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The Concept of Agency in Semasiology

Drid Williams


Fully to appreciate the concept of agency as it is defined in semasiology1 requires an extended knowledge of the historical background of movement study, in particular, studies of any dance form. Acquaintance with on-going discourse in the field of human movement studies is necessary because the field is much larger now than it was thirty years ago. It includes everything from sports activities to signing, rituals and ceremonies of all kinds from all over the world, as well as everyday 'behaviors' and the multitude of sociocultural codes that dictate what is and is not acceptable in specific cases. Finally, there is the dance—by itself confusing to the uninitiated, as it includes everything from pop-culture fashions to classical ballet and modern concert dancing, as well as strip-tease, the martial arts, exhibition ballroom styles, and all the dance forms classified as "recreational dancing," and much more. Suffice to say that the field of study has never lacked 'data,' but adequate theory was (and still is) noticeably absent.

     For example, when I completed my doctoral thesis in 1975, there were few (if any) highly debated philosophical problems about concepts of agency or the body—never mind the intricate ways in which the human body moves. Such discourse as there was in the early 1970s was divided into relatively autono­mous areas: behavioral and kinesiologically based studies in contrast to numerous alternative treatments including aesthetic and phenomenological approaches, functionalist anthropological approaches, and others. The main outlines of these are worth reviewing, as there are serious discrepancies among the present generation of writers. I feel obliged to mention these because (as with the concept of 'agency'), many of today's writers seem unaware that preoccupations with theory and explanatory devices were considered by preceding generations.

     The history to which I refer is meant to draw attention to earlier approaches to movement studies including (a) Kinesics: Birdwhistell (1970); (b) Proxemics: Hall (1966); (c) standard kinesiological approaches, e.g., Fitt (1979) and Vinje-Morpurgo (1979); (d) standard behavioristic approaches, e.g., Argyle (1975), Argyle and Graham (1975), Prost (1995[1975]), and Gell (1985); (e) "ethological" approaches, e.g., Hewes (1955) and Peng (1978); (f) statistical approaches, e.g. Lomax et al (1968–69); (g) Kaeppler and the 'emic/etic' approach (1972 and 1997[1985]); East European 'motif-morphology' (Kürti 1980) and 'dance folkloristics' (Martin and Pesovar 1961), plus the work of Keali'inohomoku (1972 and 1997[1969]); Stokoe (1980), Kendon (1983), Elam (1980), Kurath (1960), Hanna (1979), Fraleigh (1987), Fraleigh and Hanstein (1999), and Royce (1977). Some of these were published after 1975; but the representative theoretical frameworks were being used prior to that time, and many are still in use. This list would be a good one for the basis of an introductory course—Anthropology of Human Movement 101.

     We cannot stop there, however, because through Brenda Farnell's work—specifically her Introduction to Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in Movement and Dance (1995, 1–28)—we could construct 'Anthropology of human movement 102'. She says,

Unfortunately, and as a result of the same Cartesian legacy mentioned above, when attention has been paid to a moving body, it often appears to have lost its mind. That is, some earlier approaches to human movement that entered the anthropological arena also acquired the appellation "nonverbal communication" and were for the most part behavioristic and scientistic.2 The label "nonverbal" is itself problematic because, apart from being a logocentric maneuver,3 as a negative appellation—the designation of something in terms of what it is not—it tends to direct attention away from the many ways in which complex symbol systems as diverse as sign languages, dance idioms, martial arts, religious ritual and fighting are deeply interconnected with spoken language concepts and depend equally on the human capacities for meaning-making. These attributes are considered essential to an agent-centered notion of person in what Harré (1971) has usefully called an "anthropomorphic model of man." In addition, to reduce such systems to "communication" is to ignore the many other functions of semiotic systems (ibid., 8).

I suggest that any graduate student in human movement studies who doesn't know, for example, what the "Cartesian legacy" is, what a "kinesiological approach" to movement study amounts to, what the important difference is between saying "nonverbal" and "nonvocal," and how and in what ways Kaeppler's "emic/etic" approach contributes to "the new ethnography [having] its roots in ethnoscientific analysis that employed linguistic models and analogies" (Farnell op.cit.: 19–note 6), simply doesn't know what he or she is doing—or talking about.

