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Conditions of agency in Onuf's Constructivism

Jamie Frueh

When my dissertation was published, Nick Onuf was gracious enough to write the foreword, a generous act that is undoubtedly responsible for most of the several dozen copies that are now collecting dust in some of the country’s most prestigious libraries. In addition to the obligatory nice things Nick said about my work, he also said

I think Frueh is wrong when he says that “[n]o one is an agent all of the time.” The ensemble of statuses, offices and roles that constitute our identities at any moment confer some measure of agency on us, whether we know it or not.

(2003b, xvii) [1]

  • [1] have spent the intervening years trying to figure out how I got it wrong. The more I have worked through the intricacies of Onuf’s Constructivism, themore I have found the “sense” it makes of the world to be both powerful andempowering. Agency has to do with accounting for change, and in a world where“change is continuous and partial, massive and unfinished” (Onuf 2013, xix), thereis a lot to account for. Nick empowers individuals like me not only to make a difference in the world, but to make reality itself, by attributing importance to someaspects of the material world, interpreting them and then acting according to thoseinterpretations. Agents make the world, even as they are constrained by the worldtheir fellow agents are simultaneously constructing. While Nick’s concept of anagent is influenced (overly influenced, I will argue) by modernity’s understandingof an individual, agency for Onuf is not a quality of individual human beings. It is aquality of the acts that individuals do. In the beginning was the deed. This concepthas important implications for how Constructivist processes of co-constitution areconceptualized and studied.
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