Group Membership and Individual Agency

What obligation does a group have to develop the agency of its members?

It is entirely possible that “groups” generally speaking have no such obligation.

Perhaps a non-profit with a stated mission of increasing agency has an obligation, while a corporation with other priorities does not. That certainly seems to be the functional way of things. But is that ideal?

In a practical sense, I don’t think I would advocate for every group – a broad term, indeed – to be focused at all times on the agency of its members. Agency is important, of course, but sometimes it’s more important to just get things done.

Yet if every person is to develop the capabilities of agency – to feel a sense of voice, a sense of influence over one’s world – where is that development to happen? Certainly we can’t rely on a few good hearted non-profits to win the battle for us.

Civil society more broadly seems the obvious place to turn: Develop curriculum that supports students as agents, structure governments which include citizens as agents, encourage voluntary associations which empower members as agents.

All of that is good. All of that important.

And yet, I find it strangely unsatisfying. An insufficient solution to a Goliath of a problem.

Schools don’t embrace agency unless the people demand it, governments don’t embrace participation unless the people demand it, and associations cannot flourish unless the people demand it.

None of these will simply sprout forth from the earth.

So, idyllic visioning aside, we are back to having a few non-profits advocating for agency and training the next generation of advocates. Perhaps we will achieve a critical mass of agency in a few hundred years or so. We’ll see how it goes.

Surely there must be other engines we can turn.

One challenge is that there is little incentive for any large organization to be concerned about agency. We may not expect this of large corporations, but even among the political crowd – too often the emphasis is on one act of agency which is swept up in a sea of voices. There’s no room for real political participation. For dialogue or for the real work of building policy together.

Walter Lippmann was deeply concerned with what he called the centralizing tendency of society – to get things done, you need to centralize, you need to bureaucratize, and ultimately – you need to cut people out of the process. It is democracy which pays the price.

Perhaps even more troubling is that the way to seemingly organize against centralized power is to build your own centralized power. Form a union. Create a new political party. Who is in power changes, but ultimately the system remains the same. And democracy pays the price.

I’m afraid I’ve stumbled upon no grand solutions in this line of inquiry, but I wonder what a…system in equilibrium would like like.

Through our many formal and informal groups, could we build a society which supports every individual’s agency, and yet still get the work done? Not every interaction with every group will increase your agency, but what is the right mix, the right balance of experience to create a good but workable system?

I cannot solve the troubles of the world, so perhaps, more simply, I should ask myself this: as a person who is a member of many groups and of many kinds of groups – do I do everything I can to increase the agency of those around me?

The group, after all, has not it’s own soul – it is ultimately up to us to make this vision so.


2 thoughts on “Group Membership and Individual Agency

  1. Felicia Sullivan

    Sarah — but what if we don’t need centralization to be efficient or solve problems? Complexity and self-organization suggest that getting things done can actually be more efficient, fast and responsive by not centralizing. Harold Jarche recently wrote on the “Future of HR” and the need to have a workforce that had exactly the ability to act and respond in a decentralized way – Looking at things the way Marx did — it may be that an increasingly complex and connected economic system will demand workers who are able to access knowledge, assess the situation, and act. Then again, it may be that computers and technologies will do this for us and we will want far fewer workers and no need for those who can act and make decisions on their own. Trends in online learning are already stressing the importance of agency and building your personal knowledge network and the supporting resources and technologies. So perhaps schools should ditch the content instruction and teach critical thinking, the ability be an independent inquirer, the skills of finding answers and working with others to gain feedback and input . . . a ton of other skills that can serve for the long haul and at the same time force individuals to direct their own learning all under the support and guidance of teachers, peers, parents, and others.

    I don’t know where this is going, but I know it has to do with agency and starting to think about how we craft environments that support agency. I guess the next step would be once one has agency how does one connect that agency and one’s self interests to the interests of others in a manner that can get to some sort of collective action. Someday, I will commit to writing more coherently about how I am thnking about these things.

  2. sshugars Post author

    Thanks, Felicia, this is great. I agree that centralization is not the only solution, and it very well might not be the best solution. But I do think it is a common solution – which was more my intent to imply here.

    Your points about the economics driving educational priorities are really interesting. My concern here is how do we move away from a system which educated students differently by expected work outcome – eg, we may have goals for our “future leaders” and different goals for “future fast food workers,” racism, classism, and segregation of course make it easier for us to have those disparities while claiming we do not.

    I think a lot of the skills you mention are being taught in middle class schools – but I don’t know how we ensure all students have access to that type of education.


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