Agency and Practice Theory

Angela Kristin Vandenbroek. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

In 1984, Sherry Ortner predicted that practice would be the key symbol of anthropology in the 1980s. Research on practice, agency, structure, and power actually filled not only the 1980s, but also the 1990s and extended into the 2000s as well. Issues of inequality, oppression, and resistance have been a staple of anthropological literature and have influenced its many theories, both before and after the 1980s. However, time, from the 1980s up to and including today, has seen a steady strengthening and thickening of agency-related theories.

The critiques of feminism, postcolonialism, and race and ethnicity studies brought to light the many problems with earlier constructions of agency. Two main lessons were taken from these critiques. First, agency is not interchangeable with the notions of freedom, the human spirit, or autonomy. Second, notions of agency as purely resistance impoverished the complexity of agency and often allowed for ethnocentric slippages into complex situations of actual resistance.

Theoretical perspectives to explain agency are diverse. In this chapter, they are divided into theories of agency and theories of practice. However, in reality, the divide is blurry and the exchange of knowledge and inspiration crosses the border frequently. Yet, there are commonalities in practice theory that separate it from other theoretical models and thus its distinction here. There are also explorations into agency that are not explored here because they are beyond the scope of this entry, particularly those studies in psychological anthropology. This chapter presents the three most widely cited and most common threads in the anthropological discussion of agency: poststructuralism, language, and practice.

Lessons from Anthropological Critiques

Perhaps the easiest place to begin a discussion of agency is at its definition. However, as has been noted by many of the prominent theorists of agency theory, this is not an easy task. Like other troublesome anthropological terms, such as culture and identity, agency lies at the intersection of what many have taken to be self-evident, and what others have found highly problematic in real ethnographic experience. However, ethnographic experience has brought into focus some aspects of what agency is not, a quality that indicates humanness or only acts of pure resistance.

Agency as Humanness

A frequent misuse of the term agency is as a quality of humanness. Often associated with action theorists, a group whose aim is to differentiate action from events, this form of agency is seen as synonymous with free will or the ability to act intentionally versus being a passive receiver of an event. Donald Davidson’s essay “Agency” (1971) describes the difference with an example of his morning routine. He pours himself coffee and accidentally trips on a rug, spilling that coffee. Pouring coffee, Davidson argues, is an action; he intentionally and knowingly made the choice to pour the coffee. Tripping and spilling the coffee, however, was an event that happened to him, rather than an intentional action. On this level, agency seems to be an easily distinguishable behavior that could be easily transported to anthropological theory. However, this simple definition fails to connect the social nature of agency and the impacts of culture on human actions with the internal will of individuals.

To further problematize this understanding of agency, poststructuralists such as Bronwyn Davies (1991) found that humanist discourses that equate agency to humanness also tend to equate agency with “freedom, autonomy, rationality and moral authority” (p. 42). The interchangeability of these terms allows for groups—such as children, women, the insane, the oppressed, and others—to be described as being incapable of having agency and thus less than fully human. Even for those individuals or groups that are classically seen as having agency, such as adult sane men, agency is only seen as legitimate in so long as the actor’s agency conforms to the dominant discourses that determine what is rational and moral.

Intentionality, the degree to which an action and its outcomes are intentional, has been important to action theory, as well as practice and agency theory, for differentiating between actions that are agentic and those that are everyday practices or events. However, some theorists, such as John Comaroff and Jean Comaroff (1992), have called out the overemphasis or obsession with intentions as representing colonialist ethnocentric biases. They found that by imagining agency to be like the actions of a Western hero, who can overcome all obstacles of his cultural context simply through sheer will, social scientists transport Western ideals of resistance and glory into contexts where they are not. This not only distorts the reality of anthropological subjects, but also creates a false impression of the strength of power structures and the abilities of actors to resist and overcome them. In some popular discourses, similar ideas have led to the argument that the dominated remain dominated out of a lack of will rather than out of a lack of power. Comaroff and Comaroff further problematized intentionality by demonstrating how placing focus on the intentions of individuals distorts the complex and unpredictable relationship between actors’ intentions and the social outcomes of that agency. They argue that social outcomes frequently are unintended consequences of agency, rather than the carefully planned, intended consequences of heroic actors.

