What is agency?

15 June 2004

I’ve was reading Wilson, D. C., & Jarzabkowski, P. (2004). Thinking and acting strategically: New challenges for interrogating strategy. European Management Journal, 1, 14—20. It talks about many things, of which I Will say more later, but I was intrigued by the references to an article by Emirbayer Mische. So, I got a copy—all 62 pages, and have spend the past four hours or so reading it.

Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency? American Journal of Sociology, 4, 962–1023._

The abstract says:

This article aims (1) to analytically disaggregate agency into its several component elements (though these are interrelated empirically), (2) to demonstrate the ways in which these agentic dimensions interpenetrate with forms of structure, and (3) to point out the implications of such a conception of agency for empirical research. The authors conceptualize agency as a temporally embedded process of social engagement, informed by the past (in its ‘interational’ or habitual aspect) but also oriented toward the future (as a “projective’ capacity to imagine alternative possibilities) and toward the present (as a “practical-evaluative’ capacity to contextualize past habits and future projects within the contingencies of the moment) But that hardly does it justice.

This is a marvellous synthesis and re-conceptualisation of human agency. It’s clear why Wilson & Jarzabkowski (2004) used it in their EMR1 article .

I particularly liked the article for two reasons. Firstly, it situates the concept of agency in history. This represents one of my own personal peccadilloes—I always like to know the “story” behind something; it’s one of the way I make sense of things. The range of ideas the article draws on is impressive (even considering its length): Turner, Bourdieu, Parsons, Mead, Weber, Lacan, Aristotle, Kant—all the usual suspects. The trick is the skillful integration and synthesis of ideas.

For me this has to be the definitive article on agency. Five stars! As I was reading the article, I had a sense of strong links with the underpinnings of psychodrama. After all, much of psychodrama is about being more agentic—or as they2 say, helping people to exhibit more spontaneity—to be able to act in new (less “routine’) ways. If I had some time, it would be fun to try and do a point by point comparison between the article and psychodrama. Talking of psychodrama, where is the new theory in psychodrama coming from? Is there any new theory. Most of what I read seems to be reinterpretations and expositions of the works of the masters3. (Of course, my knowledge of psychodrama isn’t great, so I’m probably missing out on whole chunks of that literature.)

Review](http://www.palgrave-journals.com/emr/) as a result of an e-mail from the strategy-as-practice web site and e-mail list. There was a special edition of the journal (regarding strategy-as-practise) which was available free on the the Internet.


  1. Interestingly, I was made aware of the [European Management [return]
  2. Psycho-dramatists, that is. [return]
  3. J. L. Moreno and Zerka Moreno [return]