Agility should pay attention to Sociology

Recently Sarah Mei Wrote a mind opening twitter thread with her issues regarding Power Dynamics in heterogeneous groups trying Agility:

The thread made me think a lot and start doing the link between what she said and the little I know of Sociology.

Specifically it made me think about the relations of Bourdieu’s social theory and the methods we use to create software today.

So I wrote myself a thread to explain 3 concepts from Bourdieu and their impact in Agility

And by far the most common reaction was to ask me to write this in a blog post instead of in a twitter thread!

In answer to that ask: I transcribe here my thread.

We’ll talk about: Symbolic Violence, Hexis, Cultural Capital, the interactions between them and with Agility.

Symbolic Violence

Society has conditioned everyone to have a symbolic Ideal of what is dominant/strong and what is dominated/weak! It is infinite but we all share it unconsciously! It changes over time too!

The picture of the dominant is drawn with infinite traits:

  • Signs of wealth (Rolex)
  • Conformant cloth (Suits)
  • Being White Cis Het Male Abled (Hi!)
  • Being From “rich” countries
  • Specific forms of diction
  • The luxury of calmness
  • the signals we take for “intelligence”
  • Extroversion
  • Etc.

We all share that picture, the more someone has traits from that Picture, the More the person is subconsciously seen as a “Dominant” by everyone this is a millennia-long programming, generations after generations conditioning the next one.

Unconsciously you “score” each person around you, a note of how “dominant-like” the person is, and everyone “scores” you, this is a minute to minute, cloth to cloth, posture to posture, dynamic and instant thing.

And you are conditioned to yield power to people with ”higher scores”, this IS the main catch of Symbolic Violence! ’tis not done by the dominant! Is something we all do to ourselves, we are programmed to do that!

Now, as all sociology, this is way more complex of course: the powers given by Symbolic Violence are just one amongst several others and you can use them, and reverse them an is not because you have them that you have dominated society.

You can be WhiteCisHetMale and still be in the bottom, Symbolic Violence is but one bonus, not the whole story, but is there everywhere, on the whole society in every interaction, just by adding a single more trait you wield it a tiny more.

UP until you don’t anymore! there is a limit where you can Wield those traits believably! You have to be trained (usually since infancy) to know how to Wield that or else it is “just bling” (ex: a trained eye can easily spot someone that is not confortable wearing suits).

So it is very easy for someone to wield a trait clumsily and have the opposite effect of doing Symbolic Violence, turning into a caricature and some people do This on purpose (Hi 👋!) , others not so much:

A Bling President

As usual the (really fucking good) @existentialcoms has a comic on this that explores the issue with humour:

A really good question at this moment is: how did we do that? how do we maintain that constructed shared illusion of the dominant and why does that construction has this effect of making us yield power even if we consciously know it exists?


A lot of what we are/know is unconscious: we infer a lot by other’s non-verbal communication and communicate a lot trough that, without thinking about this at all.

We communicate to others “I believe I belong here”, “I believe I am good for this position”, ”I believe I am right about this matter without doubt” (or the inverse of those) a lot trough this unconscious & non verbal channel.

With every small flinch, gaze, smile etc.

If you groom a child from the very beginning to know it belongs everywhere that person will never doubt it belongs somewhere, the question is just not asked.

Unlike confidence where you ask yourself the question and the answer is yes

In one case you have the internal debate, in the other you do not even think about it at all, if someone asks you, you are genuinely surprised, you are also surprised when others are not like you.

Is also the difference between courage and temerity right?

So if I condition you from birth to believe you belong everywhere, there is never in your nonverbal communication ever that betrays a moment of doubt about that, because thats never a question you ask yourself: you look innocent.

And people (mall security personnel, random people on the street etc) look around for deviations, if you look like you belong then they are more busy with other matter.

Of course its “looking like” not “being” : we all know doubt is an important thing in a rational level! And also that “belief that you’re right” does not make you right!

But assessing things takes time right? In an hurry look up quickly and unconsciously for signs of self doubt.

And we created a society around productivity hurry.

And in a lot of cumulative hurry… to the level of a whole society:

Looking like you know what you doing & belong somewhere & are confortable in your boots and positions & think you’re right: opens a lot of doors.

Or conversely : we gate-keep a lot against self-doubt.

