Human agency as a global counternarrative


Since the topic is complex, let me state my conclusion at the start: In the policy and management world with which I am familiar and from which I am generalizing, human agency is the only global counternarrative I have been able to find.

Because human agency is constrained differently at different times in different places and by different factors, it cannot and should not be seen as its own universalized Narrative. It has a much more important function, as we shall see.

These differences in context and function are obvious the second anyone defines human agency. Here is my definition (not an uncommon one): “an individual’s capacity to determine and make meaning from their environment through purposive consciousness and reflective and creative action“. Mine accents the reflexivity, but your definition may instead highlight self-determination, imposition of the one’s will on the environment, or some sort. I suspect similar or parallel points, to which we now turn, would be observed in applications of your definitions as well.


So that we are on the same page, here are two examples of human agency that illustrate my definition, one from a case study of migration and the other from case studies of child labor:

Specifically, the current mainstream narrative is one that looks at these people as passive components of large-scale flows, driven by conflicts, migration policies and human smuggling. Even when the personal dimension is brought to the fore, it tends to be in order to depict migrants as victims at the receiving end of external forces. Whilst there is no denying that most of those crossing the Mediterranean experience violence, exploitation and are often deprived of their freedom for considerable periods of time (Albahari, 2015; D’Angelo, 2018a), it is also important to recognize and analyse their agency as individuals, as well as the complex sets of local and transnational networks that they own, develop and use before, during and after travelling to Europe.

Schapendonk, J. (2021). “Counter moves. Destabilizing the grand narrative of onward migration and secondary movements in Europe.” International Migration: 1 – 14  DOI:10.1111/imig.12923

First, as the data [from three countries] have demonstrated, labor, and the need for children to work, is the predominant lens through which young people and the adults that surround them conceptualize children’s engagement with gangs and organized crime. This was in contrast to the other standpoints that permeate discourse. Labeling the children as gang members is a poor reflection of their drivers of involvement in crime and is likely to stigmatize children engaged in a plight to ensure their own survival. Alternatively, the young people were not child soldiers nor were they victims or perpetrators of trafficking or slavery. A victim lens is also problematic in this context. The relationship between young people and organized crime is complex and multifaceted. Young people are victims of acute marginalization, poverty and violence but they do have some agency over their decision making. The data from all studies illustrated how gangs offer young people ways to earn an income but they also provide social mobility, ‘social protection’ (Atkinson- Sheppard, 2017) and ‘street capital.’ In some instances, criminal groups offer young people ways to earn ‘quick and easy money.’ Thus, the young people are not devoid of agency, but their decision making should be considered within the context of restricted and bounded lives.

Atkinson-Sheppard, S. (2022). “A ‘Lens of Labor’: Re‐Conceptualizing young people’s involvement in organized crime.” Critical Criminology


So what?

From my experience and reading, human agency (as defined and illustrated above) looks very different from the positions of pattern recognition and localized contingency scenarios than it does from the much more familiar macro and micro positions in policy and management.

Far less mentioned are really-existing better practices for realizing human agency that have evolved over widely different cases or for modifying principles over widely different contingency scenarios locally. More often, I have come across case studies and literature reviews that assert “best practices” in the form of macro-principles (“this is what it means to act democratically”) or where the “best practice” has been habitually scaled up from one site or a handful of them. This is certainly true not just in the migration and child labor literatures with which I am familiar.


Again, so what?

One could, of course, counter there are no “better practices” anyway in the absence of best-macro ideals involving democracy and justice. I believe the premature invocation of macro-principles accounts for why the really-existing better–please, not “best”!–practices are rarely discussed. The notable exceptions–e.g., participatory research and action generalized across a wide variety of cases and modified in light of various equity principles–can be counted on two hands.

This is why I also believe human agency is best understood as an insistent counternarrative for moving away from domineering micro and macro-level narratives of human action. In this view, overarching claims that human agency, in theory or by right, govern more or less all cases is a non-starter for actually-existing policy and management.

One thinks of rush to judgment in macro-labeling election results and protest numbers as “populist” as long as the behavior is differentiated into alt-right, left, authoritarian, or nationalist populism (or whatever). There are again exceptions, but it is a rush to judgment when the criteria for this first cut differentiation pre-exist the analysis offered, where the criteria in no way emerge contingently from the political complexities of elections, protests and agency dominating the cases at hand.

Annex: 4 positions re: human agency

There are those who think the realization and/or control of human agency are among core principles around which to design large-scale systems involving humans, individually or collectively. Certainly, over-arching notions of “the individual” and “the collective” are contested at the macro-design node. Others immediately focus on the individual or micro-level, where here the agent acts in real time, reactively or proactively or otherwise. Here as well contestation abounds over terms, if only because of different optics on the micro from psychology, phenomenology, law, microeconomics, and more.

Then there are two other levels and units of analysis, which are the ones I want to focus on with my definition .
First, there is human agency as empirically expressed and observed across a run of different cases of “individuals,” “capacities,” “meaning-making,” “task environments,” “purposes” and “reflexivities” for starters. (Think of the analogy of searching out family resemblances, if any.) Are there patterns to be recognized over a run of different cases of human agency, and do these patterns constitute empirically contingent generalizations, even as they fall far short of anything like macro-design principles?

And speaking of macro-design principles, are there cases where one or more of the contested principles have been modified to reflect local conditions and circumstances? For example, is a country’s driving code enforced or implemented differently in its mountainous regions than on its wide plains? More formally, have macro-design principles been customized to reflect local contingency scenarios?

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