ANTH 423, Dr. Maximilian Forte, Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology, Concordia University
Zenas Kuate Defo, 2013, Version 1
(Preliminary editing by Maximilian Forte)
Derived from the Medieval Latin word agentia meaning “effective, powerful,” and emerging around the 1650s as a formal term representing “active operation” (Online Dictionary Etymology, 2013), agency has become a cornerstone in anthropology: a cornerstone with a unique genealogy (that, however, transcends disciplinary boundaries).
Outside of the anthropological discipline as such, the emergence of the concept of agency has been linked to Max Weber, who initially suggested that “acts be distinguished from mere (animal) behaviour on the basis of acts being seen to entail a number of features of human rationality: consciousness, reflection, intention, purpose and meaning” (Rapport & Overing, 2000, p. 1). That is, Weber saw human action as being dictated by conscious choices.
In contrast, Durkheim thought human action was contingent upon “certain structures which implied constraint, even coercion, and which existed and endured over and above the actions of particular individuals, lending to individuals’ acts a certain social and cultural regularity” (Rapport & Overing, 2000, p. 1). Here, human action was said to be due to a collective consciousness resulting from the enculturation of values, beliefs, and norms inherent in a particular society. Thus, the concept of agency first emerged in anthropology in an attempt to “resolve these differences, and explore the limits on individual capacities to act independently of structural constraints” (Rapport & Overing, 2000, p. 1).
Talcott Parsons viewed social structures as not distinct from human agency, but rather as a result of, and intertwined with, voluntary human action. According to Parsons:
“A social system consists in a plurality of individual actors interacting with each other in a situation which has at least a physical or environmental aspect, actors who are motivated [emphasis added] in terms of a tendency to the ‘optimization of gratification’ and whose relation to their situations, including each other, is defined and mediated in terms of a system of culturally structured and shared symbols”. (1951, pp. 5-6)
This motivation is the product “of the interaction of genetically given need components with social experience” (Parsons, 1951, p. 19). Thus, for Parsons, the distinction between agency and structure is not entirely warranted as one is intrinsically linked to the other.
Berger and Luckmann also called for a compromise between agency and structure, suggesting instead that attention should be given more to the social construction of reality. These scholars claimed that “the world of everyday life is not only taken for granted as reality by the ordinary members of society in the subjectively meaningful conduct of their lives. It is a world that originates in their thoughts and actions, and is maintained as real by these” (Berger & Luckmann, 1966, p. 19). Thus, social structures create a reality for humans, who then act in a particular way so as to maintain these structures.
Anthony Giddens provided the foundation for another compromise between the camps of agency and structure, this time rooted in his structuration theory. Giddens suggested a need for movement beyond the duality of agency and structure, and instead laid the foundation for a new duality: a duality of structure. The duality is of social structure’s bipolar nature, as both the medium and outcome of social agency. For Giddens, structure was to be “regarded as rules and resources recursively implicated in social reproduction,” because of structure’s “institutionalized features [formed by relationships that are] stabilized across time and space” (1984, p. xxxi).
The term agency now means many different things for anthropologists. For example, according to Gregory Bateson, agency is synonymous with “energy source” (1987, p. 134). Each human being, or agent, possesses “an energy source…such that the energy used in his responses is not derived from the stimuli but from his own metabolic processes” (1987, p. 134). For Bateson, then, agency is rooted in biology.
Victor Turner, on the other hand, saw agency as rooted in comunitas whereby “a communion of equal individuals [submit] together to the general authority of ritual elders” (1969, p. 96). This comunitas is experienced in rites of passage (1969, p. 97). Thus, for Turner, agency is rooted in a liminal period, where equal individuals change positions and, in so doing, strengthen the human bonds of society.
Finally, Edmund Leach saw agency as a manifestation of the criminality inherent in humans. For Leach, “all of us are criminals born by instinct. All creativity…contains within it a deep-rooted hostility to the system as it is” (1977, p. 19). Here, human action is thought to be rooted in a deep-seated desire to undermine established societal rules and conventions, so as to generate new ones.
Pierre Bourdieu, spanning sociology and anthropology, also addressed the concept of agency in his work, calling for a displacement of this latter in favour of the habitus. According to Bourdieu, the habitus is “the durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations [made up of] cognitive and motivating structures,” which enable the generation of appropriate practices in response to particular situations and their “objective potentialities” (1977, p. 78). This habitus is invisible to humans, who act “unconsciously, since the history of the habitus is concealed under its subjective nature” (1977, p. 79). For Bourdieu, then, agency is rooted in a series of values and expectations acquired through life activities and experiences, which come to structure the mind and guide one’s lifestyle choices.
The concept of agency is used in the literature for two main reasons: to explain human creativity and to account for changes in social structure (Rapport & Overing, 2000, pp. 8-9). With regards to human creativity, Edmund Leach explained this by illustrating how it can be rooted in an innate dislike of social structure (1977). Other scholars are more explicit in their correlating agency (or human action) with creativity: Smadar Lavie, Kirin Narayan and Renato Rosaldo, for instance, define creativity as “human activities [emphasis added] that transform existing cultural practices in a manner that a community or certain of its members find of value” (1993, p. 5).
Changes in social structure have also been a target of anthropological writing apropos agency. Ladislav Holy and Milan Stuchlik say the following about this phenomenon:
“The essence of the process of social life is that it is continuous. People did not create their society once and for all, for everybody else born afterwards to be born into a predetermined world. By learning the world into which they were born, and by continually thinking and acting in it [emphasis added], people continually create and change it”. (1981, p. 16)
Similarly, Anthony Giddens wrote:
“While not made by any single person, society is created and recreated afresh…by the participants in every social encounter. The production of society is a skilled performance, sustained and ‘made to happen’ by human beings”. (1976, p. 15)
As these last two quotes demonstrate, some scholars have used the concept of agency in their work to explain how social structures are formed and reformed. The concept of agency is still prominent in anthropology today, although some suggest this prominence has decreased, as “individual agency has come to be buried under the vast weight of the collectivity” (Rapport & Overing, 2000, p. 8).
Bateson, G. (1987). Steps to an ecology of mind: collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc.
Berger, P.L., & Luckmann T. (1966). The social construction of reality: a treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. London: Cambridge University Press.
Giddens, A. (1976). New rules of sociological method. London: Hutchinson.
Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: outline of the theory of structuration. Great Britain: University of California Press.
Holy, L., & Stuchlik, M. (1981). The structure of folk models. London: Academic Press Inc.
Lavie, S., Narayan, K., & Rosaldo, R. (1993). Creativity/Anthropology. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Leach, E. (1977). Custom, Law and Terrorist Violence. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.
Online Etymology Dictionary. (2013). Agency. In Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved from:
Rapport, N., & Overing, J. (2000). Social and cultural anthropology: the key concepts. New York, NY: Routledge.
Parsons, T. (1951). The Social System. New York, NY: The Free Press.
Turner, V. W. (1969). The ritual process: structure and anti-structure. Chicago, Illinois: Aldine Publishing Company.