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In
social science Social science is the branch A branch ( or , ) or tree branch (sometimes referred to in botany Botany, also called , plant biology or phytology, is the science of plant life and a branch of biology. A botanist, plant scientist o ...

social science
, agency is defined as the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast,
structure A structure is an arrangement and organization of interrelated elements in a material object or system A system is a group of Interaction, interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole. ...
are those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and their decisions. The influences from
structure and agency In the social science Social science is the branch The branches and leaves of a tree. A branch ( or , ) or tree branch (sometimes referred to in botany Botany, also called , plant biology or phytology, is the science of plant l ...
are debated—it is unclear to what extent a person's actions are constrained by social systems. One's agency is one's independent capability or ability to act on one's will. This ability is affected by the cognitive belief structure which one has formed through one's experiences, and the perceptions held by the society and the individual, of the structures and circumstances of the environment one is in and the position they are born into. Disagreement on the extent of one's agency often causes conflict between parties, e.g. parents and children. Agency has also been defined in the ''American Journal of Sociology'' as a temporally embedded process, that encompasses three different constitutive elements: iteration, projectivity and practical evaluation. Each of these elements is a component of agency as a whole. They are used to study different aspects of agency independently to make conclusions about the bigger concept. The iteration element of agency refers to the selective reactivation of past patterns of thought and action. In this way actors have routine actions in response to typical situations that help them sustain identities, interactions and institutions over time. The projective element encompasses the process of imagining possible future trajectories of action connected to the actor's hopes, fears, and desires for the future. The last element, the practical-evaluative element, entails the capacity of people to make practical and normative judgements amongst alternative possible actions in response to a context, demand or a presently evolving situation.


History

The overall concept of agency has existed since the
Enlightenment Enlightenment, enlighten or enlightened may refer to: Age of Enlightenment * Age of Enlightenment, period in Western intellectual history from the late 17th to late 18th century, centered in France but also encompassing: ** Midlands Enlightenment ...
where there was debate over whether human freedom was expressed through instrumental rationality or moral and norm-based action.
John Locke John Locke (; 29 August 1632 – 28 October 1704) was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment Enlightenment, enlighten or enlightened may refer to: Age of Enlightenment * ...

John Locke
argued in favor of freedom being based on self-interest. His rejection of the binding on tradition and the concept of the
social contract In moral A moral (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally spoken in the area around Rome, known as Latium. Through the power ...
led to the conception of agency as the capacity of human beings to shape the circumstances in which they live.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau Jean-Jacques Rousseau (, , ; 28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778) was a Republic of Geneva, Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer. His political philosophy influenced the progress of the Age of Enlightenment, Enlightenment throughout Europe, as w ...

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
explored an alternative conception of this freedom by framing it as a moral will. There was a bifurcation between the rational-utilitarian and non-rational-normative dimensions of action that
Immanuel Kant Immanuel Kant (, , ; 22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804) was a German philosopher A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy Philosophy (from , ) is the study of general and fundamental questions, such as those about r ...

Immanuel Kant
addressed. Kant saw freedom as normative grounded individual will, governed by the categorical imperative. These ideas were the point of departure for concerns regarding non-rational, norm-oriented action in classical sociological theory contrasting with the views on the rational instrumental action. These definitions of agency remained mostly unquestioned until the nineteenth century, when philosophers began arguing that the choices humans make are dictated by forces beyond their control. For example,
Karl Marx Karl Heinrich Marx (; 5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883) was a German philosopher A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy Philosophy (from , ) is the study of general and fundamental questions, such as those about reason, M ...

Karl Marx
argued that in modern society, people were controlled by the ideologies of the bourgeoisie,
Friedrich Nietzsche Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (; or ; 15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900) was a German philosopher A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy. The term ''philosopher'' comes from the grc, φιλόσοφος, , translit=philosophos, me ...

