According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of "agency" can be traced from “an adaption of medieval Latin agentia = facultas agendi, n. of state f. agent-em pr. pple. of ag-{ebreve}re to do, act”. Its definitions may be summarized as follows:
  • (a) the faculty of an agent or an action, activity.
  • (b) working as a means to an end; instrumentality.
  • (c) the office or function of an agent in terms of a government agency.

These definitions may all be conceptualized as an effectual thing, however, (a) implies human capacity for action, (b) gets at the mode or the how of that action and (c) is linked with institutional power. In Communication, agency is often modified: rhetorical agency, human agency, material agency, audience agency, collective agency, among others.

Agency and the Individual: Agency according to Burke

Kenneth Burke explores agency in the vein of instrumentality (b). Agency is one of five terms Burke (1945/1969) identifies to discuss motives in ways that “clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise” (p. xviii). Burke’s pentad of terms to explain human motives there are:
  1. Ac,
  2. Scene
  3. Agent
  4. Agency
  5. Purpose (p. xv).

The agent performs an act and agency is what means or instrument the agent used; the method or medium (p. 9). In this sense, agency is conceptualized as an objective or material entity. Burke, however, acknowledges the subjectivity of categorizing what actions or things may be considered the various facets of the pentad. For example, what might be identified as agency might alternately describe the scene or purpose (p. xx).

Agency according to Taylor

Like Burke, Taylor (1985) analyzes agency with regard to motives, but he defines agency as an inherently human capacity to act (a). According to Taylor, (1985) “The capacity for second-order desires, or evaluating desires, is essential to human agency” (p. 27). He contrasts weak evaluation, simple desire for a given thing, against strong evaluation, a deeper articulation of human value or worth (Taylor, 1985, p. 25). A strong evaluator makes choices based on what kind of agent he or she aspires to be. Agency is thus linked with human identity effectuated through “courses of action” (p. 27). Taylor’s description of agency as self-reflective compliments the individual, rather than the collective (p. 42). Many scholars concur with this Western sensibility of self-authorship and agency as an intrinsically human ability to question and act upon evaluations (Campbell, 2003, p. 3; Turnball, 2004, p. 208).

Agency according to Foss

Foss (2004) adds that agency is possessed contingently. Foss (2004) states: “Assumption of agency means that people are unconstrained by the definitions or expectations of others or by material conditions that work to constrain their choices” (p. 154). Constraints may be conceived paradoxically as both that which limit and that which enable. In Bitzer’s (1966) concept of the rhetorical situation, he discusses constraints as “persons, events, objects and relations which are parts or elements of the situation because they have the power to constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence” (Bitzer, 1966, p. 8). The audience’s “beliefs, attitudes, documents, facts, traditions, images, interests, motives” as well as the orator’s character and approach affect the situation (Bitzer, 1966, p. 8). In the modification of a situation, constraints may actually neutralize or balance power in rhetorically contingent realms of communication. In this sense, constraints do not categorically limit agency but are more appropriately "neutral" in as much as they create the conditions for agency as a subjective quality. As communication scholars make claims about agency, the fraught meaning constraint necessarily enters the discussion.

Agency according to Giddens

Giddens (1976) explores the tension between agency and constraints, while breaching the construction of an agent as merely individual , and extending the concept to collective groups in public space (p. 5). Giddens (1984( considers definitions (a) and (c) in his conception of agency as the “feature of action that, at any point in time, the agent could have acted otherwise” in the midst of working power structures (p. 56). In Giddens’ theory of structuration, "agency" refers to the capacity of agents to act, while "structure" refers to institutionalized factors such as social class, that work internally and externally on the agent (Giddens, 1984, p. 169; 208). Human agency enables social systems to exist but structure reproduces rules of the system, which function in “duality”, constraining and enabling opportunity for action (Giddens, 1984, p. 25).

Agency as "tied to language and structure"

Alternate to the concept of human agency or collective agency assumed to belong to fixed agents, individual or otherwise, many scholars analyzing themes of social movements, power, and political injustice may approach agency as materially tied to language and structure. A 2004 edition of Philosophy & Rhetoric was devoted entirely to exploring the centrality of agency and its contested meanings between these two camps in rhetorical scholarship (Hauser, 2004). Analyzing Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, Andrew Hansen (2004) explores the agency of the text beyond the immediate exigency of the historical context (p. ). Feminist critic Judith Butler (1990) proposes that agency is not conceptually a project of self capacity and motives, but is a process of “signification” through historical conditions and discourse (p.144).

“Agency” is similarly leveraged by postcolonial scholars Spivak and Bhabha to discuss oppositional minority groups (the subaltern) facing structural oppression (Young, 2001, p.354). Bhabha (1999) examines subaltern agency as an “attempt to interrogate and rearticulate the ‘inter-est’ of society that marginalizes its interests” (p. 206). “Inter-est” is Hannah Arendt’s term for “the intersubjective space between agents” in which “language and action…become at once the theater and the screen for the manifestation of the capacities of human agency” (Bhabha, 1999, p. 205). Bhabha (1999) describes agency as the intentional “revision and reinscription: the attempt to renegotiate” (p. 206) hegemonic symbols within historically contingent forces (p. 208). Agency is therefore not as much a matter of freedom of choice as it is the action that resignifies dominant modes of signs and symbols in order to gain subaltern freedoms. In this approach, agency is conceived as changing material conditions through discourse.

Choice, action, power, and constraints root this concept in the historical context of an agent. “Agency” is used by scholars to describe the realities of individuals or communities, but in its contingency, it is subjectively conceptualized in order to fit within various ideologies and theoretical paradigms.

Human Agency & Narrative

Murray (1998) proposed three categories to analyze an interactive narrative, including agency (for review, see Murray 1998). In the narrative experience, agency refers to “the feeling of empowerment that comes from being able to take actions in the world whose effects relate to the player’s intentions” (Mateas & Stern, 2005, p. 649). With regards to the video game play environment, agency refers not only to the ability or instrumentality of the gaming device, but also the ability to make changes to the gameplay environment and narrative. In this way, agency is conceptualized using Burke’s (1945/1969) exploration with regards to instrumentality related to a player’s intentions.

Minor revisions by David J. Roaché (August, 2012)

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