One way of specifying the agency problematic

Conceptions of what we mean by “agency” abound and are unlikely to constitute a single manageable notion (some ritualistic citation to Emirbayer and Mische would go here). Instead, something like the notion of agency is probably a complex, “radial category.” This means that when we take a position on the various versions of the “agency/structure” or any sort of analogous “debate” we end up having unrelated arguments that use similar words, and sometimes the same argument using different words. More deleteriously, we end up speaking in code, so that instead of saying what we mean in specific terms, we develop the bad habit of speaking in “generics” such as agency versus structure. Positions taken in terms of these generics have a socio-logical function in the field (they serve as emblems of membership in groups and schools) but analytically they leave us at the level of a low cognitive equilibrium, one which is pretty hard to shake out from (which is why it seems like we’ve been having the same conversation for like fifty years now).I think one productive way to proceed is to use a disagreggation and specification strategy, whereby we isolate all of the various sub-arguments that we are having under the agency/structure debate guise (this is roughly the strategy that John Martin used in Social Structures in regards to that concept). After disagreggation and specification we may then have it all out at this lower level of abstraction. Arguments at this level will be bound to be more productive, because here hopes for adjudication regarding the desirability and coherence of one position over another are actually much higher than they would be if we stay at the level of ghostly generics.

So, one thing that I think has been meant by agency in the history of social theory is simply freedom to conceptualize the world in a way that is not dictated by the objective features of the world. While the term agency usually has an affinity to “freedom” (as in freedom of the will or freedom to do whatever you want), so that in a lot of debates agency is conceptualized as freedom of action, I think that one of the core meanings (or the most consequential meaning in the history of various influential debates in social theory) is not about freedom to act but about freedom to think or as I will refer to this from now on, as freedom to conceptualize. So agency is simply freedom of cognition from objective aspects of the world, or more precisely the agent’s freedom (insofar as our cognitive capacities are constitutive of our status as agents) to conceptualize the world in alternative ways. One can recognize this as a strictly Kantian version of what we mean by “agency” and that is no accident. For it is clear that it was the strand of social theory that begins with German-Idealism and which emphasized the creative and constitutive capacities of the subject to conceive of the world in particular ways that injected the most consequential version of the agency problematic in social theory. Under this model, the individual is “free” insofar as the way in which some state of affairs is conceptualized is not completely determined by some sort of non-negotiable feature of the world (e.g. its materiality or brute facticity). Instead, a conceptualization emerges from a negotiation between features of the world and aspects of cognition that are decidedly contributed by the conceptualizer. This mean that a simple inspection of the objective features of the situation is not sufficient to predict the way in which that situation will be understood (read conceptualized) by a person. In this sense, to say that there agency is a property of persons is to say that they have “freedom to” construe a given state of affairs in ways that are not a function of extra-cognitive features of that state of affairs.

As Parsons well understood, a theory that denies agency (or that denies “voluntarism” in his antiquated language) would be a theory that by-passes the mental, or to use more contemporary language, would be a theory that by-passes cognition (or in Weberian terms, a theory that says that ideas don’t matter). In Parsons there were three examples of such theory: instinct theory (biologism), radical behaviorism (environmental determinism) and neo-classical economics; he called all of this stuff “positivism” even though that had nothing to do with how the term had been understood in nineteenth century thought. Regardless, Parsons was right in thinking that any theory that made the cognitive a determinate product of the non-cognitive by definition got rid of the element of “freedom” in action (which he sometimes confusingly referred to as the “value-element”); the reason for that is that–thanks to Kant—in the social theory tradition the only source of freedom left to the person was the freedom to conceptualize the world in a way that was not determined by non-negotiable features of the world. That’s why the “material” is the site of non-agency and the mental (or the cognitive/ideal) is where “agency” resides.

So one way to specify the whole “agency” thing is to actually argue about this rather than about agency: does your actor model makes conceptualization indeterminate given some state of affairs or does it constrain the actor to conceptualize the world in a single way (e.g. the way that “reality” really is). Parsons understood that any theory that reduced cognition to “objectivity” was “positivist” in the sense that it left the actor no conceptual choice to construe the world in independence from non-cognitive features of the world. In neo-classical economics the world is only one way (the way described by “modern science”) and if the actor did not have this conceptualization then by definition the actor was irrational. That’s why in Parsons work (but curiously not in our versions of his debates) there was a clear connection between agency and “the problem of rationality.” Parsons dilemma was that the only theory that had a normative conception of rationality did not leave room for agency (positivism in its neo-classical incarnation) while the only theory that left room for agency (freedom to think otherwise) when taken to its ultimate conclusions resulted in a irrationalist premise (a form of cultural and cognitive relativism). We still haven’t solved that one, but it would be helpful to bring the rationality debate to the fore again.

