Agency (sociology)

Agency (sociology)

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In the social sciences
Social sciences
Social science is the field of study concerned with society. "Social science" is commonly used as an umbrella term to refer to a plurality of fields outside of the natural sciences usually exclusive of the administrative or managerial sciences...

, agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, "Structure
Social structure
Social structure is a term used in the social sciences to refer to patterned social arrangements in society that are both emergent from and determinant of the actions of the individuals. The usage of the term "social structure" has changed over time and may reflect the various levels of analysis...

" refers to the factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs, etc) that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions. The relative difference in influences from structure and agency is debated
Structure and agency
The question over the primacy of either structure or agency in human behavior is a central debate in the social sciences. In this context, "agency" refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. "Structure", by contrast, refers to the recurrent...

 - it's unclear to what extent a person's actions are constrained by social systems.

One's agency is one's independent capability or ability to act on one's will. This ability is affected by the cognitive belief structure which one has formed through one's experiences, and the perceptions held by the society and the individual, of the structures and circumstances of the environment one is in. Disagreement on the extent of one's agency often causes conflict between parties, e.g. parents and children.

Feelings of agency


Thinkers have only just begun to empirically explore the factors that cause a person to feel as though they are in control - particularly, in control of a physical action. Social psychologist Daniel Wegner
Daniel Wegner
Daniel M. Wegner is an American social psychologist. He is a professor of psychology at Harvard University and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science...

 discusses how an "illusion of control
Illusion of control
The illusion of control is the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events, for instance to feel that they control outcomes that they demonstrably have no influence over. The effect was named by psychologist Ellen Langer and has been replicated in many different contexts. It...

" may cause people to take credit for events that they did not cause. These false judgements of agency (JOP) occur especially under stress, or when the results of the event were ones that the individual desired (also see self serving biases). Janet Metcalfe and her colleagues have identified other possible heuristics, or rules of thumb, that people use to make JOP's. These include a "forward model" in which the mind actually compares two signals to judge agency: the feedback from a movement, but also an "efferent copy" - a mental prediction of what that movement feedback should feel like. Top down processing (understanding of a situation, and other possible explanations) can also influence JOPs. Furthermore, the relative importance of one heuristic over another seems to change with age.

See also

  • Social relation
    Social relation
    In social science, a social relation or social interaction refers to a relationship between two , three or more individuals . Social relations, derived from individual agency, form the basis of the social structure. To this extent social relations are always the basic object of analysis for social...

  • Social action
  • Action theory
    Action theory
    Action theory is an area in philosophy concerned with theories about the processes causing willful human bodily movements of more or less complex kind. This area of thought has attracted the strong interest of philosophers ever since Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics...

  • Theory of structuration
  • Negative capability
    Negative Capability
    Negative capability is the ability to perceive and to think more than any presupposition of human nature allows. It describes the capacity of human beings to reject the totalizing constraints of a closed context, and to both experience phenomenon free from any epistemological bounds as well as to...