Agency, de-centring the subject, situating the subject and the distribution of agency across a network
From the perspective of narrative environment design, the interest in ‘agency’ relates to structuralist and poststructuralist approaches, as well as Peircean semiotics, which de-centre the sovereign subject of the modern epoch, but without effacing human agency. Similarly to Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, C. S. Peirce is as much interested in situating subjectivity as he is in de-centring it. Among Peirce’s most significant achievements is that of exhibiting human beings as somatic, semiotic, and social actors caught up in processes over which they have very limited control and about which they have only fragmentary, fallible, and (often very) distorted understandings (Colapietro, 2007).
It is this set of shifts (de-centring and situating the human, without erasing human agency) which partly underlies the use of the terminology of ‘actant’ and ‘actantiality’ in respect of how narrative environments act, terms which have a high degree of resonance with Peirce’s concept of the ‘interpretant’.
This enables the recognition, important for narrative environment design, that agency is not necessarily, or even usually, a property exercised by specific people. Instead, agency can be distributed across time and space, between or among sub-individual and supra-individual units, and over types of entities, such as humans and nonhumans (Ahearn, 2007).
Paul Kockelman (2007), for example, theorises agency in terms of flexibility and accountability, on the one hand, and knowledge and power, on the other. His theory seeks allow one to study the distribution of agency in and across real-time social, semiotic, and material processes.
Laura Ahearn (2001) offers the following provisional definition: “Agency refers to the socioculturally mediated capacity to act.” She comments that two concepts that are often assumed to be synonyms for agency, I.e. “free will” and “resistance”, must immediately be ruled out if agency is to be understood as referring to the sociocultural capacity to act. Ahearn is particularly concerned to understand language use as a form of social action.
Some sociologists prefer to use the term “practice” or “praxis”, the latter drawing on and redefining the Marxist term, perhaps restoring some of the senses attached to the term in Ancient Greek distinctions among praxis (doing), poiesis (making) and theoria (reflection on universals), in addition to, or instead of, “agency”. The most influential theorists within sociologically-oriented practice theory are Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens.
Shaun Gallagher discusses the phenomenological ambiguity involved in the sense of agency. The phenomenological distinction that needs to be considered, he suggests, is between pre-reflective (or non-reflective) and reflective aspects of self-consciousness, a distinction that applies to our actions and to the sense of agency.
He further notes that reflective self-consciousness can be further distinguished into ‘introspective reflection’ and ‘situated reflection’. Introspective reflection can be a reflective consideration of whether I should engage in one or another action (prospective deliberation), or a retrospective evaluation of what I have done already (retrospective attribution or evaluation). Such considerations may involve a metacognitive stance in which the subject might reflect on whether she is taking the right strategy to accomplish her goal, or she might ask whether what she intends to do (or has done) is consistent with her beliefs, desires, and her other activities. This kind of reflection may be relatively detached from current action.
Situated reflection, in contrast, is embedded in an ongoing contextualized action. It involves the type of activity that I engage in when someone asks me what I am doing, or when I am deciding what is the next step in my ongoing course of action. In situated reflection, I do not necessarily frame my answers to such questions in terms of beliefs, desires, or strategies. Rather, I may reference the immediate environment and what needs to be accomplished.
Ahearn, L.M. (2001). Agency and language. Annual Review of Anthropology, 30, 28–48.
Ahearn, L. M. (2007) Comment on Kockelman, P., Agency: the relation between meaning, power, and knowledge. Current Anthropology, 48 (3), 375–401. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/512998 [Accessed 9 December 2016].
Colapietro, V. (2007) Comment on Kockelman, P., Agency: the relation between meaning, power, and knowledge. Current Anthropology, 48 (3), 375–401. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/512998 [Accessed 9 December 2016].
Emirbayer, M. and Mische, A. (1998). What Is agency? The American Journal of Sociology, 103 (4), 962–1023. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2782934 [Accessed 16 October 2015].
Gallagher, S. (2012). Multiple aspects in the sense of agency. New Ideas in Psychology, 30 (1), 15–31. Available from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.newideapsych.2010.03.003 [Accessed 10 October 2015].
Kockelman, P. (2007). Agency: the relation between meaning, power, and knowledge. Current Anthropology, 48 (3), 375–401. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/512998 [Accessed 9 December 2016].edited 9 November, 2020 by Mr. Administrator