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The Concept of Agency in Objects
A response to Discussion Week 2: Materiality: ethnographies of material culture
Posted: February 7, 2007
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines agency as “ the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power; a person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved ”. Some archeologists agree that objects are imbued with agency, or at least an ability to evoke some sort of change or response in individual humans or in an entire society, by the very humans who create them. However, each scholar also possesses an individual interpretation of the meaning of agency and the true capacity of material objects to have personalities of their own.
Ian Hodder, in “The ‘Social’ in Archaeological Theory: An Historical and Contemporary Perspective,” explains that humans are intentional in their creation of objects. Therefore, a person’s creation of an object automatically imbues that object with a certain purpose that its creation aims to fulfill. People use the material objects they produce, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to manipulate their worlds. Hodder cites Giddens, who asserted the point that “subordinate groups use material culture to counteract dominant forms of discourse” (Hodder, 32). Literally speaking, humans construct objects, from amulets, to walls around their cities, to literally and purposefully influence society. People intentionally give these objects an agenda, and, in turn, imbue them with an agency of their own.
Christopher Tilley, in “Ethnography and Material Culture,” states that the meaning of an object is born when that object is used towards a purpose by a group. “Meaning is created out of situated, contextualized social action which is in continuous dialectical relationship with generative rule-based structures forming both a medium for and an outcome of action” (Tilley, 260.) An object gains agency, therefore, when it is used for a specific means by a human.
Janet Hoskins, in “Agency, Biography and Objects,” cites Laura Ahern’s understanding that “agency is ‘the socio-culturally mediated capacity to act’ and is deliberately not restricted to persons, and may include spirits, machines, signs, and collective entities” (Hoskins, 74.) Objects, she also states, are made to act upon the world and on other persons; otherwise, they would not be created. Therefore, objects do indeed possess an innate agency given to them by humans that allows them to affect change (Hoskins, 75).
Hoskins also sites Gell, who felt that “things have agency because they produce effects, because they make us feel happy, angry, fearful, or lustful. They have an impact, and we as artists produce them as ways of distributing elements of our own efficacy in the form of things” (Hoskins 76.) Therefore, to possess true agency, an object must make some sort of real impact on the mental or physical states of humans.
Carl Knappett, however, argues that objects cannot have agency on their own, in his “Animacy, Agency, and Personhood.” “If an artifact holds any kind of psychological presence, it is only a secondary effect of its connection with human protagonists, the ‘real’ and primary agents” (Knappett, 29.) He asserts that objects cannot have true agency, because they are not alive, whereas, when imbued by humans with a purpose, an object may act in a manner similar to that of an agent.
In interesting case study to consider would be that of the calculator. When introduced on a wide scale at a reasonable price to the public in the 1970’s, the calculator revolutionized the office world; people suddenly were able to compute larger sums with greater speed than ever before. Humans imbued calculators with agency because they depended upon the devices for tasks concerning earning their livelihoods. A calculator fulfills Hodder’s description of an object with agency, because humans use it for a specific purpose that few other machines can fulfill, thereby giving the calculator a certain amount of power. Tilley’s definition, as well, applies to the calculator, because many people use the machines in specific situations, thereby labeling the calculator as a necessary tool of society. Calculators, when first invented, served a purpose unique only to them; it was not until the advent of other machines, such as the computer, that the prominence of the calculator ebbed. However, the calculator still holds a certain amount of agency, because many humans, from school children, to businessmen, are dependent daily upon the device.
Agency, therefore, fluctuates in meaning for individual archaeologists and scholars of material culture. All agree, however, that objects and their subsequent actions and legacies are dependent upon human interaction and societal intentions. Humans do, indeed, instill objects with a certain purpose; whether or not this purpose and ability can be called true agency depends, ultimately, on an individual’s perception of the state of materiality in the world.
Posted at Feb 22/2007 02:15PM:
Omur: this is a very useful summary of the definitions of agency in all the readings we had done in the 2nd week. The agency of objects is certainly a central issue in our course, and we'll continue to reflect on it with case studies. What I would like to question in our discussions during the semester is precisely what you have mainly argued in your paper: yes, objects, artifacts, things have agency, have the ability to impact the social and material worlds, but only through the ways in which their creators, their makers (i.e. humans) imbue them with such agency, through the act of their making and use. I think your argument is very valid in terms of the existing scholarship in archaeology and material culture. Yet, I was wondering if we need to push this a little bit further, -to be the devil's advocate- and question the human-centric approach hidden in this idea. I can point out numerous cases where objects gain independence from their makers in terms of the places they end up with, the meanings they acquire, the ways in which they impact the world, the ways in which they operate in the public realm. This we call the social life/cultural biography of objects. They occasionally claim their own life histories going beyond what their makers have anticipated or intended. I would like to argue and say that objects/things/artifacts almost always go beyond what is expected of them, the reason-driven human intentions encapsulated in their materiality, their function always fall short. This is not to deny the agency they acquire from human subjects, but I would like to point out that the capacities and energies, the possibilities of things are not restricted to their human companions' intentions.
This is certainly a fascinating discussion and your paper made me formulate my own thoughts about it. Thanks!