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Understanding the agency of people we disapprove of

Why do people do what they do? It is a question at the heart of the human sciences but it is also one we ask in everyday life. However the way we ask it often tracks our prior feelings towards the people we ask it of. For instance, as Jana Bacevic has argued, many fail to grasp the agency of managers and consultants within the ‘neoliberal university’ and through doing so misdiagnose both the intentions of these managers and the system their actions are contributing to.

When people seem to embody systemic tendencies we are critical of, it inevitably slides into a disproval of the people themselves. They are reduced to vectors of these organisational processes, revealing a quotidian Althusserianism which is important to understand if we want to grasp how organisations and systems are imagined by participants within them.

There was an example I came across earlier today which made me think about the role of distance in this process. This is an observation which Richard Brooks makes on pg 14 of his Bean Counters: The Triumph of the Accountants and How They Broke Capitalism:

Few arrive with much sense of vocation or a passion for rooting out financial irregularity and making capitalism safe. They are motivated by good income prospects even for moderate performers, plus maybe a vague interest in the world of business. Many want to keep their options open, noticing the prevalence of qualified accountants at the top of the corporate world; one quarter of chief executives of the FTSE100 largest UK companies are chartered accountants.

The exercise of agency here is provisional and tentative. Rather than rapacious instrumentalists concerned only with maximising their income, we find people keen to keep their options open and seeking agreeable outcomes without hemming themselves in. It is similar to the claim made by Kevin Roose in his superb account of the everyday lives of young financiers on Wall Street:

As strange as it sounds, a big paycheck may not in fact be central to Wall Street’s allure for a certain cohort of young people. This possibility was explained to me several weeks before my Penn trip by a second-year Goldman Sachs analyst, who stopped me short when I posited that college students flock to Wall Street in order to cash in. “Money is part of it,” he said. “But mostly, they do it because it’s easy.” He proceeded to explain that by coming onto campus to recruit, by blitzing students with information and making the application process as simple as dropping a résumé into a box, by following up relentlessly and promising to inform applicants about job offers in the fall of their senior year—months before firms in most other industries—Wall Street banks had made themselves the obvious destinations for students at top-tier colleges who are confused about their careers, don’t want to lock themselves in to a narrow preprofessional track by going to law or medical school, and are looking to put off the big decisions for two years while they figure things out. Banks, in other words, have become extremely skilled at appealing to the anxieties of overachieving young people and inserting themselves as the solution to those worries. And the irony is that although we think of Wall Street as a risk-loving business, the recruiting process often appeals most to the terrified and insecure.

I’m not suggesting we should take people’s accounts of why they do what they do at face value. If we did, the space to be critical of power and hierarchy would soon collapse in the face of an endless succession of people with apparently good intentions of varying degrees of systematicity. But it does seem important that we also avoid taking our attributions of agency at face value, interrogating what we are imputing to people and the reasons why we might be imputing them.

Categories: Becoming Who We Are social ontology social theory Thinking

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Mark

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