Understanding Agency: Social Theory and Responsible Action


Barry Barnes

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    O God, the author of peace

    and lover of concord,

    to know you is eternal life,

    to serve you is perfect freedom

    (Collect for Peace)


    I am above all indebted to Steve Loyal, both for turning my interest toward the writing of this book, and for all I gained from our conversations before he left for University College Dublin. To recall these conversations is to recall the enormous pleasure Steve always took in social theory, which made the conversations in themselves a source of pleasure. In addition, a significant part of Chapter 2 has evolved from some unpublished writing we did together, and I therefore owe Steve special thanks for his contribution to that part of the book. Since then a number of colleagues have helped the book along its way. John Bryant, Grave Davie, John DuPre, Regenia Gagnier, Chris Gill, Tony King, Nigel Pleasants and David Saunders have helped on specific points or with their general comments, so that the book is identifiably better as a result. But all my colleagues in the sociology department here at Exeter, and many in the larger school of which we are now part, have to be thanked for the suggestions and criticisms they have offered in talks and seminars over the last three years, and so similarly do several friends and colleagues elsewhere. I need especially to mention Bob Witkin and our sharing of thoughts on walks over windswept moors.

    I need to acknowledge, as well, debts of another sort. Writing of this kind needs periods of solitude and isolation from distractions, and these are increasingly difficult to secure in the ever more frenetic environments of British universities. It has been good to work in a setting where this need is recognised, and so many of those in a position to do so put great thought and effort into meeting it. I am also very much aware of how many people in different kinds of role here deserve acknowledgement for their work to sustain an institutional environment appropriate for scholarly research. I should particularly like to record my thanks to Mary Guy for her continuing assistance as the manuscript evolved: it was help that went way beyond the call of duty.

    BarryBarnesExeter University June 1999


    This book is an essay in social theory strongly inclined to empiricism and naturalism in its account of human beings and how they live. In particular, it holds that human beings are social creatures, that, to borrow a phrase from the literature of cultural studies, they are ‘highly gregarious interdependent social primates’ (Gagnier and Dupre, 1998), and it regards work in biology, psychology and sociology as offering ample evidence of their profound sociability. At the same time, it recognises that its standpoint is currently a little unusual, and that in many parts of social theory, and indeed of the social sciences generally, there is an aversion to it and a need for its merits to be reasserted. Having written the book from the perspective of a sociologist, I have occasionally thought of it as an attempt to revive a Durkheimian view of human beings in these contexts, but of course the claim that human beings may be understood naturalistically as social creatures can also be found in the Marxian and Aristotelian literatures, in Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume, and in many other sources.

    To suggest that this perspective needs to be reasserted is to imply that the social sciences are currently unduly individualistic, and I do indeed believe that this is so. It is evident not merely in economics and related fields wherein rational choice individualism is dominant, but even in sociology, where the neglect of the social in many parts of the literature is very striking. Zygmunt Bauman (1989) has put his finger on what is involved here:

    The existential modality of the social (unlike the structure of the societal) has been seldom held at the focus of sociological attention. It was gladly conceded to the field of philosophical anthropology and seen as constituting, at best, the distinct outer frontier of the area of sociology proper. There is no Sociological consensus, therefore, as to the meaning, experiential content and behavioural consequences of the primary condition of ‘being with others’. The ways in which that condition can be made sociologically relevant are yet to be fully explored in sociological practice.

    (p. 179)

    There is, indeed, throughout the social sciences, a need for more systematic study of and reflection on ‘being with others’. There has always been some active interest in the subject, and that interest is increasing as the social sciences focus more and more on language, culture and knowledge, and the communicative and interactive bases of these things, but there is no denying how many unfortunate consequences have flowed from its previous neglect. The relationship between ‘the individual’ and ‘society’, or ‘social structure’, has been addressed without proper regard for social interaction, with the result that ‘society’ itself has been conceived in unduly individualistic terms and the understanding of its components has been marked by attention to the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’ at the expense of the inter-subjective. Indeed, the relative neglect of inter-subjectivity has been little short of disastrous in macro-social theory and in related areas of the philosophy of the social sciences. Nor is that neglect becoming a thing of the past. Even in sociology, which has recognised a special responsibility to stress the sociability of human beings and to expose the limitations of individualism, many theorists now accept an individualistic perspective as a matter of course, and deploy concepts of individual agency or individual choice as the unquestioned frame for their accounts of human action. There is a need to keep in mind here, as this book constantly seeks to do, that the central problems of sociology are actually problems of collective agency

    The full implications of speaking of human beings naturalistically as ‘creatures’ are no more welcome in many parts of sociology and social theory than those of speaking of them as ‘social’. Much is made in these fields of an allegedly irreducible distinction, between human beings and the natural order within which they are set. As sources of intentional actions, human beings are regarded as exempt from the normal run of naturalistic explanation and accounting applied everywhere around them. And this is often justified by an explicit dualism: a fundamental distinction is alleged to exist between natural objects and events, linked by relations of cause and effect, and human beings, whose independently inspired voluntary actions are set completely apart from the causal nexus. This particular form of dualism is completely rejected here.

