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Agency: What Does It Mean Across the Humanities?

September 12, 2016 @ 3:00 pm - 5:00 pm

Panel Discussion:


What are the meanings of “agency” in various disciplines and interdisciplines of the humanities? To what extent is it theorized or assumed? Does agency mean the freedom to act? To think? To feel? Is agency individual or collective? Does agency imply autonomy? How does agency relate to structure? Institutions? Oppression? Political Activism? Subjectivity? Identity? Emotion? Morality? Religion? How does agency relate to victims, torture, human rights? Is agency inherent in all forms of creativity? Is agency exclusively “human”? Do (non-human) animals have agency? Plants? Microbes? Do machines have agency? (Remember, “Open the pod door, Hal,” from 2001!)?


“Agency” means something quite different across cultures, including the different academic cultures of the humanities and interpretative social sciences. Agency is also often hotly debated in such fields as feminist theory, race theory, and poststructuralist theory. Is “agency” a product of Enlightenment thought, a keystone of “liberalism”? Or do different cultures and times produce varying notions of individual and/or communal agency? Within the framework of a Foucauldian discourse theory, agency appears as a fiction; within the framework of social movement theory, agency is foundational for change. How do we negotiate the different meanings of agency in our fields and disciplines?


Ask yourself: in your own research, do you assume some form of agency to be at work in what you study? If so, what do you mean by it?  Panelists will make short presentations (6-7 minutes) on the meaning(s) of agency in their research for one hour. We will then have one hour of general discussion, so please bring your ideas about agency (especially in relation to your own work) to share with others.



  • Christy Clark-Pujara, Assistant Professor, Afro-American Studies
  • Alex Dressler, Assistant Professor, Classics
  • Mario Ortiz-Robles, Professor, English
  • Sarah Paul, Assistant Professor, Philosophy
  • Ellen Samuels, Gender and Women’s Studies, English, Disability Studies Cluster
  • Edgar Spalding, Professor, Botany
  • Louise Young, Senior Fellow, Professor, History, Center for East Asian Studies


Refreshments available by 2:45 PM. 


September 12, 2016
3:00 pm - 5:00 pm
Event Categories:


University Club, Banquet Hall (lower level)
803 State Street
Madison, 53703 United States
tel:+(608) 262-5023