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Agency and the Anstoß

Max Planck Directors as Fichtean Subjects

Vita Peacock

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.

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Tanya Zoe Robinson

On 1–2 April 2014, the Institute of Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney, Australia (UWS), hosted Museums, Collecting, Agency: A Symposium, in partnership with the Museums and Heritage Studies Programme, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand (VUW). Held at the Australian Museum (AM) in Sydney, the event brought together an outstanding lineup of speakers from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, the United States, and Britain to explore questions of agency in relation to ethnographic museum collections and museum-like practices of collecting, with an emphasis on the histories and legacies of colonialism. In doing so, the speakers and audience (mainly academics, museum professionals, and museum studies students from Australia and the Pacific) ably brought these issues into the present through varied histories and practice-based case studies that ensured a very “living” approach to this growing research area.

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Jane Dickson

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.

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Confronting Tyranny in a Public Health Agency

Crafting a ‘Philosophy of Praxis’ into a ‘Community of Resistance’

Brian McKenna

This article details how a community of practice came crashing down on the iron rocks of bureaucracy. I apply Brown and Duguid’s theorisation of the dialectics of ‘working, learning and innovating’ illustrating how these three aspects came to conflict with one another, and how I worked to resolve them. As an anthropologist leading an environmental health project in a mid-Michigan public health agency, I formed a ‘community of practice’ and proceeded as a researcher, ethnographer and community activist for nearly three years, gathering findings to change the agency’s organisational structure, as a form of ‘disruptive innovation’. The community ‘roundtable’ of external project advisors highly supported the penultimate reports on water pollution, air pollution and restaurant health. The interdisciplinary strategies pursued resulted in valuable integrations of new knowledge in public anthropology across several thematic areas: critical public pedagogy, sustainability, citizen science, radical journalism and anthropologies of violence, trauma and transformation.

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Robert Bernasconi

According to those that would label Fanon a theorist of recognition, anti-colonial struggles for liberation are struggles for recognition. I will argue, however, that Fanon's discussion of recognition in Black Skin, White Masks offers a critique of the struggle for recognition, understood as the struggle to impose oneself on the other in order to be recognized as who one truly is. Fanon is critical of the idea that the freedom of colonial subjects will be realized when they are recognized by the colonizer. Indeed, the struggle to be recognized by the colonizer actually perpetuates the oppression of the colonized, insofar as this struggle is a struggle to be recognized within the terms of a discourse that is dictated largely by the colonizer. As Fanon demonstrates, the social categories within which subjects become socially visible beings nevertheless work in the service of subjection. Insofar as this is the case, the struggle to be recognized in socially intelligible terms will yield, at best, ambiguous results. Therefore, I argue that Fanon, unlike contemporary theorists of recognition, is skeptical of the liberatory potential of a struggle for recognition that is directed at securing recognition from the colonial "master." Furthermore, Fanon uses the instance of colonial racial misrecognition as the occasion to criticize the concept of recognition more broadly.

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Roger Sansi and Luis Nicolau Parés

The debates on identity politics and the invention of tradition led the study of Afro-Brazilian religions to a certain impasse in the 1990s. However, in the last several years, the field has been totally renewed, although in different directions. In this article we will consider some of these new trends, from a wider historical engagement with the Atlantic world, through the religious field and the public sphere, to new approaches to spirit possession and cosmology. Our objective is to assess the extent to which these new debates have managed to overcome this impasse.

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Jeremy Valentine

This article attempts to show how the conventional opposition between art and culture, on the one hand, and administration and organization, on the other, has been displaced. The main reason given for this phenomenon is the convergence of the collapse of notions of the political and aesthetic causality of art and culture with the destabilizing effects of postmodernism on organizational and administrative stability. After a discussion of the emergence of political regimes of audit within relations between culture and administration, the article locates the causes of the dominance of 'cultural governance' within the dynamics of modernist aesthetic values such as autonomy. The article concludes with a discussion of some optimistic possibilities that may arise from this scenario.

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Stefan Böschen, Jochen Gläser, Martin Meister and Cornelius Schubert

Recent years have seen an increasing interest in materiality in social research. Some might say that materiality is now back on the agenda of social research. The challenges of bringing materiality back have spurred lively debates about material agency, most of which, however, are leveled at the largely dematerialized theories of the social in the social sciences, for example, in material culture studies (Appadurai 1986; Miller 1998) as well as science and technology studies (Latour 1988; Law/Mol 1995). Since the turn of the century, a marked shift towards the material has emerged (cf. Hicks 2010), ranging from questions concerning nature (Grundmann/Stehr 2000) and everyday objects (Molotch 2003; Costall/Dreier 2006; Miller 2010) to issues of cultural theory (Reckwitz 2002), post-phenomenology (Verbeek 2005), ethnography (Henare et al. 2007), distributed cognition (Hutchins 1995), and materiality in general (Dant 2005; Miller 2005; Knappett/Malafouris 2008). A perspective on materiality is now being developed in diverse fields such as archaeology (Meskell 2005), economic sociology (Pinch/Swedberg 2008), political science (Bennett 2010; Coole/Frost 2010), and organization studies (Carlile et al. 2013). Yet the status of the material remains debated in the evolving fields of various “new” materialisms (cf. Lemke 2015).

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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.

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Norman Long

This article aims to contribute to the increasingly rich body of ethnographic and sociological studies that focus on processes of musical practice. After a brief introduction to the significance of music in social life, it outlines the advantages of adopting an actor-oriented analysis that gives close attention to issues of agency and emergent socio-cultural forms. This is followed by a brief encounter with the dynamics of musical performance as perceived by members of the Guarneri Quartet, after which two contrasting musical scenarios are analyzed in depth. The first focuses on music and ritual practices in the Peruvian Andes, and the second on the English musical renaissance of the early twentieth century. The article closes with a brief comment on the need to examine in depth the social components of musical composition and performance.