Re: [xmca] agency as product?

From: Kellogg (
Date: Tue Nov 14 2006 - 15:21:46 PST

Dear Lara:

I think that the reason why it's hard to find anything (at least in the work of the founding fathers) on "agency" is that "agency" is something of a latter-day weasel-word.

When Foucauldians use the word, they use it to claim that the persons we imagine are disempowered are really not so; this is part of their general argument that power is not something wielded by one class against another but rather a fine network of capillaries distributed throughout the social tissue, bringing nourishment as well as poison to every cell.

When people in the travel business and the real estate trade use the word, they mean almost exactly the opposite; they mean that you, the client will make the decisions and they will slavishly carry out your every whim, albeit with greater knowledge and skill than you ever could on your own.

When Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (and other feminist linguistic anthropologists) use the term, they mean something rather in between: men have power, but women have agency, where agency is the subsidiary power wielded by people who, because of the underlyin organized violence of society, must derive power through the manipulation of those who wield it more directly. That is why girls in high school are more concerned with "popularity" than boys.

I think that the term Vygotsky used was "volition", and it's really a much better and more useful idea than "agency".

As you suggest, it is in a very clear way a product of development. If we watch a child with a pencil we often notice that his movements are at first random, and then repeated, and then varied slightly to create a block of color.

This block may turn into a long rectangle of color, but it is only when recognizeable shapes emerge (a snake, a sail, a tendril of smoke) that the child hits on the idea of deliberately drawing something.

By moving the idea of the snake to the beginning of action (instead the end), the child inverts the cause of the action and its effect. Vygotsky would say a new relationship between psychological functions is created, by inverting the ratio of action/meaning to meaning/action.

I think we can say in this instance that "volition" is created. But to call this "agency" rather confuses matters, no? To me "agency" suggests neither other-regulation nor self-regulation, but rather the regulation of other people and thus the negation of their volition.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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