Note that a lot of “social construction” talk (and debate) has the same structure. So another advantage of what I propose is that disagreggates and re-specifies that debate. I think the term social construction is terrible and misleading. First, if you’ve read Berger and Luckmann you know that it is missing a few words. What they really mean by this phrase is the cognitive construction of (the sense of) reality with categories of thought of social origin. This mouthful is of course unwieldy, but underscores their achievement. In some respects the B&L respecification of the problematic ended up being a better synthesis of German-Idealism with French Social Realism (e.g. Weber and Durkheim) than that produced by Parsons. For the point of social construction (and of cultural sociology) is that this implies an “idealist” version of the Marxian dictum (on this “idealization” of Marx B&L were quite clear): you cognitively make your world but not with categories of thought of your own making (a point obviously central to Bourdieu as well; the phenomenological notion of world-making re-appears in analytic philosophy in Nelson Goodman’s work). I think the reason why we like this formulation is that we can have our cake and eat it too. Note that at the individual level this implies the grossest form of (Durkhemian) determinism (not made any more palatable by the invocation of Mead): the categories with which your think are the product of society; at the group level though we get the benefits of German Idealism: culture is not reducible to (social structure, environment, physical features of the world, universal rationality), so agency re-appears at that level.

This accounts for why social-construction types of debates are so predictable: on the one side you usually have somebody vigorously stomping his/her feet and saying that there are objective features of the world (e.g. and by “objective” the foot-stomper means features of reality that demand that they be conceptualized in ways that leave no freedom for alternative construals). Let’s call these features non-negotiable features. On the other side you have social constructionists carefully denying that such non-negotiable features exist (or more precisely, claiming that they might exist in a neutral ontological sense but they don’t really constrain thought in the way that the non-constructionist claims that they do; i.e. they are epistemically indeterminate). For the (strict) social constructionist everything that the non-constructionist claims is non-negotiable could be construed otherwise, and that’s why culture is autonomous and people have agency.

For instance, Andy Pickering thinks that his work on Quarks demonstrates how (scientific?) “agency” emerges from the “mangle of practice” even though his substantive point is that objective features of the world have not constrained the actual shape of theories about the world in the history of particle physics. Once again, “agency” plays no role in this claim, and we could translate agency as “capacity to conceptualize in divergent ways” without any explanatory loss; agency is a completely decorative term in this whole discussion. Of course, now we can easily explain why it makes this strange appearance; for what Pickering means by “agency” is simply freedom of thought from the slavery of having to reflect a unitary reality. Pickering’s big counter-factual (and this he has in common with every cultural theorist) is that the history of physics (which is essentially a history of conceptualizations) could have been otherwise. Non-constructionists think that he should be comitted to the nearest mental institution. The constructionist immediately points out that the very notion of mental illness is a concept that is not determined by objective features of the world and therefore one that has been cognitively constructed in collective or social way (we can envision an alternative history in which the notion of “mental illness” never arose in the way that it arose in the West, which is the point of Foucault’s early work).

So the point is that a lot of debates about social construction is simply the historical version of the culture/agency thing: the history of collective conceptualizations is contingent and/or driven by the internal features of cultural systems themselves (a point also made by Foucault in his early work). One thing that is not the case is that the history of cultural change can be done as a history of changes in non-cultural features of the world.

The lesson? Agency means many things. One obvious thing that it means is freedom. Yet, a curious quirk in the history of social theory linked “freedom” to cognition or thought (Kant). In the twentieth century this linkage (via Boas who was said to regularly page through his copy of Critique of Pure Reason during cold nights in the arctic) was “blown up” to the group level in the form of the founding problematic of cultural anthropology; so that the “autonomy” (a synonym for “freedom” by the way) of culture from “conditions” (biological, environmental, etc.) is the formal equivalent of the Kantian autonomy of conceptualization from the world, or the Parsonian autonomy of values from conditions. Cultural sociology inherits this whole package of debates, problematics and hasty formulations, but in some sense, cultural sociology is simply the contemporary avatar of a position in this debate (shared by Boas and Parsons): this position is that culture, cognition and thus conceptualization is not reducible to objective or non-negotiable features of the world (so when early network theorists counter-posed “social relations” to culture, they took a stance in this debate, one that they’ve recently reneged); Berger and Luckmann provide us with the modern vocabulary, the one that replaced Parsons’ voluntarism/idealism/positivism lingo: “the social construction of reality.” That’s why this phrase has become shorthand for saying “culture/cognition (depending of whether you are talking about groups or individuals) is not a function on non-negotiable features of reality” or simply another way of saying “agents have the freedom to construct realities in ways that are not a function of the objective features of the world” (the phenomenological input here is clear in the notion of “multiple realities”).  Edmund Leach, Mary Douglas and Eviatar Zerubavel provide us with another update of the same position: culture is a grid that cuts the booming, buzzing confusion of the world in group-specific ways. This single fact explains why cultural sociology stands opposed to all sorts of biologism, environmentalism and universalist rationalisms. In these debates the capacity to unhook thought from servitude to some sort of non-mental determinant is essentially an argument for “agency.” But if that’s the case, then we can have the same debates without using the “a” word. It adds nothing to the proceedings, and in fact may actually confuse matters further.


Written by Omar

December 7, 2011 at 7:28 pm

14 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this. Can you use these ideas to think about the oft-made distinction between the “sociology of culture” and “cultural sociology?” My sense is that these are intra-sub-field ways of playing out the same dispute you’re documenting in the field writ large. But perhaps I’ve misunderstood something?


