Agency means different things in different practices, but in general it means the capacity to do things, to make change happen.

edited 29 June, 2016 by Mr. Administrator

Associated Practices

In actor-network theory (ANT), all entities – living as well as non-living, human as well as non-human – are capable of contributing to the performance or fulfilment of an action. They are therefore said to have agency.

An example (taken from Law, J. (2007). Actor network theory and material semiotics – see below):

Thomas Edison, engineer and manager, and his new New York electricity supply network … an artful combination of transmission lines, generators, coal supplies, voltages, incandescent filaments, legal manoeuvres, laboratory calculations, political muscle, financial instruments, technicians, laboratory assistants and salesmen. In short, it was a system, and it worked because Edison engineered the bits and pieces together. … the architecture of the system was the key. Its individual elements, people or objects, were subordinate to the logic of that architecture, created or reshaped in that system.

Thomas Hughes exampled in John Law ANT and Material Semiotics

This means that when we are considering how things happen, when we are looking for origins or causes of a movement or a stabilised fact, we no longer have to consider solely the human faculties, as in Enlightenment Humanism, or a supra personal structure, as in Structuralism or in Aristotelian Hylomorphism [1].

In order to emphasise this shift in how we perceive agency, ANT scholars use the term actant, borrowed from the narrative semiotics of A. J Greimas. An actant essentially is that which has agency – which should be seen as the ability to (profoundly) change a situation – and it can be anything: a human being, a scallop, a certain know-how, a given technology or a bacteria.

In this context, agency is not limited humans or non-humans but always in whatever groups or networks these constitute and partake in. The network, then, is where heterogeneous corporeal entities (substances) and incorporeal entities (concepts, theories, methods, know-how) come together to form a seemingly coherent whole, allowing for each individual member to gain something.

An important point here is that these networks organise and bundle together other things in order to sustain themselves. They interiorise them or bring them into the network operation. They could not exist without this interiorization of what is essentially exterior to them. This is a characteristic of open systems or networks.

[1] For a discussion of Hylomorphism, see Shields (2010).

Shields, C (2010). A fundamental problem about Hylomorphism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available from [Accessed 27 September 2015]


The following items are held in University of the Arts libraries: Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Also available through Google Preview:

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

It is worth looking at the following online articles:

Law, J. and Urry, J. (2003). Enacting the social. Lancaster: Department of Sociology and the Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University. Available at  Accessed 9 March 2007.

Law, J. (2007). Actor network theory and material semiotics. version of 25 April 2007. Available at Accessed 27 November 2008.

Latour, B. (2008). A Cautious Prometheus? a few steps toward a philosophy of design (with special attention to Peter Sloterdijk). Available at Accessed 27 January 2009.

Latour, B.  (1996). The trouble with actor-network theory. Available at: Accessed 9 May 2009.

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in Architecture

A good place to start to consider the notion of agency in architecture is issue number 4 of Footprint online periodical, Spring 2009, whose theme is Agency in Architecture: Reframing Criticality in Theory and Practice.

The framing editorial text that issue argues that current debates in architecture cannot avoid the notion of agency. It crops up in the context of critiques of the architect’s societal position and the role of the user, conceptualisation of the performative dimension of the architectural object, and in considering the effects of theory for architecture at large.

While fundamental, the notion of agency is often taken for granted. The contributors to this issue of Footprint propose to rethink contemporary criticality in architecture, by explicating the notion of agency in three major directions:

  • ‘the agency of what?’ or the question of multiplicity and relationality;
  • ‘how does it work?’, a question referring to location, mode and vehicle; and
  • ‘to what effect?’, raising the notion of intentionality.

The notion of agency is paramount in discussions about the architect’s societal position, whether as autonomous creator, self-interested professional, victim of market forces, resistive agent, ’enabler,’ or ’urban catalyst‘, and in discussions about the role of the user, whether as empowered citizen, producer of urban space, ’self-organizing‘ entity or ’everyday bricoleur‘.

In addition, recent preoccupations with the material and performative dimension of architecture have led to new ways of understanding agency in architecture.

Edited by Allan Parsons, 1 June 2017

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in Interaction Design

The capacity of the user to control, shape or direct the interaction.

Stuart Jones

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in Narratology

The capacity of an entity to act, to cause events. Characters are typically entities with agency.

(based on: Porter Abbott, H. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002)

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in Sociology

1) The power of actors to operate independently of the determining constraints of social structure. The term agency is related to will and purpose.

2) Any human action, collective or structural or individual, which makes a difference to a human relationships or behaviour.

3) Anthony Giddens interprets agency as being equivalent to power.

All from Jary D. and Jary J. (eds) (2000). Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd Ed. Glasgow: HarperCollins.

edited 14 September, 2018 by Admin