Agency is curious word. For historians it means something rather different than for lay people. Every time I speak with a non-historian about agency I have to explain myself, only then realizing what an interesting word it is, and how peculiar our use of it might seem to others. Indeed agency is at the very heart of concepts central to the discipline of history, alongside other such key concepts as ‘anachronism’ or ‘contingency’ which capture so well the central premises and questions of historians.
The notion of agency is of course a deeply humanistic concept, a heritage of the discovery of the human subject as the most compelling trope in western humanistic thought. Agency is perhaps what distinguishes history from say sociology, anthropology, and archeology—the conviction that the past should be told as a narrative in which people are the main protagonists and the ‘agents’ of change.
I would like to examine the concept of agency in a series of posts, especially since it seems to me that historians have gotten of late a bit tired of the trope of agency (hint, I am one of them). In this post I’ll start with a brief introduction: an impression I’ve formed over the years about the trajectory of agency as a pivotal historical concept in the last half-century or so.
It appears to me that the concept of agency, often only deployed implicitly, enjoyed a golden period—in American historiography in particular—between the late 1960s and the first decade of the twenty first century, but is now on the decline. As with so much else, it was the rise of New Left historiography and especially the influence of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) that spurred historians to afford the common people of history with agency in their narratives.
In American historiography agency seems to have revolved around four major historiographical efforts: the new social history, the revisionist history of slavery, history of gender, and Native American history. Two books particularly come to mind when I think about the centrality of agency as a historiographical question: Roll, Jordan, Roll (1976) by Eugene Genovese and The Middle Ground (1991) by Richard White, each perhaps the most influential developments in their respective fields of the history of slavery and Native American history in the last half century or so.
It is interesting and I think politically and culturally significant that in both the cases of slavery and Native American histories historians turned to agency as a defining framework after a quite brief period in which declension narratives, which highlighted victimhood, seemed to hold the day. In the case of the history of slavery Stanely Elkins’ Slavery stands out in particular, and in the case of Native American history conversely Richard White’s own book The Roots of Dependency (1983) was one of the central declension narratives of the day. Indeed, in The Middle Ground White borrowed a page from Ludwig Wittgenstein, writing explicitly against his previous agenda as articulated in The Roots of Dependency.
In both instances historians found the notion that slaves and Native Americans were not major historical agents and only passive observers of their own decline offensive and insulting, searching for historical frameworks within which they could cast these peoples as active agents in narratives of American history. To do so historians of slavery especially emphasized the vibrancy of slave culture and numerous moments of resistance, while historians of Native American histories insisted that in many instances Native peoples held positions of power in their engagements with Europeans.
Has the paradigm of agency run its course? Why is it that in American historiography agency saw a more pronounced heyday than in other fields? Has the focus on agency delivered on its promises? After we return from the S-USIH conference coming up this weekend, I shall try to examine these questions and more in this series of posts on agency. The next post in this series will be an interview with one of the earliest critics of agency, and the person who taught me to think critically of agency, Professor Clarence Walker.
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