Agency

Agency refers to the ability of people to bring about desired results. This simple definition, however, masks complicated phenomena and relationships that have consumed the attention of generations of historians and social scientists, who devote much of their work to understanding the process of agency. There are few topics in history and social science education that do not touch on agency, and yet “touching on” is not enough; students need clear and explicit experience with using the elements of agency to understand human society and behavior. Two of these elements have been covered in the preceding sections: causation and perspective. Analyzing causation helps students see the uncertain link between actions and results; just because individuals or groups aim to accomplish something does not mean that they will be successful, or that the results will be limited to those they intend. Analyzing perspective, meanwhile, helps students recognize how “desired results” are social constructions that vary across time and place.

Setting aside causation and perspective for the moment, however, leaves three other critical elements of agency: people, the actions they take and their ability to carry out those actions. In examining the people involved in past and present events, students need to look beyond the elites who have traditionally held power; although these were once the principal focus of historical study, historians’ attention has shifted to include those whose race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, geographic origin or other characteristics have kept them outside the corridors of power. Such groups and individuals have always been the focus of the social sciences, which rarely emphasize powerful individuals in the way that historians once did; sociologists, political scientists, economists and geographers typically examine attitudes and behaviors of wider segments of society, and they often focus on the unique character?istics of social groups and the ways they differ from each other. With experience examining these topics in the social sciences, students will be better prepared to recognize differing social groups in history. History, meanwhile, provides countless examples of the ideas and actions of different social groups, and this deepens and enriches students’ understanding of the diverse agents involved in events.

Studying a topic such as the Russian Revolution, for example, obviously requires going beyond leaders such as Lenin or Tsar Nicholas II and learning about the actions of countless unnamed soldiers, workers and activists. It also means considering agents from different economic positions (i.e. the aristocracy, bourgeoisie, proletariat and peasants) and with different political ideologies (Liberals, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks and so on). And crucially, it means learning not only about men active in the conflict but also about women—and not just Empress Alexandra, but revolutionaries such as Alexandra Kollontai and Inessa Armand, and the masses of women workers, peasants, demonstrators and soldiers whose actions either promoted or inhibited revolutionary change (Alpern-Engel, 2003; Clements, 1982, 1997). Similarly, studying a contemporary societal issue such as human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) would require learning how a variety of actors have responded to the crisis: how leaders in government, religious institutions and health agencies have supported (or failed to support) research, medical treatment and educational programs, how organizations such as AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) have advocated for public policies that would improve the lives of people living with HIV, and how grassroots activists and volunteers have developed educational programs, challenged popular prejudices and provided care for those who are ill. Students also would need to understand how these efforts have involved both men and women, members of different racial and ethnic groups, individuals within and outside of the LGBTQ community and those from different countries (Brier, 2009; Chambre, 2006; Levenson, 2004; Smith & Siplon, 2006). As different as the examples of HIV/ AIDS and the Russian Revolution are, both call attention to the importance of understanding a variety of social actors.

It is not only when people enter the world of transformative public events that they exert agency, though, and expanding students’ perception of the people who take part in social events necessarily means expanding their perception of what counts as actions that are worthy of study. If only political and diplomatic affairs are important, then much of history will necessarily focus on elite white men. But historians and social scientists study much more than this; they study poverty, fashion, technology, agriculture, family life, drug use, domestic work, population movements, religious practice and countless other topics. These involve many different social groups, and the actions that they take part in as part of these spheres of life are an important part of what students need to study in order to understand society. In studying any geographic region or any time period, students must ask similar questions. What do people do for a living? What kind of families do they have? How do they move around? What technologies do they use? What religions do they practice? Again, familiarity with analyzing social life as part of social science courses helps students think of people’s actions in the past in a more comprehensive way, and studying history can provide them with countless concrete instances of the content of social life.

Finally—but perhaps most importantly—students need to understand what makes people able to take action, and what stands in the way of action. Sometimes posed as the tension between agency and structure, or between agency and power, this comes down to the fundamental role of societal forces in either enabling or constraining what people do. Yet, this tension is precisely what is often missing in students’ understanding of human action; they often assume either that people can do whatever they want (e.g. all slaves could have run away, or all victims of injustice can insist on their rights) or that they are helpless victims of their surroundings (e.g. Jews during the Holocaust went passively to their deaths, or people in less-developed countries are dependent on charity). A central task of history and the social sciences is to help students understand that all people make choices from among a range of alternatives, but that the nature and range of those alternatives is influenced by the societal attitudes and institutions that either promote or inhibit action.

Students who study women’s lives during the Middle Ages, for example, would need to understand how their ability to take action was either enhanced or constrained by a variety of cultural, economic, political and ecclesiastical institutions. These included laws governing women’s ability to own land, appear in court, hold public office and inherit property; their role in household labor, marketplace transactions, consumption of goods and estate management; the prevalence of public conventions and images of female saintliness and sexuality; access to formal education and to positions within the church; and the existence of female social networks (Erler & Kowaleski, 1988). Similarly, students in a social science class who study human rights protection in Latin America would need to understand how such efforts are advanced or constrained by laws and government policies regarding the press, public speech and political organizing, the existence and status of civil society organizations, the level of support of the Catholic Church, the involvement of nongovernmental organizations, access to education, the influence of the military and paramilitary organizations, the extent of corruption or professionalism in the court system and among police, and the economic circumstances of the country (Cleary, 1997). All these factors vary by time and place, and agency can only be understood in relation to particular societal circumstances. The more students have experience with these dimensions of agency in both history and social science, the better equipped they will be to understand them.

 
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