What is agency?

The Mews at Cumberland Lodge
The Mews at Cumberland Lodge

The History Group went on its annual excursion to Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park this weekend. The purpose of the weekend is to share our research, discuss various ideas and potentially learn some new skills (thanks to our digital history colleagues!).

I participated in a round table discussion — along with Sarah Lloyd, Megan Webber and Dianne Shepherd — about agency on Saturday morning. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, not least because I’m on sabbatical this semester to write my book on the everyday lives of women in 1960s Ireland. Put briefly, it was a decade of transformation. Magazines such as Woman’s Way, Woman’s Choice and Woman’s View promoted new expectations, though many traditional values persisted, challenging women to negotiate competing demands on minds and bodies in their everyday lives.

All four of us in Saturday’s roundtable session have grappled with the concept of agency in our work, and at various points have had conversations with one another with the aim of trying to make sense of the term. All we’d previously managed to agree was that it’s a difficult term to define. With that in mind, I suggested that we broaden out the discussion at Cumberland Lodge.

Photo credit: Katrina Navickas (via twitter)
Photo credit: Katrina Navickas (via twitter)

At the heart of the session was the question, what is agency? But it’s fair to say that our discussion raised more questions than it gave answers. We agreed that agency has become something of a fashionable term — a ‘buzzword’, as one member of the group described it. A title search in a library database will turn up numerous books that contain the word ‘agency’ in their title. And yet, very often agency as a concept is either taken for granted with no definition offered, or it is peculiarly absent from many such publications. Often it is reduced to the simplistic notion of ‘making something negative, positive’.

An act of rebellion?

In preparation for the session, I found myself thinking about my current search project and writing a list of questions. Housewives and their position in society are often seen through the lens of second wave feminism. Depicted as oppressed women in a male-dominated world, according to this narrative, they attempt to subvert their situation by controlling the household budget or manipulating their husbands to get what they want. Certainly, we see examples of this in some of the magazines.

Q17 Ideal Wife quiz
Woman’s Choice magazine, March 1969

This understanding of agency essentially places such women in the category of rebellion. But Megan Webber made the excellent point during one of her contributions that, if we understand agency to mean rebelling against the status quo, does that mean that those who go along with any given situation don’t have agency? During my preparation I had pondered, can it only be ‘agency’ if it results in change? To go back to Megan’s point, by conforming, aren’t such women choosing to adhere to the status quo, and is choice not a form of agency? Relating that to my research: what about the housewives who didn’t consider themselves to be oppressed, but rather took pride in their domestic work? By assuming that agency is about rebelling or pushing back, are we actually denying such women agency?

Does it matter?

Is agency even a useful way of trying to understand individual experiences? Sarah Lloyd rounded off the discussion by taking issue with the term. Coupling ‘agency’ with ‘voice’, she observed that the interest in agency stems from efforts to write into history voices that have been missing. But, as she queried, does looking for agency privilege a certain type of source at the expense of others? Are historians too concentrated on those that reveal the interior narrative (such as pauper letters)? And returning to the theme that ran through all of our contributions, what extra baggage is the search for agency creating, if we frame it as an act of resistance?

We could have spent all day debating this and, no doubt, going round in circles as to what agency actually is. If anything, the conversation has left me wondering about the merit of focussing on agency to make sense of the everyday experience of the women I’m researching.

Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire.

One thought on “What is agency?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: