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Society In the Self: Towards An Anthropology of Agency

Brian J. McVeigh
Toyo Gakuen University, March 1995.


Many have convincingly argued that the self, rather than an acultural, essentialist entity, is locally constituted from a matrix of age, class, gender, occupation, politics, and other variables. However, there still seems to be an implicit notion that willing, deciding, choosing, wishing - i.e., volitional acts - originate from an essentialist, asocial "executive ego." I offer the question: is decision-making ability itself a social construct? If so, how is our sense of agency built by society? I propose: 1. there are no essentialist, indissoluble selves; 2. society does not merely "influence" but builds selves; 3. as a social construction, selves were inventeed sometime in history; and 4. therefore it is possible to be a person without a self. I offer suggestions for how personal decision-making capabilities and volition are socially grounded in mental models of agency. In short, I discuss how overt, public power exchanges become covert, private intentions; how social relations construct psychological events; how "society is in the self." ...I examine two varieties of sociopsychological experience, namely spirit possession and hypnosis, that question our assumptions about agency.