     When I wrote Ten Lectures on Theories of the Dance (published by Scarecrow Press in 1991),4 I remarked in the conclusion,

I have been asked by status-holders in the educational dance field, for example, to "have patience;" to understand that functionalist kinds of thinking and generally sloppy scholarship are a "stage" that has to be got through in the life of the field of dance ethnology (somewhat like teen-aged thinking is conceived to be a stage in the developmental progress of an individual towards maturity). "In thirty or forty years" they tell me, "we may catch up with you and your students. But we have to progress towards that kind of sophisticated thinking. Not everyone thinks the way you do." I am aware that many people do not think the way I do, and I am not flattered, but saddened, by this kind of response, apart from the fact that the mere passage of time has nothing to do with the case. More functionalist [or any other muddled example of theoretical nonsense], or the same kinds of thinking for thirty or forty more years will not lead to semantic, semiotic or any other more sophisticated modes of thought about the dance. Forty years ago, I might have believed that kind of argument. Now, forty years later, I do not, and I attempt, wherever possible, to encourage . . . the disbelief. (Williams 1991: 282–83)


Readers need to remember that none of the authors I mention earlier (the 'list' in paragraph 3) dealt specifically with human agency, mainly because, in general, human bodily movement was considered separate. That is, with the notable exception of Kaeppler (1972), earlier approaches removed "the medium of bodily movement itself from serious consideration as a component of social action" (Farnell 1994: 929). This means that in the late '60s and early 1970s, semasiology was a radical approach to human movement studies where agency was seen as a causal power (explained later). In semasiology, then as now, agency means action personified. The succinct definition is provided by Hornsby:

agent. A person . . . who is the subject when there is action. A long history attaches to thinking of the property of being an agent as (i) possessing a capacity to choose between options and (ii) being able to do what one chooses. Agency is then treated as a causal power. Some such treatment is assumed when 'agent-causation' is given a prominent role to play in the elucidation of action. (Hornsby 1980—italics added)

Cultural Studies

Over the past twenty years (and at present), problems with the concept of agency have arisen with the advent of a new area of inquiry, Cultural Studies, although there is some difficulty in defining that field.5 The different notion of agency originated in Britain (see Storey 1997; Grossberg and Nelson 1988; Grossberg, Nelson, and Treichler 1991; and Sparks 1997), finding its way across the Atlantic in one of its lesser forms as "Performance Studies" in the United States.6

     Briefly, in Cultural Studies, agency is not assigned to the human beings under investigation. Agency seems either to be assigned to the socioeconomic systems in which human beings live or to its researchers. In the Cultural Studies context, the general human capacity to act as an agent often becomes the interpretation of an investigator who conceives of him- or herself as a spokesperson for whatever group is studied. In the Cultural Studies definition, agency appears to be a feature of human life that is external to, and largely independent of, human beings.

     This concept of agency is strongly influenced by recent Marxist thought,7 in that it sees the human subject as "a historical product, an ensemble of social relationships, not something essential and permanent" (Grossberg and Nelson 1988: 7). While semasiology does not deny the influences of history or language in human development, neither does it define human beings as social "products" (Williams 1991: 300). Semasiology is not grounded in Marxism.

     In semasiology, human acts themselves are described as "action signs," performed by persons who possess the nature, powers, and capacities to act. Thus, bodily movements (as actions) are conceived to be integral parts of human social acts (see Urciuoli 1995). In Cultural Studies, investigators are, on the whole, conceived to be agents for the people (or group) under investigation. Investigators thus fulfill the function of an agent—one who speaks or acts for someone else.

