Agency is the capacity to act or exercise power. The root of agency is agere, which means to do, to act or to manage. Agency is all about action and having the power to affect the world around you. To have agency means that we have choice and free will. It is the feeling that we have control over our lives and influence over our world. When we have agency, we feel empowered to create change.
Efficacy is a related idea that refers to the belief that you can make a difference in the world. Autonomy also is linked to agency. Autonomy refers to the state of having choice and freedom. It is the freedom to direct one’s own activities. Autonomy means having some control over what we do rather than being told what to do the whole time.
The sea bird
Once upon a time in ancient China, there was an unusual bird from the sea that landed in the countryside. It was large and beautiful, resembling the legendary phoenix. People called it the Sea Bird. Rumours about it spread like wildfire, and soon reached the ears of the King.
“I must have this extraordinary creature!” the King declared. He sent hunters and soldiers after it. After much effort, they managed to capture it alive and unharmed.
The King kept the Sea Bird in a cage at the palace temple. He had his musicians play their best music for its amusement. He had his chefs prepare royal feasts for its consumption.
None of these had a positive effect on the Sea Bird. It was confused by the offerings, frightened by the sounds, and depressed by its captivity. Despite the King’s best effort, it refused to touch the dishes of the most succulent meats, or drink the wine of the finest vintage. After three days like this, it died.
The King was frustrated. Did he not treat the Sea Bird as the most honoured guest? Did he not give it the very best the kingdom had to offer? Why did the Sea Bird die on him in such a rude and inconsiderate manner?
(source: Derek Lin)
Does the sea bird have agency and autonomy? How does this effect the well-being of the bird?
What does this story teach us about the importance of having the autonomy to direct our own actions?
Do you think that agency, efficacy and autonomy are important? Why?
We can understand agency through the following metaphor. To be an agent is to be a hammer rather than a nail. Discuss what you think this means.
It is really important to exercise your agency. This means taking action, realising that you can affect how things turn out. We are not helpless, passively waiting for things to happen. We can make things happen.
How much control do we have over what happens in the world? Who controls how events unfold?
Remember a time when you took action which made a difference. Maybe you helped a friend with something. Or you stood up for something. Perhaps you created or achieved something. Tell the story of what happened. Identify what strengths helped you to do this. Write about how did it felt to act in this way.
In pairs share with your partner about this experience. Then swap over and listen to your partner recount a time they made a difference. Help them to identify the strengths they used. When we listen to stories of others using their strengths we can ‘catch’ these powers from them. Notice how it feels to share in your partners experience of their act of triumph.
How might we increase our agency – our ability to act – to create change in the world? How might we use our collective agency to make the world a better place?