Weekend thoughts… on “Agency.”

Social scientists stress the importance of agency, defined along the following lines:

“In the social sciences, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions.”[1]

This issue arises in multiple ways across the full natural hazards/weather-resiliency context, as discussed in the previous LOTRW post. That post prompted some comment on Facebook. Here’s the meat of the exchange:

“Giving people more agency works great if they can be trusted to make good decisions, but it can backfire horribly if the people are uninformed or overwhelmed by the decisions to be made. A 401(k) offers much more agency than a pension, but most people would have more retirement money with a pension than a 401(k) because most people are not finance experts. A middle route of training people to make good weather decisions plus offering a curated set of decisions when disaster does strike seems like best way to go.”

“Have to agree. Full agency is great as an ideal, but far from practical in the real world. A forecast of 1 to 13 inches WILL be ignored by a lot of people and likely result in a loss of credibility. I suppose presented on some sort of probability curve it would have a bit more value, but even then a lot of folks just aren’t equipped to interpret that either.”

“I’ve been saying for decades that the NWS shouldn’t be telling people what to do. They should provide information about the weather that, in combination with other types of information, allow the recipients to make their OWN decisions. Including decisions that might on occasion go terribly wrong for them, since no one can mandate only “good” decisions.”

The three perspectives capture the heart of the dilemma. When it comes to public safety, where does responsibility ultimately lie? In various levels of government? With forecasters? With emergency managers? With their private-sector partners? Or with individuals in harm’s way? What’s the right balance between “agency” and “structure?”

Of course the puzzle extends across the whole of life. Here are two weekend examples that might have something to teach us.

Football. On any fall weekend, and even as early as August, as training camps open, Americans turn to thoughts of football. Picture this practice or game scenario. The coaches are working hard with the quarterbacks and the wide receivers to nail down a variety of pass plays. The wide receivers are constantly missing their assignments, running the wrong patterns. One approach the coaches could take would be a special sensitivity-building session, focusing solely on the quarterbacks: “You guys are thinking too much about the technicalities of these pass plays, the x’s and o’s! You’re calling plays that are just a jumble of numbers and code words. You all clearly need to sign up for social-science classes and communication. You need to start delivering impact-based messages in the huddle!”

But that’s not all they do. Instead, coaches also grab the wide receivers by the shoulder pads as they come off the field and give them a message, delivered from a distance of less than eighteen inches[2], along the lines of “stop thinking about how hot it is or that girl friend of yours in the stands or how much money you stand to make some day. Get your head in the game!”

In the same way, we’ll never achieve a weather-ready nation until most Americans see safety for themselves and their family in the face of the real-world’s hazards as a cultural value rather than an unforeseeable interruption of, or irritating distraction from, real life. By the way, perhaps the most important part of the social contract between professional football players (indeed all athletes) and their respective teams also contains the A-word: free Agency. Players had to fight for this right.

Faith. Football isn’t the only religion observed on the weekend. And much of faith, whatever flavor you and I subscribe to, centers around the issues of free will and agency, and questions like, “If God or Allah or Yahweh (or whatever deity, however defined or named) isn’t good loving and all-powerful, then why is any religion worth the bother? But on the other hand, if God or Allah or Yahweh or whomever or whatever is good and loving and all-powerful, then why is there evil in the real world?” And the answer that invariably comes back from every theology and every scholar has to do with “agency.” Unless you and I have free will, it’s impossible for us to experience love and to truly love in return.

A quick aside for the social scientists and risk-communicators in the crowd: the Judeo-Christian faiths show a God who has throughout history been experimenting with impact-based messaging:

Attempt #1. You are my partners and collaborators here in the Garden of Eden. We’ll live eternally, and in perfect love and harmony, so long as you meet one condition: you don’t eat fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

What could go wrong?

Attempt #2. You, Israel, otherwise a puny and no-account nation, are to be a chosen people. I’ll lead you out of slavery in Egypt, and so long as you obey a set of ten simple commands you will live lives of miraculous abundance, power, and peace, even in the midst of nations larger and seemingly stronger than yourselves.

Of course we know that didn’t work.

Attempt #3. A series of prophets, laying out clearly the blessings that would follow obedience and the personal and national downside to going it alone.

Generally speaking, we ignored this advice, preferring to experience repetitive loss. But first we’d kill those pesky prophets.

Attempt #4. God says, I get it. You want free will. And I want you to have it. I’ll solemnize this by sending my Son so that we can maintain your Agency and Mine but keep the lines of communication open.

Social scientists should quickly recognize that Jesus was/is the ultimate boundary-spanner, negotiator, bridger (insert your favorite term)… and churches major boundary organizations spanning physical and spiritual realities.

So.. on this particular weekend, football coaches are going with “structure.” But as for the rest of us, we all say, “Even though it often brings brokenness, and dysfunction, and even pain and loss, we prize Agency.”

And God says, “Amen!


[1] Excerpted from material you can find here.

[2] 🙂 A tip of the hat to Susan Jasko. (Those of you who attended the AMS Summer Community Meeting know what I mean.)

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5 Responses to Weekend thoughts… on “Agency.”

  1. Richard Krajeski says:

    Hi Bill
    several thoughts
    1, Agency may not be the best work to express the idea. Some folks use ‘capacity’ Eade and Wisner – ‘capability’ Sen and Nussbaum – empowerment – Freire and Dussel – ‘response-ability’ Niebuhr. More word/metaphors are better than a few. It is important to seek words/metaphors that open up to more possibilities.
    2, Social philosophers (Habermas, Levinas and Ricoeur and most sociologists and theologians understand ‘agency’ as a shared community activity and not something invested in individuals.
    3, Agency/capability/capacity/empowerment/response-ability means “I/we will.” and not just “I/we can or might” They are not just ‘having’ words (like social capital) – they are ‘doing’ words.
    4, I was taught to think ‘process’, ‘structure’, and ‘content’ at the same time. So the questions are – “Does the structure produce agency/capability/capacity/ empowerment/response-ability in the community?” “Does agency of the community ‘support/grow’ the needed structures?”
    4, Most debates take place at ‘the-edge-of-the-arguments’ we must learn to seek what may be a large middle area of agreement and productivity.
    Dick K
    enough is abundance

  2. William Hooke says:

    Great comments, Dick. Thanks for adding to the dialog.

  3. Michael Cunningham says:

    Bill, two interesting posts. Constraints on agency will vary between individuals. A truly free person will not by bound by “structure” when making decisions. When someone has agency, they are making decisions relevant to their own particular circumstances and values, and taking ownership for them. Actions taken are more likely to reflect their own valuations than are those of an external body, and they know that they are responsible for outcomes. I agree with the “common lesson” you draw from the first post.

    More broadly, we each have the responsibility in our own lives to develop wisdom and understanding, so that we lead informed and harmonious lives, good for us and good for others. In Australia, and almost certainly elsewhere, “nanny state” measures and social security systems which foster dependency act against this. One of the reasons I argue for smaller government.

  4. Michael Cunningham says:

    PS: On 15 May I left some belated comments on your 5 April post “Climate Change in the American Christian Mind.” I wonder if you saw them?

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