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Indian Journal of Human Development, Vol. 1, No.

1, 2007


Measuring Agency: Issues and Possibilities
Sabina Alkire*

This paper adapts, and tests, a new indicator related to agency. The indicator probes the extent to which a participant judges that an action by him or her was coerced or influenced by other people, versus was valuable to, and freely endorsed by, the person him or herself. As such, it relates to agency that the person values (whether or not she has reason to value it is a separate issue). The indicator was developed by cross-cultural social psychologists Richard Ryan and E.L. Deci and has been tested in developed countries in self-reported questionnaires. An adaptation of this indicator was tested using a purposively selected sample of 220 respondents in Kerala, India, in the domains of education, health, employment, mobility, household duties, and group participation. Analysis of the survey results using a series of internal and external validity tests shows that the indicator behaves relatively well, after accounting for some weaknesses in the form of questions used. While the findings are very preliminary because of the small sample size and the exploratory nature of the research, they suggest that indeed this domain-specific indicator of autonomy may merit further empirical exploration.

The centrality of action, and particularly action by poor persons, to confront situations of serious deprivation, has led many working on poverty reduction to recognize the importance of introducing concerns of autonomy, agency, empowerment, selfdirection, and self-determination into poverty measurement and analyses (Alkire, 2005; Alsop and Heinsohn, 2005; Narayan-Parker, 2005; World Bank, 2000). Many studies of empowerment are motivated by the myriad of experiences of poor persons, and also, conceptually, by the human development and capability approach that has been developed by Amartya Sen among others. Sen argues that agency—a person’s ability to act on behalf of what matters to her or him—is at once intrinsically valuable and also a driver of poverty reduction. Drèze and Sen describe their approach to analysing India’s development as an approach “which puts human agency (rather than organizations such as markets or governments) at the centre of the stage” (Drèze and Sen, 2002, p. 6).

* Director, Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative,University of Oxford and Research Associate, Global Equity Initiative, Harvard University. The author is very grateful to Valery Chirkov, Mridul Eapen, Sebastian Silva Leander, Vijayamohanan Pillai, Sunitha Sukendra and Jyothi Nair for our collaborative work on this project. The entire team is grateful to the respondents in this study and to Kudumbashree staff, to Ruth Alsop, Jeremy Holland, Richard Ryan, E.L. Deci and A.K. Shiva Kumar for comments on the questionnaire, and to participants in the IIC planning workshop in June 2005 and the CDS workshop on preliminary findings in April 2006, for their comments. This paper summarizes a paper in progress coauthored with Valery Chirkov. However, the author is responsible for any errors.

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If we are quizzical enough to wish to use this approach, and we do an “informational analysis” of what will be required to implement it, we see at once that data on agency as well as on capabilities or poverty is required. Hence it would be quite useful to be able to identify indicators related to agency. Such data might help us to explore topics such as the following:

Intrinsic value of agency: If the objective of development is to expand valuable freedoms, it would be interesting to know when people value agency for its own sake (in which case development should take it as an objective), and when mainly for its instrumental value. Monitoring: Many existing poverty reduction activities aim both to reduce poverty and to empower participants. Can we accurately monitor and evaluate changes in empowerment? Causality: In studying causes of poverty reduction, it would be useful to explore instrumental interactions between agency and poverty: When does an expansion of agency tend to reduce poverty? When does it sustain poverty reduction outcomes? When does poverty reduction expand agency? What is the reciprocal relationship, and to what extent do interconnections depend on cultural factors? Policy Entry Points: How and at what point can policy makers intervene to support both agency and poverty reduction? What should be the sequence: when is it more effective to raise consciousness, to mobilize and organize participatory activities that might expand autonomy, and when is it more effective to invest in services, infrastructure or human resources; what is the best balance and sequence? Effect of social structures and existing power relations: To what extent is people’s agency independent of their social structures (families, community structures) versus sharply influenced by it? To what extent can agency in different domains be “cultivated” and “expanded”, and when can we expect it to be unresponsive to external efforts?





