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.