    Jenn Lena

    December 7, 2011 at 8:18 pm

  2. No I think you are right. Sociologists of culture are depicted as coming suspiciously close from denying the “autonomy” of culture (in fact have been explicitly so depicted by Alexander and Smith), and therefore of committing the various (reductionist, positivist, etc.) sins. So this is just a lower-level re-production of the same constitutive issue (a la Chaos of Disciplines).



    December 7, 2011 at 8:28 pm

  3. Great post Omar!

    I’ve often been confused by this debate because of the different meanings that agency has for people, not to mention the different meanings that structure can have, e.g., a network analysts’ view of structure differs considerably from that of a cultural sociologist. I wonder if one source of the confusion comes because we’re talking across one another as we move between literatures and confront different conceptualizations of structure. For a network analyst, agency is going to be similar to structural autonomy, whereas for an institutional theorist, agency is about institution building/entrepreneurship. In the first case, agency results from being free from the constraints of a network structure (a la Burt), and in the latter, agency is something that one does to institutions, rather than having institutions constrain you. Although both versions of agency involve less constraint, how we think about that constraint ultimately derives from our definition of structure.


    brayden king

    December 7, 2011 at 9:13 pm

  4. I’m just glad that Omar’s back.



    December 8, 2011 at 3:15 am

  5. Omar’s return to posting correlates with Fabio’s anti-college crusade. Correlation or causation? Or spurious relationship?



    December 8, 2011 at 5:53 am

  6. “… what Parsons wanted continues to be wanted by many theorists today. On the one hand, they wish to have something to say about why some courses of action are more likely than others. Hence they make reference to circumstances, or pressures, or rewards, or deep psychological tendencies or orientations. On the other hand, they wish to continue, out of politeness, to refer to human action with the language of choice and freedom” (Barry Barnes).



    December 8, 2011 at 12:12 pm

  7. Kieran, I think Barnes is technically right (as always) but there are actually more options than he lets on. I agree with the position that when it comes to agency we are not really talking about anything that could ultimately be adjudicated with empirical evidence. But note that in the history of theory, and as the agency problematic has morphed into the “cultural autonomy” problematic, people have abandoned the Parsonian (action theory) level and shifted the terrain to other matters. So agency appears to be this quantum that people move around as they see fit sometime draining it from individuals to give it to entire collectivities (as autonomy of culture people do) or vice versa, or sometimes projecting it to the historical process rather than postulating its existence in the cross-section.

    The other point that I would make here is that while there can never be any fact of the matter that could settle the question (“do people have agency?”) there are facts of the matter that can settle the question of whether the range of options that people have in their conception of a situation is limited (with the limiting case being one), completely unstructured or of limited diversity. So rephrasing the agency question in this way is a way of making it less of a metaphysical issue.



    December 8, 2011 at 12:43 pm

  8. lovely post. the specification of what we mean by agency is important. one thing that makes our freedom of cognition hard to fathom is that we are routinely and regularly conceiving of the world AS IF it presented brute, objective fact that our fellows were conceiving in the same way. that’s schutz’s interchangeable standpoints I guess. to get along with one another and sustain intersubjectivity, we act as if we know that we are experiencing the same objective features of the world. I’m reminded of Mel Pollner’s work on traffic courts. though the judge, driver, and policeman are free to conceive of the event differently, they must find accounts for how that is possible given a belief in only one true reality. (ie he could not have been going both 50 and 60mph in that moment so he’s either lying, mistaken, confused, or his speedometer is broken). so in some ways our freedom of cognition is constrained by the practical requirements of getting on in the world with others. if that’s part of “structure”, then so be it.



    December 8, 2011 at 5:13 pm

  9. […] One way of specifying the agency problematic. Post #2 from Omar takes on one of the most contentious debates in the history of social theory: agency vs. structure. Omar offers an interesting new take on how to define agency (as the freedom of actors to imagine a world different from the one they inhabit) that is very interesting, and highlights some of what that debate is all about. My past forays into this field are here and here. […]


  10. […] a previous post, I suggested that a useful way of (re)specyfying the agency problematic, requires us to understand […]


  11. In response to Mike’s “so in some ways our freedom of cognition is constrained by the practical requirements of getting on in the world with others,” I think we also have to accept the fact that the judge doesn’t necessarily have to justify her conception of the “reality” of the situation to the other two (haven’t read much of Pollner so can’t speak to where he comes down in the debate). Because the judge occupies a position of authority and is the ultimate arbiter. This is the structural side of the debate and I think Omar’s conception of agency as mental/cognitive works fairly well because even if the traffic offender disagrees with the reality that is determined by the judgment of the judge, the offender often does not have the capacity/freedom to change the situation.


    Scott Dolan

    March 6, 2012 at 3:20 pm

  12. […] forever (+/- 1 day) about agency and structure, mechanisms, and all that. Omar’s recent posts on the problem of agency are particularly excellent (both for his summary and new […]


  13. […] it out on — thought provoking […]


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