Content: In the Research Hub entry on “Conceptions of ‘the subject’: Part 2” (31 October 2019) I concluded that “discoursing subjects” can still act – they can refuse to be governed in specific ways. Does this mean that they have “agency”? Using quotation marks around the term signals that I consider “agency” to be a contested and somewhat troublesome concept (see Dean 2015). My concerns are linked to the common Western cultural associations between “agency” and free will (think of “a free agent”), self-determination and autonomy, and to the way in which “agency” is set against “structure” in much sociological theory (see Howarth 2013: Chapter 4). According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Schlosser 2015), in the “standard theory”, “agency” is usually taken to refer to the exercise of the capacity of individuals to perform intentional actions. Hence, conventionally, the concept includes a “mental element” and is thus linked to the interior consciousness put in question within Foucault (see Research Hub entry 30 September 2019). The same Encyclopedia entry notes that the term attracts intense debate and that there is “good reason to distinguish between different kinds of agency”, including “mental agency, shared agency, collective agency, relational agency, and artificial agency”. Clearly, we have entered a conceptual minefield!
In several Research Hub entries I have introduced Tanesini’s (1994: 207) argument that concepts have no fixed meaning but are “proposals about how we ought to proceed from here” (see Research Hub entries 17 Dec. 2018; 31 May 2019). Applied to “agency” this should mean that it is possible to reshape its meaning away from the Western cultural association of self-determination. However, I continue to puzzle over just what the term is meant to convey and how “the subject” is theorized in relation to “agency”. For those with poststructural sympathies or critical sympathies more generally, there appear to be two possible paths to follow in relation to “agency” – either to re-theorize it in ways that question the sovereign, transcendental “subject” with which it is commonly associated, OR to avoid using it altogether. I shall mention briefly some of the attempts at re-theorization for readers who would like to explore this theoretical option further. I shall then explain why I have chosen the second path – to avoid using “agency” in my writing. [I should note that I first expressed my disquiet about the concept in a 2005 piece on meanings of discourse (Bacchi 2005: 208 fn 1) and that, in Analysing Policy (Bacchi 2009: 42) I place the term in quotation marks. I have since decided that, for political reasons, I prefer to avoid using the concept altogether.]
Unsurprisingly, given the long-standing debates among feminist theorists about the implications of poststructural theorizing for “women’s” capacity to act (see Research Hub entry 30 September 2019), important feminist theorists have explicitly reworked or redescribed “agency”. For example, Pearse and Connell (2016: 48) argue for the need to “think of agency as existing at a collective level, not just an individual level” in order to challenge “a simple opposition between gender norms and women’s agency”:
“As the studies of women’s activism cited earlier show, the collective agency that in the symbolic realm contests norms and establishes new identities, rests on the practices that constitute women as a group and specifically as a subordinated or oppressed group.”
This shift in focus to groups of activists usefully challenges the view in the “standard theory” (see above) that “agency” refers to some form of capacity held by individuals.
Sawicki draws on Butler to offer a “critical and transformative agency” that moves “beyond the dichotomy of free will versus determinism” (Sawicki 2003: 300). She quotes Butler (1990: 147) to the effect that “Construction is not opposed to agency: it is the necessary scene of agency”. The constituted “subject” in this account engages in a “performative agency” (Butler 2010) of “parodic repetition”. The possibility that such a perspective reinstalls a pre-existent “subject” who (then) “performs” certain actions/behaviours leads Annemarie Mol (2002: 41) to recommend using the language of “enactment” as an alternative to “performativity”.
Karen Barad proposes an ontological and epistemological framework that she terms “agential realism”. In this framework, “agency is not held, it is not a property of persons or things; rather, agency is an enactment, a matter of possibilities for reconfiguring entanglements” (Barad 2012; see also Barad 2007: 178).
Elizabeth St Pierre calls for the theorizing of a “different kind of agency” since “the discursive subject clearly is not free to do whatever it will”. Still, she insists that “agency does not disappear”. She describes how feminists use the concept of positioning “to explain how the subject positions available to women not only limit their agency but also enable certain kinds of knowledge and action not possible from other positions” (St Pierre 2000: 502). St Pierre describes this position as poststructuralism’s “double move in the construction of subjectivity”:
“a subject that exhibits agency as it constructs itself by taking up available discourses and cultural practices and a subject that, at the same time, is subjected, forced into subjectivity by those same discourses and practices. (St Pierre 2000: 502)”
Actor Network Theory (ANT) mounts a significant challenge to conventional notions of agency. Basically, it extends agency beyond humans to encompass non-humans, who are collectively described as “actants”. Latour (1996) defines an actant simply as “something that acts or to which activity is granted by others. It implies no special motivation of human individual actors, nor of humans in general”. Clearly, then, the “mental element” of the “standard theory” of “agency” (see above) has been removed.
This retheorizing of agency fits the ANT focus on heterogeneous elements acting in networks of relations, or “assemblages”. The goal or objective is to pluralize participants and to deconstruct “the antimony of nature and society” (James and Cloke 2008: 80). As Rhodes et al. (2019: 4; emphasis added) describe, ANT “emphasises objects as lively, drawing attention to social and material effects as matters of becoming that are co-enacted through human and nonhuman entanglement”. In their view, this approach “offers a more distributed account of agency in which the human subject is not alone”.
