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Agency generally refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own decisions based on an awareness of their situation and the range of responses open to them. It can be contrasted with determinism which refers to the cultural, material, historical, political contexts which influence an individual’s behaviour and life chances. While social science generally looks for explanation of behaviour at a social or group level (holistic explanation) this does not preclude an exploration of agency at an individual level; we construct meaning and our actions as human beings are not simply the result of all that has happened to us.

Unsurprisingly there are tensions in ways in which agency is discussed, some of which we highlight below:

Is agency about what we want?

Debates about agency can be traced back to the Enlightenment and the tension between classical liberals who see agency as expression of rational will (people are free agents capable of making choices based on rational self-interest) and more humanistic conceptions which see agency as something more, often something that involves self-fullfillment and self-understanding. In the liberal, or better the neo liberal, view agency is expressed particularly in the economic sphere so that today when we make choices over where to work, what car to buy, what school to send our children to, we are expressing agency. This can be contrasted with a view which sees agency as expression of will once the distorting effects of religion, superstition and oppression have been overcome. These conflicting views of agency are famously discussed in Berlin’s two version of liberty: positive liberty (in brief freedom which involves self-understanding and self-fulfilment) and a negative view which seeks to give the individual as much choice as possible without infringing the rights of others. While highlighting these differences it is often forgotten that Berlin did not see either version as complete.

Is agency personal or social

Some writers have stressed the social nature of agency and conceive agency not so much as what one can do by oneself but what one can do with others in mutually supportive arrangements. Often these draw on accounts of child development. For example, in Erikson (1993) the idea of maturity takes us from the egocentrism of early childhood to an adult who can establish trust with others, who can take account, but override if need be, the expectations of parents and others, and who can express him / her self in caring, mutually supportive reationships. In a similar way Mezirow (1997) saw learning as transformative when we question what is taken for granted (for example ethnic or race discrimination) and become able to make our own interpretations rather than rely on those of others. While drawing in part on Erikson, Habermas developed an idea of communicative action based on an intersubjective understanding with others which was fully respectful of others' rights.

Marx and Marxists made a distinctive contribution to agency by tying agency up with class. There can be no question of fulfilment while the majority of people endured an oppressive relationship with economic forces and for Marx notions of agency were bound with the idea of class consciousness and a transformed relationship to the means of production. He also saw a material basis for agency in the development of an economic system: freedom involved advanced development of the forces of production. Later Marxists have further stressed how a ruling class can impose a cultural, not simply an economic, dominance which limits agency.

Agency is often evoked in action oriented programmes of research. For Freire (1970a 1970 b) transformative learning was a group process and, in his field of interest, overcoming illiteracy involved a growing awareness of one’s capacity to transform social reality. For those at the margins of society this involved understanding the structures that oppressed, and engaging with dialectical action - reflection on the world, action on the world and reflection on action - in order to overcome these structures.

Agency and social science

Ideas of agency are played out, often it has to be said implicitly, in social science and within particular fields and traditions. It is however clear that modelling and more positivist approaches downplay agency - though more subtle theorists would say agency is not ruled out but it is simply the broad picture there are interested in. At the other end of the spectrum small scale case studies can illustrate how agency is enacted, an approach criticised from positivists as missing the broad sweep of social structures. This leaves the exact relationship of agency and structure of intense concern but not satisfactorarily resolved.

One question that has puzzled social theorists is that if we have the opportunity to exercise agency why is society for the most part ordered and predictable in the face of obvious divisions and interests? One approach, once fashionable, was to look at ways in which order was negotiated through everyday interaction. Ethnomethodology, for example Garfinkel (1963), suggested our view of the world was a complacent one; we took for granted meanings and predictable behaviour as long as this led to broadly satisfactory outcomes. By breaching assumptions of social behaviour we would become better able to identify the limits on behaviour, for example, in one celebrated case of behavioural disruption, suggested his students behave as lodgers in their family homes. This might strike us as self-indulgent and plain unethical but there lies an important point that by changing the ‘rules of the game’ other possibilities for action open up.

In the face of predictability some social scientists have sought to notice and indeed celebrate agency. Berger’s (2008) is a striking study of a gang member in USA who was shot and paralyzed and subsequently became a world-class wheelchair athlete. Some forms of social enquiry seek to examine the conditions in which participants can establish agency through the stimulus and support of researchers. Exploring such possibilities has been a concern for those working and reporting in contexts in which the odds seem stacked against the people one is researching. For example in a study in Japan, Yoshihama (2002) seeks to give voice to women’s experiences of violent relationships and to contribute to a support group for women so that they can address some of the problems they face. For both Berger and Yoshihama agency needs to be socially expressed. Other writers, such as Tran, T-L (2016), discuss how agency should not be conceived of as a thing (a one-off decision) but as a process of becoming. In her study this involved East Asian students becoming aware of the opportunities for educational, social, personal and professional development and reimagining the future that was open to them.


Berger, R. (2008) ‘Agency, structure, and the transition to disability: A case study with implications for life history research’, The Sociological Quarterly, 49, 2: 309–333.

Berlin, I. (1969) Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Erikson, E. H. (1993) Childhood and society. WW Norton & Company.

Freire, P. (1970a) The adult literacy process as cultural action for freedom. Harvard Educational Review, 40(2), 205-225

Freire, P. (1970b) Cultural action and conscientization. Harvard Educational Review, 40(3), 452-477.

Garfinkel, H. (1963) A conception of, and experiments with, “trust” as a condition of stable concerted actions, in O.J. Harvey (ed.) Motivation and social interaction: cognitive approaches, New York: Ronald Press, 187-238.

Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, (74), 5-12.

Tran, T-L (2016) Mobility as ‘becoming’: a Bourdieuian analysis of the factors shaping international student mobility, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 37 , 8, 1268-1289.

Yoshihama, M. (2002) Breaking the web of abuse and silence: Voices of battered women in Japan, Social Work, 47, 4: 389-400.