Independent Action In An Interdependent Reality–Ecosynomic Agency

What does it mean to act on one’s own, making one’s own decisions?  It turns out that we do not have a single answer for that; rather a few, depending on who you ask.  A word we use to describe acting on one’s own, making one’s own decisions, is “agency.”  There are at least four major definitions of what agency is, each suggesting that their definition is the only and right one.  There are distinct definitions from economics, political science, cultural anthropology, and sociology: what I call the four lenses on one experience.  The problem is that they each have evolved to point at different aspects of the experience of agency, based on what they primarily focus on in the human experience.  I suggest that we can learn something by taking the dimensions of your experience that they each point at and putting them together into a greater whole.

Economic agency.  In economics an agent acts on behalf of a principal to influence the use of the principal’s resources, in ways that benefit the principal’s interests.  Agency theory in economics is seen as part of the field of contract theory, where the challenge is seen as designing a contract whereby the self-interested agent will act in the principal’s interests.

Political agency.  From a political science perspective, one has different degrees of freedom to decide for oneself and to enforce one’s own decisions, based on access to power.  Agency is, “the degree to which individual actors have the capacity to act independently and to make their own decisions…[with] access to political power, financial resources, and information” (2016, Matson, Clark, Andersson, Pursuing Sustainability, p 89).

Cultural anthropologic agency.  In cultural anthropology, one acts from a set of values, determined by one’s culture, and one’s actions influence how those values manifest.  From a cultural perspective, agency is “the temporarily constructed engagement by actors of different structural environments which, through the interplay of habit, imagination, and judgment, both reproduces and transforms those structures in interactive response to the problems posed by changing historical situations” (2000, Ratner, Journal for The Theory of Social Behavior, p 413).

Sociological agency.  In sociology, the ability to act on one’s own interweaves with the social structures in which one exists.  “Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.  By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions. The relative difference in influences from structure and agency is debated – it is unclear to what extent a person’s actions are constrained by social systems” (Wikipedia).  What determines what you do? You, your social context, or a structure that interweaves the two?

So, agency is influencing the use of resources, yours or someone else’s, based on your access to power and resources, towards specific values, yours or someone else’s, within the context of your social structure.  While theories like Gidden’s structuration attempt to blend all of these, each discipline (the four lenses) continues to promote its primary focus (whether resources, decision and enforcement power, values, or contexts of interactions) as the only significant determinant of agency.

What we want to see about agency, ecosynomically, is that your ability to make choices depends on the agreements you see, from each of the four lenses, about:

  • what resources are relevant to what you want to choose, and which ones you can access (economic lens)
  • who influences the decisions, who enforces them, and what power you can have over both, whether you choose to play along or not (political lens)
  • what values guide the actions you take, for yourself, and the consequences of those actions on the values of others (cultural lens)
  • how the structure of agreements you are in–the written and unwritten rules of the game–influence the actions you can take, and whether you accept them (social lens)

These are four areas of choices you can make.  That is agency, ecosynomically.


Being Curious — Most Viewed Posts

Something piqued my curiosity about the most viewed posts of my blogging on ecosynomics and vibrancy since mid-2009.  Of 282 posts, the two most viewed looked (1) at the big questions every culture has seemed to explore for thousands of years, and (2) at the process we observe when people are able to align in a deeply collaborative way.  As both posts seem very appropriate to much of the work the global Vibrancy community is co-hosting with groups around the world today, I thought I would repost the links to them today.

Some people have shared with me that they have favorite posts that they like to share with others.  Do you have a favorite one?  I would love to know.

