Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Agent/Agency in Social Sciences

- Rakesh Sengupta (Phd Cognitive Science )

The term agency presupposes multiple agents and a social action in the present context of a sociocultural process. Max Weber[1] defines the social action of an agent to be meaningfully oriented towards the others. This process of orientation is simultaneous and complex and governed by social and cultural structures and the structures themselves are influenced by actions of individual agents. Existing social structures are reinforced and supported through more complex institutions like kinship institutions, economic institution, political institution, etc. All these processes involve certain individual patterns of symbols and conventions to be available and transmissible in a matrix of shared values, beliefs, rituals, myths, and so on, i.e, culture. This notion of culture as collective entity can be thought in terms of Kuhn's notion of scientific paradigm[2] - it is shared by majority of agents who participate in it, it is generally observed but not followed all the time, the form is stable but may be subject to radical revisions, the articulation of it might not always be explicit. This brings us to the three methodologies trying to answer the question about the the possibility of reduction of the collective process in terms of the individual agent's consciousness and actions. Durkheim's methodological holism claims absence of causal connection collective culture to individual's states of consciousness (but the emphasis is on the conditions that the group as a whole is placed in)[3]. Methodological individualism claims otherwise. Methodological “situationalism” on the other hand begins from the situational social interactions[4]. In the spirit of social determinism Bordieu talks about an individual agent's place in the “field” with a stable structure and thus different agents have different positions according to the field. Phenomenological sociologists like Shutz on the other hand tried to give an account of social reality from the point of view of individual agents[5]. This position sometimes leads to extreme subjectivism by claiming the culture to be solely in an agent's head. The inter-agent processes have received a very illuminating account from Vygotsky who proposed interwoven biological and sociocultural processes manifested in speech and in internalization, to be responsible for development of thinking and behavior. Although the relationship between the individual and the society is complex, mostly the society shapes the individual (see the above-mentioned “field”), and forms the objective reality of the agent. For individual cognition the meta-structure of the “field” is sociocultural system of signs/symbols which acts both as an instrument of knowledge as well as of domination (to maintain the particular field)[6].

An epilogue: Due to constraint of scope and size, mention of different facets of phenomenological account of the agent, or game-theoretic notions of multi-agent systems could not be discussed. I apologize for a rather diluted account of some really complex notions and ask for reader's understanding in the present context.


[1] WEBER , M. (1957),The theory of social and economic organization, Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

[2] KUHN , T. (1962). The structure of scientic revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] DURKHEIM , W. (1962 [1895]). The rules of the sociological method. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

[4] BOURDIEU , P. & WACQUANT, L. (1992). An invitation to reflexive sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[5] SCHUTZ, A. (1967). The phenomenology of the social world. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

[6] FETZER , J. (1985). Sociobiology and epistemology. Dordrecht, Nethelands: Reidel Publishing.

No comments: