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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: November 3, 2000
Latest update: July 4, 2004
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Index of Topics on Site Definitions of Basic Terms

"Agency," as we have been using it in our theory discussions, is the ability to control and/or to make a difference through decision-making power. Thus, we would say that one has agency when one can control or make a difference in the outcome. Sometimes our agency is limited, but it is rarely completely in the hands of others. (a position taken by existentialism)

If X is held prisoner and tortured, does X have agency? Within what constraints? Yes, within varying constraints. This was one ofthe existential conundrums after the Second World War. This is always an issues after a war in which people suspect one another of having cooperated somehow with the enemy. Existentialism would say that whatever you do, you must consider that it would be OK for everyone to make that same decision. No clear answers in a torture and death situation. Minimal agency.

If your parents tell you not to use inappropriate language, you might get away with using "bloody," which only has severe connotations in some British settings. Or you could disobey. In those instances you would be taking various amounts of agency unto yourself. But you might get punished. Parents still have agency. So you have to negotiate constraints. But parents by no means constrain all your decision-making.

"the laying on of alternatives"

Comes from the laying on of hands. Ritual for the passing on of title to authority. "The color of law."

When a 40 year-old man has lost his job in the present economy, he may experience great difficulty in transferring his earned status and benefits to another company because of sanctioned bias against older workers. And yes, many coporations will consider him older, since he is more expensive with his earned status than a 24 year-old, just out of college. Some of us may respond to this situation with determination; but some of us respond with severe depression. Then, enter the jocular career counselor giving him color your parachute kinds of advice. He gets more depressed, because it's clear to him that the jocular career counsleor has no grasp of the real age problem he's facing. His wife, and his sisters watch him sit before the television day after day, until frustrated, they fuss at him that he would find a job if he'd just get off his duff and go look for one.

The career counselor, and the family members, are "laying their own alternatives" on this poor man. Career counselors may be able to change jobs fairly easily. Our subject may be an engineer. Not so easy to change. He's got seniority of experience and status over too many. His wife and sisters aren't in that workplace. Yes, they could probably get jobs if they just went out and tried. But would they be jobs of his salary and benefits? When counseling, when judging, it's crucial to recall that your alternatives are not necessarily the same alternatives with which your client is faced. Constitutive theory would say that that consideration is part of the structural context in which our lives are socially constructed. Agency may look different then, in different structural contexts, for people who look the same, but may have little in common in the structural context.

structural context

Normative constraints that shape our behavior and beliefs. These constraints are not imposed by someone else's agency or sovereignty, but by the normative rules and expectations of the culture, language, institutions, and practice that bind us as a social group.

One of the most important aspects of structural context in the sense that we have been using it in our theoretical discussions is that it does not involve specific intent to control.

Sometimes, in the end-of-the-millennium panic that feeds on our need to "know" into the future, and to "control," we try to control with conscious intent by rules and regulations. Consider the rules and regulations thrown up to "control" immigration, for example. Generally, such attempts result in bad law, for the law, once enacted, applies equally to all, at least in theory. Law designed to "control" specific groups or specific situations must define those situations with such accuracy that the discretion or "agency" needed by the law to adapt itself in fairness to all situations is destroyed. This usually results in mechanical or instrumental reasoning, such as that of the Olympic Committee when it stripped a young gymnast of her gold medal because she had taken a medically prescribed drug for an actual medical condition. The drug was on the Olympic Committee's list of prohibited drugs because of its performance enhancement properties. But the situation was not applicable; the young gymnast could have received no performance boost from the drug. The Olympic Committee acknowledged that, but stripped her of the medal anyway. Why? To show its commitment to its own drug policy! Now, that's bad law! Law enforced with the intent of establishing dominance in the power of the law, rather than law providing basic guidance to solve the actual predicaments which occur in our lives together.

The inflexibility of bad law is not the kind of control envisioned in our discussions of structural context and structural violence. Rules, rituals, normative expectations develop within all the components of our institutionalized life together: in the family, in the church or other spiritual center, in school, at work, in social gatherings (at local hang-out bars as well as at tea rooms). But their intent is rarely personal. It is controlling, but controlling in the sense we usually call "socialization."

When the structural context constrains you, it generally restrains you as a representative of some category or group, young peole, older people, with those adjectives ranging all over the place. If it suits you can call 32 old. If it suits you can call 26 young. So 32 may be old if I want to hire people at the start of the salary range. 26 may be young when I'm looking for the maturity needed to oversee prisoners of war.

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