The Limits of Agency

Sociological social psychology emphasizeshuman agency—our capacity to act upon our physical and social environment. In examining the different interactionist traditions and forms of micro-sociology through this blog, (including the work of symbolic interactionists, phenomenologists, ethnomethodologists, the work of Dorothy Smith, and Erving Goffman), we have focused on how social actors actively create the world through situated practices occurring in concrete instances of social activity. Obviously, we cannot create any social world that we want. In this brief essay, I hope to consider “the limits of agency”.

All social theories implicitly rely on some concept of human nature. Why do people do what they do and what is the relationship between our behavior and our social and physical environment?  So-called “interpretive” and “interactionist” approaches attempt to explicitly state a model of the human agent. For Giddens, in human action, structures allow people to act and constrain how they can act. Through individual action structures are reproduced. For Bourdieu, an actor’s values provide a framework of practical logic through which they understand situations. People are born into a world of meaningful structures. Through our actions we perpetuate and reinforce these structures. How do actors reconfigure or reinterpret enduring structures?

The following is taken from Renfrew and Bahn (2005, Archaeology: The Key Concepts, p. 5):
1. Humans reproduce their being and their social relations through everyday practices;
2. Practices take place in material conditions and through material culture;
3. Practices happen with historical settings inherited from the past, including cultural beliefs, attitudes, and habits: thus actors possess values which both help them to act and constrain their actions;
4. In action, humans do not simply reproduce their material conditions, inherited structures of meaning, and historical consciousness, but change, reinterpret and redefine them as well.
Social scientists have very different views of actors’ agency in making “choices” in everyday life. Some challenge claims of people making voluntary choices. Others argue that the social construction of identity occurs precisely through the voluntary choices of both subordinate and dominant groups. We need to continue to theorize about human agency—our ability to accomplish goals and act to bring about change.
Neither liberal individualism nor poststructuralism adequately theorize agency within social constraint because of their faulty views of the self. Liberal individualism sees the individual as existing prior to its social surroundings and thus capable of “robust” agency in making choices about life goals and how to achieve them. This approach down plays the culturally produced nature of values and goals.
Some forms of poststructuralism, in contrast, see individuals as mere fictions caught in the constraints of language that mask the prior constitution of the social. This approach almost denies our capacity for agency at all. Oppressive social constructs can be changed through purposive social action.

Susan Carle (2005) draws upon classical pragmatism to acknowledge the social constructed nature of the self and to recognize our robust capacity for human agency at both individual and collective levels. We do not simply choose our identities or destinies. Instead we are constituted in our identities, desires, values and goals by our social contexts. For pragmatists, selves in interaction with others ongoingly reproduce the social context, just as this context, consisting of selves in interaction, ongoingly reproduces these selves. There is a reflexiverelationship between self and society. Both liberal individualism and poststructuralism tend to over emphasize the unidirectionality of what we should see as a complex process.

Judith Butler opens a space for agency that avoids the liberal humanist concept of self. She sees that many notions of the self assume an agency of the self that resonate strongly with American individualism and notions of self-making. What is the liberal humanist concept of self? Liberalism is a philosophical tradition that emphasizes individual rights, liberty, and equality of opportunity. From this perspective, personal freedom should not intrude upon, except to protect others from harm. Key theorists include: Locke, Kant, J.S. Mill, Rawls.
Liberals emphasize the toleration of pluralism and diversity of modern society. Some see liberalism as the ideological justification for the rise of capitalism with its image of autonomous individuals being a simple glorification of the pursuit of self-interest in the market. Liberalism replaced the web of mutual obligations which bound people together in traditional societies with a society predicated on competition and atomistic individualism. Individualism gives primary moral values to individual human beings, and sees them as independent and self-reliant (as opposed to communitarianism).

Judith Butler seeks a concept of agency in which the subject appears only “through a signifying practice that seeks to conceal its own workings and naturalize its effects (1990: 197-198). In a manner consistent with critical interactionism, she argues that structures perpetuate themselves by being instantiated through repetition. These repetitions are not voluntary: they are compelled by discourse rules and normative structures. Agency is located within the possibility of a variation on that repetition.

“If gender is a kind of a doing, an incessant activity performed, in part, without one’s knowing and without one’s willing, it is not for that reason automatic or mechanical. On the contrary it is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint. Moreover, one does not “do” one’s gender alone. One is always “doing” with or for, another, even if the other is only imaginary” (2004:1).
Later in the same text she writes:
“If I am someone who cannot be without doing, then the conditions of my doing are, in part, the conditions of my existence. If my doing is dependent on what is done to me or, rather, the ways in which I am done by norms, then the possibility of my persistence as an “I” depends upon my being able to do something with what is done with me. This does not mean that I can remake the world so that I become its maker. That fantasy of godlike power only refuses the ways we are constituted, invariably and from the start, by what is before us and outside of us. My agency does not consist in denying this condition of my constitution. If I have any agency, it is opened up by the fact that I am constituted by a social world I never chose. That my agency is riven with paradox does not mean it is impossible. It means only that paradox in the condition of its possibility (2004:3).

Some things that limit agency:
(1) politeness (example of American woman in abaya in Saudi Arabia quietly removes herself from the gaze of passing shoppers at Starbucks at a fancy mall in Riyadh and sits in a “family section”)
(2) enculturation can blind people to the possibilities of acting different than the normative structures demand. A young Saudi woman states: “If I have a father or a husband, why do I need to work. They will take care of everything”
(3) stratification, racism, sexism and oppression;

4) personal troubles, psychological issues and psychiatric health constrain our choices;
(5) institutional rules and policies;
(6) environment
(7) political crises
(8) another’s power limits my agency
(9) my self-efficacy
(10) lack of opportunity
(11) “structural constraints”

(12) panopticism
(13) ……