In the social sciences, Agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.
By contrast, structure are those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and their decisions.
The relative difference in influences from structure and agency is debated – it’s unclear to what extent a person’s actions are constrained by social systems. Because it is unclear, making statements regarding those limitations must always be nuanced and clearly express that they are suggestive and likely correlative, not absolute.
One’s agency is one’s independent capability or ability to act on one’s will. This ability is affected by the cognitive belief structure which one has formed through one’s experiences, and the perceptions held by the society and the individual, of the structures and circumstances of the environment one is in and the position they are born into.
Disagreement on the extent of one’s agency often causes conflict between parties, e.g. parents and children.
The majority consensus, described by Hewson, is that there are three types of agency:
- individual – when a person acts on his/her own behalf
- proxy – when an individual acts on behalf of someone else (such as an employer)
- collective – when people act together, such as a social movement.
Hewson also identifies three properties of human beings that give rise to agency:
- intentionality – Human beings act with intention and are goal oriented.
- power – People have differing amounts of abilities and resources, resulting in some having greater agency (power) than others.
- rationality – People use their intellect to guide their actions and predict the consequences of their actions.
When people argue that a particular group that is oppressed lacks agency, they are referring – even when they are not fully aware or without intention to do so – to a lack across all three of those areas. This is why academic discourse on Agency often takes a lot more than a sentence or two to get through, because the impact of loss in one of those areas may or may not have an impact in other areas and may or may not limit that individual’s agency.
All of which is key to understand when examining accusation relating to Agency, and the presence of absence of it. For example, the argument that certain groups must be policed is an argument that that group has Agency, on the collective level, but also argues that said Agency is to be directed to and for the benefit and direction of someone outside the collective, proxy, or individual Agency that the collective is supposed to have.
Which is, if you note carefully, NOT a act of independent actors, but rather a direction by others seeking a social gain.
Which is why Policing never benefits the oppressed, it only ever benefits the oppressors, since the basis of it is always to lessen the stigma (which is active effort by Structure to deny Agency) through compiling with the demands of the social force involved.
Most overt prejudice involves a series of arguments that are based in the core denial of Agency regarding other groups. They police activities and behavior with the intent of confronting the stigmatized group but with the effect of reinforcing it.