U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Agency, part 1

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.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m fascinated by this series, and looking forward to future parts — particularly since I’ll be arguing at the conference this weekend that we are in an unprecedented heyday of agency that’s only beginning to unfold. So I look forward to reading your diissenting argument!

  2. I am neither a historian nor a social scientist (I notice they also use the term), but as a linguist I would like to see an explicit definition of the term ‘agency’ or the related term ‘agent’ (which would seem to be the more basic of the two), as the term is used in the field of history (or the social sciences). The fundamental object to be understood would seem to be the notion of purposeful, adaptive action, which implies identification of an aim and a set of criteria for the judgment of success or failure of the act, so the understanding of “agency” would be part of the critical (in the Kantian sense) evaluation of purposeful adaptive action. The general logical form and basic components of purposeful adaptive action can be determined and stated; most important component is the logical dependency relation between the performance of the problematic (intellectually puzzling) action and the effective reason (at first a mystery) for performing the act, the former being dependent on the latter. This relation between action and reason for the action is a manifestation of the kind of real relations we consider causal relations, on the level of human interactions. Causal explanation of a given action (or class of similar actions) would answer the question “why [action] a and not b?” and the relevant object to focus on is the agent’s CHOOSING to do a and not b, and not a and b as such.

    So, what I want to know is, given a programmatic claim (one that is the foundation and justification for subsequent action) such as “It’s permissible to own another human being as property and to deny them the ability to determine their own actions as they see fit and as makes sense in the context of the aspirations of their own life, to deny them the freedom to choose a and not b, and to deny their essential equivalence in these basic matters to every other human being, that it’s permissible also to persistently inflict pain and suffering on such souls who are completely dependent on the “owner’s” humanity, etc.”; since holding any such claim is, even if only implicitly, justified by a logical support structure that includes the general principles that govern purposeful (not so adaptive in this case, but mistaken) action, I want to know what were the general, although probably never explicitly stated (although some were no doubt stated), assumptions that allowed a whole community of people to act on the problematic (because anti-ethical) programmatic assertion expressed above, of permission for slavery? How did these beliefs arise and where did they come from? How was abolitionist literature able to effectively combat these beliefs, and especially what was being said by those who were enslaved? Because often the attribution of “agency” depends on the point of view of whoever is doing the writing. I would think that the recognition that it was necessary to fight a war in order to end this abominable institution was dependent on the outcome of this battle of ideas.

    • I don’t recall seeing a definition for the term, though you might want to take a look at the Richard White’s introduction to “The Middle Ground” where he discusses the idea of agency more broadly.
      As for the problem of agency in the history of slavery, I think that historians indeed have found it hard to discuss slavery and agency precisely because of the predicament you allude to. You might also want to check out Adolph Reed Jr’s article about agency in the last edition of Jacobin magazine, which examines this problem.

    • Thanks for pointing this out to me. It was a great read, and I agree pretty much with everything Wilder says. In this vein, I think that we would benefit from questioning the notion that human agency is the fundamental building block for historians. This is in part what I hope to question in this series of posts. I think this would be exactly the kind of move Wilder calls for. I don’t think we will reject its significance if we challenge the role of agency, but it will certainly reshape the way we do history.

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