Human Beings, Social Agents and Social Actors

One of the most interesting things about Archer’s approach is also one of the things which I think is most frequently misunderstood: how social actors (singular) relate to social agents (plural). If (mis)read in isolation, her recent books can give the impression of her having taking some kind of individualistic turn when, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The distinction between actor and agent is crucial to understanding how this is so. Archer sees all people as belonging to agents (collectives) in a way which is prior, logically and temporally, to their formation as social actors:

Infant Agents have a long way to go before they become mature Actors. Nevertheless, the kind of Agents that they start out being without any choice, due to parentage and social context, profoundly influences the type of Actor they can choose to become. Certain opportunities and information are open to the privileged and closed to the non-priviliged. Options are not determined but the opportunity costs of attaining them are stacked very differently for the two groups. It is the fact that people heed such opportunity costs which produces the well-known regularities in differential attainment of top positions, according to class, gender and ethnicity. Such differential costings constitute good reasons for initially opting for different sections of the total role array. Initial choice of position is corrigible but big corrections entail increased costs which are further reasons why not very many will undertake drastic remedial measures (why, for example, so few female, Asian home-workers ever find their way to university).

These initial interests with which Agents are endowed, through their life-chances, provides the leverage upon which reasons (otherwise known as constraints and enablements) for different courses of action operate. They do not determine the particular Social Actor an individual chooses to become, but they strongly condition what type of Social Actor the vast majority can and do become. (Archer 2000: 285)

The sense of ‘agent’ here is dual. Archer draws a distinction between primary agents and corporate agents: the former constituted by shared involuntary social placement and the latter by collective organisation of one sort or another. Each has a role to play in shaping the emergence of the individual as social actor: primary agency constitutes the ‘starting point’ for and balance of constraint/enablement throughout this journey through the social world while corporate agency both conditions the social roles which are subsequently available (through the interaction of all corporate agents and the unintended consequences of this interaction) and participation within them leaves the actor-to-be “more articulate about their interests and thus better able to reflect upon the role positions which will further their realisation (Archer 2000: 284).

Through this framework it becomes possible to distinguish between the interests possessed by individuals as agents (tied to structural privilege / lack of privilege) and those they posses as actors (tied to the social role they come to occupy). This can engender tensions and opportunities which have to be resolved at the micro-social / biographical level by the individuals who simultaneously stands as part of a collective while also being a singular actor occupying social role(s). It also leaves the nature and distribution of social roles as something which can be fought over at the macro-social level by corporate agents, driven by competing designs upon the social order and resulting in elaborated consequences which often outstrip any of those deliberate intentions: “in the struggle between them (and the privileged and non-privileged are not playing some ‘Us and Them’ game), the extant role array undergoes considerable transformation. New positions get defined under the promptings of promotive interest groups, though they will bear the marks of compromise and concession in the course of interaction against opposition” (Archer 2000: 287). This is because the interaction leaves neither groups nor the social context within which they struggle unchanged: agency is transformed itself in the process of transforming its context. 

Let us be clear, the Social Agent and the Social Actor are not different people – the distinction is only temporal and analytical. When we look at the Agent as parent of the Actor, we are examining Adam himself at different ages. Upon maturity, Adam becomes both Agent and Actor, but it remains analytically invaluable to distinguish between what he does in the problematic or beneficial situations he confronts qua Agent from what he does qua Actor in his particular roles with their rule requirements. After all, a great many of us belong to or support social movements as well as willingly occupying and personifying our chosen roles.

Therefore, Actors themselves, as role incumbents, cannot be understood without reference to Agency. So much for the how questions, but the issue of who does the ‘personification’ and on the basis of what, is now becoming very pressing indeed. Generally, in sociological theory, if Actors are allowed to diminish to the point where they are nothing but the object of roles (instead of being subjects who are active role-makers rather than passive role-takers), we not only endorse the preprogrammed executor but also exclude Actors themselves as a source of role change. This is inevitably the case because ‘indeterminate material’ lacks the wherewithal for all innovative reinterpretation, for testing the elasticity of role requirements or exercising ‘intelligent stewardship’ over resources […] we both need people to be able to bring to any role they occupy the human qualities of reflexivity and creativity. Without these qualities, the Actor is not a subject who can reflect upon the stringency of role governed constraints and decide whether nothing can be done other than routine acts of reproduction, nor one who can bring his or her personal ingenuity to bear in order to exploit the degrees of freedom and thus attempt role transformation. From where do these personal powers (PEP) come – since the Actor cannot find them in the role, and the Agent’s contribution finished with helping to make the positions available and assisting certain categories of people to have access to it? 

What we need is personal identity in order for any individual to be able to personify a role, rather than simply animating it. (Archer 2000: 287-288)

And this is the framework within which the books on reflexivity play out: it’s an attempt to understand how the human being (‘I) can simultaneously be involuntary placed within a stratified society (‘me’), capable of working collectively to reshape that society (‘we’) and find themselves role(s) within it (‘you’) which they can embody and personify in a why which is satisfying and sustainable to them.

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