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Social Agents

Indian man on a motorbike next to three young men in Kamalapuram, India. Agents are social actors that have agency which is the capacity to make choices and act on those choices

Indian man on a motorbike next to three young men in Kamalapuram, India. Agents are social actors that have agency which is the capacity to make choices and act on those choices

In the social sciences, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. Agency is normally contrasted to natural forces, which are causes involving only unthinking deterministic processes.1 This idea of the autonomous agent is in many ways a direct consequence of the Age of Enlightenment and the idea that every human has the capacity of reason, that in this capacity of reason they have autonomy; they are individual agents. Since that time the concept of agency has become a major paradigm within modern thought as it underpins many of our contemporary social institutions, the idea of democracy and the Declaration of Independence, the idea of a legal agent, human rights etc. One’s agency is one’s independent capability to reason and the ability to act on one’s will, this ability is affected by the cognitive structure which one has formed through one’s experiences.2 Reason is the capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information.3

Agents Complexity

Individual human agents are most rigorously studied within philosophy and the behavioral sciences and we will broadly define two different accounts or approaches to understanding individual social agents. Firstly that of the behavioral sciences where people are primarily defined by their physiology, people are understood through their manifest behavior within some physical environment in terms of motives and logic that transfer inputs from the senses to outputs of behavior towards desired ends. The second more complex representation of human actors comes from philosophy where people are represented in more subjective conceptual terms. A person is seen to be a complex system of conceptual models, values, ethics, identity etc. out of which they have the capacity to shape their own lives independent from external forces.

Linear Model

Firstly we will briefly outline the paradigm of the behavioral sciences that follows the method of empiricism primarily within behavioral psychology and cognitive science. Within this paradigm social actors are essentially a product of their environment, the behavioral sciences, as their name implies, give us an account of social actors through their manifest behavior, this is an account of people in terms of their senses, motives, physiology and basic processes of reasoning, more recently with the rise of cognitive science computational models to human agents have become more popular. One of the fundamental concepts of cognitive science is that “thinking can best be understood in terms of representational structures in the mind and computational procedures that operate on those structures.”4 This understanding of agents in terms of their behavior within a physical environment is adopted as the primary model within mainstream economics where it has widespread appeal due to its amenability to linear mathematical models. It is essentially a linear model to how social agents operate, as a function of stimulus from their environment, cognitive inputs and outputs and goal-orientated behavior.
As the psychologist Albert Bandura put it: “Much of the early psychological theorizing was founded on behavioristic principles that embraced an input-output model linked by an internal conduit that makes behavior possible but exerts no influence of its own on behavior. In this view, human behavior was shaped and controlled automatically and mechanically by environmental stimuli. The individual is a simple product of all these forces shaping and reinforcing behavior and thus people are seen to have little or no free will. For decades, the reigning computer metaphor of human functioning was a linear computational system in which information is fed through a central processor that cranks out solutions according to preordained rules. The architecture of the linear computer at the time dictated the conceptual model of human functioning.”5

Regulatory System

The cyclist of a bicycle acts as the control, sensing process and acting on information

The cyclist of a bicycle acts as a control system, sensing processing and acting on information

This basic model to social agents is most clearly expressed through the idea of a regulatory system which is a system for effecting, regulating or controlling its environment, this capacity to regulate its environment gives the agent the capacity to counter-balance or alter the influence that its environment has on it, making it at least somewhat independent from its environment, as such the capacity to control or influence one’s environment is a key component in defining the most basic level of autonomy and agency. Cybernetics is the science of the control of complex systems of various types—technical, biological, or social. The term cybernetics comes from the ancient Greek word “kybernetikos” (“good at steering”), referring to the art of the helmsman. This image of a person steering a boat along some predefined course is a good illustration of the whole process of regulation, the helmsman (or helmswoman) is continuously receiving information about the trajectory of the boat, processing this information and then adjusting the rudder accordingly. This model of control applies to all types of social actors, from nation states to businesses, to local communities and individuals.6 Regulatory systems of all kind require some capacity to sense, process and actuate. A regulatory system is then the actual apparatus through which the agent receives information, processes it and then acts, for example for an individual person this is our senses, that receive information, our brain that processes that information and our muscles that perform the action. Or we could also take a government as another example receiving information about the state of the nation from the bureau of statistics, media and other sources, with many different government officials analyzing and processing this information to create a set of actions that are then put into law and enforced, acted out by government and social workers and supported by law enforcement agencies. All of these different components to a regulatory system need to be working and working together, in order for the agent to be capable of affecting its environment. If I lose the strength in my muscles or if a government loses the support of its armed forces it will lose its capacity to act, which will reduce its autonomy and agency.7

