The Lexical Semantics of Agency (Part I)17 min read

The concept of agency has been central in sociological theory at least since Parsons’s (selective) systematization of the late-nineteenth European tradition of social theory around the problematic of “action” (Parsons, 1937). Yet, since the dissolution of the sociological functionalist synthesis in the mid-1970s, anglophone social theory has been characterized by little agreement about what the proper conceptualization of agency should be (Joas, 1996; Campbell, 1996; Archer, 2000). The hope of consensus becomes even more tenuous (and the debate more acrimonious) when theorists try to join their preferred conceptualization of agency to their favorite conceptualization of structure in developing so-called “structure-agency” or “structuration” theories (Giddens, 1979; Sewell, 1992). Despite the difficulty of the overall endeavor, most analysts would agree that coming up with a coherent conceptualization of the nature of action/agency is a worthwhile endeavor (Emirbayer and Mische 1998; Hitlin & Elder, 2007). 

In this post, I argue that the hopes of developing a unitary conception of the notion of agency (and, by implication, of the relation between agency and structure) are indeed slim. Yet, this is not for the reasons that most theorists propose. Rather than being the product of the inherent ambiguity of all social science concepts or just the sheer difficulty of dealing with something as elusive as human subjectivity, a coherent account of the nature of action and agency is elusive because most social theorists misunderstand the nature of concepts and conceptualization. Drawing on an approach that takes seriously the embodied, embedded, and perceptual nature of concepts (see e.g., Lizardo, 2013, 2021). In this and following posts, I argue that the notions of action and agency in social theory are systematically organized according to underlying idealized cognitive models of agency, which include the grammatical category of agency concepts, their primary domain of instantiation, as well as various metaphorical extensions allowing agency to be expressed as an ᴏʙᴊᴇᴄᴛ or a ꜰᴏʀᴄᴇ possessed by actors or as a ᴅɪᴍᴇɴꜱɪᴏɴ of the actions people do. 

What (Kind of Concept) is Agency?

I will begin by asking a simple preliminary question. When contemporary sociological theorists use the concept of agency, what grammatical category does the lexeme agency fall under? Theorists who think of theory in purely propositional or sentential terms seldom ask this question. This is because they buy into the idea that we can separate the way that we use words from what words mean. Here I draw on work on cognitive grammar and cognitive semantics (e.g., Langacker, 1987, 1991) to suggest that conceptualization and grammatical symbolization are not separable: Grammatical symbolization tracks the underlying conceptual representation. Changing the grammatical category thus changes the underlying concept you are pointing to. Examining the grammatical status of the lexeme agency when social theorists use the concept thus gives a window as to what the underlying conceptualization—e.g., frames and folk idealized cognitive models—of this theoretical term is among them. It also sheds light on possible changes in its core meanings over time or even within the work of a single theorist or set of theorists. 

To answer the first question: When theorists use the concept of agency, they symbolize it as a noun (e.g., different from symbolizing as an adjective, such as “agentic”). Moreover, one thing that is particular about the work of contemporary social theorists is that agency is not just any noun; it is a mass noun. The mass noun status of agency in social theory today can be quickly verified by the impossibility of pluralizing it without changing the meaning (Langacker, 1987). For instance, “agencies” may refer to a series of government offices, but not to the hallowed concept developed by sociologists to deal with the element of “freedom from constraint” or “capacity to change structures” in human action. In cognitive linguistics, the grammatical category of noun, in the most general sense can be defined as a term that designates “a region in some domain, where a region is defined abstractly as a set of interconnected entities” (Langacker, 1991, p. 15).

Mass nouns—such as water, anxiety, or money—differ from count nouns (a glass of water, an anxiety attack, or a dollar bill) mainly because the region profiled by the lexical term is thought of as unbounded, although possibly “distributed” in uneven or disconnected regions in its domain of instantiationWhat is the domain of instantiation of entities referred to by nouns? The domain of instantiation of a noun is the realm of basic experience (e.g., space, time, mental life, social life, and the like) where the entities the noun designates can be found. We will see that the domain of instantiation of the most popular contemporary versions of the concept of agency is time.  