The Origin of Semasiology's Conception of Agency

The semasiological conception of agency arose out of serious study of the Cartesian paradigm of human action, a paradigm strongly connected to a Newtonian model of mechanics,8 expressed in this description of billiard balls:

Descartes Paradigm. A stationary ball resting on a smooth table is struck by a moving ball. It begins to move and continues moving. The ball which struck the stationary ball continues on but moves less quickly. We are strongly tempted to think of this happening as a transaction in which the totality of the effect is due to the originally moving ball, and to suppose that the stationary ball contributes nothing to the final situation. The second ball which originally was stationary has no intrinsic power of motion, though it can move. Looking deeper and farther into this paradigm, we can ask about the origin of motion of the first ball: that which was originally moving. Did it possess its motion intrinsically or did it move of itself? . . . This paradigm . . . is not a straight metaphysician's crib from the science of mechanics. In that science, the final state of a system of bodies is a product of two factors, an extrinsic factor which is the various states of motion of the balls before they collide, and an intrinsic factor, which is the inertia or mass of the balls. Inertia is . . . a negative power, the power to resist indefinite increments of motion. . . . The application of the Cartesian paradigm requires us to suppose that in all action the effect is completely produced by the impressed or stimulating cause (Harré 1970: 266–67—italics added).

The difficulty with billiard balls as a paradigm of human action(s) consists of the fact that billiard balls possess neither the power nor the capacity for agency—they can neither initiate nor arrest their own movements. In strong contrast, human beings can initiate their own acts in space/time. Humans also have the power to arrest their movements at will. They manipulate their actions in extraordinary ways: in the activities of talking in sign languages, in dancing, liturgies, ceremonies, sports, and the martial arts.

     The contrast between inert billiard balls and active, living human beings render the use of a Newtonian mechanical model of movement inappropriate to describe the actions of human beings. Furthermore, the Newtonian models of 'mechanisms', 'organisms', and such is tied to a familiar stimulus-response theory of behavior (whether of billiard balls or human beings), and it is tied to a traditional notion of causality.

     The cause of a billiard ball's moving has to come from outside the ball, whether as the initial cause of its movement or any subsequent movement it may make. In turn, the cause of the second ball's moving is the movement of the first ball, and so on, for none of the billiard balls has the power to move on its own. Human beings do. Because human beings have the power to move, thus to act on their own, they have an intrinsic capacity for agency with regard to their own movements, and they have the power to move. That is, they can cause their own movements and actions.

Agency, Causal Powers, and David Hume

The semasiological conception of agency is fundamentally tied to the idea of "causal powers." Like the notion of 'agency', the idea of causation has had a long history in the philosophy of science, specifically that of the eighteenth century and David Hume (1711–76), who aimed to place logic, morals, criticism, and politics on a new foundation that he called "the science of man."

     Hume's theory includes a theory of human nature that semasiology rejects, along with Newtonian mechanics, as a viable explanation of human action signs. Instead, semasiologists are advocates of Harré and Madden's theory of causal powers:

There can be no doubt that the Humean conception of Causality and its linear descendant, the Regularity theory, must be wrong. To accept either of these doctrines is to be forced in the long run to admit the irrationality of science and to acknowledge the impossibility of accounting for the common-sense view of the world. Why has the Humean point of view continued over many centuries to attract adherents among intelligent men? The answer must surely lie in there being certain assumptions in the Humean way of thinking whose full range of consequences have never been fully examined. Just as the tiniest error in navigation may lead to a landfall even on the wrong continent, so the acceptance of apparently innocuous principles can lead to doctrines which, if accepted, would render intellectual life as we practice it, and the world as we conceive it, impossible. But for some of those for whom the Regularity Theory and its associated doctrines in philosophical logic and the philosophy of science make up an attractive point of view, these dire consequences hold no terrors. For them the construction of a conceptual system capable of accommodating the actual intellectual practices of science, and in which the known character of the world can be satisfactorily and systematically described, are not reasonable ambitions. To such a one this book can offer little. But if an adherent of the Regularity Theory and its siblings is troubled by the continual revelation of disparities between what that theory claims ought to be the case in science and nature, and what actually obtains, then we are confident that in joining us he has nothing to lose but his dogmatic scales. (Harré and Madden 1975: 1)

Harré and Madden's theory of causal powers lies at the heart of the question, "What causes danced (signed, ceremonial, or gymnastic) movements in the first instance?" If Harré and Madden (and later, Hornsby) are right—that human beings are creatures who have the nature, powers, and capacities to move, thus to act intentionally, then causal powers theory is clearly foundational for semasiology.