GRASPing Ecosynomic Lenses

My colleagues and I have developed, over the past two decades, a systemic approach to strategic understanding of complex social systems.  We frame this work with the term GRASP, which reminds us of the five key elements of the strategic systems mapping: Goals, Resources, Actions, Structures, and People.  You can learn more about the GRASP framework and the strategic systems mapping process in our free online course (click here) or in a paper we published in the British journal Long Range Planning (click here).  Essentially, GRASP integrates the five big questions of strategic thinking:

  • Goals. Identify why the organization exists and what its global goal is. Identify stake- holders and their goals.
  • Resources.  Identify those resources that drive value (value-driving resources) for stakeholders and those that enable value (enabling resources). Balance the resource needs for all key stakeholders.
  • Actions.  Act at the level of enabling resources.
  • Structure.  Identify the linkages between goals, resources, and actions.
  • People.  Bring the organization to life. Identify the incentives of those groups that control parts of the organization. Align the organization’s structure and incentives to max- imize the organization’s potential.

In the Agreements Evidence Map, Ecosynomics suggests four lenses for looking at human agreements, asking the questions:

What does the GRASP map look like, from the perspective of the four lenses in the Agreements Evidence Map?  The GRASP map describes each of the four lenses, and how they fit together in a social system.

From the perspective of the four lenses in the Agreements Evidence Map:

  • the Resource lens looks at the enabling and value-driving Resources in the GRASP map
  • the Allocation lens describes the decision and enforcement policies and perspectives used by the People, the stakeholders, in the GRASP map
  • the Value lens highlights the Goals of the stakeholders in the social system, how the value-driving resources describe those Goals in the GRASP map, and the criteria People use to make the decisions they enforce
  • the Organization lens captures the Structure of the relationships amongst the goals, resources, actions, and people, as well as the Actions described by the rules of interaction, in the GRASP map

From the perspective of the GRASP elements:

  • the Goals describe what can be seen through the Values lens for the different stakeholders in the social system
  • the Resources describe the enabling and value-driving resources seen through the Resources lens
  • the Actions capture what people can do within the rules of interaction in the system, as seen through the Organization lens
  • the Structure describes the relationships amongst the elements of the system, as seen through the Organization lens
  • the People describe who makes decisions and enforces them, as seen through the Allocation lens, with what criteria, as seen through the Values lens

Thus, GRASP frames the agreements evidence mapping in integrated, strategic systems terms.

Ecosynomics — The Study of Deviance and Diversity in Human Agreements — Another Framing

The emerging field of Ecosynomics explores deviance and diversity in human agreements.

Deviance.  We study what agreements make groups deviate away from treating each other as creative human beings, and what agreements underlie groups that are sustainably human and creative.  Our data so far, from 94 countries, shows that the  agreements underlying the positive deviants and the negative deviants are completely different, with the negative deviants starting from scarcity and the positive deviants starting from abundance.

Diversity.  When we see that people look at and formulate their agreements through the four lenses of economic, political, cultural, and social perspectives, answering the 12 Big Questions everyone must address, consciously or unconsciously, we find an infinite diversity in how people have answered these questions.  This means that as every group has answered these questions for themselves, they have taken a different path, not that they are better or worse at seeing how to be on the same path.  The mainstream story is that some groups are better than others at being economically self-sufficient in a market-based system focused on financial wealth.   This assumes everyone sees the same agreements when looking through the lenses of how much, who decides, on what criteria, for what rules of interaction.  Our data shows that the set of agreements underlying each group starts from seeing different resources, deciding differently about them, based on values specific to the individuals making up the group, which leads to a specific set of rules for their interactions.  What looks like different degrees of the same kind are different kinds.

This wide deviance in and diversity of human agreements makes for a very interesting field of study, where many assumed that all of the answers were already given.  The only issue seemed to be better application of the one acceptable set of understood agreements.  Now we see a much more interesting issue: what specific set of agreements best support the experience and outcomes each group wants to have?

What Specifically Differentiates High Vibrancy Groups from Everyone Else?

Ever since my colleagues and I realized that we had identified “high vibrancy” groups as an emerging phenomenon, where people were experiencing sustainably strong outcomes and experiences by living in abundance-based agreements, people continuously ask us, “What is different, specifically, about these groups?”

