4 More Definitions of Agency

Faithful readers of this blog will already know that almost nothing in sociology frustrates me more than the “structure vs. agency” debate. The main reason for this frustration, I think, is the radical underdefinition of both terms (and probably the vs. connecting them too). Today, while reading for my comparative/historical methods class, I was faced with five articles and chapters that talked at great length about structure and agency and their relative importance in historical explanations. I was not elated, to put it mildly. What did each author mean by structure and agency? I won’t offer an analysis of each piece (or even mention them, as they often offered no definition of either term) but I want to lay out four things they could have meant by the word agency, each of which might make sense in some context, then offer a few examples:

  • Agency as free-will.
  • Agency as the explanatory residual of structure.
  • Agency as a mode of action (way of affecting the world).
  • Agency as an analytic counterfactual and (perhaps) site of future intervention.
  • So, first, agency as free-will. This one is pretty straightforward, I think, but more common than you might expect. I think it all goes back to Durkheim and his laying out of the sociological agenda in Rules. I have a page number somewhere of where he defines his project as examining the constraints of social facts vs. the free-will of human beings. If I recall correctly, Durkheim just uses the term free-will. Later authors invoke agency, but they often mean something more philosophical: the sacred power of an individual to be an individual, have goals that are somehow uncaused by social forces, and re-make the world in order to achieve those goals. I think this particular definition of agency is particularly useless for sociology, even sociology not intent on scientism. For all our fighting to show how various aspects of social life are constructed, up to and including the individual and individualism (cf. Marx, Foucault), we should not let an essentialized notion of individuals slip in the back so easily.

    Second, agency as the explanatory residual of structure. This one is sometimes a useful rephrasing of the first without awkward philosophizing. We can posit that race, class and gender structure social life in particular ways that explain much of what happens, but that people still have “agency” which explains why there is not exact conformity. Hence, agency is the residual of structure – it accounts for that which is not accounted for. This notion of agency is pretty wimpy, on the whole, and can be systematically eliminated by the positing of other structures that account for the rest of the variation (much as statisticians might say that the residual is partially explained in terms of omitted variables). This definition does not, however, easily lend itself to an analysis of how agency alters structure unless you think of structures as being alterable within their own logic (i.e. that a structure can change without anything discontinuous happening, that repetition can lead to, or always already is, difference).

    Ok, third, agency as a mode of action. This is the way that Callon defines agency in his discussion of the way economics creates “calculative agencies”. What Callon means is that a particular kind of knowledge (economics, marketing, accounting, etc.) makes possible certain modes of action (ways of trying to alter the world) by framing the world into calculable bits and providing the necessary tools and frameworks to make the calculations. It’s also what Callon meant when he investigated the agency of scallops in a now classic piece in early Actor-Network Theory. The scallops had agency because they had ways of acting that altered the outcome of a process. Mitchell often uses a similar definition of agency when he talks about the need for historians, and sociologists, to give agency to non-humans (e.g. “Can the Mosquito Speak?”).

    The fourth is a variation or reinterpretation of the third: agency as an analytical counterfactual. This one is my own creation, I think, so its explanation is tentative. History and historical sociology (amongst other disciplines) are preoccupied with contingency – to what extent did things have to be the way they are? Models that emphasize structure suppose that things very much had to be as we observed them. Models that emphasize agency suggest that things could have been otherwise. Thus, agency is the possibility of having acting differently in a way that changes an outcome. Thus, endowing something or someone (a class, an organization, an individual, a mosquito or a scallop) with agency is equivalent to creating a counterfactual: if the mosquitoes had not traveled up the Nile, if the scallops had attached to the scientists’ nets, if the working class had not supported FDR, etc. Make sense so far?

    Now, another interpretation of agency-as-counterfactual is that it’s also agency as possible site of intervention. If a scholar is interested in figuring out what the state could do in an economic crisis, then that scholar rates to emphasize the agency of the state in explanations of past economic crises. The question becomes, “What could a state do differently next time?” and thus the analysis focuses on counterfactuals of the form “What would have happened if the state had done things differently?” There is nothing particularly wrong with this focus – indeed, such a purpose justifies criteria for giving certain things or people agency and not others. So, to respond to Mitchell, we don’t give agency to the mosquito because we aren’t writing the book to mosquitoes, so we don’t care what the mosquitoes could have done differently. But, to make that justification work, you have to be clear in your definition of agency, and thus your choice of counterfactuals*, and thus your choice of what perspective the book is written for.

