An agent is an individual that possesses the capacity to act or an individual who acts. What motivates humans to act in specific ways? What leads humans to pursue particular courses of actions? In responding to these questions, many European thinkers influenced by Cartesian dualism, the privileging of the mind over the body, have tended to assume that the mind is the determinative basis for human action or agency. In addition, sociologists have argued that social structures govern the agency of human beings. Theories of embodiment have challenged both of these theoretical understandings of human agency.
Feminist scholars that have given attention to embodiment in their works have shown that this view of agency grounded in Cartesian dualism has erroneously influenced some men to hold that women’s bodies inhibit women’s ability to act in rational ways (Campbell et. al, 2009). Holding that women’s emotions influence them to act irrationally, some men have historically discriminated against women and have restricted their agency. Furthermore, many slave-owners justified the enslavement of blacks or the restriction of black agency by deeming that Africans or persons of color were intellectually inferior and incompetent and incapable of making sound moral judgments without the supervision of whites. After losing legal control over black bodiesfollowing the legal abolishment of the institution of slavery in the United States in 1865, many southern whites justified the lynching and abuse of black bodies on the assumption that uncontrolled black bodies were violent, immoral, and a dangerous threat to white southern society (Quarles, 1996). Patriarchal and racist systems of oppression have limited the agency of women and blacks (Campbell et. al, 2009). Conceptions of agency informed by Cartesian dualism have had a negative impact on ethics, epistemology, politics, economics, science, and society at large (Campbell et. al, 2009). In contrast to Cartesian dualism, which has viewed bodies as an object, an embodied approach to agency, influenced by phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work, approaches all human bodies as subjects in the world that are seeking to affirm their being in the world. Hence, humans’ capacity to behave in rational and moral ways and to pursue political ends is influenced not merely by rational thought processes but by how bodies live within time and space and negotiate the social context in diverse ways.
Sociologists have also theorized agency by examining the influence that social structures and society at large have upon the agency of human beings. Influenced by the legacy of Parsonian sociology, sociologist Anthony Giddens’s structuration theory contends that humans are capable of cognitively and creatively transcending social structures. Although sociologist Chris Shilling agrees with Giddens’s contention that humans can transcend social norms, he critiques Giddens and other structuration theorists for overemphasizing the role of cognition in agency and for failing to acknowledge that bodies are influenced by social structures in various ways (Shilling, 2004; Doyle et. al, 2001). For example, the ways persons dress their bodies and the physical gestures persons use to express themselves are affected by society and culture. Yet, in her exploration of the bodily performance of human gestures, Carrie Noland indicates that human agency is not completely socially determined. She notes ways that humans’ gestures and bodily movements constantly take new forms and challenge socially conditioned norms. Hence, embodied agents possess the innate capacity to resist social and cultural norms (Doyle et. al, 2001; Noland, 2009; Shaw, 2006). A concentration on embodied agency strengthens the study of agency by indicating that living bodies possess an inherent capacity for action (within themselves). This means that agency is embodied and is not solely regulated by mental processes or by the social structure. This sense of embodied agency expands and strengthens the study of agency by challenging preconceived conceptions of agency advanced by philosophers and sociologists committed to Cartesian dualism and structuration theory.
Campbell Sue, Letitia Meynell, and Susan Sherwin, eds. Embodiment and Agency. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009.
This edited collection seeks to connect feminist theory with theories about the body and human agency. Challenging popular views that view agency as being a pure mental process, the authors discuss numerous ways in which agency is embodied. The authors challenge readers to ponder the limits of embodiment and human agency and to consider the ways in which agency and embodiment factor in the relationships of persons in the political arena and in the globalized world.
Doyle, Laura and Kenneth Silverman, eds. Bodies of Resistance: New Phenomenologies of Politics, Agency, and Culture.Evanston, IL.Northwestern University Press, 2001.
Building on the work of phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, this edited volume examines the political agency that lived bodies possess within the world. Employing a phenomenological method, the authors explore how social and cultural structures shape persons’ means of being in the world, including for example persons’ manners of communication and styles of dress. The authors stress humans’ creative bodily capacity to resist cultural and social norms.
Noland, Carrie. Agency and Embodiment. Performing Gestures/Producing Culture. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Primarily engaging dance and movement theory, Noland analyzes ways in which culture is embodied and created through the bodily performance of gestures. She argues that the embodied, kinesthetic act of gesturing challenges the notion that bodies are purely socially conditioned because when gesturing humans are able to move their bodies in ways that defy social customs and expectations. Her work also engages the phenomenological-constructivist debate as it relates to human agency and embodiment. She holds that constructivist theoretical accounts that view agency as being socially determined are not convincing because human kinesthetic experience and bodily movement are constantly breaking free of socially conditioned constraints and routines.
Shaw, Andrea Elizabeth. The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group, 2006.
This work examines how blacks in the African Diaspora have resisted Eurocentric cultural norms of the ideal, slender body physique. Shaw interrogates manners in which large black women’s bodies have been represented in literature and in popular culture and examines the cultural marginalization of large black women such as Aunt Jemima. Yet, she discusses how blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith incorporated their bodies into their sexual identity and resisted Eurocentric norms. She argues that throughout the African Diaspora large black women have utilized their bodies to resist colonization, whiteness.
Shilling, Chris. “The Undersocialised Conception of the Embodied Agent in Modern Sociology” in The Body: Critical Concepts in Sociology edited by the Aberdeen Body Group. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004.
Engaging the structure/agency debate within sociology, Shilling critiques sociologists influenced by the Parsonian tradition for overemphasizing the agency that individuals possess and neglecting to acknowledge the impact of society on embodied human beings. Although he respectfully agrees that embodied agents are not merely socially determined, he holds that sociologists must be careful not to underemphasize the influence that social structures have on the embodied agency of humans. Rather than existing within a vacuum, human senses and bodily habits are mediated by social structures.
Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the Making of America, Third Edition. New York, NY:Touchstone, 1996.
Moving from the period of transatlantic slavery in the 1600s into the twentieth century, Quarles provides a comprehensive historical discussion of black Americans’ roles in the construction of America. Quarles also attends to whites’ oppression of blacks within America and gives attention to racial stereotypes and caricatures of blacks such as the Sambo figure, which labeled blacks as buffoons. Quarles discusses a variety of ways that blacks have opposed racial and economic injustice and pursued equality and freedom in the United States.