As noted, a central semantic feature of mass nouns is that they cannot be precisely counted. However, they can, however, be quantified, using so-called “vague quantifiers.” Thus, it is possible to say “some agency,” “more/less agency,” and the like. Construing an entity as a mass noun also imposes a series of other restrictions on the relevant conceptual content. The most important of these (see Langacker, 1991, p. 15), in addition to bounding, are homogeneity (all the “interconnected entities” that compose the unbounded region are thought of as interchangeable), contractibility (any sub-part of the abstract “substance” of agency is generally equivalent to any other subpart), and replicability (it is possible to produce more of the substance and the entity remains the same). A key conclusion of the analysis is that the “curiously abstract” (see Hitlin & Elder, 2007) concept of agency in social theory inherits all these properties, and acquires its curiously abstract status because it is largely conceived by theorists as a mass noun. 

Examples of the Mass Noun Conception of Agency

I have claimed that the “technical” concept of agency in contemporary social theory has two semantic characteristics that make it idiosyncratic; first, it is conceived as a mass noun; second, it is conceived as being instantiated in the temporal domain. Let us see some textual evidence that this is indeed the case in natural instances of conceptual usage among prominent theorists. 

Conceptualizations of agency as a mass noun, and the conceptual contrast between this construal and that of agency as a “count noun” are most clearly articulated in Giddens’s influential rendering of the concept:

‘Action’ or agency, as I use it, thus does not refer to a series of discrete acts combined together [sic] but to a continuous flow of conduct…involving a ‘stream of actual or contemplated causal interventions of corporeal beings in the ongoing process of events-in-the world’ (Giddens 1979: 55, italics added). 

First, analysts may find Giddens’s effort to note that agency is not a “series of discrete acts” but instead a “continuous flow of conduct” obscure, elusive, and unnecessary. Yet, this is a key conceptual move from the perspective of cognitive semantics; in terms of the ontology of abstract nouns in conceptual semantics, what Giddens is trying to say here is that agency is not a (countable) bounded ᴛʜɪɴɢ or object-like ᴇɴᴛɪᴛʏ (like a “discrete act”). Instead, agency is an abstract, unbounded ꜱᴜʙꜱᴛᴀɴᴄᴇ. This substance is continuously distributed (hence the reference to a “continuous flow”). Contrasting the “discrete act” and “continuous flow” cognitive models of agency is thus crucial for the point Giddens wants to make here.

This brings up a second question that is seldom explicitly posed by propositional analysts of agency: what is the domain of instantiation of agency as a mass noun? In other words, where does the unbounded, continuously distributed substance called “agency” reside? Giddens (1979) proposes an answer: The natural (prototypical) domain of instantiation of the concept of agency is time. Agency occurs in time. 

The intimate conceptual relation between agency and time is also clear in Emirbayer and Mische’s (1998) classic article on the subject:

…[O]ur central contribution is to begin to reconceptualize human agency as a temporally embedded process of social engagement, informed by the past (in its habitual aspect), but also oriented toward the future (as a capacity to imagine alternative possibilities) and toward the present (as a capacity to contextualize past habits and future projects within the contingencies of the moment). The agentic dimension of social action can only be captured in its full complexity, we argue, if it is analytically situated within the flow of time (963, italics added). 

Note that here, Emirbayer & Mische give us three distinct construals of the concept of agency: (1) agency as process, (2) agency as capacity, and (3) agency as dimension. Their conceptualization of agency is, therefore, not unitary, but combines different ways of conceiving the idea. These construals are incompatible concerning the underlying cognitive models they presuppose, and therefore, the definition of agency Emirbayer & Mische provide can best be thought of as a “conceptual federation” of the idea rather than a unitary construct. This is something that has not been explicitly noted in the secondary literature.

Nevertheless, Emirbayer & Mische’s process construal of agency is compatible with Giddens’s temporally distributed substance concept of agency as involving properties of a “flow” or “stream” of conduct (in time). For Giddens, the basic idea is that this flow of intended or contemplated acts can “change” the causal flow of events in the world. Just like Emirbayer and Mische (1998), Giddens sees time (the realm of process and change) as the primary domain of instantiation of agency as an abstract substance. 

