Using adults’ life histories to explore contemporary biographical transformations and the question of human agency, with particular reference to the resources provided by adult learning and education.
Recent evolutions in contemporary societies have provoked a number of profound transformations in adults’ life paths. The traditional biographical standard based on a three-stage model seems to have become obsolete: (i) learning during childhood and youth, (ii) working and becoming parents during adult life, (iii) withdrawing from active life at retirement age : this simple structural model, containing only a small number of biographical transitions and life cycles, would appear to belong to the past.
New forms of contemporary biographies are characterised by numerous transformations, which are the result of the many tests and trials that the adult subject is likely to encounter in the course of his/her life. Transitions and bifurcations, linked to the many changes currently taking place in contemporary societies, may intervene at any moment. In place of any available models of the stable life path, there appear to be a number of hypotheses about transformations that are difficult to predict in terms of education, professional and personal life as well as a number of other existential considerations.
These biographical transformations require adults to develop new forms of human agency: in the contemporary social context, the subject’s capacity to act and react is potentially decisive but unevenly distributed.
The 2011 conference in Geneva will attempt to explore contemporary transformations in life paths and the new forms of human agency that they demand of adults disposing of very unequal resources. It will also aim to deepen our understanding of how education and training, as a means of supporting potential agency, can accompany and provide support for the contemporary adult faced with multiple transformations.
The conference will aim to develop the following themes and controversies:
1. Epistemic aspects:
• Can we really talk about transformations or “de-standardisation” in relation to contemporary life paths?
• Is an adult’s capacity to act in the world no more than an illusion? Do adults actually have any room for manoeuvre, for personal initiatives?
2. Social aspects:
• Is the constant solicitation of adults to display agency just another ideological or political snare?
• Could it be claimed that institutional and commercial management interests have hijacked the concept of agency?
3. Educational and ethical aspects:
• Can adult education make any significant contribution to the development of individuals’ agency?
• What perspectives for action can we identify for adult educators?
• What orientations can we suggest and develop for research?