Katherine Frank on Agency and Intellectual Easter-Egg Hunts

The burden of agency (?)

The following excerpt is from Katherine Frank’s paper ‘Agency’, which featured in a special issue of Anthropological Theory on ‘The Missing Psychology in Cultural Anthropology’s Key Words.’

The whole issue is full of greatness actually, but this excerpt particularly memorable for the Easter-egg quip (shelved in my memory alongside Strauss & Quinn’s ‘meaning is not in a cloud hovering over Cincinnati’ funny).


‘All of these trends have also ushered in a focus on the paradigmatic example of agency as resistance to power, or on the discursive contradictions and tensions that frame and constitute subjectivity (and thus to readings of people’s tendencies to or instances of ideological conformity as evidence of either a lack of agency or as forms of subjectification through disciplinary discursive regimes).


In the introduction to a collection of articles on agency, for example, Wimal Dissanayake argues that the concept of agency is not a ‘transdiscursive or nonproblematic category’. He writes: ‘Our emphasis should be on the historical and cultural conditions that facilitate the discursive production of agency, and on useful ways of framing the question of agency so that we would be in a better position to understand the contours of the cultures that we study’ (1996: ix). His definition of ‘the human agent’ is ‘the locus from which reconfirmations or resistances to the ideological are produced or played out’, which he argues is not equivalent ‘either to the individual or to subjects’ (1996: xi). Resistance, he argues, grows ‘out of the interplay of multiple subject-positions’ (p. xiii).


This particular conceptualization of agency is extremely popular among contemporary social theorists and the quest for evidence of resistant practices and identities often resembles an intellectual Easter egg hunt (I found one! Here’s another!). The search is on – and when there is a lack of clear resistance or conformity, agency is found in gaps, ruptures, failures, inconsistencies, instabilities, contested and contestable performances, and contradictions. Yet, is it useful to limit our understanding of agency to either acquiescence or resistance to ideology (or discourse), no matter how broadly interpreted or how removed from the individual? In this article, I argue that there is indeed more that needs to be considered when conceptualizing agency and explaining human behavior (or action, practice).’


~ Frank, K. 2006, Anthropological Theory, Vol.6, no. 3, p. 283.


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Filed under Anthropological Awesome, Anthropology

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