Detaching ‘agency’ and ‘choice’ from voluntarism

I read an interesting paper by Ros Gill earlier which nicely frames one of my main theoretical interests. It’s a reflection on shifting fashions in how the relationship between culture and subjectivity has been conceptualised within cultural studies. This bit in particular caught my attention and the clarity with which it diagnoses this common explanatory tendency is commendable:

A recent article by Duits and van Zoonen (2006) is in many ways typical of this latter trend. It examined the moral panics in Dutch society occasioned by two articles of clothing – the Islamic headscarf and the ‘‘hypersexualized’’ (their term) g-string. Duits and van Zoonen assert that public reaction to these garments denies girls and young women ‘‘their agency and autonomy’’, and they argue that the proper response from feminists and other critical intellectuals is that all girls’ sartorial decisions should be understood as autonomous choices. Such a position, they argue, is respectful of girls’ own agency.

Their call for empirical research that listens to and respects young women’s voices is clearly important. But I am sceptical of the terms ‘‘agency’’, ‘‘autonomy’’ and ‘‘choice’’ that are mobilized so frequently in their argument. To what extent do these terms offer analytical purchase on the complex lived experience of girls and young women’s lives in postfeminist, neoliberal societies? Moreover, what kind of feminist politics follows from a position in which all behaviour (even following fashion) is understood within discourse or free choice and autonomy? The girls in Duits and van Zoonen’s argument seem strangely socially and culturally dislocated. They neither seem to operate in a world in which there are authoritarian parents or teachers, or in which organized religion or fashion exert any influence. Indeed, in the desire to ‘‘respect’’ girls’ ‘‘choices’’, any notion of cultural influence seems to have been evacuated entirely. Yet how can we account for the dominance of a fashion item such as a g-string without any reference to culture? Why the emphasis on young women pleasing themselves when the look that they achieve – or seek to achieve – is so similar?

On one level I don’t think this is a particularly difficult problem. We make choices but we do so in circumstances not of our own choosing. But to actually put this theoretical postulate into practice is much trickier. Nonetheless it frustrates me how frequently people seem to assume that voluntarism follows inevitably from an attentiveness to individual agency. This is a methodological problem not a theoretical one.

2 responses to “Detaching ‘agency’ and ‘choice’ from voluntarism”

  1. I agree. I also noticed years ago a tendency to confuse agency and resistance. Agency is therefore only seen as sentient, intentional action which transgresses or refuses. Thus acquiescing or doing nothing is not agency. It would therefore follow that the very old have no agency. I think this is misguided. We have more or less agency depending on circumstances. Sometimes opportunities for ‘active’ agencies are limited and thus what there is left for us to do is not much.

  2. I think that’s a really important point and it hadn’t occurred to me. Much of what ‘agency’ means to me is mundane and everyday. The capacity for resistance is an expression of this much more mundane causal power.

    It occurs that people who see all affirmations of agency as voluntaristic inadvertently reproduce a voluntaristic model of agency. They see agency as absent because a voluntaristic agency is absent.

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