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Emirbayer and Mische 1998, What is Agency

Emirbayer and Mische 1998, What is Agency

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What Is Agency?Author(s): Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann MischeSource:
The American Journal of Sociology,
Vol. 103, No. 4 (Jan., 1998), pp. 962-1023Published by: The University of Chicago PressStable URL:
Accessed: 07/08/2010 13:28
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What s Agency?'
Mustafa Emirbayer ndAnnMischeNew Schoolfor SocialResearchThis article ims 1) to analytically isaggregate gency nto ts sev-eral component lementsthough hese re nterrelatedmpirically),(2) to demonstratehewaysnwhich hesegenticimensionsnter- penetratewithformsfstructure,nd (3) to pointout the mplica-tions f suchaconceptionfagencyormpiricalesearch. he au-thorsconceptualize gencyas atemporallymbeddedprocessofsocialengagement,nformedythepast ints iterational"rhabit-ualaspect)but also oriented oward the futureasa"projective"capacity o magine lternative ossibilities)nd toward hepresent(asa"practical-evaluative"apacityo contextualizeasthabits ndfuturerojectswithinhe contingenciesf the moment). The concept f gencyhas become source f ncreasingtrainnd confu-sioninsocial thought.ariantsofactiontheory, ormative heory,ndpolitical-institutionalnalysishave defended, ttacked, uried,ndresus-citated heconceptnoftenontradictoryndoverlappingways.At thecenterofthe debate, thetermgency tselfhas maintained n elusive,albeitresonant, agueness;thasalltoo seldomnspired ystematicnaly-sis, despiteheongist of termswithwhich t has been associated: elf-hood, motivation,will, purposiveness,ntentionality,hoice, nitiative, freedom,nd creativity. oreover,nthestruggleodemonstratehe n-terpenetrationfagencyndstructure, anyheorists ave failed o dis-
This s a fully oauthoredrticle. arlier rafts erepresentedt thePaul F.Lazars-feldCenterorheSocial Sciencest ColumbiaUniversity,heWorkshopnPolitics,Power,ndProtesttNewYorkUniversity,heColloquiumnCulturendPoliticsat theNew School or ocialResearch,hemeetingf heAmericanociologicalsso-ciationtLosAngeles,nd various eminars t theNew Schoolforocial Researchand Princetonniversity.e would ikeothank heparticipantsnthose orumsortheirmanysefulomments.e wouldlsoikeothankeffreylexander,ernardBarber,RichardBernstein, onald Black, Mary Blair-Loy, avid Gibson,Chad Goldberg, eff oodwin,MichaelHanagan,HansJoas,MicheleLamont,EdwardLehman,CalvinMorrill,MichaelMuhlhaus, hepleyOrr,Margarita alacios,MimiSheller,harlesTilly,ianeVaughan,oicWacquant,ndHarrisonWhite or heirmany lluminatingnsights,riticisms,nd suggestions.irect orrespondenceoMus- tafaEmirbayer, epartmentfSociology,ew Schoolfor ocialResearch,5FifthAvenue,New York,New York 10003.?1998byTheUniversityfChicago.Allrightseserved.
AJS Volume103 Number4(January 998):962-1023
Agencytinguish gency s an analytical ategory n its own right-withdistinc-tivetheoretical imensions nd temporally ariable ocial manifestations.The resulthas been aflatnd impoverished onception hat,when t es-capes the abstract oluntarism f rational hoicetheory, ends o remainso tightly ound to structurehatone loses sight f the different ays nwhichagency ctually hapessocialaction. Wearguethateach of the mostignificantecentttemptsotheorizeagencyhasneglected rucial spectsfheproblem.ndistinguishingandshowing he nterplay) etweendifferentimensions f agency,we seek togo beyond hesevarious one-sidedpointsfview. "Theorists f prac-tice" such as PierreBourdieuandAnthonyGiddens,forxample,have given selective ttention o the role of habitus and routinized ractices;theirperspectiveperhapsthe dominantne incontemporarymericansociology)seeshumanagencyashabitual, repetitive,nd taken forgranted-a view sharedby ethnomethodologists,ew institutionalistsn organizationalheory,ndmany thers. lternativepproacheshavesim-ilarly eliedupon one-sided onceptions fagency; or xample, raditionsas differentrom ne another srationalhoicetheoryndphenomenol-ogyhave stressed oal seeking nd purposivity, hile heories fpublicityand communication,s wellas certain eministheories, ave overempha-sized deliberation nd judgment.While routine, urpose, nd judgmentallconstitutemportant imensions f agency,none by tself aptures tsfullomplexity. oreover,whenoneor another s conflatedwith gencyitself,we lose a sense of the dynamic nterplay mong thesedimensionsand of how this nterplay aries withindifferenttructural ontextsfaction.Our mmediate imsnthisrticle, hen,re threefold:1)toanalyticallydisaggregate gencynto itsseveral componentlementseven thoughthesereclearlynterrelatedmpirically),2)todemonstratehedifferentwaysnwhichhedimensionsfgency nterpenetrateithdiverseormsofstructure,nd(3)topointout themplicationsf suchadifferentiatedconceptionfagencyformpiricalesearch.Theoretically,ur central ontributionstobegintoreconceptualizehuman agency s a temporally mbeddedprocessof social engagement,informed y thepast in ts habitual spect),but also oriented oward hefutureasacapacityoimagine lternative ossibilities)nd towardthepresent asacapacitytocontextualize ast habits and future rojectswithinhecontingenciesfthemoment).heagenticimension f socialaction anonlybecapturedntsfullomplexity,eargue,ft sanalyti-callysituatedwithin he flow f time.Moreradically,we alsoarguethatthestructural ontextsf actionare themselvesemporalaswell asrelationalfields-multiple,overlappingways of ordering ime toward963

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