Through the work of The Agency of Design I have become interested the the concept of agency as defined in social science. The definition below expresses this clearly in terms of Human Agency, as that is the concern of social scientists, The Agency of Design apply the same concept to the ability of design (as an agent) to impact on society.

Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische write in the American Journal of Sociology:

Theoretically, our central contribution is to begin to reconceptualize human agency as a temporally embedded process of social engagement, informed by the past (in its habitual aspect), but also oriented toward the future (as a capacity to imagine alternative possibilities) and towards the present (as a capacity to contextualize past habits and future projects within the contingencies of the moment).

Aspects of this chime with one of the stated theories that rationalise the work  of Dunne and Raby who believe that speculative design can not only help society to imagine alternative futures, but by doing so, it becomes easier for these alternatives to become a reality.

Dunne and Raby contend that if we speculate more—about everything—reality will become more malleable. The ideas freed by speculative design increase the odds of achieving desirable futures. (Dunne & Raby, 2013)

The notion that Design can have agency is fairly straightforward and there are many examples through recent history of designers using there ideas and skills to effect positive change in the world. Beyond this, it is exciting to consider that design can have the agency to change society through speculative by broadening the perspective  of the audience to imagine alternative lives, rather than as a pragmatic problem solving tool.

2 thoughts on “How Sociologists Define Human Agency

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