Giddens elaborates as follows:

…it is a necessary feature of action that, at any point in time, the agent ‘could have acted otherwise’: either positively in terms of attempted intervention in the process of ‘events in the world’, or negatively in terms of forbearance (1979: 56, italics added).

Compare to Emirbayer and Mische (1998) who note that:

The key to grasping the dynamic possibilities of human agency is to view it as composed of variable and changing orientations within the flow of time (964, italics added). 

Thus, a key conclusion from this preliminary analysis is that there seems to be at least one “technical” concept of agency shared across various influential theorists in the contemporary scene, especially those subscribing to a “structuration” perspective. This is the idea of agency as a continuous abstract substance distributed in time. In a future post, I will examine other conceptions.

Why the Process Conception of Agency is Unbearably Abstract

Agency as an unbounded substance instantiated in time functions as a pleasing, even aesthetic theoretical “solution.” Yet, when theorists attempt to use this notion for the practical job of theorizing, they find it “curiously abstract” and thus conceptually unusable (Hitlin & Elder, 2007)

The curiously abstract nature of the mass noun agency concept, as well as its limitations as a resource to “think with” should not surprise us. Abstract concepts have a direct or indirect grounding in embodied concepts (Grady, 1997; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999), and mass nouns, especially those denoting material substances or fluids such liquids, gases, and so forth serve as the image-schematic experiential grounding for many abstract concepts and grammatical categories (Janda, 2004; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Thus, the mass noun status of agency builds abstraction by default. Count nouns, on the other hand, tend to point toward conceptual entities at the concrete end of the construal spectrum; contrast for instance money (mass noun) with a dollar (count noun). In addition, as work by Lera Boroditsky (2001) and others have shown, the target domain of time conceived on its own is hard to conceptualize without resorting to more concrete source domains. Instead, most “objective” conceptualizations of the temporal dimension rely on conceptual metaphors from the spatial and physical movement source domains to conceive of time, its passage, duration, calendrical, and the like. 

This means that the process conceptions of agency instantiated in the time domain are bound to be doubly abstract. Agency is conceptualized as an unbounded, continuous substance, and it is instantiated in time. This over-abstractness accounts for why this particular cognitive model of agency is of limited use to most social theorists (let alone applied researchers) despite the analytic elegance and seeming appeal of such formulations (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998; Giddens, 1979) and its status as an entrenched technical formulation in contemporary social theory.

Another key limitation is that the abstract substance version of the concept of agency is hard to compare, link or contrast to its favorite “opposite,” namely, the notion of structure, which is decidedly object-like at a conceptual level (Lizardo, 2013).  In other words, the mass noun status of the technical concept clashes conceptually with most default conceptualizations of social structure(s) which see the latter as  “concrete” (as in the standard social networks mantra), object-like, and countable. Accordingly, the process conception of agency embedded in time does not play well with conceptions of structure that try to keep these two abstract entities separable (Archer, 2000).

As noted, the reason the curiously abstract concept of agency is hard to mesh with the tremendously concrete concept of structure dominant in contemporary sociology is that the underlying conceptual bases of the (prototypical) notion of structure are not abstract substances, but concrete countable objects or ᴇɴᴛɪᴛɪᴇꜱ (Lizardo, 2013). This is the reason we can refer to social structures in the plural while preserving semantics (Martin, 2009), but not human “agencies.” In fact, this is the reason Emirbayer & Mische (1998, p. 966), after noting that in typical social theory structure “a spatial category rather than…a temporal construction,” attempted to recast the notion of structure—with mixed success—in temporal not spatial terms, essentially trying to shift the prototypical domain of instatiation of that notion so that it could fit with that of of agency. Accordingly, agency/structure theorists outside the structuration tradition (e.g., critical realists, symbolic interaction) reject conceptions of agency, such as Giddens’s but also by implication that of Emirbayer and Mische because these analysts construe agency as inherently embedded, and thus inseparable from an abstract temporal flow that cannot be “bounded” or cut into distinct, separable and countable “instances” (Archer, 2000; Hitlin & Elder, 2007). What is at stake here is precisely the conceptual status of agency as a mass or count noun. 


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