The Politics of Agency

Ever since I was a philosophy student, I’ve been interested in how we conceptualise individuals and groups. The two are connected in my mind because, if groups are composed of individuals, our concept of individuals is going to condition our concept of groups and vice versa. However discussion at this level of abstraction can seem remote from the real world. In fact this is what led me away from philosophy and into sociology when I encountered it as a masters student. But this wasn’t my rejecting a focus on concepts as much as a desire to see how those concepts operate in the world.

I was thinking of these issues again when reading Jana Bacevic’s From Class To Identity, a study of education reforms in former Yugoslavia. How we conceptualise agency is a key concern of the book from the outset at the level of its object (claims about groups are a crucial factor in educational reform) and its explanatory framework (claims about groups are crucial to explaining the link between education and conflict). For instance “linear, one dimensional or causal explanations” such as “educational discourses -> exclusionary identities -> war” make (inadequate) assumptions about agency while being “hardly helpful in the understanding of the dynamics between education and conflict” (pg 7). Agency is often left unexamined in such processes, particularly when researchers are examining trends at the macro-social level. From pg 9:

Consider, for instance, practices of military recruitment: going into the army (in countries without mandatory conscription) is frequently the choice of people who come from poor, discriminated or otherwise marginalized backgrounds. Knowing the ubiquitous (and at least partially causal) connection between education, income and social status, it is both reasonable and empirically sustainable to assume that these people also happen to have lower educational levels. But do they go to war because they are not educated? Or do they go to war because they are poor and marginalized, so enlisting may give them an opportunity to earn (legally or illegally) wealth, security, and status they could otherwise not hope to attain?

If we fail to recognise the role of agency in such dynamics, we render the political opaque. From pg 17-18:

In other words, instead of the teleological understanding of the political dynamics of the Western Balkans as progress towards European integration and away from the communist past, this book will aim to bring the political back into the analysis of policymaking. In this context, the notion of “political” is closest to the meaning in which theorists such as Chantal Mouffe (2005, 1993), Ernesto Laclau (1994), and Jacques Ranciere (e.g. 2010) utilize it (cf. Ruitenberg 2011, 98). This means understanding politics as a place of, and for, the challenging, contestation, transformation and deliberation of different ideologies related to what constitutes a good society, who should rule it, and how its benefits should be distributed.

Treating agency in the abstract is not a retreat from the political but rather a precondition for its adequate exploration. Claims about individuals and groups are fundamentally contestable, if not necessarily contested, constituting vectors through which political struggle is pursued. The success of such strategies leads their advocates to leave the stage, with the results of their scheming appearing to be self-evident and incontestable. But these deploy particular understandings of individuals and groups which exercise a causal influence through their embedding in policy agendas and organisational processes. From pg 19:

Rather than a self understood and “natural” part either of dealing with the communist legacy, or of European integration of the region, then, policy agendas and particular decisions are seen as fundamentally political, in the sense in which they actively engage in creating, constructing, defining, organizing, using and mobilizing, or, alternatively, suppressing, containing, manipulating and controlling particular political and group identities.

We face a challenge in distinguishing between these various claims about agency, the social processes through which they are rendered natural and the real properties and powers of agents in virtue of which they are able to pursue or contest such claims. Abstraction is crucial to meeting this challenge because it allows us to distinguish between individual/groups and the claims made about them. In part this is a matter of theoretical literacy, ensuring we have the vocabulary we need in order to draw these distinctions, preventing us from getting tied up in the discursive contest and letting the world which is being contested slip away from us. But it’s also concerned with the reality of the agents themselves, their characteristics and capacities, the contexts that have shaped them and how they’ve shaped those contexts.

Categories: Social Theory

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