This article discusses how agency is emergent from the asymmetrical power interactions of multiple social actors and organizations. Agency, contingent and relational, is creative even when interpreted by people as unsuccessful. I employ ethnographic research from within a local authority sustainability team who were threatened with redundancy because of funding cuts imposed during the implementation of British Prime Minister David Cameron's Big Society project. In order to manage their situation, possible futures had to be re-imagined and appropriately contained through processes of self-assessment and self-management. The ability to enable self-directing action was often evident but was frequently interpreted by people as unsuccessful. This stemmed from misrecognition, scarcity and the lack of capacity to bring about full and substantial changes. Both the sustainability team and their work emerge from this process reduced and reformed through the competing tensions of systems of political governance and technologies of the self.
Agency and Personhood in the Argentine Supreme Court
A common assumption in Western legal cultures is that judicial law-making is materialised in practices that resemble the operation of a professional bureaucracy, practices that are also central to the construction of knowledge in other systems, such as accounting, audit, science, and even ethnography (Dauber 1995; Strathern 2000; Riles 2000, 2004, 2006; Maurer 2002; Yngvesson and Coutin 2006). This argument situates the judiciary as a formalistic organization that builds its ambition of universality on the procurement and dissemination of knowledge on a rational basis. Drawing on ethnographic research in the Argentine Supreme Court, this paper seeks to unpack this assumption through a detailed look at how the figures of legal bureaucrats, in particular law clerks, become visible through the documentary practices they perform within the judicial apparatus. As these practices unfold, they render visible these subjects in different forms, though not always accessible to outsiders. Persons are displayed through a bureaucratic circuit of files that simultaneously furthers and denies human agency while reinforcing the division of labour within the institution. This dynamic, I argue, can be understood in light of Marilyn Strathern’s (1988) insights about the forms of objectification and personification that operate in two “ethnographically conceived” social domains (Pottage 2001:113): a Euro-American commodity-driven economy, and Melanesia’s economy based on gift-exchange.
Max Planck Directors as Fichtean Subjects
One of the core assumptions in agency theory has been that agency is a primordial attribute of persons: an agent is 'the origin of causal events'. However, rather than situating agency at the origin, this article argues that we should a end to where agency, within a given context, itself originates. In Germany's Max Planck Society the departmental heads – so-called 'directors' – possess a significant degree of 'agency' in realizing their personal will. Yet they are not its authors. On the contrary their agency is a secondary product of the philosophies of German Idealism, which eulogize the subjectivity of a heroic intellectual. In this analysis, the agency of the directors is not a precondition of their humanity, but the off spring of a specific cultural inheritance which frames the organization's intramural life. Organizational theorists should thus pay close attention to the geo-cultural location of their object before drawing conclusions about agency.
Spirituality and women's agency beyond the Catholic Church in Poland
This article looks at various models of women's agency in Poland in the context of religion. Based on fieldwork among members of two feminized religious milieus—a new religious movement the Brahma Kumaris and an informal Catholic fundamentalist group—this article discusses the role of silence in ritual and everyday life as a form of agency. From the perspective of feminist discourse, particularly Western liberal feminism, silence is often interpreted as a lack of power. Drawing on informants' experiences, under Polish gender regimes, particularly as they relate to the organization of public and private spheres, silence is shown to be a fundamental component of agency. The analysis of silence displays the complexity of religious issues in Poland and serves as a critique of assumptions about religious homogeneity and the pervasiveness of religious authority in Poland.
Jon Harald Sande Lie
Through its post-structural critique of development, post-development provides a fundamental dismissal of institutional development. Drawing on the work of Foucault, post-development portrays development as a monolithic and hegemonic discourse that constructs rather than solves the problems it purports to address. Yet post-development itself becomes guilty of creating an analysis that loses sight of individuals and agency, being fundamental to its development critique. This article discusses the discourse-agency nexus in light of the post-development context with specific reference to the grand structure-actor conundrum of social theory, and asks whether an actor perspective is compatible with discourse analysis and what—if anything—should be given primacy. It aims to provide insight into social theory and post-development comparatively and, furthermore, to put these in context, with Foucault's work being pivotal to the seminal post-development approach.
Questions of Evidence and Agency
This introduction reviews the articles collected in this special section, articles that explore different visions of the environment and how they engender particular ways of seeing evidence of climatic and environmental change. A key aspect of such distinctive understandings seems to be the attribution of agency within conceptions of the environment that in each case are entangled with humans. Notions of anthropogenic and non-equilibrial environments are explored in several of the articles collected here, along with ongoing debates surrounding the concept of the Anthropocene. An awareness of climate change has brought new urgency to the project of grasping our entangled environments in the diversity of their human understandings.
Valerie R. Friesen
In many parts of the developing world, sport is a non-traditional activity for girls, one which is being used increasingly by development organizations for the empowerment of girls and women. However, very little research has been done on the complex subjective perceptions and understandings of the participants themselves. The girls in this study were participants in an after-school program in Windhoek, Namibia, which combines academics and sport. I used discourse analysis to highlight issues of agency, power, and gender that emerge from their reflections on their sport participation. Girls' conversations often revealed acceptance and normalization of dominant gender norms but also a growing critical consciousness, and demonstrated the numerous ways girls resist, negotiate and engage with these discourses through their own perceptions of power, agency, and hope.
The Fate of Agency in Twentieth-Century Murik Art
In Art and Agency, Alfred Gell seeks to reclaim the anthropology of art for the Durkheimian social. However, in the course of arguing that objects should be viewed as the "outcome, and/or the instrument, of ... agency" (Gell 1998: 15), he takes an essentialized view of the relationship of personhood to embodiment that, on the one hand, preconceives this relationship as consubstantial and, on the other, as static. Nevertheless, viewing art in Gell's way mimics itself; it offers agency, a powerful exegetical methodology for the study of art. In this article, I apply and refine Gell's thesis by means of a historical explication of the theme of agency in the art of the Murik Lakes people, a group of Sepik River fisher folk and traders. More broadly, I argue that Gell's analytical framework in Art and Agency needs to admit that the relationship of art to personhood and modernity is cultural, discursive, and unfinalized, as well as instrumental.
Connective Agency and the Aesthetics of the Egyptian Revolution
During and immediately after the Egyptian revolution of 2011, the creative impulse that accompanied social and political demands shifted toward a collective sense of regained agency, or “connective agency.” The spontaneous acts of mobilization, artworks from found objects, street performances, the reshaping of slogans and chants into sustained musical composition—these all tap into cultural memory, offering radical and socially cementing modes of communication. The agency of this artistic expression and collective action lies in the production of ama¯ ra forms: the specifically Egyptian cultural practice of producing signs and narrative tokens of shared identity and fate, in this case in a socially transformed public sphere. My reflections here move from the political to the aesthetic, from the return of the people through collective and solidaristic action to the forms of resonance and of connective agency that such actions have evinced.
Calls for Local Agency and Good Fieldwork in Development Encounters
This article explores local agency in development anthropology, a prominent form of applied anthropology that has encouraged refl ection on the practice of anthropology itself (Mosse 2013). Drawing on specifi c fieldwork experiences from time the author spent working for the United Nations and international NGOs in East Africa, it discusses several complexities and moral questions that arose. In particular, it focuses on the challenges for local perspectives to be represented, given the subjective interests in which development encounters are embedded. It also looks at instances where ‘speaking back’ does occur, and where it arguably becomes ‘striking back’. In light of this, the article discusses what can be mutually exchanged between development and anthropology, with a particular focus on the accommodation of local agency and participation, and the need for fieldwork approaches based on suffi cient time, trust and positionality.