Agency Journal Compilation and Reflection
This student reflects on the entires she wrote in her agency journal for the Empowering Learners course.
Agency Journal Compilation and Reflection
“People must be encouraged to take a role in creating their own world, individually and collectively.”
Upon my arrival at Bryn Mawr, weepy-eyed and disoriented, I was immediately knocked over. Swept off of my planted feet and spun directly onto my metaphorical head. Between academic demands and independent living, I fumbled my way through what felt like thousands of new experiences. I knew my bewilderment was unlike that of many of my peers—after all, to be asked to share your opinion in a college classroom is not terribly peculiar. Participating in my education rather than observing it was challenging and empowering, and led me to locate agency as a student.
These journal entries are connected by that same theme: participation, as opposed to observation, requires identification of an issue and confidence in one’s ability to make a change. The working definition of agency that I have used to frame this journal is personal, but incorporates elements of Emirbayer and Misch’s argument in What is Agency?, and Herman and Mandell’s concepts in The Instantaneous and the Wait. I currently define agency as an awareness of open-ended inquiry that drives a person to take action in pursuing a struggle. The capacity for catalyzing changes is a result of both self-confidence and a perceptive sense of weak structures, which contribute to decision-making processes. In my experience, empowerment is generated by a realization that the past and present are imperfect and that the future can be altered for the better by taking action.
In my first entry, I use Herman and Mandell’s argument to illustrate the ingredients for peaceable revolution as they relate to waiting, conceptualizing the future, and struggling with unanswerable questions. A key component to agency, as I have discovered through keeping this journal, is struggling—deliberating, grappling, weighing, and blurring. My third entry deals with the same idea in a different context because unanswerable in the medical field equates uncomfortable. Agency is not often in the hands of patients, nor is it necessarily in the hands of doctors. What happens to agency when the answer is not knowable, creating a struggle, yet the answer is the key to success? What happens when a person is left suspended in their struggle with no way to move to action? I believe that an action component—a capacity to change some future outcome—is crucial to agency.
I was able to use my initial research, especially William Gamson’s piece on social activism, to structure my thoughts about action and collective effort. In forming a group identity, especially in a political context, individuals find a heightened sense of agency (Gamson 2). In my entries, I discovered ways in which I could affirm Gamson’s ideas, including successful SJPP cohorts and victims of mass atrocity who find consolation in joining with other victims or passing their experience to future generations. However, I also found dissonance between collective identities versus individual preferences. Can an individual who has oppositional desires still have the capacity to take action? If a powerful group identifies a course of action that is detrimental to the individual’s plan to participate in his or her own world, it becomes harder to envision an improved future. Truth commissions, reparations, and monuments can be settings through which victims begin to regain agency, but it can also suppress open inquiry if decisions are made too soon. Emirbayer and Misch’s argument was a clarifying lens for me when I was examining memory and conflict resolution. A “social engagement…informed by the past…but also oriented toward the future…and toward the present,” (Emirbayer and Misch 1) captures both the tension as well as the personal volition involved with repairing a broken nation, state, or subset of a population.
I return to flipping people onto their heads. Not bullying, of course, but changing—facilitating the unexpected. The first time you get knocked over, it’s debilitating. You fight back so hard that you can’t figure out where your feet are located in relation to your hands, which makes it rather difficult to stand up. You realize, hopefully, that it takes some time to work through the steps of resettling, and that you might not be the same once you do. As soon as you feel stable, another something—a new idea, concept, responsibility, question—comes crashing in. But this time, you don’t fall all the way down. Instead, you open yourself up to the impact, fight with it, give into it, because you know that you’re capable of moving forward. That sort of self-awareness is agency and empowerment all wrapped up into one timetable of action and experience.
Emirbayer, Mustafa and Ann Misch. What is Agency? The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 103, No. 4. 1998.
Gamson, William. Commitment and Agency in Social Movements. Sociological Forum, Vol. 6, No. I. 1991.
Herman, Lee and Alan Mandell. The Instantaneous and the Wait: Disenchantment and Wonder in Education. 1999.