And this opens doors of course for several people who are (for good or bad reasons) highly confident but even confidence has limits so:

If we groom people so they never even ask themselves that (temerity over courage, befuddlement about not belonging or not being right) they all pass all that gatekeeping forever! Obliviously so!

Not only they pass all these gates: they are never really equipped to perceive the gates at all!

I have talked about only belief you’re right/belong/etc but this can be done to basically any belief about yourself and as soon as the outside appearance of that belief is valued by society it becomes an advantage to groom you to have that unconsciously.

This all builds up to giving the person an “aura” of legitimacy.

One that is complete independent, from Symbolic Violence but can be used in composition with Symbolic Violence quite strongly.

It is insanely hard to access this if you are not groomed into it from birth (you have the questions! you now must make confidence seems like temerity!) and insanely hard to diminish it if you are (takes A LOT of self-awareness improvement to undo THAT).

This leads to “move fast an break things”, to “zany mavericks that bend all the rules” to people (like me) that are constantly benefiting from the structure of organisations being blurry/bullshit/unenforced.

We always feel safe: we literally do not know a world where we aren’t.

In turn now not only the person projects legitimacy (in a hurry) but you see other people making the same jugement call! It validates it, creating an illusion of consensus! You see their given trust on their faces too! Which relaxes you to yours: the reverse is also true.

So if you have a very low hexis and you are working with someone with a very high one: the interactions between you are stacked and so does everyone else’s view around you.

With no links to skill/competency/being-right and with one of you unaware.

Intermission wherein I do not cite Foucault

Key to Symbolic Violence and Hexis is that the person benefiting is

  • Unaware it exists;
  • Unaware they benefit from it;
  • Unequipped to empathise with the (alien) lack of those who do not.

A system of oppressed jailers of their own oppression, And oppressors unaware the jail exist.

So the first step to improve on that situation is in itself to raise awareness!


They get the burden of:

  • Suffering Oppression;
  • Exerting their own oppression;
  • Raising awareness;
  • Being accused of inventing it;
  • Solving the mess.

An anti-fragile system

Cultural Capital

Culture is an investment with dividends in ways pretty similar to money and with pretty similar consequences, there is a barrier-of-entry price of BOTH to many things.

Except that the cultural price is *invisible* and you do not spend your culture. Is like people never asked you to pay things, only to see if you had enough money and the question itself was tacit, never really said, but executed.

A thousand monkeys can typing randomly in typewriters could randomly generate a work of Shakespeare : but can they recognise they did?

Shared recognition is the barrier-of-entry of cultural prices.

Things get new meaning for you as you accumulate cultural capital, you see them in wildly different eyes, when you’re an adult you see kids movies and you find all villains ham-fisted but you did not as a child.

You get new words for things, new meanings, new interpretations, links between things, previously unseen, start kicking in:

By definition: I can only give you examples of when I see that happen to me, here are 3:

  1. When I arrived in France all food seemed dull to me, no spices! (I’m Brazilian, right?) Over time I started developing my palate, seeing the nuances, seeing that french cuisine refused to mask the taste of the ingredients, proud of it.
  2. I still thought, then, that ‘fine dining’ was a bullshit way of selling very little food! Until I started developing a palate for it and seeing a world of another nuances: Like a cake that is called ‘tea‘ and feels like drinking tea but is solid (is awesome)
  3. 15 years ago I used to think abstract art was bullshit meant to scam people selling paintings that meant nothing, after raising a LOT of cultural capital in it I’m almost moved to tears when I go to @CentrePompidou and see Yellow-Red-Blue by Kandinsky
Yellow-Red-Blue by Kandinsky

And other people when they develop that cultural capital they also recognise the same things! The recognising becomes key, you recognise when someones recognise this creates in-groups and out-groups.

And the society we created gives great power and open many doors to cultural capital (as perceived by you one being able to recognise culture), We perceive culture as intelligence, as legitimacy.

Someone with a higher cultural capital will have their opinion more respected, more heard, regardless of it being right or not.

Also: if we share a cultural capital on something it will genuinely become much easier to form metaphors we can both understand and help us communicate.

But then suddenly working with people that do not: is now also a little bit harder.