Agency as Resistance

Rebellion in the face of oppression is a romantic ideal of agency that has been invoked by anthropologists and other social scientists in increasing frequency, particularly as the discipline’s focus on power and inequality becomes more intense. Even those theorists such as Lila Abu-Lughod (1990), who in her influential article “The Romance of Resistance” denounced this glorification of resistance in ethnography, has admitted to falling prey to the idea in her earlier works. The narrative of the dominating structure being overthrown by the downtrodden underdog, while romantic, fails to portray the lived reality of resistance. One difficulty of equating agency with this form of heroic resistance is that it upholds Western ideals of individualism and transplants them to non-Western contexts. As has been pointed out by Laura Ahearn (2001c) and Comaroff and Comaroff (1992; (among others), even in Western contexts, resistance rarely takes this idealistic form.

Resistance is often messy and contradictory, and is played out in a wide variety of forms from foot-dragging to revolution. Abu-Lughod (1990) pointed to her ethnography among the Awlad Ali Bedouins as an example of resistance forms that do not fit the romanticized model. She observed irreverence toward men imbedded in the joking of women, minor defiances of traditional modesty and sexuality hidden in poetry, and subservient acts of women to block unwanted arranged marriages. However, Abu-Lughod argued that casting a light of romanticized resistance over these acts fell short of the reality for the women she observed. The actions were not representative of Western-feminist politics of resistance against male domination. Yet, women were creating power for themselves within the framework of male power in their lives. The contradictory behavior of upholding structures of male power on the one hand, while undermining it on the other, is also incompatible with traditional views of resistance.

To avoid the Western and ethnocentric view of resistance, Abu-Lughod (1990) suggested that anthropologists should study resistance as a diagnostic of power, rather than as a phenomenon indicating human freedom. This analytical switch allows ethnographers to view the various types of resistance in a context of their complex relationship with power structures without privileging one over the other.

Agency Theories

Many schools of thought within anthropology have explored agency. This section explores just two of these. Yet Davies’s (1991) article “The Concept of Agency” and Ahearn’s (2001c) article “Language and Agency” are excellent examples, because both propose new directions for theory, and both thoroughly document prior understandings and known issues that have arisen in agency theory. Both poststructuralism and feminism developed as a response to earlier theoretical models and common trends, as well as assumptions in anthropology. Davies explored how these earlier understandings of agency have influenced anthropological understandings of women’s agency, and then proposed a new model that would take the lessons already learned in feminism and poststructuralism to overcome these biases. Ahearn, coming from a linguistic background, made a persuasive argument for the importance of language studies for agency, as she found that current theories of agency were insufficient to bridge the gap between social reproduction and social transformation.

Feminist Poststructuralism

In 1991, Davies, a poststructuralist and feminist, wrote the widely cited article “The Concept of Agency.” This article is an outline of the differences between humanist and poststructuralist theories, as well as an outline of Davies’s argument for poststructural understandings of power and agency in light of her feminist background. Davies argued that while humanist theories emphasized the individual as having a complete and independent identity with the capacity for agency, poststructuralism viewed individuals as having multiple identities with each being constituted by the subjective positions of the individual in discourses. Agency, as understood by humanists, is thus illusionary since the individual is forced into “choices” that reflect what is accepted as rational and desirable by the discourses that constitute the individual’s identity.

Davies (1991) disputed the humanist theories primarily because she found that rather than representing the reality of power structure and human agency, humanist theories upheld racist and masculinist power structures. She also argued that humanist theories pit the individual against the collective and force the individual into struggling against the collective in order to obtain an individual identity. Poststructuralism views the individual as constituted by many discourses, with the heroic individualism of humanism as simply one. The model of the essential and continuous self that most individuals view themselves in, Davies argues, is the result of regular positioning in a set of discourses, the use of life-history story lines to string together an individual’s existence into a cohesive whole, the internalization in the body and the desires associated with it, and features such as the male/female dualism that Davies argues are consistent through all discourses.

