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In sociology and philosophy, agency is the capacity of an agent (a person or other entity, human or any living being in general, or soul-consciousness in religion) to act in a world. The capacity to act does not at first imply a specific moral dimension to the ability to make the choice to act, and moral agency is therefore a distinct concept. In sociology, an agent is an individual engaging with the social structure. Notably, though, the primacy of social structure vs. individual capacity with regard to persons' actions is debated within sociology. This debate concerns, at least partly, the level of reflexivity an agent may possess.
Agency may either be classified as unconscious, involuntary behavior, or purposeful, goal directed activity (intentional action). An agent typically has some sort of immediate awareness of their physical activity and the goals that the activity is aimed at realizing. In ‘goal directed action’ an agent implements a kind of direct control or guidance over their own behavior.
Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices. It is normally contrasted to natural forces, which are causes involving only unthinking deterministic processes. In this respect, agency is subtly distinct from the concept of free will, the philosophical doctrine that our choices are not the product of causal chains, but are significantly free or undetermined. Human agency entails the claim that humans do in fact make decisions and enact them on the world. How humans come to make decisions, by free choice or other processes, is another issue.
The capacity of a human to act as an agent is personal to that human, though considerations of the outcomes flowing from particular acts of human agency for us and others can then be thought to invest a moral component into a given situation wherein an agent has acted, and thus to involve moral agency. If a situation is the consequence of human decision making, persons may be under a duty to apply value judgments to the consequences of their decisions, and held to be responsible for those decisions. Human agency entitles the observer to ask should this have occurred? in a way that would be nonsensical in circumstances lacking human decisions-makers, for example, the impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy on Jupiter.
In certain philosophical traditions (particularly those established by Hegel and Marx), human agency is a collective, historical dynamic, rather than a function arising out of individual behavior. Hegel's Geist and Marx's universal class are idealist and materialist expressions of this idea of humans treated as social beings, organized to act in concert. Also look at the debate, philosophically derived in part from the works of Hume, between determinism and indeterminacy.
Structure and agency forms an enduring core debate in sociology. Essentially the same as in the Marxist conception, "agency" refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices, whereas "structure" refers to those factors (such as social class, but also religion, gender, ethnicity, subculture, etc.) that seem to limit or influence the opportunities that individuals have.
In the feminist context, agency is used to describe the universal core to feminism and to equality more generally. The concept builds on the ideas of bell hooks, Janet Halley, and other feminist scholars, that feminism as a movement must universalize, and to include men, if it is to remain relevant. As both critical and concrete issues of feminism are re-characterized as a struggle for agency, the cause of women and feminism is advanced.
There has been some study into whether or not nonphysical social entities (such as states or corporations) are agentive entities. According to one theory, even though such entities cannot directly act in physical ways, they should nevertheless be considered agentive entities because of their ability to act though representative physical agents.