     There are those who ask, "Is there a short definition of causal powers? Does one have to read Harré and Madden's book to find out what semasiology is about?" If the reader intends to use semasiological theory with regard to the analysis and explanation of any human movement system in the real world, then the answer is yes. If the reader does not intend to use semasiological theory as a framework for describing and explaining a structured system of human movements but wants to acquire greater understanding of what semasiology is, then the following (fully understood) may be adequate:

Two statements that suffice for the purpose of answering briefly the question are 1. "We conceive our world to be an interacting system of powerful particulars [among them, human beings]. The patterns of events and ensembles of properties which they produce in their interaction upon one another give rise to the multitudinous phenomena of the world we experience. Our system proves, we believe, a thorough-going alternative to the world view and conceptual system that has dogged philosophy and interfered with science since the end of the eighteenth century" [Harré and Madden 1975: 7]; and 2. 'Power' is a notion particularly associated with agency, with the initiation of trains of events, with activity (ibid., 88).

Semasiology's idea of agency refers to an individual (or any group of) human beings having the power to initiate bodily movements, hence the power to act, and that is all it means in this context. Here, agency has nothing to do with Marxism, politics, or an investigator speaking for another group, as in Cultural Studies.

     Agency in semasiology has a great deal to do with a theory of human beings as meaning-makers who not only have the nature, powers, and capacities to act, they are language users.

Perhaps it is now the case that we are about to enter a 'paradigm of embodiment' (Csordas 1990). Recently, there has been a virtual explosion of literature on 'the body', much of it stimulated by the work of Foucault,9 although in anthropology, this explosion also represents renewed interest in a long-standing, if relatively minor, anthropological tradition.10 This attention is part of a radical reconstruction of classical precepts about the nature and role of person and agency and the dualistic thinking that has not only separated body from mind but also created oppositions between subjective and objective, mental and material behavioral, thinking and feeling, rational and emotional, and verbal and nonverbal.11

Recent interest in the body has centered primarily on the physical body as cultural construct: on its regulation and restraint, as metaphor and machine, represented by such topics as the medical body, the sexual body, the civilized body, the decorated body, the political body, and the body as social text. This focus should come as no surprise, perhaps, given a virtual cult of the body in contemporary Western societies, with fetishes ranging from fitness to fat control and from politically correct body types (Pollitt 1982) to political dissidents' use of fashion as a nonvocal rhetoric (O'Neill 1972). (Farnell 1994: 930–31)

Readers should also see Farnell (2008) for a definitive critique of Csordas and others, and Farnell and Varela (2008) on "the second somatic revolution."

     It becomes important to recognize that semasiologists are not solely concerned with human bodies. They see human beings as powerful persons—not merely powerful bodies. Persons (not bodies) are causal agents, and social actions (not 'behavior') constitute agentive discourse, whether that discourse is spoken or moved. We live in and experience the real world with embodied speech acts and/or action signs, both as receivers and producers of meaningful action, separately or together, but these assertions can lead to a variety of misconceptions of 'agency'.

Misconceptions of Agency

In order plainly to understand a misconception of agency, we must be clear about the difference between 'movement' and 'action'. That is,

What we see in social reality is not, for example, an arm moving upwards, but a [person] trying to attract attention, a [person] greeting a friend and so on. When we see an action of a certain sort we thus connect what we see with a conceptual context utterly different from that involved in seeing movements, and this context determines the form of explanation that is appropriate. (Harré and Secord 1972: 38)

In the social reality to which Harré and Secord refer, we might see a person 'dancing', 'walking', or 'signing', and "we thus connect what we see with a conceptual context utterly different from that involved in seeing movements." The different names we possess for those actions themselves indicate that they aren't mere 'movements', because "an intentional action is not the same as a physical movement since the latter can be described in various ways according to one's point of view and one's beliefs about the person performing it. One cannot specify an action, as opposed to a purely physical movement without taking into account what the agent intended" (1972: 193—italics added).

     A major misconception in present-day authors' writing about dancing occurs when 'agency' in human action is confused with 'creativity', say, or with 'inspiration', innovation', 'invention', 'ingenuity', and such. Agency in human action is simply the ability to initiate movement—to perform it. Nothing more.