    All this is a long way of saying: Sociologists of the world, define your bothering terms. And while you are at it, could you perhaps specify what the claims you are trying to make are for? Because “a better understanding of society” rarely helps anyone in the abstract, and will likely not make your theoretical choices clearer or more justifiable while a more specific intervention might do the trick.

    * Not all counterfactuals involve agency, I suppose. You could invoke one based on chance – the outcome of a coin-flip, etc. Or that’s giving agency to nature. Whatever trips your trigger.

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    1. Mark

       /  January 20, 2009

      Can you list the five articles you wrote that you read but weren’t “elated” to do so?

    2. Mark

       /  January 20, 2009

      I tried a while ago to leave a comment, but it didn’t seem to work. So I’ll try again . . .

      I am just hoping you will list the five articles/chapters you read with which you weren’t “elated.”

    3. neville

       /  January 21, 2009

      I just have a couple quick points. Apologies in advance if I am being trivial:

      First, you might be interested to follow up the idea of the counter-factual in ANT. Latour, if I recall correctly, uses the counter-factual method in his ‘sociology of a door-closer’ articles. This is, in fact, one of the arguments that uses to suggest that nonhumans ‘have’ agency. The idea is also defended, in its purely intuitive sense, by Callon and Latour in their response to the criticism of Collins and Yearly. There they do disclaim, however, that there are some difficulties with the method.

      Second, I am not sure that Callon has a theory of agency in the strictest of senses. He has a theory of action, sure, but this just reproduces his definition of an actor: anything that resists a set of trials/anything that makes a difference. If anything, Callon wants to keep open the question of agency as much as possible. And while he obviously has a theory of how action takes place — i.e via translation — I don’t think he has anything to say about agency in the sense of something that exists ‘opposite’ structure. Or, as he puts it, he has not much to say about the translation regimes that accompany the work of translation itself. But maybe that was the very point you were trying to make?

    4. @Neville – Yes, yes and yes!
      I had forgotten the sociology of the door-closer article – such a fun piece! But yes, in general, the point I was trying to make is that ANT avoids agency vs. structure, and thus “agents” (or “actors”, or both) look and feel very different in that theory. So, I don’t think invoking an ANT conception of actor (which as you say, is not so much a theory of agency) will help resolve my difficulties with more traditional usages of agency. I simply wanted to point to another way of looking at actors/agents that is very differently defined. I had not realized that Callon and Latour made that point explicitly – I’ll have to track that down (my readings of ANT up til now are limited to a few seminal pieces and Callon’s later work on economics).

      Thanks for the comment!

    5. I enjoyed the read, I think you might also find Latour on guns another useful article. I am also interested in this because in studying change, agency is an issue for me, at present i am settling for a this and that approach, things happen in combination, the how might be more important than why. ailsa

    6. stickmoon

       /  February 22, 2009

      I appreciate your post and agree that it is troubling that sociologists do not define key terms and instead leave the reader to fill in the gaps. I’ve found the Sharon Hays (1992, or perhaps it’s 1994) article on this very issue quite helpful at clearing up confusion over how sociologists leave these terms unspecified. I also like Lemert’s discussion of “social structure” in his book “Social Things” because it is so clear and straightforward. The part that bothers me most about the “agency vs. structure” debate is the “vs.” part, since I think some of the best statements about “agency” and “structure” are found in Bourdieu, Hays, and Giddens, who all argue in various ways about the interconnectedness of agency and structure. It seems to me their sense of agency and structure tends to be more clear than a lot of sociology which invokes those terms.

    7. Jim

       /  June 14, 2012

      Nice post! I found it lucid and helpful.

      One thing that I can’t understand though, is why anyone bothers to spend the time needed to understand what ANT is saying. Or more precisely: why anyone who has spend the time to understand ANT doesn’t feel obligated to tell others to run away.

      After all that all you get is someone telling you: hey if the scallops had co-operated we would have had a network.

      The same as saying: hey, if I invent a teleporter, I would be in a network involving me, and a teleporter, and whoever else. And the teleporter doesn’t work, then there won’t be that network.

      What’s the insight?

      At least, there should be a requirement to tell STS students from the start, that they stand an equal chance of learning something instrumentally useful from reading fiction.

      • I’ve probably learned as much Social Theory from Borges as I have from any other author, so I wouldn’t really use that line as a critique. Opinions obviously differ on the value of ANT; for me, it’s been an incredibly helpful corrective to the standard sociological theory I was taught, especially when it comes to thinking about technology and science, but also more broadly. For empirically useful, ANT-inspired work, I recommend Mitchell’s Rule of Experts, Hecht’s Radiance of France and Being Nuclear, and Callon and MacKenzie’s respective recent works on economics and finance.

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