Socect’s Weblog

Unsettled Thoughts/Works in Progress

The Agency of Things

One of the basic ideas of actor-network theory is that not only people have agency but that non-human things do as well. This is a pretty simple idea, but also one that people have a hard time getting their heads around. An example occurred to me when I was on sabbatical in Thailand and sat most mornings at a Starbucks overlooking a small shrine along the road in the Siam Square area of Bangkok. I would watch as people passed the shrine, regularly turning and bowing (wai) to the shrine.

From an actor-network theory perspective, the shrine has agency, in so far as agency means the power to act on others in a system of relationships. Actor-network theory would insist that agency lies in the shrine itself, not for example, those who errected or maintain the shrine. If we conceptualize agency this way (and I see no reason not to), it raises a question: do we need to distinguish between agency and intentionality? The shrine, for instance, has agency. It acts on passersby such that the physically turn and bow. But it would seem odd if not absurd to suggest that the shrine has intentionality (whereas intentionality could be attributed those who created the shrine).

I post this now simply because it came up the other day in a conversation about ANT and then today I happend across these pictures buried in my computer files. So, there is just another musing… and a post to keep this blog alive…


October 27, 2011 - Posted by | Random Walks, Research, Teaching | , , , ,


  1. “The shrine, for instance, has agency. It acts on passersby such that the physically turn and bow.”

    Not really. the phrase ‘acts on’ has been attributed by you to the shrine. It is the result of you looking at a series of behaviors by organisms–here humans– and labeling them in a certain way to make sense to you (and you are labeling the actions of the organism in the scenario–not the non-living thing.)

    To make myself clearer, think of it this way: what is it that you do see? Human beings walk and when they come to a certain point, they turn and behave in a particular manner (turn and bow). You observe this relationship, then latch on to a particular object (shrine) and say: “hey, since they do that only when near this object, this object must exert this power”. This is simply an extension of primitive (oops! taboo word, i know….) animism that is inherent in human discourses–it is amazing that post-modernism gives it a (post-modern sounding) label that somehow makes it seem oh-so-sensible, when actually it is ridiculous. Observe why…

    The “shrine”–the physical object– does not make anyone do anything. Instead, concepts that are triggered in mind of the sole actor(s)(the passerby) results in a change in mental state in that actor that makes her bow. Without those concepts (engineered by other minds–all living), she wouldn’t bow–observe that people of other (or no) faiths wouldn’t bow–so where’s the agency of the shrine? At a minimum, you must concede that the shrine stands (in the minds of the passerby) for something–some mental concept– and it is her beliefs about that something that makes her bow. In fact, it is that which makes the structure a ‘shrine’–again something that exists only in the minds of living things…

    [Further, If you infer that shrine has agency, then by extension, words, etc have agency, which means that signals and sounds have agency, and then by extension, bats’ ultrasonic calls have agency for bats….not very helpful, I tell you. You have just used any signal of communication to have agency of its own–so traffic signals have agency of their own. WOW! And This is a theory…..? ]

    “One of the basic ideas of actor-network theory is that not only people have agency but that non-human things do as well. This is a pretty simple idea, but also one that people have a hard time getting their heads around. ”

    yeah…maybe there is a reason why they have a hard time getting their heads around—-it makes no sense, perhaps? People are not idiots after all , just hypocrites.
    And perhaps more importantly, it just puts old mumbo-jumbo that prevailed in primitive minds into some new bottles, using sophisticated sounding words (reminds me of what George Orwell called ‘politics of language’)–ah, you post-modern shamans and your black magic with words…. 😉

    Comment by Heretic | December 7, 2011 | Reply

  2. Response to Heretic…
    Hmmm… Well, first of all, ‘post-modern shaman’, ok I don’t mind the title too much. Haha.

    I am not really convinced of ANT. I don’t hold it to be a truth/theory that I believe in. But, it is trying to consider and perhaps challenge conventional (modern? post-primative?) notions of agency that invest agency in individuals (individual human beings). Rather, from an ANT, and perhaps other systems theories, agency is not a property of individuals but of systems. Or perhaps better, of individuals within systems; and particularly for ANT these ‘individuals’ in the system can include things (like shrines). So in this, it differs from animism, which would see the agency of things (like a shrine) as a property of that thing (apart from how it is embedded in a broader system – of meanings, ideas, and materiality). But in this case (ANT perspective), the agency of the shrine refers to how it is embedded in a particlar system (of meanings) such that it acquires (embodies?) a certain agency.

    There is a ‘post-modernism’ to this, in that modern notions of agency turn on agency as a property of things (individuals) unrelated to wider systems of which they are a part. For instance, where you mention the idea of traffic lights having an “agency of their own”… I assume you mean as if they would turn on and off ‘at will’ to do things in the world? This is precisely the issue I was highlighting when saying that, if we take on board an ANT or similar perpective, then perhaps we need to distinguish between ‘agency’ (having power or being positioned in a system in such a way as to act upon other things in the system) and ‘intentionality’ (will? acting on desire?). So the traffic light or shrine would have agency, but I would not think of them as having intentionality.

    Well, these are just musings. Or maybe more sinister black magic words?

    Comment by socect | December 13, 2011 | Reply

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