In order to contribute to this discussion, we recently undertook a study to test a new indicator of autonomy. This study builds upon previous studies highlighting the importance of participation and mobilization, both because of their evident intrinsic value to communities, as well as their instrumental contribution to more effective and sustained activities. It also builds upon the legacy of research on women’s empowerment across countries (Kabeer, 1999). The new study was undertaken using participatory, qualitative, and quantitative methods of data collection, and similarly diverse methods of data analysis. EXISTING MEASURES OF AGENCY Recently, a number of studies have focused on the difficult but vital problem of measuring empowerment. Drawing on Sen’s work, the emerging literature on empowerment measurement also employs the two concepts of capabilities or

Alkire: Issues and Possibilities in Measuring Agency 171 Figure 1 Agency, Opportunity, and Empowerment

Agency Degree of Empowerment Opportunity Structure Development Outcomes

Source: Alsop and Heinsohn, 2005.

opportunities, and agency. For example, Alsop and Heinsohn, and Narayan-Parker, consider empowerment to be comprised of two sub-components (see Fig. 1). The first is opportunities that convey information on institutional possibilities open to a person or a community, using data on access, service provision, and so on. The second is agency. At the individual level, Alsop and Heinsohn (2005) define agency as “an actor’s ability to make meaningful choices—that is, the actor is able to envisage and decide on options” (p. 2). The most common measures of agency are asset indicators, for example, skills and literacy to measure human assets, and social capital measures to indicate social assets, and so on. Alsop and Heinsohn (2005) identify such indicators that are present in international survey instruments such as the Living Standards Measurement Survey (LSMS) as well as various Social Capital Measurement surveys; they also develop a survey instrument for agency in several domains. Other commonly used indicators include parents’ education, income earnings of the individual herself, and subjective reports of the respondent. Other indicators—such as ownership of land or tools— measure assets as resources that people command. Existing measures of agency are a commendable step forward; however, unless they are complemented by what we term measures of autonomy, they face four challenges: 1 Multidimensionality. First, early literature on empowerment sought one “global” measure for empowerment or efficacy. Parents’ education was often used to measure agency or decision-making within the household. The challenge is that agency, like poverty, may lay differently across different spheres of life: a person can be fully empowered as a wife and mother, but excluded from the labour force by social conventions, and recently empowered to vote by political process. Such distinctions carry policy relevance, hence the need is to be able to identify and compare agency achievements in different domains rather than in one alone.

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Distinction from Poverty Measures. A second problem is that many agency measures coincide with measures that are traditionally used in poverty analysis, such as literacy, level of income, years of schooling, or employment status. The underlying data are the same; only the name and interpretation differs. When there is such redundancy, it precludes meaningful empirical study of the interaction between agency and poverty. Cross-National Comparability. A third and related problem is that few of the cross-nationally comparable measures investigate agency directly. Most measures used as proxies for agency such as land ownership, are essentially quite indirect measures, and are connected to agency by a chain of assumptions which might vary significantly across contexts. The example above queried the assumptions linking assets and agency. Respond to People’s Values. A fourth problem is that current measures of agency are entirely focused on what we refer to below as ability. They do not attempt to investigate issues of people’s own values: whether or not they value the “agency” or functionings they exhibit. The next section elaborates this distinction and its critical importance. AGENCY AS AUTONOMY AND ABILITY One difficulty of measuring agency, it seems, is that if we rely on Sen’s definition of agency, we find it cannot be captured empirically by one indicator. This is a strong but considered statement. The reason is straightforward: the term itself has a twist. Agency is a person’s ability to act on behalf of things they value and have reason to value. But we can only observe one of these at a time. One indicator can measure either: (i) the ability of the people to act on behalf of what they themselves value (whether or not the respondent has reason to value them) (autonomy); or (ii) the ability of the people to act on behalf of things that they have reason to value (however this is determined, and whether or not the respondent actually values them) (ability). What we are calling autonomy probes the person’s own self-understanding of their situation. This kind of data is often called “subjective.” As Sen has pointed out (and our data confirm), it may also be “positionally objective.” That is, if we understand well enough the worldview of the respondent, we may be able to understand their values as more than merely a function of whim or feeling or personality. In contrast to autonomy, ability probes the objective powers that a person enjoys and/or uses—such as being able to take a child to the emergency room, being able to seek legal assistance for divorce, being able to make purchasing decisions, being able to vote, being able to go to a nearby town alone. It relates to people’s competence, their skills, their knowledge, and so on. Unlike autonomy, a study of ability vests no interest whatsoever in the person’s own values and

