Agency and language

Laura M. Ahearn
Table of contents

Agency is an abstract concept that scholars often define inadequately, if at all, but it has nevertheless become a widely used term across the humanities and social sciences. Before attempting to define the term, it is worthwhile to ask why so many scholars in so many fields have become interested in the concept of agency. Ellen Messer-Davidow (1995: 23) poses this question directly, asking, “Why agency now?” While there are undoubtedly many answers to this question, one is that there is a clear connection between the emergence of interest in approaches that foreground practice on the one hand, and the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s on the other (Ortner 1984: 160). In addition, the social upheavals in central and eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s directly led many scholars to articulate more clearly their ideas about human agency and social structures (e.g. Sztompka 1991). As a result of witnessing or participating in actions aimed at transforming society, then, many academics began to investigate how linguistic and social practices can either reproduce or transform the very structures that shape them. I believe it is no coincidence that the recent agentive turn, an outgrowth of the trends Ortner identified in 1984, follows on the heels not only of the social movements of the past few decades but also of postmodern and poststructuralist critiques within the academy that have called into question impersonal master narratives that leave no room for tensions, contradictions, or oppositional actions on the part of individuals and collectivities.

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