Human Agency

Human agency is the ability of people to control their own lives. Everyone has the capacity to exert control over the quality and nature of their own lives. Aspects of human agency include intention, foresight, self-regulation and self-reflectiveness. This concept is a key to social cognitive theory, which outlines three types of agency: direct personal agency, proxy agency and collective agency.

An agent is one who makes things happen through his or her actions. At the core of agency is an ability to develop, adapt, and rejuvenate oneself as the environment changes. A person's agency reflects his or her belief systems and capacity to self-regulate. The agency implemented by each person varies throughout that person's lifetime.

In the early years of psychological theories, researchers gave little credit to human agency. They believed in behavioral theory, and in stimulus-response reactions. Their views maintained that human behavior was controlled by stimuli in the environment. People would behave in ways that brought reward instead of punishment.

By and large, the advent of the computer changed that line of thinking. If computers can solve problems then, by extension, people must have an even greater capacity to think creatively to confront problems. Like a computer, the human brain receives input, and uses that information together with self-regulation in order to make things happen. All along, conscious knowledge of processes propels decision making and action taking.

Functional consciousness plays a central role in the flow of mental events and activity. It involves intentionally accessing and processing information, with the purpose of constructing, regulating and evaluating courses of action. Consciousness makes for a meaningful life and a self-identity which is based on how one lives one's life.

There are four core features of human agency: intentionality, forethought, self-reactiveness, and self-reflectiveness. Together, they address what it means to be human.

Practicing personal agency means doing things intentionally. An accidental action, such as dropping and smashing a dish, does not involve agency. People can choose their behavior through self-influence, even if they are being induced by others to behave in a certain way. An intention is a plan to bring about future actions. Intentions that are driven by self-motivation affect a person's future course of action.

While people usually have intentions to produce positive outcomes, their actions can produce the opposite. The best laid plans often result in negative results. The power to act with the intentions of achieving a particular result is a mainstay of human agency; unintended consequences are not a mark of human agency.

People cannot plan every detail of action at the outset, because no one can anticipate every turn of an activity, and they have to keep modifying their intentions as their plans proceed. Initial intentions have to be adjusted and refined during the execution of an intention, as new information is presented. Additionally, successfully implementing one's intentions requires other aspects of agency, and also often requires collaboration with others.

Forethought is another essential aspect of human agency. When people set goals for themselves and set courses of action to obtain those goals, they need forethought to motivate themselves and guide their actions. Forethought allows people to reorder their priorities and structure their lives with direction. It is predicated on the ability to adjust current activities to bring anticipated outcomes.

Self-reactiveness contributes to human agency by giving shape to courses of action. It is required to motivate oneself and regulate the execution of activities. Goals that are based on a value system are more meaningful, and thus more likely to be attained. Adopting moral standards and keeping to them is an important part of self-reactiveness and self-direction.

As people execute actions, they also self-examine their own functioning. Reflecting on their motivations, values and meaning of their life pursuits allows people to address conflicts effectively. Self-reflectiveness also grants the capacity to judge the correctness of their plans versus the outcomes, as well as to deduce plans using established knowledge and from observation of others' actions.

Beliefs about one's efficacy are at the foundation of human agency. Believing that one can act to produce desired effects gives an incentive to persevere in the face of problems. The feeling of efficacy affects whether one thinks optimistically or pessimistically, and whether one is motivated or demoralized by failure. Resiliency in the face of adversity is strengthened by a sense of efficacy.

Social cognitive theory defines three modes of human agency: personal, proxy and collective. Personal, as described above, utilizes one's internal processes. Proxy describes asking others who have access to resources or who wield influence to help them achieve desired outcomes. For example, a child could ask a parent to speak to a teacher on his or her behalf. Collective human agency means coordinating with others to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own. For example, workers banding together into a union to demand workers' rights is a type of collective human agency.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Being Human: The Problem of Agency
Margaret S. Archer.
Cambridge University Press, 2000
The Acts of Our Being: A Reflection on Agency and Responsibility
Edward Pols.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1982
Motivation and Agency
Alfred R. Mele.
Oxford University Press, 2003
Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments
R. Jay Wallace.
Harvard University Press, 1998
The Bounds of Agency: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics
Carol Rovane.
Princeton University Press, 1998
Persons and Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will
Timothy O'Connor.
Oxford University Press, 2000
Capabilities, Culture and Social Structure
Jackson, William A.
Review of Social Economy, Vol. 63, No. 1, March 2005
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Structure of Social Theory
Anthony King.
Routledge, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Structure and Agency"
Popular Dissent, Human Agency, and Global Politics
Roland Bleiker.
Cambridge University Press, 2000
Race, Ethnicity, Nation, and Class within Theories of Structure and Agency
McCaughan, Edward J.
Social Justice, Vol. 20, No. 1-2, Spring-Summer 1993
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
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