Agency


Merriam-Webster defines "agency" in an operational context as "the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power," and in an instrumental context as "a person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved." Historically, in philosophy and the social sciences, agency is discussed with a concern for independence of these capacities. This emphasis has been challenged theoretically in perennial debates over free will. But turning to empirical-theoretical research in psychology, the debate has opened up in important ways. As Bandura explains:

Social cognitive theory adopts an agentic perspective in which individuals are producers of experiences and shapers of events. Among the mechanisms of human agency, none is more focal or pervading than the belief of personal efficacy. This core belief is the foundation of human agency. [...] The growing interdependence of human functioning is placing a premium on the exercise of collective agency through shared beliefs in the power to produce effects by collective action (2000, p. 75).

Agency in Technology Studies


This discussion of collective agency opens the conversation up to include multiple actors engaged in agentic action. In technology studies, within various fields of study -- from archeology to political science -- and in the interdisciplinary field of STS, agency has been considered both as a collective capacity between humans and artifice, and competitive agency among these varieties of agents. This need not be seen as a duality of opposed relationships with collectivity and competition as counterposed, but instead as qualities of interactions that may even be present simultaneously.

Archeologists Dobres and Hoffman (1994) identified new developments in "practice theory" as "an appropriate starting point for a social theory of technology." Archeologists were just beginning to recognize that "key social dimensions of technology remain an underdeveloped topic." To rectify this, they proposed "the theoretical foundations for an anthropology of technology" that is compatible with technology defined as "not only the material means of making artifacts, but a dynamic cultural phenomenon embedded in social action, worldviews, and social reproduction" (p. 211). For them, "Technological acts, whether mundane or spectacular, are a fundamental medium through which social relationships, power structures, worldviews, and social production and reproduction are expressed and defined" (1994, p. 212). They turned then to 'the social constitution of technology,'

Highlighting the social agency of technological activities [involving] two basic premises: first, that technology is the meaningful engagement of social actors with their material conditions of existence; and second, that technology not only is the tangible techniques of object-making, but also makes tangible fundamental metaphors of daily social interaction. Without explicit attention to these dynamic processes, technology is all too often reduced to its hardware' (1994, p. 215).

For STS scholars, this discussion is perennial to the point of being part of the common sense. As Langdon Winner claims, "Those who have not recognized the ways in which technologies are shaped by social and economic forces have not gotten very far" (1986, p.21). Dobres and Hoffman have not suggested the rejection of "the material means of making artifacts," and Winner argues for the ways in which technologies govern social life: “technological innovations are similar to legislative acts or political foundings that establish a framework for public order that will endure over many generations" (Winner 1986, p. 29). The agency, it would seem, works in both directions. Technologies are "a fundamental medium" (Dobres and Hoffman 1994, p. 212), are "forms of life" (Winner 1986, p. 3), and exert a form of agency in social life. And, clearly humans "constitute" through a variety of social and individual practices the artifacts, techniques, and systems which are the fundamental material components of their technologies.

Winner, a political scientist, had different parochial concerns than the ancheologists Dobres and Hoffman. What he saw in his discipline -- and in popular discourse -- was quite the opposite of than Dobres and Hoffman witnessed in their field. Instead, Winner noted a tendency to view technology as neutral and infinitely plastic to the agency of human artificers and users. Instead, Winner argued that through complexity, there is a loss of agency:

The technological society contains many parts and specialized activities with a myriad of interconnections. The totality of such interconnections – the relationships of the parts to each other and the parts to the whole – is something which is no longer comprehensive to anyone. In the complexity of this world, people are confronted with extraordinary events and functions that are literally unintelligible to them. They are unable to give an adequate explanation of man-made phenomena in their immediate experience (Winner 1977, p. 284).

Without the ability to make sense of the technical aspects that impact one’s life, it becomes difficult or impossible to engage those elements in a meaningful way. It would be an error to derive from this a “naïve technological determinism” (Winner 1986, p. 21), but this argument effectively establishes the ways in which technology impinges upon human agency. "The concept of determinism is much too strong, far too sweeping in its implications to provide an adequate theory. It does little justice to the genuine choices that arise, in both principle and practice, in the course of technical and social transformation" (Winner 1986, p. 10). For him, “any society that hopes to control its own structural evolution must confront each significant set of technological possibilities with scrupulous care" (Winner 1986, p. 54). “Choice manifests itself in society in small increments and moment-to-moment decisions as well as in loud dramatic struggles,” wrote Mumford. “[H]e who does not see choice in the development of the machine merely betrays in incapacity to observe cumulative effects until they are bunched together so closely that they seem completely external and impersonal" (2010, p. 6).

Bjiker and Law explain that technology is “a product of the existing structure of opportunities and constraints" that “extends, shapes, reworks, or reproduces that structure… And, in doing so, it distributes, or redistributes, opportunities and constraints equally or unequally, fairly or unfairly” (1992, p. 13). Here we see technology-as-subject, an interaction of artifice and artificer, exerting its own agency.

In sum, agency is something experienced and enacted through relationships and interactions, not as fully autonomous, independent subjects, and not something that is purely human or social, but involves the environment both natural and built. This approach is similar to Giddens' structuration, with its influence from systems theory, but also takes queues from Foucault's dispositif.


Works cited:
Bandura, A. (2000) "Exercise of Human Agency through Collective Efficacy," Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(3) pp. 75-78.
Bjiker, W. and J. Law (1992) Shaping Technology/Building Society, MIT Press.
Dobres, M.A. and C.R. Hoffman (1994) "Social Agency and the Dynamics of Prehistoric Technology," Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 1(3), pp. 211-258.
Merriam-Webster (n.d.) "Agency." Merriam-Webster. Accessed at: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/agency
Mumford, L. (2010) Technics & Civilization, University of Chicago Press.
Winner, L. (1977) Autonomous Technology, MIT Press.
--- (1986) The Whale & The Reactor, MIT Press.

Additional reading:
Giddens, A. (1984) The Constitution of Society. University of California Press.