Now please re-read that @existentialcoms I shown you in Part I, with the cultural capital now in mind:

You perceive a smallness in yourself when you discuss with someone with a perceived great gap of cultural capital, we are all programmed to feel so.

Like everything in sociology it is more complex, cultural capital is not all, but is a big, prevalent, consistent bonus, one that (contrary to Symbolic Violence and Hexis) most people have at least a little conscience of even if not in all its ramifications & that composes.

Interactions of those 3 and “Agile” Methods

Symbolic Violence, Hexis and Cultural capital while independent can be combined AND be used to feed/increase each other!

A system created by people with similar levels of those can only be blind to the needs of the rest!

You have a big enough Hexis and it opens door to many jobs where you can get a lot of cultural capital which open a lot of venues to wield correctly the traits adding to your Symbolic Violence.

You can experiment yourself with the effects of artificially reducing a lot one of those 3 to see how people react to you.

(SideNote: those 3 are only the 3 I’ve got interested: Bourdieu literary found a plethora “pervasive evaluative patterns & distinctions to determine social status and class” ALL OF THOSE compose and feed each other it is mind blowing!!!)

In teams where people have similar levels of those 3 a lot of the unconscious can just go unchecked: there is little Symbolic Violence exerted, no one is feeling diminished in cultural capital, no one is outshining in Hexis: we’ll have a lot of biases & other issues but not this.

Our industry methods where created by groups that where not really homogeneous in the cultural capital front but where similar enough in Symbolic Violence and Hexis.

If you want to see a first-person account of what happens when teams are not homogeneous regarding those 3 you already know you can find it in Sarah Mei’s original thread that sparked this (From Me you’ll get only theory).

Let’s project Sarah Mei’s thread on Bourdieu exposed theories shall we?

When you pair program with someone whose Symbolic Violence/Hexis/cultural capital is much higher than yours you are pair programming with your boss in an invisible informal hierarchy?

Nope right? if you’re reading this and is a privileged as I am you are now already thinking “so what? I pair with all my supposed bosses a lot!” as a matter of fact you never really had a boss? I know I never did: people paid me a salary without any authority over me all my life

So lets replace this when you interact with someone whose Symbolic Violence/Hexis/cultural capital is much higher than yours you are condemned to think that the other opinion is more valid than yours even when it is not the case? Better?

Not really right? If you are as privileged as me part of you is already thinking “oh I love when I’m wrong, I learn stuff!” another part is already all “I do not even acknowledge the duality of valid/invalid for opinions Romeu!”

OH my reader! thats because it is rare for you!

So let’s exaggerate a little? To make this more relatable? When you interact with someone whose Symbolic Violence/Hexis/cultural capital is much higher than yours you are condemned to “hit yourself” in an unpleasant way?

The central question after all this is: Society has conditioned you to “hit yourself” when talking to people passing certain patterns and you have them in a team how can you work? What methods can even work in that situation?

Agility is ridiculously unequipped for that: To improve the team we are supposed to reflect on the issues, communicate them, decide experiments and follow trough them: every part of this depend on a safety that is compromised.

A Pair programming or mob session where one of the participants is hitting oneself is not a co-creation, it is submission.

A discussion about our different visions about the complexity of a task when a participant is hitting oneself is no longer a simple exploration of our different views.

Either we are supposed to create that safety so our methods work, or we need new methods not based in the communication being safe.

Nothing about safety being central is new, @TotherAlistair Crystal Clear is adamant on safety and newer stuff like @modernagile also is: What is new to me is the realisation that all this Sociological violence is between us and that safety.

And hence: Our current approaches are extremely naïve about how achievable that safety is to what degree of safety.

Creating the safety means we have to work around our conditioning ! This is a vast quixotic quest, but I suppose the first baby-step is raising awareness ? This is why I’m doing this post is literally the least one can do.

I would literally be one of the worst people ever to theorise alone on how to create a method that is resilient to lack of safety tho, Like I said: key to this is that we condition those benefiting from it to be unaware!

and the effort to raise their awareness may as well turn some of them violent too, in abusive ways not symbolic at all.

I’ll stop here friends, I have many thoughts more on this but they’re pretty bleak to be honest.

PS: Since I wrote all that I have only one thing to add: If we are to find a solution it can neither be in absentia of those suffering this nor asking them to solve this alone.

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