Call my Agent!

I recently heard Tom Hanks speaking (very eloquently, of course!) about ‘agency’. This is most definitely a Learning Out Loud moment because although I have previously heard the term used, I really didn’t understand it’s precise meaning.
Google gave me this…
What does it mean for a person to have agency? In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and their decisions.
I’ll get to structure later…but for now agency…
From what I understand agency relates to our sense of control over our lives, the subjective awareness of initiating, executing, and controlling one’s own actions in the world; having an idea and following it through. And no, that doesn’t really include binge-watching tv.
From Science Direct, this is an elegant and simple description; The sense of agency refers to the feeling that we voluntarily control our actions and, through them, events in the outside world (Haggard & Tsakiris, 2009).
(Halfway through researching this post, I was well and truly down the rabbit hole, finding myself on the Richard Dawkins Foundation website reading about how we don’t have free will.)
Then, wandering unsupervised on Reddit, I found this;

Agency is the capacity to act. An agent is one who acts. Autonomy is self-government. An autonomous agent acts on one own’s motives.

Agency and autonomy are not the same thing. It is not necessarily the case that one is acting on one’s own motives when one acts.

Okay, clearer and clearer…
Back to Tom Hanks; he felt that moments of agency in our lives are diminishing with every new cell-phone app and on-demand TV station. I could argue that binge-watching the entire 4 seasons of Brooklyn 9-9 was an independent act, a free choice, but I won’t insult your intelligence. Watching a tv show may produce the result of entertaining me, making me snort-laugh like a loon, but I’m not really in control of my actions, am I?

When we lose agency, the first thing to go is our ability to create, or maybe it’s the other way around; do we lose agency because we stop making things, if we never have space to be creative, make something even if it’s something simple like knitting according to a pattern, or colour-by-numbers.
Groucho Marx famously said “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” Simple agency. And he found time to write 3 books, star in and produce 13 feature films among other achievements.
(Marx also said “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read” but that really has nothing to do with this post 😉 )

ca91fd08f11b131dc00a80d07a293e2b--fitness-weightloss-quick-quotesWe often choose to sacrifice our agency on the altar of lost time, but time can be found in the most obscure places if we become clear about our priorities.

Please comment below if you can help me to better understand this concept.


  1. Janet Mary Cobb

    Christine, while I totally appreciate your idea of agency being more active than binge watching tv, I want to take a moment to defend tv. While I am not an avid tv watcher, I do occasionally indulge. But my point is not about me as much as it is about my husband – who is an avid tv watcher. From him, I learned how educational, informative, and important television can be. You see, my husband was from a family of 12 children. His father died when he was five. They lived in extreme poverty. He attended public school and no one paid much attention to him – so much so that neglected strep throat led to rheumatic fever. At six, he spent 6 months alone in a children’s hospital unable to get up from his bed. After re-learning how to walk and talk, and eventually repeating 3rd grade – someone realized he couldn’t see very well and got him glasses. Long story short, he graduated high school and began college before anyone realized he had 3 severe learning disabilities. He got all the way through high school by watching television and listening to radio – he observed, listened, mimicked, and faked his way through. So when we began our family – television became an important part of how we educated our children. He used television as I might a book – to open worlds of possibility, understanding, and empathy.

    I know this isn’t what your post is actually about — but I also have gathered that you love to learn so I thought a new perspective on television might be interesting to you.

    Enjoy your day!

    1. Christine Betts

      Thank you so much for sharing your husbands story with me. I can see and feel how proud you are of him.
      There’s an old saying about education you’ve no doubt heard “if you’re not willing to learn, no one can teach you, if you’re determined to learn, nothing can stop you”
      My little sister has Down’s syndrome and she learnt so much from the telly. She loved Sesame Street. (Have you seen the new style Sesame Street? It’s just awful imho!! 😩)

      I love tv too- it’s my favourite down-time activity! I love movies too and although some people condemn too much ‘consumption’ of culture, I can’t get enough movies, tv, stand up comedy, books etc etc
      I’m a creator sure, but we can’t just make stuff in a vacuum.
      Thanks again for reading and for your insightful comments. It is very much appreciated.

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