To escape the power of strong discourses and the male/female dualism, Davies (1991) argued that individuals must recognize the ways they are constituted through discourses and then act as authors to disrupt, contradict, and rewrite the discourses that constitute them. These acts of “authority” represent agency in the poststructuralist model. However, she was quick to point out that while agency exists in the poststructural framework, it is impossible for an individual to escape the discourses that constitute the self. An individual can only recognize the multiplicity of discourses involved in the constitution of the self and resist, subvert, and induce change within those discourses. Thus, agency, in this framework, is the ability to author and have a voice within the discourses one is involved in.

Agency in Language

Ahearn (2001c), in her “Language and Agency” review, argued for greater use of linguistic knowledge in the study of agency. Because agency and culture are so closely intertwined, a study of agency necessarily requires an understanding of the ways it is represented in language. Linguistics, she argued, could build the bridge between social reproduction and social transformation—a bridge, which she argues, practice theory has not yet built.

Grammatical agency, Ahearn (2001c) explained, is created through the grammatical structure of a language. While grammatical agency can overlap with social agency, grammatical agency is different in that it reflects how a language represents the different roles taken by linguistics subjects. Ahearn argued that an understanding of grammatical agency can give insights into social agency. For example, in a 1992 study, LaFrance found that participating English speakers had a bias against women. He observed that when speaking about women, the participants were more likely to make women’s agency “disappear” by structuring their sentences grammatically so that women took more passive roles as subjects. Men were more likely to be portrayed grammatically in more aggressive subject roles.

Linguistic anthropology, more so than other forms of linguistic studies, focuses on language as social action. This means looking at how people use language to reproduce and transform culture. Ahearn (2001c) loosely defined agency as the “socioculturally mediated capacity to act” (p. 112). She found that the study of language as social action, with an understanding of the ways in which language constructs social understandings of the subject, creates important knowledge for anthropological understandings of agency, particularly in the areas of language and gender, literacy studies, and dialogic approaches.

Practice Theories

Practice theory originated in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a response to earlier structural theories and the argument over the privileging of human action over cultural forces, or the privileging of structure over human action. Practice theory aimed to explain the ways that culture was created, sustained, and changed. The early theorists had various emphases on aspects of this aim; however, the overall goal remained. Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, achieved much with his Outline of a Theory of Practice (1995) that inspired and became the basis for much of practice theory. Bourdieu focused on both the way that culture was perpetuated over time and the systems of control that influenced human action. Marshall Sahlins’s thin yet rich book, Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities: Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Islands Kingdom (1981) focused on how cultural history influenced the actions of people and successfully created a mode for cultural transformation. Anthony Giddens’s (1976, 1979, 1981) contribution to practice theory came from his background in sociology and what he lacked in ethnographic experience, he made up for in his observations of the nature of structure and its relationship to human agency and agency’s dependence on structure.

Since the early formations of practice theory, anthropology as a discipline has explored new understandings of culture and undergone intensive internal critiques from postmodern influences. From these observations, Ortner (2006) found that three main influences contributed to the growth of practice theory: the “historic turn,” the “reinterpretation of culture,” and the “power shift.” The historic turn, she explained, was a turn from synchronic studies to diachronic explorations into history. Of the three founding fathers of practice theory, only Sahlins (1981) had a truly historical perspective of practice. Ortner (2006) argued that the historic turn made clear the importance of understanding history’s impact on practice and that historical perspectives must be included in any true theory of practice. The reinterpretation of culture from a simplistic and essentialist bounded category—from early anthropology to a complex system yet to be fully understood—also impacted practice theory. The power shift, which occurred parallel to the development of practice theory, was propelled by three works identified by Ortner: Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature (1977), Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Part I (1978), and James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak (1985). This shift was the result of several critical studies in anthropology including feminism, postcolonialism, and studies of race and ethnicity.

Two recent approaches to practice theory, and the most influential, are William Sewell’s (1992) article “A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation” and several works by Ortner (1984, 1989, 1996, 2001, 2006). Sewell, a diverse social scientist, created a widely cited theory practice, worked from the foundations of Bourdieu (1995), and particularly Giddens (1976, 1979, 1981). Ortner, over a 20-year period, contributed an array of works concerning agency and practice theory, resulting in serious games theory. Together, Ortner and Sewell represent the more recent trends in practice theory and general anthropological theory.

