Individuals and Action: Agency Theory and its Uses in Archaeology Isaac Ullah
Outline • What is agency? • The early history of the idea. • Bourdieu’s practice theoryand agency. • Giddens’ structuration theory and agency. • Agency redefined for archaeology. • Uses of agency in archaeology. • Why use agency in archaeology • How does agency fit with other archaeological theory? • Conclusions, or “What do we do now?”
What is agency? • At the simplest level, agency can be defined as the actions of individuals, and the consequences of those actions. • However, this definition is not amenable to an “agency theory”-- it is more a description of a “world view” than a theory. • This definition is unacceptable for archaeologists because it can do no more than “inform” our thoughts as we interpret the archaeological record.
A quick history of the idea of agency • Ideas about personhood, volition, self determination, and the nature of conciousness can be traced to Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle. • These were brought back to the forefront during the Enlightenment of the 18th century. • These ideas were incorporated into Structuralism and Functionalism as the microscale decisions of individuals which were direct consequences of the macroscale structure.
A quick history of the idea of agency • Modern agency theory was developed through the works of Bourdieu and Giddens in the late 1970’s through the 1980’s • Let us take a closer look at the thoughts of these two writers before continuing.
Doxa Doxa is behavior adopted through repetition, and conserved through its material expression. It is behavior so thoroughly routinized that it cannot be considered agency. This is related to his account of habitus as a set of durable dispositions arising from shared motivations and life histories. Agency Agency lies within the ability of the individual to comprehend the limits of doxa and their will to break out of these limits. Agency is a meaningless concept without the background of doxa. Bourdieu
Bourdieu’s practice theory • Practice is anything people do. • Individuals conduct their daily practices in both intentional strategic ways and in routinized un/pre-conscious ways. • Individuals are aware of the rules by which they should conduct their day to day lives, and use that knowledge to inform their everyday interactions. • Practice was ruled more by doxa in the past than it is now, or at least, we lose resolution of agency the farther back into the past we look.
Duality of Structure Agency is both structured, and reproduces and revitalizes the structure. This happens through time. Unintended consequences of actions modify future intended actions. This is the basis of his “theory of structuration”. Practical Consciousness It is a preconscious way to “go on in the world”, and is basically the same as Bourdieu’s habitus and doxa. Monitoring of action Individuals constantly monitor their actions. They are knowledgeable and conscious of much of what they do, but they may not do things purposively. They sometimes do things without intending to do them, and things they do intend to do have unintended consequences. Giddens
A graphical representation of Giddens’ idea of structuration. The agent Unacknowledged conditions of action Unintended consequences of action reflexive monitoring of action rationalization of action motivation of action The effect of the agent on “structure” The “structure” After Giddens 1984
How can we use agency in archaeology? • We can use Bourdieu’s concept of doxa with a fair degree of ease in archaeology both because of its intrinsic materiality, and its high visibility due to the nature of its repetition which compounds patterns. • If we can identify doxa in the archaeological record, we then have the social and material backdrop through which agents moved and interacted. • Change in doxa through time is a product of agency. If we study doxa diachronically, then we can make inferences about agency.
How can we use agency in archaeology? • Giddens’ structuration is harder to find in the archaeological record, but it provides an engine (through unintended consequences of action) for technological change. • It is improbable to find the unintended consequences of agency archaeologically. • It is, however, probable to find the intended acts that were consequently prompted by those unintended consequences. • Focusing attention on “non-normative” instances in the archaeological record can both tell us what the practical consciousness was, and reveals what might be the result of individual action.
Why should we use agency in archaeology? • Agency gives us an alternative to the ecosystem and the economic approaches of processual archaeology. • It does not require humans to act rationally or optimally. • It takes higher level social structure into account with out determinism. • It takes individual action into account without a return to individualist ideas.
How agency fits with other theories. • Marxism: Conflict between classes (or groups of individuals) is the key behind Marxist social change. Agency theory provides a means of explaining how individuals and groups can gain or lose social power within a given structure helps explain the idea of conflict as a conscious choice. • Gender Archaeolgy: Agency is important for gendered archaeology because it recognizes the importance of individual action within a given structure. An individual’s place in the structure affects the way they see and respond to the perceived “rules of daily life”. In this way, agency theory allows for gender differences in these conscious decision-making processes.
How agency fits with other theories. • Cultural transmission: Agency has a place in theories of biased cultural transmission. These theories explicitly allow for individual experimentation, decision-making, and choice.
So what do we do with agency now? • Agency stands now at the verge of becoming formalized theory in archaeology. • We must do more than simply pay homage to Bourdieu and Giddens, cite knowledge of agency, and then continue on as before. • If agency is to do more than simply inform archaeology, then it must change the way we do archaeology in the same sense as the “New Archaeology” did. • To do this we need more than just rereadings of Bourdieu and Giddens.
So what do we do with agency now? • We need an archaeologically specific agency theory determined from archaeological work, and we need to develope archaeologically specific methodology for finding agency in the archaeological record. • We need to go beyond simply demonstrating instances of agency in archaeological context. • We need start to using agency theory to help clarify issues of technology, material culture, politics, power, intentionality, social definition, and world view.