point of one’s learning becomes the learners’ successors’ starting point” (Sfard, Qvortrup & Wiberg, 2016, p. 333): the sort of culture-making activity that was described in the opening of this piece as distinctive of human beings.

It is probably impossible to predict exactly the the sort of shifts that these expanded possibilities for observation of experience might enable, given the myriad possible scenarios that might pan out. However, it seems important to acknowledge that the beginning of social change can be found in the efforts—simultaneously individual and collective—to observe otherwise passing experience, and to make it intelligible so that one might be afforded new possibilities for further action.

If this is how one might think about the beginnings of social change, then this finally makes it possible to ask different questions in relation to social change. Such questions might, for example, inquire into the (i) nature of the phenomena one wishes to observe, and then (ii) into the “artifices” one has thought of, to bring overlooked aspects of those phenomena into light; then to ask about (iii) what “traces” might be left of that process of observation, as resources that might enable others to observe their own experience. Finally, one might also ask (iv) how those resources might be made available to others, and (v) how one envisions to make them sufficiently inviting of others’ “trying out” so that they, too, might come to a thoughtful appreciation of the openings those resources afford. These questions (perhaps not all to be answered at the same time!) focus on processes that enable observation of experience, and so seem more coherent with the goal of noticing and supporting social change in its incipient stages (before it’s managed to “scale up”)—when persons and groups strive to come to terms with inarticulate experience so that it might eventually become their lived perezhivanie.


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