How Sociologists Define Human Agency

Individuals express agency in big and small ways, every day

Black Lives Matter protesters carrying signs and speaking to journalists during Women's March.

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Agency refers to the thoughts and actions taken by people that express their individual power. The core challenge at the center of the field of sociology is understanding the relationship between structure and agency. Structure refers to the complex and interconnected set of social forces, relationships, institutions, and elements of social structure that work together to shape the thought, behavior, experiences, choices, and overall life courses of people. In contrast, agency is the power people have to think for themselves and act in ways that shape their experiences and life trajectories. Agency can take individual and collective forms.

Relationship Between Social Structure and Agency

Sociologists understand the relationship between social structure and agency to be an ever-evolving dialectic. In the simplest sense, a dialectic refers to a relationship between two things, each of which has the ability to influence the other, such that a change in one requires a change in the other. To consider the relationship between structure and agency a dialectical one is to assert that while social structure shapes individuals, individuals (and groups) also shape social structure. After all, society is a social creation -- the creation and maintenance of social order require the cooperation of individuals connected through social relationships. So, while the lives of individuals are shaped by the existing social structure, they none the less have the ability -- the agency -- to make decisions and express them in behavior.

Reaffirm Social Order or Remake It

Individual and collective agency may serve to reaffirm social order by reproducing norms and existing social relationships, or it may serve to challenge and remake social order by going against the status quo to create new norms and relationships. Individually, this might look like rejecting the gendered norms of dress. Collectively, the ongoing civil rights battle to expand the definition of marriage to same-sex couples shows agency expressed through political and legal channels.

The Link to Disenfranchised Populations

The debate about the relationship between structure and agency often comes up when sociologists study the lives of disenfranchised and oppressed populations. Many people, social scientists included, often slip into the trap of describing such populations as if they have no agency. Because we recognize the power of social structural elements like economic class stratification, systemic racism, and patriarchy, to determine life chances and outcomes, we might think that the poor, people of color, and women and girls are universally oppressed by social structure, and thus, have no agency. When we look at macro trends and longitudinal data, the big picture is read by many as suggesting as much.

Agency Is Alive and Well

However, when we look sociologically at the everyday lives of people among disenfranchised and oppressed populations, we see that agency is alive and well, and that it takes many forms. For example, many perceive the life course of Black and Latino boys, especially those who are born into lower socioeconomic classes, as largely predetermined by a raced and classed social structure that corrals poor folks into neighborhoods devoid of employment and resources, pours them into underfunded and understaffed schools, tracks them into remedial classes, and disproportionately polices and punishes them. Yet, despite a social structure that produces such troubling phenomena, sociologists have found that Black and Latino boys, and other disenfranchised and oppressed groups, exert agency in this social context in a variety of ways.

It Takes Many Forms

Agency might take the form of demanding respect from teachers and administrators, doing well in school, or even disrespecting teachers, cutting classes, and dropping out. While the latter instances might seem like individual failings, in the context of oppressive social environments, resisting and rejecting authority figures that steward oppressive institutions have been documented as an important form of self-preservation, and thus, as agency. Simultaneously, agency in this context may also take the form of staying in school and working to excel, despite the social structural forces that work to impede such success.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "How Sociologists Define Human Agency." ThoughtCo, Jan. 2, 2021, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2021, January 2). How Sociologists Define Human Agency. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "How Sociologists Define Human Agency." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).