Nonlinear Model

By using this model of a regulatory system to describe social actors we get a very narrow vision of human agency where people would behave like weather vanes, constantly shifting direction to conform to whatever influence happened to impinge upon them at that moment. In actuality, people can display considerable self-direction in the face of competing influences, people are not just on looking hosts of internal mechanisms orchestrated by environmental events, they are agents of experiences rather than simply undergo experiences. The sensory, motor, and cerebral systems are tools people use to accomplish the tasks and goals that give meaning, direction, and satisfaction to their lives. The human mind is generative, creative, proactive, and reflective, not just reactive. Agency thus involves not only the deliberative ability to make choices and action plans, but also the ability to give shape to appropriate courses of action and to motivate and regulate their execution.
In order to get this more complex form of agency we will need a number of different components, agents will need to be endowed with some model or representation of their environment, agents will also need to have some system of logic in order to process information, in order to be able to make independent choices they will need some form of a value system on which to base their choices and in order to act out those choices and affect their environment they will need a control system as previously outlined. With this full capacity of agency comes autonomy, in their choices and actions agents define themselves as independent from other entities and thus define their own identity with associated responsibility for their actions. We will quickly go over each of these separately.


The dictionary definition of a schema reads as “a representation of a plan or theory in the form of an outline or model”

The dictionary definition of a schema reads as “a representation of a plan or theory in the form of an outline or model”

The first thing we will need to get agency is some form of what we call a schema, which is a conceptual model or representation of the agent’s environment, what might also be called an ontology, a set of conceptual categories and relations between them. For example, a culture consists of some body of shared knowledge, such as in Western culture where we have science as our shared body of knowledge that defines different categories and how they relate to each other. Along with an ontology, we also need an epistemology which is a mechanism for defining and validating new information, an example of this might be the peer review system within the scientific community, it is designed to filter new information, designating it as either valid and incorporating it into the ontology or invalid and rejecting it. As an example of this on the individual level we might think about how we are constantly receiving new information and cross referencing it with what we already know to check if it is valid before incorporating it into what we consider to be a fact and this process is often modeled within computer science using some form of Bayesian inferences.8 


In order to process information an agent needs some form of logic, a set of instructions or rules that define valid processes of reasoning, this can be a very simple algorithmic logic, such as someone working on a production line might use to assemble the parts through a set of well-defined stages, this simple set of rules is in many ways objective as we could write it down and share it, but this set of rules may also be a more complex nonlinear logic, think about the combined logic under which a board of directors of a company might decide the future trajectory of the enterprise, this complex form of logic is more implicit and subjective.
Agents not only have a schema but they also make choices, in order to do this they have to evaluate options, that is to say, they have to have some form of a value system which defines what is of greater and lesser value to that agent, this is called an axiology, a system for defining the value of different entities. These value systems give rise to desires, needs and wants, that motivate agents into action what is called a teleology. When we say that agents are teleological it means that they exhibit goal-orientated behavior, their actions are not random they are specifically designed for the pursuit of the things they place positive value on and in avoidance of the things on which they place negative value, this value may be of any kind social capital, cultural capital, financial capital etc. This teleological behavior is also what we call an agenda, that is to say when agents act in a goal orientated fashion they are said to be pursuing an agenda, which may be defined as the underlying intentions or motives of a particular person or group.9


The ideas of agency and identity are strongly connected as in their choices agents come to define their identity

The ideas of agency and identity are strongly connected as in their choices agents come to define their identity

In having independent choice and action an agent has autonomy, with this autonomy comes both identity and responsibility, when something is autonomous it is identified as a distinct class and in the process of classifying things we give them an identity, that agent’s identity is then associated with and held responsible for its actions. Thus with agency and autonomy of action comes responsibility and the ethics and morals associated with responsibility. Thus to have full agency we also need to have some system of ethics, a moral code that defines what is correct or incorrect behavior in maintaining some responsibility, those responsibilities can, of course, be of many different kinds, social, cultural, economic etc. and also context dependent.
In many spheres of functioning, people do not have direct control over the social conditions and institutional practices that affect their everyday lives. Under these circumstances, they seek their well-being, security, and valued outcomes through the exercise of proxy agency. In this socially mediated mode of agency, people try by one means or another to get those who have access to resources or expertise or who wield influence and power to act at their behest to secure the outcomes they desire. People also turn to proxy control in areas in which they can exert direct influence when they have not developed the means to do so, they believe others can do it better, or they do not want to saddle themselves with the burdensome aspects that direct control entails. Personal control is neither an inherent drive nor universally desired, as is commonly claimed. There is an onerous side to direct personal control that can dull the appetite for it. The exercise of effective control requires mastery of knowledge and skills attainable only through long hours of arduous work.10

Cite this article as: Joss Colchester, "Social Agents," in Complexity Academy, June 4, 2016,
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