Agency, de-centring the subject, situating the subject and distributed agency across a network
From the perspective of the design of narrative environments, 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 motivates the use of the terminology of ‘actant’ and ‘actantiality’ in respect to 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 the design of narrative environments, 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.
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 ‘actantiality’, a denomination that does does exclude human ‘agency’, nevertheless an agency that is de-centred and situated.
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.”
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 .
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.
 Aristotle contends that every physical object is a compound of matter and form. This doctrine has been called “hylomorphism”, a portmanteau of the Greek words for matter (hulê) and form (eidos or morphê).
Hylomorphism has a range of applications across Aristotle’s work, deriving from a general hylomorphic framework which he extends in a variety of contexts. In his Metaphysics, for example, he argues that form is what unifies some matter into a single object, the compound of the two. In his De Anima, he treats soul and body as a special case of form and matter and analyzing perception as the reception of form without matter. He suggests in the Politics that a constitution is the form of a polis and the citizens its matter, partly on the grounds that the constitution serves to unify the body politic (Ainsworth, 2016).
For a discussion of some of the limitations of hylomorphism in Aristotle’s psychology, see Shields (2010).
Shields, C (2010). A fundamental problem about Hylomorphism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-psychology/suppl1.html [Accessed 27 September 2015]
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 of 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 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.
The capacity of the user to control, shape or direct the interaction.
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)
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.
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].
Ainsworth, T. (2016). “Form vs. Matter”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/form-matter/ [Accessed 5 February 2019].
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].
Latour, B. (1996). The trouble with actor-network theory. Available at: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/P-67%20ACTOR-NETWORK.pdf. Accessed 9 May 2009.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Latour, B. (2008). A Cautious Prometheus? a few steps toward a philosophy of design (with special attention to Peter Sloterdijk). Available at http://www.bruno-latour.fr/articles/article/112-DESIGN-CORNWALL.pdf. Accessed 27 January 2009.
Law, J. (2007). Actor network theory and material semiotics. version of 25 April 2007. Available at http://www.heterogeneities.net/publications/Law-ANTandMaterialSemiotics.pdf. Accessed 27 November 2008.
Law, J. and Urry, J. (2003). Enacting the social. Lancaster: Department of Sociology and the Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University. Available at http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/sociology/papers/law-urry-enacting-the-social.pdf. Accessed 9 March 2007.