Tuesday, 9 December 2014

In defence of agency

The concept of ‘agency’ was recently dismissed on this blog as an "academic affectation" that keeps policymakers and practitioners from "simpler, cleaner and more evidence-based thinking about development options".

Wouldn’t development be so much easier if we could just ignore complex research into the workings of human agency – our ability to think and act to change our conditions and achieve our goals – and reduce it to something that we have either more or less of, depending on our circumstances?

Such a simplified model of human behaviour would no doubt make the work of development professionals easier, but would it really produce more realistic policies and programmes?

The need to understand human agency is at the very heart of good development thinking and practice


While undoubtedly abused and misunderstood by some, "agency" is no less an artefact of academic jargon than notions of being "innovative", "entrepreneurial", "adaptive" or "politically smart" in explaining how people deal with structural realities (as put forward by the blog's author, David Booth). To reduce agency to the exercise of choice, or to being clever enough to make good choices, within limits afforded by structure, rather than recognising it as a part of human nature that can be cultivated and deployed in creative ways to reproduce, resist or reshape structure, is to misread the agency-structure resolution posed by Giddens.

In structuration, agents do not simply make individual choices available to them among the options dictated by structure; they also think and act in ways that either confirm or disconfirm that structure. That is, they act upon the social norms that define what options are currently permissible to them (PDF). This is one of the central lessons that can be drawn from theories and methods of power analysis (PDF) (as opposed to political economy, which often equates agency with choice) and of feminist analyses of gender and women’s empowerment.

Power analysis recognises that agency is often subordinated by ideology, discourse, values, belief systems and social constructs, and that it can be transformed by practices of critical and reflexive awareness (PDF) and freeing of the imagination to envision alternatives (PDF). The outcome of such processes is not ‘more’ or ‘less’ agency, as something actors have more or less of in some inverse relationship to a structurally-defined set of choices.  Rather, it is forms of thinking and action that either reproduce or critically challenge structure, defined for example as "networks of social boundaries that enable or constrain freedom".

This is agency and structuration with a power lens.


Connections between individual agency and collective agency


Feminist scholarship and activism has long recognised and validated these dynamics, revealing the connections between individual agency (power within) and collective agency (power with) as people recognise, reimagine and enact differently the gendered power relations in society (PDF). Such empowerment practices typically iterate between the intimate, private and public spheres of personal and collective experience, ultimately transforming the scope of choice. These processes for example put women’s rights on the table as a legitimate issue, so that they will eventually be taken up in legislation and in individual moments of choice.

Views of women’s empowerment grounded in economics, which emphasise women’s access to resources, their achievements, and their agency understood as the power to make strategic life choices, recognise the structural limits to women’s options posed by the conditions and consequences of choice in the socio-cultural context. Empowerment therefore requires collective solidarity as well as individual assertiveness to act in transformative ways upon those conditions and consequences.

Agency in this view is not something women have more or less of in order to exercise choice; it is action on the field of possible choices.

These understandings and practices, well documented by activists and scholars over many decades, conceptualise agency as more than quota per person, a variable determined by circumstances, or a degree of choice within the options afforded by structure.

Instead agency is manifest in qualities of thought and action – individual and collective – that either reproduce or challenge those very structures. It would be a sad loss if these appreciations of agency’s role in social change were silenced by a "simpler, cleaner and evidence-based" paradigm, and dismissed as "academic affectation" in favour of "innovative, adaptive and entrepreneurial" jargon to explain human behaviour.

Jethro Pettit is a Director of Teaching and Learning at the Institute of Development Studies. He is interested in the use of participatory learning methodologies to create and communicate new knowledge and ways of being, which lead to changes in power relations.

1 comment:

  1. Jethro, Thanks for this response. You may be justly irritated by some of my phrasing, but on the substance, the position you express seems to me to be exactly the same as mine. My whole point was to reserve use of the word agency for something inherent in the human condition and to resist its being used as an empirical variable. The affectation I object to is not this proper -- more or less philosophical -- use of the concept, but the abuse that is involved when people insert it in sentences which are about some sort of empirical variation. Maybe you don't see this in what you read and hear; I see and hear a lot of it. David

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