Friedrich Nietzsche
argued that man made choices based on his own selfish desires, or the "
will to power The will to power (german: der Wille zur Macht) is a prominent concept in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. The will to power describes what Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche may have believed to be the main driving force in humans. However, the ...
" and, famously,
Paul Ricœur Jean Paul Gustave Ricœur (; ; 27 February 1913 – 20 May 2005) was a French Philosophy, philosopher best known for combining Phenomenology (philosophy), phenomenological description with hermeneutics. As such, his thought is within the same ...
added
Freud Sigmund Freud ( , ; born Sigismund Schlomo Freud; 6 May 1856 – 23 September 1939) was an Austrian neurologist Neurology (from el, νεῦρον (neûron), "string, nerve" and the suffix -logia, "study of") is a branch of medicine Me ...

Freud
– as a third member of the "
school of suspicionThe hermeneutics of suspicion is a style of literary interpretation in which texts are read with skepticism Skepticism ( American and Canadian English Canadian English (CanE, CE, en-CA) is the set of varieties of the English language ...
" – who accounted for the
unconscious Unconscious may refer to: Physiology * Unconsciousness, the lack of consciousness or responsiveness to people and other environmental stimuli Psychology * Unconscious mind, the mind operating well outside the attention of the conscious mind as ...
determinants of human behavior.


Feelings of agency

Thinkers have only just begun to empirically explore the many factors that cause a person to feel as though they are in control – particularly, in control of a physical action. Social psychologist
Daniel Wegner Daniel Merton Wegner (June 28, 1948 – July 5, 2013) was an American social psychologist Social psychology is the scientific study of how the thoughts, feelings, and behavior Behavior (American English) or behaviour (British English; ...
discusses how an "
illusion of controlThe illusion of control is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events. It was named by U.S. psychologist Ellen Langer and is thought to influence gambling File:A photo of a gambling stand in Paris.jpg, A gambling stan ...
" may cause people to take credit for events that they did not cause. These false judgments of agency occur especially under stress, or when the results of the event were ones that the individual desired (also see
self-serving bias A self-serving bias is any cognitive or perceptual process that is distorted by the need to maintain and enhance self-esteem, or the tendency to perceive oneself in an overly favorable manner. It is the belief that individuals tend to ascribe succes ...
es). Janet Metcalfe and her colleagues have identified other possible heuristics, or rules of thumb that people use to make judgments of agency. These include a "forward model" in which the mind actually compares two signals to judge agency: the feedback from a movement, but also an "efferent copy" – a mental prediction of what that movement feedback should feel like. Top down processing (understanding of a situation, and other possible explanations) can also influence judgments of agency. Furthermore, the relative importance of one heuristic over another seems to change with age. From an
evolution Evolution is change in the heritable Heredity, also called inheritance or biological inheritance, is the passing on of Phenotypic trait, traits from parents to their offspring; either through asexual reproduction or sexual reproduction, ...

evolution
ary perspective, the illusion of agency would be beneficial in allowing social animals to ultimately predict the actions of others. If one considers him or herself a conscious agent, then the quality of agency would naturally be intuited upon others. As it is possible to deduce another's
intention Intentions are mental states A mental state, or a mental property, is a state of mind of a person. Mental states comprise a diverse class including perception, pain experience, belief, desire, intention, emotion, and memory. There is controversy c ...
s, the assumption of agency allows one to extrapolate from those intentions what actions someone else is likely to perform. Under other conditions, cooperation between two subjects with a mutual feeling of control is what James M. Dow, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Hendrix College, defines as "joint agency." According to various studies on optimistic views of cooperation, "the awareness of doing things together jointly suggest that the experience of subjects engaging in cooperation involves a positive here and now experience of the activity being under joint control." Shared agency increases the amount of control between those cooperating in any given situation, which, in return, could have negative effects on individuals that the partners in control associate with. If joint agency is held by two people that are already in a position of power, the partners' heightened feeling of agency directly affects those who are inferior to them. The inferiors' sense of agency will most likely decrease upon the superiors' joint control because of intimidation and solitude factors. Although working together towards a common goal tends to cause an increased feeling of agency, the inflation of control could have many unforeseen consequences.


