The subject of agency came up in conversation yesterday, and its importance has stayed with me, rather like a stray dog looking for company.
In social science, agency is defined as the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. … One’s agency is one’s independent capability or ability to act on one’s will. It is different to power, which we can acquire with difficulty, and lose easily. Agency is ours and no-one else’s.
Although, in principle, we can always exercise agency, our culture makes it hard. From the earliest days in school, we are taught to sacrifice agency for conformity, colour inside the lines, turn up on time, and behave.
And when we finish school, often saddled with the debt of a monetized education system to be serviced, we enter a workplace where individuality has barriers around it. We like to talk about creativity and originality more than really encourage it. Workplaces are, after all, dominated by those for whom the system works and are not keen to have that disrupted. As my Swiss friends used to say, the logs at the top of the woodpile want those beneath them to be very stable.
We are in a system where, for the majority of us, our progress is determined by jumping through other people’s hoops, and that’s a problem.
It’s a problem because addressing the systemic issues we have, from climate change to inequality, requires removing many of those hoops. We can feel the rearguard actions of those organizations and individuals who have thrived in the cultures that have brought us to where we are, from expensively crafted “news” to labelling and isolating those who seek to change things.
We need our agency now like never before as power inexorably shifts from the top of hierarchies to the centre of networks. We all need to find the networks that welcome our voice, enable it to be heard and exercise our agency.
The habits we have developed during the pandemic have made it far easier. Many conversations take place online hosted by generous people like Johnnie Moore, Ian Berry, Sue Heatherington, and many others, including the folks at Originize. They are spaces to share ideas, think the unthinkable out loud, and find support and inspiration.
We need to hear your voice and bring your agency to bear on the changes we need to make. Please.