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.

3 thoughts on “Agency—Part V: Preliminary Remarks

  1. — does this not relate to psychoanalysis?
    let it not simply be, in response,
    1) phallus; 2) fucking
    please, slower introductions. your reflexivity might be too robust, without ribald. autonomy, self-awareness and intentionality…these are conditions of self-consciousness. the interiority of a german-speaking man (i.e. apogee ist kant). (who is archer?) may we, instead, to inconceivable; to aufhebung.
    thankfully “this project critiques various social theoretical orientations: liberal, empiricist, postmodernist and structurationist, “…but not rafaelite. i suppose your vision of this agent cum ontological structure par excellence is a white blond youth on a roll, bello. but this is a caption…
    how do you mean “mature”?
    thank you for taking the time to catch-up. great succinct proposal

  2. Hi book,
    Where does psychoanalysis fit into this– structurally in the formation of intentionality and its reflexivity at individual biographical level, and the attempt to model whatever mechanisms lurk there, working their mischief. In the next section I am trying to finish, I discuss this a bit more, trying to cover the larger point that in principle, we can “uncover” mechanisms, whether of socio-economic practices that we “unconsciously” or better said, “unreflectively” participate in (what is the social history of the pack of hotdogs in the cooler I’m a grabbin’) and in analogous way we as historically located agents have a “social history” and in additional analogous way, our consciousness (its intentional states: fears, beliefs, desires etc.), in formation, though opaque, is amenable to greater or lesser understanding. (And plenty of room there for idiosyncrasy, mental illness, neurosis).

    German idealism and Kant– yes there is affinity to something unfashionable like “freedom of the subject” but we will not get stuck in his epistemic fallacy, once we consider our realist ontology, characterized as emergent, processual, dialectical and open. (Bhaskar has identified 7 planes- Lordy!) No noumena in this framework… One point that I now believe fully, is that if you argue against agency as ontological (and not some bullshit response that the subject is “preontological” which is total avoidance), you are trapped in an essentially antihumanist position (Derrida, Foucault, Althusser, Bourdieu, social constructionism etc), and without agency, you cannot explain social change, revolution, sufferage nor even the mundane reproduction of social structures through consumption, interpersonal relations, resource control etc., (the net effect is the same) but the motivations, meanings attached to individuals’ behavior contributing to social stasis are not the same. Antihumanism is ontological structuralism, whereby all causal power resides in text, discourse, capitalist relations, gender codes, language, culture– whatever structural “source” dominates individual bodies, of which they are mere ciphers, subject/ habitus positions. The relationship in this ontology between subject and object is internal, whereby objects constitute subjects.
    Where I am at, is understanding both agents and structures as each having ontological status and hence causal power and then understanding how the two interact.

    Raphaeltism, aint going to get theological, aint a believer, way past time to move on.

    I actually happen to be a white blond, and well, not exactly youthful, but trim counts sorta. And no, I am a universalist, psychic unitist, and subalterns continue to rock it.

    Margaret Archer is primary theorist of agency, in Bhaskarian CR mode, I draw upon.

    Mature– to distinguish from children..Hell from 20 yr olds — how old are men when their frontal lobe fully attaches itself and starts its effect– mid 20s?? There is evidence I am still waiting..

    • Hi Chris,
      let’s hope the jury remains out on all manner of evidence…
      – do you think that time is ontological? in the sense that the time afforded/accorded one being distinguishes it from an other? pardon, this is in anticipation of your discussion against structurationism.
      – do plants have agency? is their history (even pre-human movement) not full of change, revolution, reproduction, suffering? thinking of humanisms sans agent. also, there is humanism of coimplication*…
      – i think you framed it well–the meanings, motives are “attached” not implicit to our behavior. they are an after-thought (post-ontological). now these things bear ontological significance, as they mark us and our living…but self-consitutive, autochthonous?
      -it is not necessarily antihumanist to say that our intentions are an effect of some cosmic game of telephone, with us at the receiving end impressed not simply with the ingenuity of the manipulation of message but also this ingenuity’s muse.
      -our will to act is divergent from our concept of this will’s intention…(cf Hegel’s discussion of force and notion in //phenom// para 136., as notion sustains difference in thought only, as “vanishing moments” of the universal medium of force). that this flow exists unmapped qua notion is not antihumanism; but it does question what we might assume to be humanness–that is, humanness is not necessarily constituted as control, i.e. a boundary as knowledge and vice versa. to a humanism of vanishing moments…
      -what are we without language? i suppose i will wait to read yours to conceive…some better fashion advice.

      thank you for your time and consideration. this is a brief version of the response your work elicited. onward!

      *like the humanism of the poets, who use/intend language it is true, but they are not masters of language (nor dominated by it). the ontological implication of their devilish power is in its interchange with its audience, the verberation and resonance which is always more than an echo. there is accident in craft and interpretation, which can rupture the isolate placidity of narcissus’ pool–i.e. autonomy, intentionality, self-awareness. exigency is from exigere–to drive out, demand. the ontologically exigent aspect of our living demands more than our stories of forethought and hindsight…in other words, our self-authorship. it drives these island-epistemes (even granted island-ontologies) out at the delimitation of debate and decision and act, which ironically are the sites of both radical singularity and complex unification. this is how subjects constitute subjects.

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