“Invention, conceived broadly as the process of actively creating as well as finding what comes to be known and said in the discourse of any discipline, is, I think, best understood as occurring when individuals interact dialectically with socioculture in a distinctive way to generate something.”
–Karen LeFevre

In this chapter of Invention as a Social Act, included as part of the full-length work under that same name, Karen LeFevre argues that “the inventing ‘self’ is socially influenced, even socially constructed,” and that one invents within a socially created medium–language–by building on knowledge inherited from previous generations; in some cases this process may involve an internal dialogue learned by social interaction, while in others it may be a literal collaboration with editors and others who give feedback, and it is influenced by “social collectives, such as institutions, bureaucracies, governments, and ‘invisible colleges’ of academic disciplinary communities” that transmit both expectations/encouragement and prohibitions/discouragement  (33-34). Moreover, the actual impact of any invention is largely defined by its “reception, evaluation, and use” (35). Thus, broadly stated, invention can be defined as a social act across at least seven major factors.

John Dewey wrote, “Individuals still do the thinking, desiring, and purposing, but what they think of is the consequence of their behavior upon that of others and of others upon themselves” (qtd. in LeFevre). LeFevre cites this claim to support her argument that invention is a dialectical process, that “the inventing individual(s) and the socioculture are co-existing and mutually defining” (LeFevre 35). She addresses also the matter of framing questions, such as: “When invention occurs, what exactly is contributed by social elements, and what by the individual?” (LeFevre 36). This, she indicates, creates an unhelpful opposition–the concepts of “individual” and “social” cannot be cleanly or easily separated because they are interconnected and directly influence one another.

From here, LeFevre addresses the concept of “invention as an act.” First, she characterizes invention as “enacted by inventor and audience” in that even when invention–or, as an action, ordered–by one individual, to be carried out to completion it must eventually involve many others, whether immediate collaborators or eventual readers (38). She cites the popularly perceived separation between reader and writer, such as described by Wayne Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction: “The predominant fashion among serious writers has been to consider any recognizable concern for the reader as a commercial blemish on the otherwise spotless face of art” (qtd. in LeFevre). She indicates that this attitude was not always prevalent, however, and notes the collaborative nature of most media production. She concludes the section with a quote from Margaret Atwood: “Writer and audience are Siamese twins. Kill one and you run the risk of killing the other. Try to separate them, and you may simply have two dead half-people” (qtd. in LeFevre). (Though, the metaphor is rather distasteful.)

Moreover, LeFevre challenges even the concept of “events” as discrete, pointing to theoretical models that treat history as always interrelated, a contiguous and ongoing transactional process (41). She calls into question the practice of defining individual units and the idea from physics that even just observing some phenomena causes them to change (42). She even discusses precedents for these concepts based in Greco-Roman rhetoric, such as in Plato, who saw the individual as both a “product and motivator of a dialectic within a larger sphere,” and Aristotle, whose Rhetoric “presupposes a social context”  (45). “For Aristotle,” she writes, “in individual’s character is created and expressed by virtue of that person’s existence in a community” (46).


LeFevre, Karen Burke, and Conference on College Composition and Communication (U.S.). “Invention as a Social Act.” Invention as a Social Act. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. PDF File.

  1. Kirk Livingston says:

    I would be interested to hear more of your reaction to the notion that invention is a social act. I’ve been puzzling my way through LeFevre’s volume and I find myself with questions about how to harness the dialectical precursor to invention. I think she is right: invention happens when what is in us collides with the meaning we create in discussion with others. But I’m still not clear on exactly how that happens. Thanks.

    • Dave Rick says:

      The step-by-step description she offers in this chapter suggests some answers. It begins with social influences and pre-existing knowledge, most of which was received from a “social legacy” (as she puts it), and we use socially constructed technology (such as language) in the inventing process. So, the skill set and knowledge with which one approaches invention are already socially informed (LeFavre 33-34). Even the internal process of dialogue on a subject with oneself is “thought by Vygotsky and others to be a process one learns through social interaction” (34). From there, one likely receives one form or another of feedback, is influenced by the standards and expectations of the community around one, and will exist in some specific social context (34-35).

      My take-away, here, is three main ideas: one, that invention draws upon pre-existing knowledge that the inventor(s) did not discover for themselves, which makes it a social aspect of the process; two, that even the process of inventing is informed by behaviors that are either actually social (such as receiving feedback on ideas) or rely on thought processes that were learned from socialization (“inner dialogue” on the subject); and three, inherited social context and expectations from associated communities inform the thinking of the inventor(s).

      I hope I haven’t oversimplified your question! It’s been years since I read this text, so I’m having to go back and re-examine it, but my best answer to how social invention happens is to look at context, pre-existing knowledge, and the intellectual habits conveyed from socialization. Thanks for the comment!

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