Three Early Theorists

Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu (1995) wrote an Outline of a Theory of Practice amid growing unease among social scientists about earlier structural theories, particularly the work of Lévi-Strauss (1969). Postmodernists, particularly from the field of literary criticism, began to question the Western assumption that objective reality existed in a way that individuals experienced reality similarly or that social scientists could observe it. In an Outline of a Theory of Practice, Bourdieu added to and propelled this argument by suggesting that much of observed reality is subjective and that human agents largely control culture, as they create, maintain, and alter taxonomies through practice.

Field, as defined by Bourdieu (1995), is the objective social domain where relationships of inequality take place and where agents, informed by subjective habitus, negotiate that inequality. Habitus, originally introduced by Marcel Mauss and adapted by Bourdieu, is the internal subjective reality of the individual that is built for them through their encounters with the field or objective reality. Habitus contains both the variable array of options available to the agent, as well as the limits to their actions. He described the quasiperfect arrangement of the objective structures of the natural world and the subjective structures of culture as doxa, the state where the objective and subjective are fit so well that agents do not question the arbitrariness of it, but rather accept it as self-evident or natural, creating limits on the actions of agents.

However, not all human action functions as doxa; subjective reality does not always have a near-perfect fit with the objective field. Bourdieu (1995) argued that dominated agents question doxa; he called this process heterodoxy. Dominated agents, under Bourdieu’s theory, have the capacity for and an invested interest in resisting doxa and thus their dominated status. Powerful agents must then defend it; he called this process orthodoxy. Practice, as laid out by Bourdieu (1995), is thus the processes of agents asserting their power by creating, maintaining, or altering symbolic taxonomies. These are enforced by making them appear as part of the natural order that makes up culture. Bourdieu overcame many of the troubles postmodernity had revealed about earlier social theory by providing a framework to observe agency and structure immersed in power and inequality, and by sidestepping the assumption of objectivism.

Marshall Sahlins

Marshall Sahlins’s (1981) Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities: Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Islands Kingdom was influenced by many of the same postmodern sentiments concerning earlier structural theory that influenced Bourdieu (1995) and Giddens (1976, 1979, 1981). Sahlins, however, was particularly concerned with the lack of a diachronic perspective in structural theory. Ferdinand de Saussure and other structuralists, Sahlins argued, had written structural theory in ways that placed structure in binary opposition with history. Sahlins, through his historical ethnography of Hawaiian interactions with the British, aimed to dispel the idea that structure exists outside of history.

Sahlins (1981) argued that agency reflected one’s cultural history and cultural knowledge. He presented a picture of agents filling and acting in their cultural categories until change is brought about by the clash of power struggles, such as between the Hawaiian leaders and the British captains. Each action, Sahlins argued, put structures at risk. Sahlins’s work, however, lacked the tragic sense of the inequality inherent in structure that later practice and agency theorists emphasized.

Anthony Giddens via Ivan Karp

Giddens, a British sociologist, wrote in the late 1970s and early 1980s three works on agency and structure that helped shape the work of later practice theorists, such as Ortner (2001, 2006) and Ivan Karp (1986). His works are: New Rules of Sociological Method (1976), Central Problems in Social Theory (1979), and “A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism” (1981, in Power, Property and the State). Giddens’s achievements in his theory of structuration, while not positioned within anthropology, were nonetheless influential on anthropological theory. However, Karp has noted that anthropologists must take responsibility for relating Giddens’s theories to anthropological work, since Giddens’s work often “runs aground” in areas of anthropology as he has little appreciation for the fieldwork methods of anthropology. Karp’s 1986 review of Giddens’s work successfully accomplished this, and thus this discussion of Giddens’s contribution to practice theory in anthropology will not be separated from it. Giddens’s works make two major contributions to practice theory: the nature of actors and agents, and the process of structuration.

Karp (1986) described actors as individuals involved in action that is governed by rules, while describing agents as individuals engaged in actions of power, where the individual is able to “bring about effects.” Giddens’s agents were knowledgeable participants in structuration with goals, unlike those agents of Bourdieu (1995) and Sahlins (1981) who were generally ignorant of their position and fulfilled their cultural roles without reflection. This understanding of agents helped to overcome some of the critiques of Bourdieu and Sahlins that accused practice theory of placing too much emphasis on structure over human agency.