We can use the four lenses of the Agreements Evidence Map to be very specific about what we have found so far.  Our dataset includes survey responses from 2,500 descriptions of groups in 93 countries and longitudinal field work with 92 groups in 10 countries in the past 5 years.  The four lenses include the economic, political, cultural, and social perspectives.

To be clear, we started with the group’s outcomes, and found their experience.  We have identified thousands of groups, large and small, that sustainably achieve far-beyond-normal outcomes, often for decades.  They are able to catalyze far more of the potential energy latent in their interactions with each other.  When looking into what made them so strong, we found that they all described energizing human interactions.  They are much more vibrant, which is why they became know as “high vibrancy” groups.

Economic resource lens.  How are the “high vibrancy” groups different?  Through the economic lens of resources, we see that these groups have completely different resources than most groups.  When high vibrancy groups look at their community, they have an abundance of resources.  From the perspective of the three levels of perceived reality, they see great potential energy in the latent resources they have in the potential of the people, their relationships, and their creativity, potential energy that is just waiting to be released.  They see kinetic energy in the dynamic development of capacities and relationships, as they consciously choose to release the latent energy.  They see huge resources in the currently available capacities throughout the community.  The resources they have are almost infinite, and they account for all of these resources, because they are strategic.  Compare that abundance of resources with groups that only perceive the tangible resources they have right now.  What is the relative perceived valuation of a company with 10X more resource available for the same cost?  This is the economic resource part that differentiates higher vibrancy groups.

Political allocation lens.  We find in our field research and in the research of others pointing at the same phenomenon, that high vibrancy groups distribute decision authority and responsibility to all five primary relationships (self, other, group, nature, spirit), giving each relationship the power for decision-making enforcement, throughout the organization.  When decisions are made by each primary relationship where most appropriate (e.g., me for myself, in support of the other, towards a unique contribution to the group, manifesting possibilities, through constant creativity), then a higher percentage of the organization is highly engaged.  Compare that decision making authority, power, and engagement with groups that centralize all decision authority in one primary relationship.  What is the relative value to an organization of highly engaged people versus disengaged people?  This is the political decision and enforcement part that differentiates high vibrancy groups.

Cultural value lens.  Our long-term work within many of these high vibrancy groups shows that they experience far more of the value available within the five primary relationships on a daily basis.  They experience the integration of the value of high vibrancy relationships to self, other, group, nature, and spirit every day, in living into the latent potential, dynamic development, and constant realization of their aspirations and outcomes.  Compare that with groups that say they value human potential, development, and learning, while they simultaneously shut down or minimize the expression of potential and development in one’s relationship to self, other, group, nature, and spirit — “Do that on your own time; here we have work to do.”  This is the cultural value part that differentiates high vibrancy groups.

Sociological organization lens.  In the high vibrancy groups we have met, human interactions are organized to integrate adaptive and hierarchical designs for collaboration.  There are clear structures for processing information throughout the organization, and resilient, dynamic processes for adapting mindfully to new information, perspectives, and categories.  They are both adaptive and hierarchical, integrating the best of both, to maximize the unique, hjgh-value harmonic available when people synergize their interactions.  Compare that experience of human interactions with groups that primarily focus on formal, hierarchical structures that funnel people into functional silos.  This is the sociological organization part that differentiates high vibrancy groups.

Costs of scarcity.  From these four lenses, we can begin to see what differentiates high vibrancy groups from everyone else.  They are completely different: economically, politically, culturally, and socially.  Because of all of these differences, they tend to win more in the short term, because they offer and invite much more value in the moment of the exchange, and they are more sustainable over the long term, because they are more resilient and able to catalyze the latent value already available.  What is the cost of not doing this, the cost of scarcity? Are the benefits of abundance, of releasing the latent energy at least as great as the costs of not releasing it?

