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human agency

  The capabilities of human beings. Human agency is a central concern of both humanistic geography (and humanism in general; Gregory, 1981) and various \'post-humanistic\' geographies (and anti-humanism in general) (Barnes and Gregory, 1997). As these oppositions and entanglements suggest, concepts of human agency have occasioned a number of major disagreements, including the following:

The relations between agents and human agents. For Cutler et al. (1977), for example, \'an agent is an entity capable of occupying the position of a locus of decision in a social relation\' and recognized as such by other potential agents and by law or custom. They explicitly rejected the view that \'to be an agent is to be a subject [and] to act in terms of a will and a consciousness endowed with a faculty of “experience”\' and insisted that \'there can be no basis for maintaining that agents must be conceptualised as human subjects\'. Indeed, \'there may be agents other than individuals\', e.g. companies, corporations and states. In response, Giddens (1979) dismissed these views as \'wholly unenlightening\':

They do not address the philosophical problems of agency at all. It is perfectly true that a corporation can be an agent in law. But laws have to be interpreted and applied; it takes human agents to do that, as well as to frame them in the first place. … [N]o approach which ignores the will and consciousness of human subjects is likely to be of much use in social theory.Even so, the critique of limiting \'agents\' to \'human agents\' was subsequently radicalized by several contributions to science studies in general (Haraway, 1992) and actor-network theory in particular. \'We do not know who the agents [are] who make up our world\', Latour (1988) remarked: \'We must begin with this uncertainty if we are to understand how, little by little, the agents define one another, summoning other agents and attributing to them intentions and strategies\'. Both Haraway and Latour thus treat \'agency\' as a matter of attributing the ability to act. For this reason they prefer to speak of actants not actors or agents: \'Non-humans are not actants in the human sense, but they are part of the functional collective that makes up an actant\' (Haraway, 1992, p. 331). As this implies, actants can include non-human actors and new couplings of human beings and machines (cf. cyborg; hybridity). More radically still, the emphasis on a collectivity means that agency is no longer seen as a purely internal property of discrete individuals, which would include both Cutler et al.\'s \'corporate actors\' and Giddens\'s human agents (above). Instead, \'agency is reconfigured as a relational effect generated by a network of heterogeneous, interacting components whose activity is constituted in the networks of which they form a part\' (Whatmore 1999, p. 28).

The relations between intentions and actions. For Giddens (1984), for example, although \'it has frequently been supposed that human agency can be defined only in terms of intentions\', agency refers \'not to the intentions people have in doing things but to their capability of doing those things in the first place\'. Such capabilities, he contends, are logically tied to power: \'an agent ceases to be such if he or she loses the capability to “make a difference”, that is, to exercise some sort of power\' (but see Thompson, 1984). Giddens acknowledged that these practical interventions \'cannot be examined apart from a broader theory of the acting self\' and hence elaborated what he called a stratification model of action (see figure). Not all action is purposive, therefore, in the sense of being directed by definite intentions, but it is purposeful in the sense of being \'reflexively monitored\' by actors. Even so, a number of critics claimed that Giddens too often collapsed agency into action: \'what is obscured in [Giddens\'s] presentation is the claimed status of agency beyond the poles and intentional activity and reactive behaviour\' (Dallmayr, 1982).

{img src=show_image.php?name=bkhumgeofig30.gif }

human agency Stratification model of action (after Giddens, 1984)

Here too there has been a more radical objection to Giddens\'s formulations: to limit the discussion to intentions and actions is to foreclose on the ways in which the unconscious enters into human agency. This is scarcely unique to Giddens\'s programmatic reformulation of social theory. The relationships between social theory and psychoanalytic theory have always been contentious, and the relationships between human geography and psychoanalytic theory have been broached only recently. As Pile (1996) remarks, \'the unconscious has always been a stumbling block for behavioural geography\' (p. 73); similarly, most versions of humanistic geography and radical geography emphasize \'visibility, legibility and consciousness\' (p. 75). But a number of human geographers have started to explore the implications of psychoanalytic theory — and in particular the play of desire — for the critical understanding of human agency in ways that raise serious questions for social theory and human geography (see feminist geographies; psychoanalytic theory, geography and).

The relations between agency and structure. One of the central objections of the humanistic project in geography was to those approaches that reified systems and structures: in which actions and outcomes were explained by \'functional imperatives\' or \'structural logics\' that seemingly determined human actions. This critique was part of a much wider debate staged with a special force within so-called \'English Marxism\'. In both structural functionalism and structural Marxism, for example, socialist-humanist historian E.P. Thompson (1978) complained that \'systems and sub-systems, elements and structures, are drilled up and down the pages pretending to be people\': human agency was evicted from history other than \'as the “supports” or vectors of ulterior structural determinations\' (for a parallel critique in human geography, see Duncan and Ley, 1982). Against this, however, Anderson (1980) noted that \'agency\' was such \'a dominant in [Thompson\'s] vocabulary\' that he continually trembled on the edges of a voluntarism. Anderson proposed \'area of self-determination\' as a more precise term than agency; even if this has been widening in the last 150 years, Anderson argued, \'it is still very much less than its opposite\'. What was at stake here was not simply the deeply sedimented dualism between \'agency\' and \'structure\' that Giddens\'s structuration theory sought to transcend with disputed degrees of success, but the development of an historical or historico-geographical (as opposed to a purely axiomatic) approach that would trace the changing \'curve\' of human agency over time and space (see also Thrift, 1983). This is an immensely challenging project, which has involved the development of a contextual approach to social inquiry in general and human geography in particular that pays special attention to the concept of practice and to a series of key terms clustered around it (including the body; habitus; subject-formation; transgression) (see Thrift, 1996).

