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Agency is the faculty for action. This faculty may be uniquely human. Action differs from the (mere) behavior of non-human organisms, which is driven by innate or conditioned reflexes and instincts. Non-human organisms have no or little control over how they behave. They do not have a sense of self or, if they do, it is not reflexive. Their behavior is caused by forces they cannot comprehend or influence. Human actors are different because they are conscious and aware of the world, themselves, and other actors. To some extent, what they do, and who they are, is up to them. They are open to the world, and not stuck in the immediately pressing here and now of a local niche. Human identity is not fixed from the start, and so human beings have to make themselves into who they will become. This makes predictions of actions difficult, if not impossible. Action is contingent; behavior is necessary. An actor can act, but also not, and can also act in different ways. While actors may have reasons for their actions, such reasons do not determine actions in the same rigid way that natural forces cause behavior.
The faculty for agency is located in the human mind. The mind is the seat of reflexivity, deliberation, and intentionality. Before we act, we rehearse possibilities and alternatives. The mind also houses the sense of who we are as individual persons. Humans have minds and selves, and these together are the sources for action. Action is motivated, but not caused, by intentions. These intentions give actions their meaning. To understand agency, action, and actors, sociology needs to understand and interpret the meanings and intentions that actions have for their actors. This is difficult, since intentions and meanings presumably are mental states inside the head, and so cannot be directly observed, unlike overt behavior. While each of us can introspect our own intentions, what happens in other minds may ultimately be inaccessible. In fact, for Freud, we do not even know, and chronically deceive ourselves, about what happens in our own minds.
Much depends on how our agentic core is developed. One possibility is rational choice and exchange theory. This holds person, intention, and action constant. In this tradition of scholarship, there is no genuine problem or difficulty with agency because it is settled by fiat. By axiom or definition, all actors are deemed rational.
On the other hand, in the symbolic interaction-ism tradition, agency is more contingent and open-ended. This is not for the external observer to decide, but emerges from the practice of social life itself. The faculty for agency is not ready made, but emerges through a process of social formation and re-formation. To understand agency, one needs to take the ”actor’s point of view” and see the actors’ worlds from their own perspectives. Since all action is symbolically structured, most importantly through language and culture, the key to agency and action is interpretation, not explanation.
According to ethnomethodologists, members of ordinary everyday society do not so much act as enact the social practices of common sense. There are very narrow limits on what actors can be consciously aware of and define or redefine. Members are not the authors of these practices but one outcome of them. Members are the means by which society reproduces itself. Social practices cannot be defined and redefined at will.
Yet another possibility is a constructivist, rather than realist, notion of agency. Constructivism sees agency not as a faculty that is, in fact, had by actors but as a property that may, or may not, be ascribed to them. Agency then becomes an attribution, akin to the granting of a privilege that can also be withdrawn and withheld. This constructivist turn in the study of agency makes variation in attributions the key. Agency now becomes a second-order construct, not a first-order essence or natural kind. Allowing for variation might make it possible to render agency more amenable to empirical research, whereas up to now it has been bogged down in conceptual and semantic analysis.
- Emirbayer, M. & Mische, A. (1998) What is agency. American Journal of Sociology 104: 962-1023.