Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A “new” kind of agency theory, and perils of disciplinary isolation

I have recently come across a new perspective on “agency theory” that makes lots of sense and has nothing to do with the “agency” literature in archaeology. My lack of enthusiasm for that literature is public knowledge (Smith, and Schreiber 2005); I have always found archaeological agency theory to be either obvious and trivial (the actions of people make a difference in the world! Leapin’ lizards!), or else so ethereal and philosophical that I lose interest. (Yes, I am a materialist and a skeptic, and I’m sure that any sophisticated archaeological theorists who read this will snigger at my simplistic views).

Over the past year, in exploring some areas of scholarship outside of anthropology, I have learned that the term “agency” has a very different meaning in political science and economics. I am now reading on comparative taxation systems (in preparation for a conference where I will have to put the data on Aztec taxation into a comparative framework, using terms and concepts from political science and economic history). It turns out that there is a body of scholarship focused on “agency theory,” and it has nothing to do with Bourdieu or Giddens or hand-wringing over whether the actions of people make a difference in society.

Agency theory in political science and economics is about the delegation of power and authority by rulers and governments. It concerns the ways in which “principals” (those in charge of some domain) ensure (or fail to ensure) that their wishes and orders get carried out by their delegates or “agents.” How does the king make sure that his tax collectors are doing their job and not ripping off the crown? Is it better to have a staff of salaried officials collecting taxes, or will tax-farming produce more revenue? How does President Obama know whether federal bureaucrats are carrying out his plans and not backsliding or subverting his orders?

According to agency theory, principals do better at getting their agents to do their bidding faithfully and efficiently when two conditions are met: (1) when the principal and agents share common interests, and thus desire the same outcomes; and (2) when the principal is knowledgeable about the agent’s activities. This approach was pioneered by Max Weber (1978); here are some modern studies I have found useful: (Cosgel, and Miceli 2009; Kiser 1999; Levi 1988; Lupia 2001; Swedberg 2003).

I have not seen any references in this literature to the divergent use of the concept of “agency” in other branches of the social sciences (including anthropology and archaeology), nor do I recall seeing any mention of the sociology/political science usage in the archaeological literature. It seems that two very different bodies of scholarship have been chugging along for more than a decade, using the same phrase—as a major concept—in very different ways. If I see the term “agency” in the contents of an archaeology journal, my eyes glaze over and I skip to the next paper, but now if I see it in a journal in comparative political science, economic history, or sociology, I stop and take a look.

That this kind of disciplinary isolation is not a good thing has been pointed out by many observers (Wallerstein 2003), including archaeologists (Butzer 2008). I know that my own graduate training emphasized that the only disciplines that matter for archaeologists—apart from technical fields like ethnobotany or geology—are anthropological archaeology and cultural anthropology. Today, I feel quite differently. The kind of archaeology I pursue is more usefully viewed as a comparative social/historical science than as a branch of anthropology. (I have nothing against anthropology. Some of my best friends are anthropologists. But as an intellectual context for archaeology, anthropology is incredibly confining and limiting).

I don’t have any recommendations about resolving the conflicting definitions of “agency” in different fields. But it is definitely the case that attention to broader realms of scholarship can be enriching for archaeologists. The only archaeologists I know who pay any attention to issues of agency theory (the kind I like, that is) are Richard Blanton and Lane Fargher, whose work I highly recommend (Blanton, and Fargher 2008; Fargher, and Blanton 2007).


Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher (2008) Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States. Springer, New York.

Butzer, Karl W. (2008) Other Perspectives on Urbanism: Beyond the Disciplinary Boundaries. In The Ancient City: New Perspectives on Urbanism in the Old and New World, edited by Joyce Marcus and Jeremy Sabloff, pp. 77-94. SAR Press, Santa Fe.

Cosgel, Metin M. and Thomas J. Miceli (2009) Tax Collection in History. Public Finance Review 37:399-420.

Fargher, Lane F. and Richard E. Blanton (2007) Revenue, Voice, and Public Goods in three Pre-Modern States. Comparative Studies in Society and History 49:848-882.

Kiser, Edgar (1999) Comparing Varieties of Agency Theory in Economics, Political Science, and Sociology: An Illustration from State Policy Implementation. Sociological Theory 17:146-170.

Levi, Margaret (1988) Of Rule and Revenue. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Lupia, Arthur (2001) Delegation of Power: Agency Theory. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, pp. 3375-3377. Pergamon, Oxford.

Smith, Michael E. and Katharina J. Schreiber (2005) New World States and Empires: Economic and Social Organization. Journal of Archaeological Research 13:189-229.

Swedberg, Richard (2003) Principles of Economic Sociology. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (2003) Anthropology, Sociology, and Other Dubious Disciplines. Current Anthropology 44:453-465.

Weber, Max (1978) Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. 2 vols. University of California Press, Berkeley.

BELOW: "Agency" (an agent at work). The guy at the right is a labor boss in charge or organizing corvée labor for an Aztec king. Each face with a flag symbolizes 20 workers, and the face with the feather stands for 400 more workers. From the San Andrés Codex (Galarza, Joaquín, 1963 , Codex San Andrés (juridiction de Cuautitlan): Manuscrit Pictographique du Musée de l'Homme de Paris (II). Journal de la Société des Amréicanistes 52:61-90. For some more cases of Aztec labor taxation, see two posts on my Calixtlahuaca project blog (post 1) (post 2).


Johan Normark said...

Agency can also be found in physics and plenty of other disciplines. One can be a materialist and still use "traditional" agency theory, they need not be dichotomies. If one have an "essentialist materialist" view that attempts to find universal laws, yes, then one will perhaps see them as dichotomies (this even applies to the idealists who uses universal cosmological models). If one have a materialist view that relies on emergent processes then agency is just another material process.

ArchAsa said...

Interesting. Though the fact that similar terms are used in extremely dissimilar ways by different disciplines is hardly unique. Just take 'phenomenology' that has at least 3-4 major definitions and uses and about eleventy-fifty minor ones...

I agree that egency theory hit a bit of a dead end in archaeology after some initial good points (e.g. humans are not functional automatons doing the most adaptive thing at all times). Problem for me was that it tended to be very neo-liberal with a great deal of romantic notions about singular individuals steering and directing change to serve their own purposes, and everyone else were dumb sheeps. Or everyone was a free thinker doing things simply to create a new identity every third day. I like Bourdieu since he points out that we are all limited in the choices we perceive, and there is a physical (bodily) reality to our lives that we cannot escape. There could be more focus on materiality in his writings certainly, but that's where Leroi-Gourhan picks up in my opinion.

Weber is great btw.

doni said...

interesting, i just know agency theory from accounting discipline.

ronny said...

good article thank you for information