Agency and social change

The recent events in the Arab world are powerful examples of what can happen when individuals, using modern communications, exercise their collective agency to alter the structures that shape their lives and ultimately achieve change. As has been so forcefully demonstrated, in Tunisia and Egypt, the current power of electronic communications can create virtual communities of interest – and the internet has the ability to harness public opinion and push for change.

In my forthcoming book, Understanding agency: Social welfare and change, I suggest that the concept of agency can shed a useful light on how change is achieved. I attempt to explore the relationship between agency and structure and to identify how individuals, acting either individually or collectively, can impact on the structures that affect their lives – and in doing so, influence the future shape of society.

My book focuses on the significance of agency theory to social welfare – to welfare professionals and those with whom they work. However, I draw attention to the fact that only recently has it been applied specifically to this field, having already been helpful in the varying fields of economics, management and foreign policy analysis. In a later chapter, I also consider the relevance of the work and writings of Fanon, Freire and Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize-winning economist. All of these authors, in different ways and in differing national, historical and political contexts, allude, implicitly or explicitly, to the significance of agency theory to, for example, the freeing of Algerian ‘natives’ from colonial rule, and, in Sen’s work, to the economic development of certain parts of the world, particularly Asia.

Of course, there are many other ways of theorising these events, but agency theory arguably has a contribution to make here too. So perhaps an understanding of it is helpful in considering not just social welfare, but events further afield too.

Liz Jeffery, author of Understanding agency, publishing this month.

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