Understanding Agency Part I: What is Agency?

Part one of a series of posts on the concept of agency, this post asks the fundamental question: what is agency?

Early on in our project, we put forth the hypothesis that developing a sense of personal agency may be one of the most significant benefits of engaging young people in making and design thinking learning experiences. This hypothesis is based on the following two-part if/then statement:

  1. By developing a sensitivity to the design of the objects, ideas, and systems in their worlds, young people may develop a sense of agency towards the design of those same objects, ideas, and systems, and…
  2. If young people develop a sense of agency towards the design of the objects, ideas, and systems in their worlds, then they can effect change for themselves, their communities, and the their broader environments.

This hypothesis—as simple or as complex as it may seem—is at the core of the Agency by Design initiative. While we believe it’s a powerful—and hopefully plausible—postulation, we also recognize it begs the most fundamental question: What is “agency?”

During one of our earliest research trips to the Bay Area the Agency by Design team visited the Athenian School’s Makers Studio to gain an initial understanding of what happens in authentic maker learning environments.

While at Athenian we learned from instructor Bruce Hamren that one of the core outcomes he has for his students is fostering within them a sense of “I can do that!” As we heard variants of this idea expressed at other sites we visited, we came to the realization that the “I-can-do-that!” spirit that Bruce mentioned was actually a way of talking about student agency.

Of course, human agency is a far more complex concept than the phrase “I can do that!” suggests. As such, our team has been focused in part on understanding what agency means, how we will define agency for our project, and how we may go about empirically investigating agency in maker and design thinking learning environments.

So far, our literature review has led us to consider agency from the perspectives of psychology, philosophy, sociology, phenomenology, and even neuro-physiology. As we delve deeper into the scholarship on agency, we’ve also committed ourselves to situating making and design thinking learning experiences within the context of agency frameworks and conducting thought experiments that explore the nature of this elusive term.

In future installments of this serial blog post we’ll highlight our emergent understandings of agency and outline the evolution of our thinking. In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you: How do you define agency? and, How might agency be fostered in young people through making, designing, and hands-on DIY learning experiences?

This blog was published on June 17, 2013.
Authored by
Edward Clapp

Edward Clapp is a Principal Investigator on the Agency by Design project.