Agency—Part V: Preliminary Remarks

Within the tripartite theory of agency of critical realism, noted at the end of the previous posting, the essential point of any theory of agency is to locate and delineate a “prime mover” causal power that is

Raphael, Prime Mover 1509-11

intrinsic to agency. This power, what we are terming human agency,1 forms the basis of the philosophical anthropology we are attempting to build. To be successful, we need to show this power is intrinsic to the agent-subject, or, in other words, is an ontological feature of human being. The response to this challenge we find most satisfying has been developed by Margaret Archer, whose account centers on a model of reflexivity she calls the “interior conversation.” Reflexivity, in Archer’s estimation, is a mechanism through which the qualities of a robust human agency include autonomy, self-awareness and intentionality.

Before we address what we mean by human agency in more detail, let us first locate the concept of agency in relation to the larger thrust of this essay, namely that of coming to terms with the agent-structure problem and how it addresses the question of social ontology. The problem of agents and structures concerns the foundational ontological commitment of all conceptual inquiry into the nature of human beings and societies in which they exist. It concerns what powers and capabilities are intrinsic to human kind and how extrinsic circumstances come to influence their behavior. It seeks to understand if and how components of the “external world” are internally related to the formation of mature, socially inscribed individual agents. Consequently, any answer to the agent structure problem and concomitant social ontological axioms will operate as a metatheory concerning the relationship between agents and structures and what causal powers can be assigned to them. It is important to note however, while we are developing a critical realist framework to understand the agent structure problem, simultaneously, this project critiques various social theoretical orientations: liberal, empiricist, postmodernist and structurationist, that either implicitly or explicitly hold answers to the agent structure problematic.

The critical realist answer rejects the three dominant theories of agents and structures and their relationship: ontological individualism (that society and culture are only epiphenomena of individual monadic behavior as the aggregate effect of this behavior and forms discernible patterns), ontological structuralism (that individual subjectivity is constituted fully by its internal relations to language, socio-cultural and/ or geo-historical location) and praxis ontology (also known as structuration theory, propounded by Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu, whereby agency and structure are mutually constitutive, what Archer calls theories of “elisionism” in that agents and structures are analytically distinct, but not ontologically).

Countering these three, Critical Realism conceives both agents and structures as ontologically real and argues that each holds causal powers. Two questions follow from this conception: 1) what powers do agents hold to act independently and sometimes creatively in relation to the objective structures they reside within (social and cultural formations)? 2) How do social and cultural powers, the objective conditions of a given geo-historical milieu affect agents? In the following sections on agency, we will answer these questions.

1 Human agency is distinguished from the other two facets of the tripartite conception we will discuss below—socio-cultural and occupational agency.