Agency is a concept that has long dominated Western thought in sociology, economics, philosophy and psychology. The agency of individuals can be defined as the ‘capacity for autonomous social action’ (Calhoun, 2002) and it is often contrasted with social structures that can be seen as determining human behaviour, e.g. religion, social class, economics and family.
The ‘structure–agency’ debate has dominated discussions in sociology since the 1970s, particularly in relation to the capacity of individuals and groups (‘collective agency’) to change the context (or social structures) within which they exist. Moving beyond those oppositional views, Anthony Giddens (1984) argued that individuals have the capacity for reflective thought about their actions and use this knowledge to both create and change the structures within which they live, which is known as ‘structuration theory’. For Giddens (1984), structures and human agency are therefore interdependent. The concept of agency has been further developed by Archer (2000) and others. How we understand agency shapes how we understand the potential for change and autonomy for those engaged in leadership activities, which is important in the study of educational leadership.
One approach to thinking about agency is that of Biesta and Tedder (2007). They propose an ‘ecological’ understanding of agency, where agency by individuals is understood as an achievement rather than an essential characteristic. The achievement of agency emerges from the transactions between individuals within their environment at a given time and place. This is helpful in understanding how social actions can be agentive in some situations and not others, and that an individual’s achievement of agency will fluctuate over time.
Watch the following video about the importance of identity and how it relates to agency.
Please note: ‘Unit 2’ and ‘Unit 9’ in the video refer to part of the Open University course not included in this OpenLearn course. Also, the reference to ‘module’ in this video refers to the Open University course.