     This kind of misconception might be expected or forgiven in common everyday speech—to most people, 'action' and 'movement' are synonymous—but such misconceptions are neither expected nor can they be forgiven when experts are involved. Ethnographically, human actions are not amenable to independent descriptions and explanations removed from human social contexts. That means there must be a tight relationship between the forms of explanation an investiga­tor uses and the contexts in which the actions take (took, or will take) place.

     If this seems unclear, think about a folk dance or recreational form of dancing that is in the process of evolving into a staged form of dancing, performed by, say, a ballet company. The new context and set of performers bring a different set of rules to the overall performance, such that the original set of dancers are usually unable to perform in the new context. They can't improvise, for a start, be­cause their actions must now fit into a choreographer's conception of the dance form and the actions themselves are subtly changed to accommodate the ballet dancers' idiom. While most of the actions are recognizable variations on the original dance form, lesser-trained dancers can no longer perform them. The focus has changed. The Cossack dancing that Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, or Siberian peasants perform isn't the dancing that is seen in the last act of the Nutcracker Suite—nor should it be. The 'cowboys' in the modern American ballet, Rodeo, would be equally out of place at a barn dance in western Wyoming. Similarly, if a dance form moves from a 'recreational' form to a competitive setting, the actions are changed in terms of the context in which they exist, just as recreational ice-skating and the ice-dancing one sees in the Olympics are related but not the same.

     A second misconception of agency consists of adding words (and their attendant concepts) to it, such as "social agency" or "creative agency." Without knowing anything about context, by themselves, the two words might invoke images of governmental agencies that handle broad social problems of one kind or another—welfare, perhaps, or something of the kind. And there are writers who confuse "social issues" with "social agency," especially when writing about choreographers whose subject matter for dances focus on social issues. The problem is that use of the word 'agency' here is unnecessary. While the choreographer under investigation surely exercised the property of agency in making the choice of subject matter, the important thing was the issue that prompted the creation of each specific dance and how the choreographer handled it. Not many contemporary choreographers choose to create dances that focus on social issues, but it does not clarify their work by using the word 'agency' when writing about it.

     "But," someone might say, "the definition of 'agency' and 'agent' in many dictionaries is quite different from Hornsby's (1980, quoted above). Can't the word be used correctly in many ways?" To some extent this is true. The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus offers several definitions for the word 'agent'. Those that are relevant to our discussion are these: 1. "A person who acts for another in business, politics, etc. (insurance agent)"; and 2. "a person or thing that exerts power or produces an effect." It is the second definition with which we are concerned. Similarly, there is an entry for the word 'agency' that corresponds with this, i.e., "the function of an agent"—also a second definition. Hornsby's explanation of the word was taken from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, which means that, in the context of a call for papers for this Journal, it wasn't being used in an ordinary sense. Writers could do themselves great service by becoming aware of these things. In 1991, I wrote,

I will further have no hesitation in claiming that although other disciplines, in particular the humanities, aesthetics and literature might look down their noses at those of us in anthropology who claim to have devoted more time and thought to this "orphan child" of human movement studies (see Williams 1982), it is we, more than anyone who for the past three decades have tried to bring together the vast materials on the dance, and although we cannot yet arrive at a consensus as to the best theoretical and methodological approaches to take to the study of this most complex of all human activities, we possess among us a growing body of defined and definable subject matter that however inadequate, has served since the mid-'sixties to stimulate further study and examination at a graduate level of intellectual thought—and beyond. I have in mind here the impact of the works of Adrienne Kaeppler, Joann Keali'inohomoku, Anya Royce, Judith Lynne Hanna, Diane Freedman, Jill Sweet, Suzanne Youngerman, Najwa Adra, Lee Ellen Friedman and myself. It may be that in future, our contributions will be found wanting, but they are currently playing their parts in the history of thought about the subject of the dance and human movement, as are the works of three philosophers; Susanne Langer, Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, and David Best. (Williams 1991: 6)

In the last twenty years, there has been remarkable development in the field of study. It is hard to discern in currently written papers that illustrate no awareness whatsoever of the fact that there is a field of study or that development has taken place or that there is a sophisticated body of theory available to be used or criticized, developed further, or discarded. It is as if newer writers are rediscovering the steam engine, while studiously ignoring jet planes that are zooming about over their heads.