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preferences.2 Agency indicators to date implicitly probe people’s abilities (whether people are able to act on behalf of things that they are usually assumed to have reason to value), either directly or through common proxies such as asset ownership. In many cases, autonomy and ability will coincide. People will value what they have reason to value and will also have the skills necessary to use their autonomy. However, in some cases, autonomy and ability may diverge. People may have certain abilities (right to vote) but feel coerced into using them. People may feel themselves to be autonomous (for example, in relation to their husbands), but others looking from the outside may question whether their values are reasonable—perhaps instead their values have been shaped too much by their circumstances, they cannot imagine another way of living which would be more truly autonomous. In our study, this question arose with respect to the domain of “household duties”, which the women deeply valued as integral to their conception of what it was to be a good and responsible woman. The enumerators and researchers questioned whether these values might also be in part deeply shaped by the local culture of women as mothers and caregivers, the lack of possibilities they had to share the household burden with male relatives, and the social norms of decency and honour. PROPOSED AUTONOMY MEASURE Given the possible weakness of current indicators of agency (or ability, as defined above), it would be valuable to develop a measure of agency. After a thorough review of existing measures in other fields, the present study chose to develop a purposebuilt data set using an adaptation of the measure of autonomy developed by psychologists Richard Ryan, E.L. Deci, Valery Chirkov, and others working in Self Determination Theory (SDT).3 Their understanding of autonomy was chosen for several reasons. First, their understanding of autonomy is very close to the one that is advanced by Sen’s capability approach. Second, the numerous empirical studies using SDT in a wide variety of domains have demonstrated the validity of this measure and its capacity to predict both the outcomes of human functioning and the psychological well-being of an acting person. Third, this measure is easily adjustable to various domains of human functioning. That means that the domains can be chosen to suit the particular analysis or poverty context. Fourth, this measure is unrelated to any existing measures of poverty. It represents a direct measure of autonomy which is innovative and potentially distinct from poverty measures, and so able to support investigation as to the interaction between aspects of poverty and agency. Fifth, the measure empirically represents the positionally objective state of mind of an acting individual; that is, it probes their own values, and thus measures autonomy directly. Sixth, the measure appears to be crossculturally comparable, making it available for the samples from different countries (and this assumption can be re-tested in this and future studies). Finally, the measure frames autonomy in a way that is valued in individualistic and collectivist cultures alike—which is important as nearly all indicators of agency are correlated with individualism.

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To determine autonomy, the survey asked respondents whether they engage in certain practices related to children’s education, to the respondent’s employment, household duties, health-related decision making, and mobility opportunities, and the perception of group empowerment. Respondents were then asked to rate each of four possible reasons why they felt or believed or engaged in the practice, from a low number “not at all because of this reason”; to a high number “completely because of this reason”. In simple terms, Reason 1, called “external regulation”, establishes to what extent the person felt coerced or forced to act (by another person, or by force of circumstances); Reason 2 called “introjected regulation”, the extent to which others’ opinions and expectations accompanied by the avoidance of feeling guilt or shame influenced her choice. Reason 3 called “identified regulation” establishes whether she herself valued it as an important practice, and Reason 4, called “integrated regulation”, whether her thoughts on the matter were integrated with her wider thinking about her own life. Ryan and Deci aggregate the four responses into a weighted index that represents the ‘‘Relative Autonomy Index’’, which was used in this study as a person’s autonomy corresponding to the focal domain or practice. The weights commonly used are arbitrarily and externally fixed but weights could be statistically determined using multidimensional scaling techniques (Chiappero-Martinetti and Alkire, 2006). 2*Integrated + Identified - Introjected – 2*External = Relative Autonomy Index (RAI) It is called a “relative” autonomy index because it incorporates all possible levels of autonomy and weights autonomous regulations relative to heteronomous ones. The survey instrument was developed in six domains: education, employment, household duties, health, mobility and group participation; pilots and back translations were performed. Alongside the survey, qualitative information was collected for each respondent and also through focus group discussions, open-ended interviews and life histories. The Kerala survey covered 220 respondents, who were purposely selected to reflect socio-economic diversity in southern Kerala. The data were subjected to internal validity tests regarding the simplex structure of the data and performed as expected; furthermore all six domains appeared distinct, although one could discern a grouping of women’s autonomy with respect to more “public” and “private” domains. External validation checks were completed with other autonomy-related questions in the questionnaire, and also with poverty data. Poverty profiles based on ordered probits were constructed to compare the extent to which poverty and autonomy data are explained by different factors. The initial findings demonstrate that the indicator was easy for participants to understand, and thus might be reliable and might indeed capture autonomy information. While the autonomy and poverty data often moved together, at other times, autonomy measures were quite distinct from poverty data, suggesting that the indicator may capture importantly different information. Qualitative interviews confirmed that some respondents who were destitute in socio-economic terms nonetheless enjoyed high autonomy, and vice versa.