Giddens’s (1976, 1979) theory of structuration, outlined in New Rules of Sociological Method and fleshed out in Central Problems in Social Theory, attempted to overcome the divide between structure and agency. Giddens argued that structure, rather than being separate from or in contrast to agency, is constantly created through collective agency and agency takes inspiration and resources from structure for further action. Thus, structuration is the process of agents creating structures that are then used for further agency. Because of this relationship to agency, Giddens argued that structures are virtual, existing in a constant state of becoming rather than being. In this model, power is the ability of agents to bring about change through agency. Karp (1986) explained that Giddens’s work overcame a number of “two-headed monsters” in practice theory, thereby paving the way for other theorists, such as Ortner (1995) and Sewell (1992), who were both influenced by his theories.

Recent Approaches

William Sewell

William Sewell’s influential article, “A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation” (1992), built upon the foundations of practice theory laid out by Giddens and Bourdieu by incorporating the critiques of earlier practice theory, as well as the larger shifts in social theory since the 1970s. He presented five axioms for the future of practice theory: (1) the multiplicity of structures, (2) the transposability of schemas, (3) the unpredictability of resource accumulation, (4) the polysemy of resources, and (5) the intersection of structures. Sewell’s arguments create a picture of structure and agency existing as a dynamic dialogue situated within power structures and historical context.

The foundation of Sewell’s (1992) theory of structure comes from Giddens, the forefather of practice theory. Giddens (1976, 1979, 1981) argued that structures were dual, meaning that structures both form the practices of society and are formed by those practices. Giddens also postulated that structures were made of rules and resources. Sewell, however, found that this central terminology was insufficiently defined. The term rules, he argued, was ambiguous and he, instead, elected for the use of the term schemas. Schemas are virtual, generalizable procedures, meaning that these procedures can be observed in a range of situations and contexts, and they cannot be reduced to a single practice, location, or moment. For example, schemas can be etiquette rules, social norms, metaphors, or dichotomies. As defined by Giddens, resources were split into two categories: resources of allocation and resources of authorization. Sewell adopted this portion of Giddens’s theory. However, he felt that the concepts would be better understood using ordinary English: nonhuman resources and human resources. Nonhuman resources are objects of both natural origins, such as oil or diamonds, and manufactured origins, such as clothing or money. However, objects only qualify as resources when they have the potential to be used to create or maintain power. Human resources are those that come from within individuals or groups, such as physical strength, emotional connections, or knowledge. Thus, a basic understanding of Sewell’s theory of structure could be described as a cycle of schemas creating resources that then reinforce schemas.

Sewell (1992) found that Bourdieu’s (1995) habitus fit well with his theory of structure. However, Bourdieu’s habitus failed to provide a mechanism for change within the habitus system, which requires schemas and resources to enforce one another so strongly that structures can only be changed from external forces, such as the example of Captain Cook from Sahlins’s (1981) work in Hawaii. To overcome this, Sewell argues that a more flexible and less totalized theory of structure must be created. For this, he argues five axioms for the theory of structure.

According to Sewell’s (1992) theory, structures vary widely within and between institutions such as religion, kinship, or class. While some structures may be homologous, as the structures imagined by Bourdieu (1995), Sewell argues that the multiplicity of structures allows for a diversity of schemas and resources that can be accessed and used by knowledgeable actors. Agency, as defined by Sewell, is the ability to creatively apply schemas in new situations and contexts. This is made possible through understanding that schemas are transposable to an infinite number of contexts, and that other actors cannot always predict this transposability. Resources are subject to a wide array of impacts, both from the environment and from human interaction. Sewell argues that it is not possible for actors to accurately predict resource accumulation, and thus successful validation of a schema is also unpredictable. In this lies the potential for change, defined by Sewell (1992) as follows:

If the enactment of schemas creates unpredictable quantities and qualities of resources, and if the reproduction of schemas depends on their continuing validation by resources, this implies that schemas will in fact be differentially validated when they are put into action and therefore will potentially be subject to modification. (p. 18)

Since Sewell argues that agency is the ability to creatively apply schemas in new contexts and that resources are the embodiment of schemas, it is necessary to understand resources as polysemous (i.e., that they are able to carry multiple meanings). This allows actors to reinterpret and mobilize resources to enact schemas in new ways. To further add to the potential for change from within the structural system, structures overlap in social life, which creates the ability to easily transport, reinterpret, and enact resources and schema. These five axioms transform Giddens (1976, 1979, 1981) and Bourdieu’s (1995) theories of structure in order to create space for internal change and a more specified view for ethnographers seeking to observe structure and agency.

