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Home arrow History arrow The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics

Agency as effect

If agency is truly the outcome of power-laden, social negotiations, and I agree with Nick that it is, we can assume neither that certain types of actors (human individuals for example) are necessarily agents, nor that whatever social arrangements say about agency will automatically be adopted in practice. In addition, we should acknowledge that the concept of agency performs different functions in the arrangement-to-agent process than it does in the agent-to-arrangement process. If we adopt the perspective of the actor, agency appears as statuses, offices, and roles that authorize some acts and not others. Intentions, deliberations, and the object for whom the actor is acting may matter here because they demonstrate how arrangements manifest the power of normality for actors. Alternately, if we adopt the perspective of social arrangements, agency is a way of sorting acts. The meaning and value of any act is a function of the actor’s authority, which is socially constructed. If we focus on this “direction” of the co-constitution process, intentions are often irrelevant because the designation of actors as agents and the assigning of meaning to their actions take place only after the acts have been carried out, noticed, and evaluated. Actors are agents in those moments when they are deemed to have authority for acts that are noticeable and worthy of evaluation. In both cases, agency is an effect of social discourse, but I am arguing that Constructivism will benefit from being more specific about these different uses of the concept of agency.

This alternate conceptualization requires a heuristic distinction between actors and agents. Actors are entities that carry out acts, and all acts produce change. This is true even for unintentional acts such as breathing or sneezing, and intentional acts that are so normal that they are almost always ignored, such as swallowing or bending blades of grass while walking across a lawn. All actors change the world merely by acting, and in Nick’s account of participation agency, such effects necessarily make actors into agents. In contrast, I am arguing that whether an actor is an agent is determined by whether a critical mass of socially competent observers notices the change, recognizes it as change, and attributes it to an actor who becomes an agent with respect to that act. One of the central tenets of Constructivism is that agents are who social arrangements say they are, but while actors may act based on interpretations they accept for themselves, whether they turn out to be socially qualified to perform the act is only finally known after the act has taken place. Nick acknowledges these timing and evaluative dimensions of agency, but handles them by placing the site of agency, not in initial acts, but in the formulation and articulation of rules about acts. Sometimes rule formulation and articulation is performed by the actor of the initial act, but in other cases, it is instead credited to “observers.” Even acknowledging that rules are the key to the construction of arrangements, what matters for arrangements is not the intentions or the statuses, offices, and roles of the observers, but whether society accepts their judgments.

I suggest, therefore, that it is useful to distinguish agency as intentions, offices, statuses, and roles, which is how arrangements influence actors, from the agency as authorship, which is how actors influence arrangements. In this formulation, Constructivists would accentuate the changes that flow from all acts while acknowledging that not all acts are credited with producing change. Indeed, one of the mechanisms of control in a society is the designation of which actions, performed by which actors, are worthy of public acknowledgment and an attribution of responsibility. In practice, most acts are presented as continuities. Constructivism would benefit from recognizing this distinction, much as Michel Foucault made a distinction between a writer and an author (1984). Foucault presents a perspective in which authors do not precede “work,” but are rather tools by which we manage our fear of being overwhelmed by the possibility of infinite meanings. Given the Western modern obsession with the individual, authorship is a way to sort and manage discourses, and while many people create written text, only some are identified as authors. In some moments and for some statuses, offices, and roles, actors experience a degree of freedom that allows them to choose how they implement society’s rules. This sense of freedom is more widely spread in some societies and in some historical moments than in others, but there are moments when actors without access to any normal modes of authorization act in ways that nonetheless inspire the social attribution of responsibility that is authorship. Such actions and responsibility may be acknowledged or not by the negotiated consensus of socially competent observers. In this way, the concept of authorship can help distinguish between acts that merely reinforce the momentum of existing social arrangements along their current trajectory, and those interpreted as changes that slow its momentum or alter its trajectory.

As participants and observers seek to attribute responsibility to actors, they rely on social rules that spell out which types of actors can be held responsible for creative acts. But which entities can be said to act, which actors can be agents, and which of their practices are worthy of recognition/attribution are negotiated parts of social structures and so vary between societies and historical moments. Whether an ideology (socialism) or a process (industrialization) or a state (Botswana) or a corporate institution (the Red Cross) or an individual (Mahatma Gandhi) or a chemical compound (carbon dioxide) or a supernatural being (Zeus) can be held responsible for change is context specific and determined through complex, power-laden social negotiations. Actors and observers (including researchers) make assertions about which actors bear causal responsibility, but unless those assertions are accepted by a critical mass of socially competent observers, to call them agents would be to impose interpretations from outside the social discourse. Additionally, while socially competent observers can often predict which actors will be credited with agency, whether actors adopt or are attributed with agency should be treated as a matter for empirical research rather than an assumption. Agency is always in the process of being negotiated, and the assertions of actors and observers are part of those negotiations, regardless of whether they are explicitly framed in terms of agency

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