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The measurement of empowerment is an important topic for research. This paper has argued that we need to develop indicators of autonomy to track whether people understand themselves to act out of compulsion and coercion, or on their own values. A very preliminary test of a potential domain-specific indicator of autonomy that would be valid for cross-cultural comparison was interesting and suggests that this indicator merits further exploration in other settings and with larger sample sizes.
1. 2. 3. See also Narayan Parker (2005), Ch. 1 for a discussion of other issues. Indeed the Self-Determination theory that we shall explore shortly argues that competence is one of the key pillars of well-being alongside autonomy and relationships. The literature review can be found in Alkire (2005). On the autonomy measure, see Chirkov, Ryan, Kim, and Kaplan (2003).

Alkire, S. (2005). “Subjective Quantitative Studies of Human Agency”, Social Indicators Research, Issue 74, pp. 217-60. —— (2002). Valuing Freedoms: Sen’s Capability Approach and Poverty Reduction, Oxford University Press, New York. Alsop, Ruth and Nina Heinsohn (2005). Measuring Empowerment in Practice: Structuring Analysis and Framing Indicators, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 3510. Chiappero-Martinetti, Enrica and Sabina Alkire (2006). “Towards a Multidimensional Measure of Human Agency”, International Conference of Human Development and Capability Association, Groningen, The Netherlands (Mimeo). Chirkov, Valery, Richard Ryan, Y. Kim and U. Kaplan (2003). “Differentiating Autonomy from Individualism and Independence: A Self-Determination Theory Perspective on Internalization of Cultural Orientations and Well-Being”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Issue 84, pp. 97-110. Drèze, Jean and Amartya Sen (2002). India, Development and Participation, Oxford University Press, New Delhi. Isham, Jonathan, Deepa Narayan and Lant Pritchett (1995). “Does Participation Improve Performance? Establishing Causality with Subjective Data”, World Bank Economic Review, Issue 9, pp. 175-200. Kabeer, Naila (1999). “Resources, Agency, Achievement: Reflections on the Measurement of Women’s Empowerment”, Development as Change, Issue 30, pp. 435-64. Narayan-Parker, Deepa (2005). Measuring Empowerment: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives, World Bank, Washington DC. —— (2000). Can Anyone Hear Us?: Voices of the Poor, World Bank, Washington DC. Ryan, R.M. and E.L. Deci (2000). “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being”, American Psychologist, Issue 55, pp. 68-78. Sen, Amartya (2000). “A Decade of Human Development”, Journal of Human Development, Vol. 1, pp. 17-23. —— (1999). Development as Freedom, Knopf, New York. —— (1993). “Positional Objectivity”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 126-45. —— (1985), “Well-Being, Agency and Freedom”, The Journal of Philosophy, No. 82, pp. 169-221. World Bank, (2000). World Development Report 2000-01: Attacking Poverty, Oxford University Press, New York.