Sherry Ortner

In 1984, with her article “Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties,” Sherry Ortner began 20 years of practice-theory publications. She explored the meanings of history, practice, and agency in her 1989 book High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism. She approached the problems with resistance studies in her 1995 article, “Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal.” In 1996, she presented serious games in Making Gender. She defended Comaroff and Comaroff’s (1992) work and explored different kinds of agency in her 2001 article, “Specifying Agency: The Comaroffs and Their Critics.” Finally, in 2006, Ortner published Anthropology and Social Theory, which outlined and examined her previous works in practice theory, as well as aimed to summarize her arguments about practice theory, structure, agency, and serious games. “Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties” contained first an outline of the general trends of anthropological theory during the 1960s and 1970s, and then her observations of the growing trend toward understanding social action. Practice theory, she stated, would be the key symbol in 1980s anthropology.

In High Religion, Ortner (1989) aimed to describe the components of practice theory: practice, agency, actors, and history. She defined practice as social interactions that involve inequality. She defined structures as being far less rigid than her predecessor, Bourdieu (1995), and instead aligned herself with Giddens’s (1976, 1979, 1981) flexible, integrated idea of structure. Finally, she defined actors as individuals that partake in practice. However, Ortner also argued that past definitions of actors placed too much emphasis on intentionality and aspirations of power, including some of her prior work. Therefore, she introduced the idea that actors are influenced by structure and power relationships, but not exclusively. History, both individual and social, she argued, played a large role in the behaviors of actors. In this work, she also argued for the usefulness of both the political-economy approach, which focused on externalized forces of change, and the ethnographic-history approach, which focused on internal forces of change. However, the most lasting lesson to be taken from High Religion is the role of history in practice theory. As cultural transformation is a slow process, Ortner argued that history is the only location that the process can be fully observed, including the complete relationship between practice and structure.

In her article “Resistance and the Problem of the Ethnographic Refusal,” Ortner (1995) tackled several issues surrounding resistance theory and its ethnographical use. She argued for a combination of the objective and subjective viewpoints for understanding individual agency, as well as the importance of understanding internal and external political influences on actors. She explains as follows:

In short, one can only appreciate the ways in which resistance can be more than opposition, can be truly creative and transformative, if one appreciates the multiplicity of projects in which social beings are always engaged, and the multiplicity of ways in which those projects feed on as well as collide with one another. (p. 191)

In Making Gender, Ortner (1996) fleshed out her ideas on serious games; this theory meant to use the tools learned in practice theory and yet move beyond them to include issues of power and inequality. Serious games theory looks at the ways actors reconfigure their world through their goals and projects. The term “games” was chosen to represent the intentions, plans, and desires of actors to avoid the overemphasis of conscious intentions imbedded in “projects,” and the scripted and fictitious implications of “dramas,” “stories,” and “narratives.” Serious games, Ortner explained, were meant to embody the notions that social life is constructed with cultural rules and goals, that games are flexible and multiple, and that agency comes from actors who play the games. Ortner stressed that serious games, while at first glance appear to focus on the particular, hold the ultimate goal of understanding larger transformations and forces in social life.

In 2001, Ortner attempted to further “specify agency.” In her article of the same name, she distinguished between two types of agency: agency of power and agency of intention. Agency of power is the objective agency that allows individuals to influence their world and act on their own behalf. Agency of power, then, can be either domination or resistance. She broadly outlined resistance as everything from “outright rebellion” to the “complex and ambivalent acceptance of dominant categories and practices that are always changed at the very moment they are adopted” (p. 78). She defined agency of intentions as being centered more on the subjective individual’s projects and desires. Separating the two forms of agency allowed Ortner to demonstrate that both objective and subjective understandings of agency are relevant and present. She was quick to explain, however, that agency of power and agency of intentions are often inseparable in reality and are for heuristic purposes only.

