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What Is Agency? Author(s): Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische Source: The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 103, No. 4 (Jan., 1998), pp. 962-1023 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: Accessed: 07/08/2010 13:28Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]

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WhatIs Agency?'MustafaEmirbayer and Ann Mische New Schoolfor Social Research

This articleaims (1) to analytically disaggregate agencyintoitsseveral component elements (though theseare interrelated empirically), the inter(2) to demonstrate waysin whichtheseagenticdimensions of penetrate withforms structure, (3) to pointout the implicaand of research. The autionsofsuch a conception agencyforempirical embedded process of thorsconceptualizeagency as a temporally informed thepast (in its"iterational" habitor socialengagement, by ual aspect) but also orientedtoward the future a "projective" (as and capacityto imaginealternative possibilities) towardthepresent (as a "practical-evaluative" capacityto contextualize past habitsand future projectswithinthe contingencies the moment). of strain The concept agencyhas becomea sourceofincreasing of and confusion in social thought. Variantsof action theory, and normative theory, and resuspolitical-institutional analysishave defended, attacked, buried, and citatedthe conceptin oftencontradictory overlapping ways. At the centerof the debate, the termagencyitselfhas maintainedan elusive, albeitresonant, vagueness;ithas all too seldominspired systematic analythe long listof termswithwhichit has been associated:selfsis, despite hood, motivation, will, purposiveness, intentionality, choice, initiative, in to freedom, creativity. and Moreover, thestruggle demonstrate inthe of have failedto disterpenetration agencyand structure, manytheorists1 Thisis a fully coauthored article. Earlier drafts werepresented thePaul F. Lazarsat the on feldCenter theSocialSciences ColumbiaUniversity, Workshop Politics, for at and Protest New YorkUniversity, Colloquium Culture at the on and Politics Power, at theNew Schoolfor SocialResearch, meeting theAmerican the of AssoSociological at and at ciation Los Angeles, variousseminars theNew SchoolforSocial Research in We the for and Princeton forums University. wouldliketothank participants those their useful We comments. wouldalso liketothank Bernard many Jeffrey Alexander, Barber,RichardBernstein, Donald Black, Mary Blair-Loy, David Gibson,Chad Goldberg, Jeff Goodwin,Michael Hanagan, Hans Joas,MicheleLamont,Edward MichaelMuhlhaus, Lehman,CalvinMorrill, Shepley Orr,Margarita Palacios,Mimi Diane Vaughan, Loic Wacquant, CharlesTilly, and Harrison White their for Sheller, many illuminating insights, criticisms, suggestions. and Direct correspondenceMusto tafaEmirbayer, of New SchoolforSocial Research, Fifth 65 Department Sociology, Avenue,New York,New York 10003.

.50 0002-9602/98/10304-0004$02

? 1998by The University Chicago.All rights of reserved.