1 The Oxford Complete Dictionary tells us that the word semasiology is from a Greek source and can be defined as "signification" in the sense of "meaning" + "logy." In the late nineteenth century, the word was used to refer to that branch of philology which dealt with the meanings of words. It was used by R. Martineau in 1877 with reference to "the semasiology of Arabic words." In 1884, a reference appeared in the Athenaeum, 27 September 395/1, as follows: "Philology is now advancing towards a new branch having intimate relations with psychology, the so-called semasiology of Abel and others." The next recorded use of the term occurs in 1889, where F. Haverfield (Academy 7 Dec. 174/2) uses it to raise doubt about the phonetic connections of words. That is, where two words may seem to be phonetically linked, semasiologically their connection might be improbable. In 1880, a linguistic entity, the "semasiological solecism" was apparently known and understood, as the phrase occurs in the Athenaeum. In that publication (5 Aug./185) this phrase occurs: "The semasiologist . . . has to trace the vicissitudes which the history of forms, words and phrases presents with respect to signification."

     Usage of this term has consistently pointed towards the semantic aspects of linguistic signification, and the term is used throughout the texts of my work and that of my students and colleagues in that sense: only as it applies to human action sign signification. In anthropology, it is a neologism, and for the reasons why it arose, see Williams (1986: 363–64).

2 [Farnell's note]: Cf. Argyle 1970, Hewes 1955, Lomax 1971.

3 [Farnell's note]: This was noted by Polhemus in Benthall and Polhemus 1975. "Logocentric" is a term used by Derrida and writers of the French Tel Quel circle, such as Kristeva. Although I sympathize with the criticisms implied by the term, I do not hold to the view that the answer to logocentricity lies in the championing of the body as an (often romantic and primitive) opposition to spoken language meaning. A notion of subjectivity or attention to physical being that involves a rejection of spoken-language meaning only perpetuates the problem, as if nonvocal semiotic systems exist in a realm apart. Rather, it would seem more fruitful to investigate overlapping semiotic processes, the ways in which people use all kinds of semiotic systems for different purposes.

4 A later, updated, version entitled Anthropology and the Dance: Ten Lectures, was published in 2004 by University of Illinois Press (Urbana-Champaign).

5 Sparks articulates the difficulty, by saying that Cultural Studies is "a veritable rag-bag of ideas, methods and concerns from literary criticism, sociology, history, media studies, etc. lumped together under the label of cultural studies" (1997: 14).

6 I mention Performance Studies because, especially at New York University, it has produced scholars who are interested in and write about human movement in various, often questionable, ways (for example, see Kisliuk 1998).

7 "All the basic assumptions of cultural studies are Marxist. This is not to say that all practitioners of cultural studies are Marxists, but that cultural studies itself is grounded in Marxism" (Storey 1997: 3).

8 At one time, the most popular model for human action, used or referred to by many writers.

9 [Farnell's note]: Foucault (1977, 1978, 1980). I do not attempt to review the broad multidisciplinary, postmodern literature on the body. See Burroughs and Ehrenreich (1993), Lock (1993), and Scheper-Hughes and Lock (1987) for bibliographies of anthropological contributions. Contributions from sociology include Armstrong (1983), Brain (1979), Featherstone (1982), Featherstone et al. (1991), Freund (1982), Hudson (1982), O'Neill (1985), and Turner (1984).

10 [Farnell's note]: See Williams (2004[1991]) for references and critical discussion.

11 [Farnell's note]: The post-Cartesian shift that informs my discussion builds on the work of G. H. Mead, the later Wittgenstein (1953), and Vygotsky (1986) and is encompassed in the social constructivist perspective espoused by Harré (1984, 1986), Coulter (1979, 1980), and Warner (1990). It is grounded in the new realist philosophy of science articulated by Harré (1986) and Bhaskar (1975).

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