Printer-friendly format  Article citation        


Editorial Comments

Definitions of human agency come from varying theoretical perspectives; for example, sociology often locates the power to act in some kind of social structure, not in persons. In psychology, agency is often mislocated in an 'unconscious mind' or in some other imagined source of power or motivation. In semiotics, some writers seem to lose sight of people, locating agency in the semiotic system (whatever it is) itself. The basic idea at stake regarding agency is, of course, what causes an action.

     The notion of cause used in relation to people is not deterministic; it is a generative power that belongs to persons. Our ideas of causal powers determine how and in what ways we conceive of human beings as active movers/speakers in sociocultural and linguistic worlds of bewildering complexity; thus, it is not surprising that concepts of human agency and related concepts of personhood and self vary so widely across disciplines. In addition, historical and interdisciplinary areas of inquiry such as dance studies and performance studies present yet more perspectives, given that they add extended time frames and/or combinations of ideas to the resulting blend of ideas.

     This issue of JASHM is devoted to three papers that explore the significance of 'agency' within movement practices in their cultural contexts. Drid Williams's paper provides a lucid, detailed discussion of agency in semasiology. She includes an historical perspective on why it was theoretically necessary to articulate a clear definition of human agency as embodied if an anthropology of human movement was to develop that could move beyond the determinism and reductionism of earlier paradigms. This was an innovative theoretical contribution in the 1970s that preceded by at least a decade the postmodern and poststructuralist turn to 'the body' and the 'problem of embodiment' that gained widespread attention in the social sciences, feminist studies and literary studies (see Farnell 1994, 1999).1

     Frank Tortorello's paper demonstrates the relevance of agency to understanding relationships between biology and culture. Utilizing theoretical argument and ethnographic examples from his field research with the United States Marine Corps, Tortorello interrogates claims that support the exclusion of women from combat in the U.S. military. He shows that such claims are grounded in alleged biological 'facts' about the human species, such as the relative physical strengths of men and women, and 'natural' male-bonding processes. He demonstrates that, contrary to such biological explanations, it is instead the purpose and values of the Marine Corps that count. It is this that generates the cultural logic of who and what counts as a "good Marine," which depends upon "an understanding that is primarily dynamically embodied: for Marines in training and in combat, deeds speak louder than words." Tortorello concludes that, from both empirical and theoretical standpoints, these objections to women in combat units and in combat are unsustainable. They function as justifications of, or excuses for, ways of being that are, in fact, antithetical to fundamental military, and especially Marine Corps, values.

     The third article, by Gary Larsen, addresses issues first raised by Frank Hall in a 1985 JASHM article entitled "Improvisation and Fixed Composition in Clogging" (vol. 3, no. 4: 200–217). Hall examined the role of choice (and therefore agency) in the organization of movement patterns in American clogging. Comparing traditional improvisational solo dancing with contemporary group practices, he demonstrated how disparate uses of the same movement technique and vocabulary adhered to a set of unwritten rules that provided a framework for the actions and governed the majority of artistic choices. Larsen's paper builds upon these insights to explore the process of negotiation between the clogging community and the perceived rules governing performances between 1985 and 2010. He details how new selections made by participants in violation of unwritten rules were part of a conscious effort to make meaningful change to the style. Located within regional and national organizations that encouraged this change to occur, these innovations help to project a desired, updated image and to situate clogging strategically within a larger world of popular American dance forms. In both Tortorello's and Larsen's contributions, we see dynamically embodied human agency at work, persons acting according to values and beliefs that have been shaped intersubjectively by larger institutional spoken and enacted discourses such as those found within the Marine Corps and the clogging community.

     The three authors—Williams, Tortorello, and Larsen—are interested in critical examinations of the idea of agency because they are convinced that much is at stake for understanding human beings as dynamically embodied persons. They seem convinced that readers should know what kind of player is at work on the human stage. Perhaps Peter Manicas meant something like this when he said, "Social science needs to do more than give a description of the social world as seen by its members (ethnography); it needs also to ask whether members have an adequate understanding of their world and, if not, to explain why not."2

The Editors


1Brenda Farnell, "Ethno-Graphics and the Moving Body," MAN: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 29 (1994): 929–74; Brenda Farnell, "Moving Being, Acting Selves," Annual Review of Anthopology 28 (1999): 341–73.

2 Peter T. Manicas, A History and Philosophy of the Social Sciences (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987).



Content in Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement (ISSN 1940-7610) is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.
© 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Terms and Conditions of Use.