    Why the book focuses on ‘agency’, ‘choice’ and related concepts can now be made clear. Although there is no necessary connection here, these concepts are the recognised means by which individualism and dualism are expressed in modem social theory. They are used to refer to the independent powers of individual human beings, and in modem social theory they will be found deployed in discourses which both refer to such powers and rejoice in their existence. The intention here is to question the individualism that increasingly pervades theory, and still more the dualism of theorists and the extraordinary fear of the institution of causal connection that permeates and impairs so much of their current work. In opposition to individualism, the book will suggest that ‘individuals’ are not independent of each other in social interaction, and reflect on what this implies about our ‘being with others’. In opposition to dualism, it will propose that voluntary actions should be understood naturalistically and monistically, and that references to agency and choice are not merely pro forma compatible with the discourse of cause and effect, but better understood if recourse is had to it.

    ‘Agency’, ‘choice’ and an array of closely related notions are used in everyday discourse, as we describe and account for our own voluntary actions. Theory, we might say, has borrowed these notions, and indeed, for simplicity and at the cost of a little imprecision, all those social theories wherein they have an important role will be referred to in what follows as voluntaristic theories. It might be thought a virtue of these social theories that they understand human action in much the same terms as those who produce it; and a problem for the account proposed here is that it tends to clash with ordinary understanding. It does indeed have to be shown, if the argument of this book is to stand, how the voluntarism of everyday life can be understood as the discourse of social creatures. Much of what follows is devoted to this task. Indeed, what is original in the book mainly resides in its description of voluntaristic discourse as the highly functional collective practice of sociable, communicative human beings. A sociological version of compatibilism is proposed, wherein this discourse is seen as the crucial medium through which collective agency is (causally) engendered and mobilised. On this account, it is the inherent sociability of human beings that makes voluntaristic notions applicable to them, and that same sociability that makes it possible for them profoundly to affect each other through the medium of their voluntaristic discourse.

    Precedents for this point of view can, of course, be found in various literatures: there is nothing new under the sun. But it is not easy to find systematic reflection from such a perspective, or explicitly anti-individualist accounts of ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ such as follow here. It is tempting to account for the paucity of such reflection in terms of the dominance of the ideology of individualism, the rise of the cult of the individual as Durkheim called it; but it may be that there is a more general and profound explanation. One of the main things that sociable human beings do through the voluntaristic discourse with which they bind themselves together is to assign rights and responsibilities to each other as separate, independent units. Just as the institution of responsible action is a universal one, so too must be these entailed functions of voluntaristic discourse. But these are functions that require sociable interdependent human beings to treat each other as discrete points on their social maps, independent statuses toward which to direct the processes whereby responsibilities and rights are allocated. It may well be that the difficulty of understanding persons as social agents (in state) who discursively identify each other as autonomous agents (in status) is the fundamental source of most of the problems encountered in this area.

    As itself a contribution to social theory, the aims of this book are to make a prima facie case for a very general way of conceptualising our social life, and then to provide some sense of its scope and significance. To meet these aims the range of topics it covers has had to be very wide, and the discussion of each correspondingly limited. It is a mere essay that looks to the literature for illustration but not proof of its claims, and that does not pretend to have done more than scratch the surface of what is available therein. In addition, since its concern is primarily to provide a simple positive picture for further reflection, it has often used widely known in preference to very recent material, and it has been a little less concerned than is customary with ongoing debates and controversies in the fields it draws upon. Even so, it contrives to clash with some central tenet or other in practically all of these fields; for its arguments cut extremely awkwardly across important academic boundaries. On the one hand, those theorists who are dualists or exceptionalists are likely to find the form of compatibilism defended here hard to reconcile with their traditional aversion to ordinary causal explanation in the human realm. On the other hand, those presently inclined to monism and compatibilism often have a strong inclination to individualism as well, and a consequent aversion to the kind of sociological explanation put forward here. It may be, however, that some benefit will emerge from this inadvertent double clash with accepted wisdom. For, whilst both the aversions described above are groundless and disabling, they stubbornly persist in the social sciences, and that persistence is actually reinforced by controversies between parties who cleave to one or other of them. It is probably easier to expose the inadequacies of both at once than to confront either separately.

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