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Agency is the capacity to act on the world.


What is agency? In a nutsell, agency is the capacity to act on the world. However, we have problems in defining who is acting and how this acting came about. I mean, the terms traditionally used are confusing and conform in themselves a theoretical trap. Is the "individual" acting? Is the human "person" acting? How does that individual or person come about? How do they emerge? And how do they develop their capacity to act? Terms like "individual" tend to put too much emphasis in human innate abilities, for instance, or they serve the study of human beings as economic subjects in which the individual is a consumer and we understand his or her acting as part of economic activity in terms of the attainment of benefits.

In terms of psychological development, we may say that humans become true agents when they begin to use tools, especially "language." Through language, they act on and they are acted upon by society, for language comprises collective objectivations. Tools, in general, serve objective purposes. For example, if we encounter a saw, its handle "invite us" to use it only in certain ways. The tool is linked to objectified ways of acting on things, such as trees in the case of an axe. The same happens with words. Think, for instance on how the English language differs from let us say Japanese. The differences are not only in syntax and morphological aspects of word formation, but, as language, they reveal different historical derivations, different ways of seeing the world (and perhaps different cognitions). Thus, in order to analyse agency, we better take into account the individual and the collective tools that he or she develops in society, as part of a collective project. That intrinsic union between the individual and the tool (language) is what we can call the "subject".

Now, let me be a bit more technical about agency. Crucial to the understanding of agency within Marxian theory is Marx’s criticism of materialism. In the Theses on Feuerbach, Marx (2000, p. 171) criticised the materialism of Feuerbach and all its previous forms because, above all, they failed to consider human activity within the relationship of subject and object. In contrast, Marx’s brand of materialism viewed the emergence of the subject but through the subject’s own objective activity. By adopting and developing in the field of psychology Marx’s notion of practical activity as a link that contains both the subject and the object of activity, activity theory set out on a different theoretical footpath. Lektorsky (1977, p. 101) summarises this important theoretical development by pointing out that, in Marx, the problem of the subject-object relationship starts from the basic question posed by philosophy, because in activity, the object is being subjectivised and the subject objectivised. Thus, the subject of external and internal activity is not simply a separate corporeal individual but a person becomes a subject, doer, knower, only to the extent that she has mastered the modes of activity developed by society.

I argue that the distinction between – and the analysis of – the (corporeal) individual and the subject is essential. In both dialectical materialism and Hegelian idealism, the subject is always emerging. The individual controls his own body, his own activity, according to the referential frame given by society’s rules, which compel him to look at himself. The demands to regulate his activity come from the outside, modulated by the use of language. Therefore, as Smolka, De Goes and Pino (1995) uphold, the mastery of these modes of activity marked by the division of labour can only be achieved by cultural means, that is, by semiotic mediation.

Blunden (2007) points out that culture has been for cultural-historical activity theory the missing link between the individual psyche and society. By theorising the individual psyche in terms of society within a psychological theoretical frame, the founders of cultural-historical activity theory left undertheorised social formations, ideologies and institutions. In other words, cultural-historical activity theory left culture out of the dichotomy of ‘individual psyche-society’ (p. 254). Blunden asserts that although orthodox Marxist theory considers it a flagrant mistake to theorise society and history subject to the laws of individual behaviour, this never discouraged the founders of cultural-historical activity theory’s from formulating the individual psyche in terms of society. On the one hand, according to Blunden, this shortcoming is the result of the situated practice of the early developers of cultural-historical activity theory who were working with communitarian ideas of society that did not present the contradictions of current postmodern societies. The postmodern individual does not necessarily identify with institutions or social movements; her identification cannot be taken for granted. On the other hand, part of the problem also lies in psychology uncritically appropriating notions from the social sciences.


Blunden, A., 2007. Modernity, the Individual, and the foundations of Cultural-Historical Activity Theory, Mind, Culture, and Activity, 14 (4), pp. 253-265.

Lektorsky, V.A., 1977. The dialectic of subject and object and some problems of the methodology of science. In: Philosophy in the USSR: Problems of Dialectical Materialism, Moscow: Progress Publishers, pp. 100-112.

Marx, K., 2000. Karl Marx: Selected Writings, 2nd edn., Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smolka, A.L.B., De Goes, M.C.R. and Pino, A., 1995. The constitution of the subject: a persistent question. In: J.V. Wertsch, P. del Rio and A. Alvarez (eds.). Sociocultural Studies of Mind, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. ix, 252p.

-- ArturoEscandon - 16 Jan 2014


Topic revision: r3 - 24 Jan 2014, AndyBlunden

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