AJS Volume 103 Number4 (January1998): 962-1023

Agency tinguish agencyas an analyticalcategory its own right-with distincin tivetheoretical dimensions temporally and variablesocial manifestations. The resulthas been a flatand impoverished conception that,whenit escapes theabstractvoluntarism rationalchoicetheory, of tendsto remain so tightly bound to structure thatone loses sightof thedifferent ways in whichagencyactuallyshapes social action. recentattempts theorize We argue thateach of the mostsignificant to has In agency neglected crucialaspectsoftheproblem. distinguishing (and showingthe interplay) betweendifferent dimensions agency,we seek of to go beyondthesevariousone-sidedpointsof view. "Theorists pracof tice" such as PierreBourdieu and Anthony Giddens,forexample,have given selectiveattention the role of habitusand routinized to practices; theirperspective American (perhapsthe dominantone in contemporary and taken for sociology)sees human agency as habitual, repetitive, in granted-a view sharedby ethnomethodologists, institutionalists new and organizational theory, manyothers. Alternative approacheshave similarly reliedupon one-sided conceptions agency;forexample, of traditions as different from one another rationalchoicetheory as and phenomenologyhave stressed goal seeking and purposivity, whiletheories publicity of as and communication, well as certain feminist theories, have overemphasized deliberation and judgment.While routine, purpose,and judgment all constitute important dimensions agency,none by itself of capturesits fullcomplexity. when one or another conflated is Moreover, withagency itself, lose a sense of the dynamicinterplay we among thesedimensions of and of how this interplay varies withindifferent structural contexts action. Our immediate aimsin thisarticle, are then, threefold: to analytically (1) elements(even though disaggregate agency into its several component theseare clearly interrelated the empirically), to demonstrate different (2) of with waysin whichthedimensions agencyinterpenetrate diverseforms of structure, (3) to pointout theimplications such a differentiated and of of conception agencyforempiricalresearch. our is Theoretically, centralcontribution to begin to reconceptualize human agencyas a temporally embeddedprocessof social engagement, informed thepast (in itshabitualaspect),but also oriented by towardthe future a capacityto imaginealternative and towardthe (as possibilities) present(as a capacityto contextualize past habits and futureprojects the of The agenticdimension social of within contingencies themoment). in actioncan onlybe captured itsfullcomplexity, argue,ifit is analytiwe we callysituatedwithintheflowof time.More radically, also arguethat the structural contextsof action are themselvestemporalas well as relationalfields-multiple,overlappingways of orderingtime toward 963

American Journalof Sociology which social actors can assume different simultaneous agenticorientations.Since social actorsare embeddedwithinmanysuch temporalities at once,theycan be said to be oriented towardthe past,the future, and thepresent anygivenmoment, at although they maybe primarily oriented toward one or anotherof these withinany one emergent situation.As actorsmove withinand among thesedifferent unfolding contexts, they switch between (or "recompose")theirtemporalorientations-as constructed within and by meansofthosecontexts-and thusare capable of changingtheirrelationship structure. to We claim that,in examining we changesin agenticorientation, can gain crucialanalytical leveragefor of and charting varying degrees maneuverability, inventiveness, reflective choiceshownby social actorsin relation theconstraining enabling to and contexts action. of Most broadly, guiding in our concerns thisarticleare moraland practical in nature.We contendthatreconceptualizing agencyas an internally complextemporaldynamicmakes possible a new perspective upon the How are social actors,we age-oldproblemof freewill and determinism. ask, capable (at least in principle)of critically evaluating and reconstructing conditions their the of own lives?If structural are contexts analytically separable from(and stand over against) capacities forhuman agency, how is it possibleforactorseverto mediateor to transform their own relationships thesecontexts? to Without the disaggregating concept of agencyintoits mostimportant we analyticaldimensions, cannotever hope to findsatisfactory answersto thesequestions.The keyto grasping the dynamicpossibilities human agencyis to view it as composedof of orientations the variableand changing within flowoftime.Onlythenwill itbe clearhow thestructural of environments actionare bothdynamically humanagency-by actorscapable sustainedby and also alteredthrough of formulating and realizing even ifonlyin projectsforthe future them, in small part,and withunforeseen outcomes, the present. THEORIZING AGENCY Many of the tensionsin present-day conceptions human agencycan of be tracedback to the Enlightenment instrumental debate over whether or rationality moraland norm-based actionis thetruest expression huof man freedom. Teleologicaland instrumentalist conceptions actionfuof eled the philosophical of individualism the earlyEnlightenment, which, in whilestillgrounded thereligious of allowed forthe morality thetimes, of as invention theindividual a "free subsequent agent"able tomakerational choices for (him)self and society(Lukes 1973). With JohnLocke's of (1978) rejection the bindingpower of tradition, locationof beliefs his in individual and of in experience, hisgrounding society thesocialcontract 964

Agency a of betweenindividuals, new conception agencyemergedthataffirmed in the capacityof hu

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