Ortner’s most recent book, Anthropology and Social Theory (2006), draws together her endeavors in practice, agency, and serious games theory. The book encompasses some of her earlier work and some new work, and it also covers a wide array of topics (from the history of practice theory, to class, to subjectivity, and to media). However, the overall theme is a development of Ortner’s serious games theory and the further exploration of agency within it. In her concluding chapter, she identifies three questions for defining agency: (1) Does agency inherently involve intentions? (2) Can agency be simultaneously culturally constructed and universal? (3) What is the relationship between agency and power?

To the first question, Ortner (2006) drew on the work of Sewell (1992) and argued that his “hard” attitude toward intentions aligned well with her understanding of serious games. This hard definition of agency included the idea that agency requires a level of intentions that may not always be conscious or leading to definite goals, but are active and motivated in social interactions. She explained that intentions are the things that separate agency practices (involving desire, creativity, and will) from everyday routine practices. She argued as well that when imbuing agency with intentionality, it was also important to take heed of the warnings expressed by theorists such as Comaroff and Comaroff (1992). They expressed worry concerning the overemphasis of intentions in agency, which they found to be ethnocentric, individualistic, and lacking in an understanding of the complex relationship between intentions and outcomes. To further soften the “hard” definition of agency, Ortner expressed that agency with intentions and routine practices existed on a continuum, rather than in bounded categories.

Ortner (2006) argued that theorists, such as Alessandro Duranti, Sewell, and Ahearn, generally accepted the universality of agency. Duranti (2004) observed that all languages represent agency in their grammatical structure. Ortner explained that while agency is universal, its frequency and intensity is also shaped through cultural constructions, history, and power.

Ortner (2006) argued that power is intrinsically linked to agency, as it explains the inequality in the system. She found that there were three levels of power in agency. First, the basic level that all agency is power. However, this level is insufficient to explain more complex agency and thus she made the distinction between “agency of power” and “agency of projects.” The former is the agency involved in the domination and resistance dialectic. The latter she illustrated as the agency of “intention and desire” that involves more personal projects and goals.

Future Directions

Agency and practice theories have come far and have overcome many hurdles that have been placed in the tracks of anthropologists. However, there are yet many unanswered questions about the nature of agency and social life. Further studies in agency must explore the influences of power on human action and the structures of society. While theorists have made significant headway on this subject, it is far from complete. Also, larger questions in anthropology—such as the effects of globalization, the nature of identity, and the usefulness of concepts such as relativism—will likely have great impact on the study of agency and practice, which lies at the heart of many of these questions. As anthropologists explore new locations of fieldwork at home and abroad, and dive into deeper understandings of their own subjectivity, ethnographic experience will bring to light new questions on the topic.


Agency, the term that some theorists, such as Ortner and Ahearn, have indicated as one of the most abused terms in anthropology, has a complex history and today has multiple complex definitions and further complex methodologies for finding and understanding it. The critical theories of the last few decades have punctured where the concept was the weakest with holes. These holes formed where biases of ethnocentrism lay hidden in the discourses of agency and its sometimes partner, sometimes nemesis, structure. Structure, in its most radical forms, obliterated agency, painting human action as little more than another system of control.

Yet, through the careful and thoughtful work of agency and practice theorists, agency blossomed into functional and balanced theories. Old biases were understood, and significant progress has been made to avoid them, by defining agency in ways that avoid making agency a quality of humanness or a heroic and romanticized resistance. The newer understandings of identity and power led post-structuralists to reimagine the workings of agency as positioning in discourses. Linguists, through studies of grammar and language as social action, have found compelling evidence for the way agency is played out and represented in language. Practice theorists creatively found new understandings of how agency and structure work together to create, maintain, and transform social life. In the 21st century, new directions in the field of anthropology will continue to push agency and practice theory from these foundations and into other realms as anthropologists continue to expand the collective ethnographic knowledge associated with human action.