Zooming in on Your Agreements, from 500,000 ft to 50 ft

Most of us accept that the experiences we have every day are conditioned by realities we have to accept: “That is just the way things are.”  At the level of each experience, this certainly seems to be true.  I get paid for the work I did today, because that is what my labor contract specifies.  I pay for groceries with dollars, because that is what the federal bank provides as currency.  There is not much choice in this, from what I can see at this level.  What can I see if I zoom out from this 50-foot view of the specific experience to a 5,000-foot view of the system that directly influences my experience – from a view of the proverbial tree to the forest?

5,000-ft view through four lenses

From the 5,000-foot view, I can see that a series of assumptions determine the resources I have access to, who decides and enforces the rights of access to the resources, what is valued in my experience, and how I interact with others.  Is this system consistent everywhere always or is it dependent on higher level assumptions?  Zooming out to the 500,000-foot level, I can see the whole region within which those assumptions lie, observing that in different areas the assumptions are different.

500,000-ft view through four realms

From this 500,000-foot view, I see four realms of inquiry that have intrigued humanity for thousands of years: the economic, political, cultural, and social.  These four realms describe who makes and enforces the rules (politics) using what criteria (culture) about how people interact (social) and what people produce and exchange (economics).  I can see that in different regions of the earth and in different times, there have been very different ways that people have responded to what they see in each of these four realms.  There are many political systems, cultural systems, social systems, and economic systems over the time and space of human existence.  What do these four realms look like when I zoom back down to the 5,000-foot level of the specific system I live in?

Zooming in on your agreements

There seems to be a certain logical process to these four realms, at the 5,000-foot level.  What is there (who has what), who decides, with what criteria, and how do people interact?  The economic, the political, the cultural, and the social.  There are specific rules that I can see at this level that determine how we deal with the economics of resources, the politics of decisions, the culture of values, and the sociology of organization.  In earlier blogs, I have described these as four lenses (resources, decision, value, organization) through which I can see my experience.  Through these lenses, I begin to see that what seem like fixed rules – that’s just the way it is – vary significantly from one system to the next.  If they vary so much, then maybe they are not fixed rules, rather simply agreements that I have unconsciously accepted in my daily experience at the 50-foot level.

Is there only one job I can have?  Do I have to accept the conditions of the contract?  Is there only one currency I can access for getting my groceries?  When I look around, at other systems, I see that there are many options.  Other people have developed other responses, other agreements, when they looked from the four realms (500,000-ft view) through the four lenses (5,000-ft view) at what they wanted to experience on a daily basis (50-ft view).  They look at their work differently.  They have different conditions for their work.  They use different forms of currency.  I begin to see that these are all choices.  Choices designed at the 5,000-ft level, which I experience at the 50-ft level.  Choices that are guided by an evolution of what can be seen from the four realms at the 500,000-ft level.

50-ft view through the experience of my agreements

Daily life happens at the 50-ft level.  In that daily experience, someone decides and enforces who has access to what resources and how we interact, using some specific criteria.  The quality of these factors directly influences the quality of the vibrancy I experience.  If I want to experience greater vibrancy in that daily life, it seems important to occasionally zoom out to the 5,000-ft view to look through the four lenses at the system that influences my experience.  And, every once in awhile, it seems important to zoom out to the 500,000-ft level to examine the lenses I am using to design the system.

Maps for each level

To work with these three levels, we need a perspective, a theory of how they relate.  As Albert Einstein said, “Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed.”[1]  Cartographers have provided theory-based maps for each level.  Ecosynomics shows how the maps of these three levels fit together.  At the 50-ft level, we can use “agreements maps.” At the 5,000-ft level, we can use the four-lenses map.  At the 500,000-ft level, we can use the four-realms map.  These maps can inform what we see, as we zoom in and out, and the agreements we consciously choose to experience in our daily lives.

[1] Albert Einstein quote, as related by Werner Heisenberg, cited in Salam, A. (1990). Unification of Fundamental Forces. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 99.