Children's sense of agency

Children's sense of agency is often not taken into account because of the common disbelief that they are not capable of making their own rational decisions without adult guidance. In many cases, the
social norms Social norms are shared standards of acceptable Acceptability is the characteristic of a thing being subject to acceptance for some purpose. A thing is acceptable if it is sufficient to serve the purpose for which it is provided, even if it is f ...
for the parental role in a family contributes to the frequent disallowance of their children's agency to be fully shown. Consequently, the children under oppression of free will by their parents tend to show signs of frustration and have trouble exploring their
self-identity One's self-concept (also called self-construction, self-identity, self-perspective or self-structure) is a collection of belief A belief is an attitude Attitude may refer to: Philosophy and psychology * Attitude (psychology) In psyc ...
in the near future. The internal struggles concerning lack of agency faced by children commonly lead to behavioral issues and disobedience of authoritative figures in hopes that the extent of their agency will be stretched. Children whose parents oppress their free will tend to show signs of frustration and have trouble exploring their self-identity in adolescence and later in life. Children’s internal struggles concerning lack of agency commonly lead to behavioral issues, including the disobedience of authoritative figures and counter control. They test boundaries in the hope that they can further extend their agency and therefore their sense of independence in life as a whole.


Hewson's classification

Martin Hewson, Associate at the York Centre for International and Security Studies,
York University York University (french: Université York), also known as YorkU or simply YU, is a public In public relations Public relations (PR) is the practice of managing and disseminating information from an individual or an organization ...
, describes three types of agency: individual, proxy, and collective. Individual agency is when a person acts on his/her own behalf, whereas proxy agency is when an individual acts on behalf of someone else (such as an employer). Collective agency occurs when people act together, such as a social movement. Hewson also identifies three properties of human beings that give rise to agency: intentionality, power, and rationality. Human beings act with intention and are goal oriented. They also have differing amounts of abilities and resources resulting in some having greater agency (power) than others. Finally, human beings use their intellect to guide their actions and predict the consequences of their actions.


Agency in conversation

In his work on conversational agency, David R. Gibson defines agency as action that furthers an actor's idiosyncratic objectives in the face of localized constraints that also have the potential of suppressing the very same action. Constraints such as who is speaking, how is participation shifted among participants, and topical and relevance constraints can impact the possibility of expressing agency. Seizing the moment when the "looseness" of such constraints allows, enables users to express what Gibson calls "colloquial agency".


See also

* Action theory *
Agency (philosophy) Agency is the capacity of an actor An actor is a person who portrays a character Character(s) may refer to: Arts, entertainment, and media Literature * ''Character'' (novel), a 1936 Dutch novel by Ferdinand Bordewijk * ''Characters' ...
*
Agency (psychology)In psychology, agents are goal-directed entities that are able to monitor their environment to select and perform efficient means-ends actions that are available in a given situation to achieve an intended goal. Agency, therefore, implies the ability ...
*
Negative capability Negative capability is a phrase first used by Romantic poet John Keats in 1817 to explain the capacity of the greatest writers (particularly Shakespeare) to pursue a vision of artistic beauty even when it leads them into intellectual confusion an ...
*
Paracosm A paracosm is a detailed imaginary world. Paracosms are thought generally to originate in childhood and to have one or numerous creators. The creator of a paracosm has a complex and deeply felt relationship with this subjective universe, which ...
, an alternate reality created by some people as they develop ''agency'' *
Social action In sociology Sociology is a social science Social science is the Branches of science, branch of science devoted to the study of society, societies and the Social relation, relationships among individuals within those societies. The t ...
*
Social relation In social science Social science is the branch A branch ( or , ) or tree branch (sometimes referred to in botany Botany, also called , plant biology or phytology, is the science of plant life and a branch of biology. A botan ...
*
Structure and agency In the social science Social science is the branch The branches and leaves of a tree. A branch ( or , ) or tree branch (sometimes referred to in botany Botany, also called , plant biology or phytology, is the science of plant l ...
* Theory of structuration * Dignity of risk


References

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Sociological terminology This category relates to sociological Sociology is the study of society A society is a Social group, group of individuals involved in persistent Social relation, social interaction, or a large social group sharing the same spatial or s ...