These three areas of disagreement intersect with debates about the constitution of human subjects (cf. Hirst and Woolley, 1982). Across the field of the humanities and the social sciences the continued development of anti-humanism and post-humanism has sustained considerable interest in the \'decentring\' of the autonomous subject of traditional humanism and humanistic geography. This critique has been driven, in large measure, by various forms of post-structuralism, and revolves around the possibility of identifying multiple and competing subject-positions such that subjectivities are constituted at the intersection of different discourses (see Smith, 1987). These ideas have had far-reaching consequences. The incorporation of more complex constructions of identity, subjectivity and agency within post-Marxism has disrupted the classical Marxist thesis of alienation and identified the salience of social struggles that are not sutured around a singular and coherent class subject. In feminist geography parallel debates have clarified the ways in which both human agency and human subjects have been tacitly gendered in mainstream (\'malestream\') geographical inquiry, where typically agency has been coded in masculinist terms and the exemplary human subject has been constructed as both heterosexual and masculine (see masculinism; queer theory). It has become clear, too, just how far human geography has internalized a conception of human agency that is \'ableist\' and thus restricts still further the space for what Chouinard (1997) calls \'disabling differences\' (cf. disability, geography and). In addition, dominant conceptions have usually been profoundly ethnocentric, and post-colonialism has played a vital (though at times, and by virtue of its own theoretical allegiances, an undoubtedly compromised) part in contesting the privileges accorded to Eurocentric concepts of human agency and the collective power of \'the subject of Europe\' in hegemonic narratives of historical and geographical change (see also Eurocentrism; subaltern studies). Finally, the incorporation of actants other than human beings promises to rethink not only the \'human\' in human geography but the \'geography\' too: to provide for a much more sensuous, physical \'ecology\' of action and agency (Thrift, 1996, ch. 1; see also Wolch, West and Gaines, 1995). The most profound impact of these ideas is likely to be in the braiding of these streams: in seeking to situate agency at the intersection of these different discourses. (DG)

References Anderson, P. 1980: Arguments within English Marxism. London: Verso. Barnes, T. and Gregory, D. 1997: Agents, subjects and human geography. In T. Barnes, and D. Gregory, eds, Reading human geography: the poetics and politics of inquiry. London: Arnold, 356-63. Chouinard, V. 1997: Making space for disabling differences: challenging ableist geographies. Environment and Planning D: Society & Space 15: 379-87. Cutler, A., Hindess, B., Hirst, P. and Hussain, A. 1977: Marx\'s Capital and capitalism today. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Dallmayr, F. 1982: The theory of structuration: a critique. In A. Giddens, ed., Profiles and critiques in social theory. London: Macmillan, 18-25. Duncan, J. and Ley, D. 1982: Structural Marxism and human geography: a critical assessment. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 72: 30-59. Giddens, A. 1979: Central problems in social theory: action, structure and contradiction in social analysis. London: Macmillan. Giddens, A. 1984: The constitution of society. Cambridge: Polity Press. Gregory, D. 1981: Human agency and human geography. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers. NS 5: 1-16. Haraway, D. 1992: Promises of monsters: a regenerative politics for \'inappropriate/d others\'. In L. Grossberg, C. Nelson, and P. Treichler, eds, Cultural studies. New York: Routledge, 295-337. Hirst, P. and Woolley, J. 1982: Social relations and human attributes. London: Tavistock; New York: Methuen. Latour, B. 1988: The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Pile, S. 1996: The body and the city: psychoanalysis, space and subjectivity. London and New York: Routledge. Smith, P. 1987: Discerning the subject. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Thompson, E.P. 1978: The poverty of theory and other essays. London: Merlin. Thompson, J.B. 1984: The theory of structuration: an assessment of the contribution of Anthony Giddens. In J.B. Thompson, ed., Studies in the theory of ideology. Cambridge: Polity Press. Thrift, N. 1983: On the determination of social action in space and time. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 1: 23-57. Thrift, N. 1996: Spatial formations. London and New York: Sage. Whatmore, S. 1999: Hybrid geographies: rethinking the \'human\' in human geography. In D. Massey, J. Allen, and P. Sarre, eds, Human geography today. Cambridge: Polity Press, 22-39. Wolch, J., West, K. and Gaines, T.E. 1995: Trans-species urban theory. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 13: 735-60.

Suggested Reading Pile (1996), ch. 2. Whatmore (1999), pp. 26-31.



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