Clarke et al. (2015: 57-58) draw on performativity theory and ANT to frame “the possibilities of agency found within the slippage of particular enactments”. They emphasize that their approach to agency marks “a radical, and irrecoverable, break with sociological notions of agency as a generic property of human beings, which is often in play during debates about structure versus agency”. They stress the “‘unreliability’ of agency” and suggest “treating the agent as a point of condensation of multiple, heterogenous and possibly contradictory forces”. In tune with Foucault’s emphasis on micro-practices (see Research Hub entry 30 November 2019) they note that “we can no longer operate with a notion of ‘agency in general’”. Rather, “agents are always empowered to do something in particular” [My initial search indicates that Foucault seldom used the term “agency”.].
From these selected interventions it becomes clear that to use the term “agency” without specifying the theoretical tradition within which you locate yourself is a fraught exercise. It is almost as if the term “agency” in its various incarnations has become a shorthand for making specific theoretical claims. I find this trend disappointing and wonder why complex theoretical debates get reduced to how we define or explain this contentious term.
I want to suggest the possibility that the centrality of “agency” as a concept in social theory, evidenced in this entry, may well have something to do with its ubiquity within psychology, psychiatry and popular culture, and this may well be a reason to avoid using it rather than attempting to refashion it. An article on “agency” in World Psychiatry endorsed the importance of recapturing “agency” as part of recovery (from “mental illness”). Such a process of recapture entails “regaining a larger experience of ownership and authorship of one’s thoughts, feelings and actions” (Lysaker and Leonhardt 2012). Despite references to “agency” as intersubjective, the goal is to assist in the production of “a narrator who has become able to speak with a coherent authenticity”. If there appear to be connections between this view and the humanist/Enlightenment “subject” discussed at the start of this series of entries (Research Hub entry 30 September 2019), I suspect it is no coincidence. I was pleased to see Peter Goldsworthy (2019: 283) in his recent novel, Minotaur, describe “agency” as one of the “pet terms” embraced by the lead character’s psychiatrist.
My qualms about the term “agency” incline me to probe just what it means to attribute “agency” to non-human objects, as suggested in ANT (see above). Here I consider an article by James and Cloke (2008) that ascribes “agency” to trees, illustrated in their possession of “a bewildering range of skills” (James and Cloke 2008: 86).
My concern is that the “capacities” (here “skills”) that are transposed onto inanimate objects (here trees) are “capacities” assumed to exist in “human agents”. However, the notion of “skills” is not innocent. In labor market and industrial relations policy, for example, the concept “skill” relies upon a vision of humans as skill-acquiring animals, and this ontological presupposition affects how work is evaluated and workers categorized (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 36). A danger then in “distributing” “agency” to non-human “actants”, I suggest, is the tendency to accept and apply, rather than to interrogate, conventional characterizations of human behaviours.
Rather than trying to give “agency” a meaning to suit a particular theoretical stance, therefore, the task, as I see it, involves analysing how “agency” operates in popular and scientific materials with discursive, subjectification and lived effects – a task undertaken in WPR (see questions 2 and 5 in Bacchi WPR CHART. The suggestion is that political analysis could well be enhanced through troubling the term “agency” rather than through redefining it.
Bacchi, C. 2005. Discourse, Discourse Everywhere: Subject “Agency” in Feminist Discourse Methodology. NORA: Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies, 13(3): 198-209.
Bacchi, C. 2009. Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to be? Frenchs Forest: Pearson Education.
Bacchi, C. and Goodwin, S. 2016. Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Barad, K. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Barad, K. 2012. “Matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers”: Interview with Karen Barad. In R. Dolphijn and I. van der Tuin (Eds) New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies. Open Humanities Press. An imprint of Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library.
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Butler, J. 2010. Performative agency. Journal of Cultural Economy, 3(2).
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Dean, M. 2015. Afterword: The Art of Not Being Governed so Much. In S. Hansson, S. Hellberg and M. Stern (Eds) Studying the Agency of Being Governed: Methodological Reflections. Abington: Routledge.
Goldsworthy, P. 2019. Minotaur. Viking Press.
Howarth, D. 2013. Poststructuralism and After: Structure, Subjectivity and Power. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
James, O. and Cloke, P. 2008. Non-Human Agencies: Trees in Place and Time. In C. Knappett and L. Malafouris (Eds) Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach. NY: Springer.
Latour, B. 1996. On Actor-Network Theory: A Few Clarifications. Soziale Welt, 47(4): 369-381.
Lysaker, P. H. and Leonhardt, B. L. 2012. Agency: its nature and role in recovery from severe mental illness. World Psychiatry, 11(3): 165-166.
Mol, A. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Pearce, R. and Connell, R. 2016. Gender Norms and the Economy: Insights from Social Research. Feminist Economics, 22(1): 30-53.
Rhodes, T., Azbel, L., Lancaster, K. and Meyer, J. 2019. The becoming-methadone-body: on the onto-politics of health intervention translations. Sociology of Health and Illness. pp. 1–19 doi: 10.1111/1467-9566.12978
Sawicki, J. 2003. Chapter 11: Foucault, feminism and questions of identity. In G. Gutting (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Foucault. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
St Pierre, E. A. 2000. Poststructural feminism in education: An overview. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 13(5): 477-515.
Schlosser, M. 2015. “Agency”, Stanford Encyclopedia, 10 August. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/agency/
Tanesini, A. 1994. Whose language? In K. Lennon and M. Whitford (eds) Knowing the Difference: Feminist perspectives in epistemology. NY: Routledge.