1. definition
  2. examples and/or illustrations
  3. other useful sources
  4. bibliography



  1. An organization, company, or bureau that provides some service for another: a welfare agency.
  2. A governmental bureau, or an office that represents it.

Dictionary.com. Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/agency (Accessed May 20, 2013).


  1. Action, power, or operation: the agency of fate.

Collins English Dictionary. Agency. Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/agency (Accessed May 20, 2013).


  1. A business or organization providing a particular service on behalf of another business, person, or group.

a.  A department or body providing a specific service for a government or other organization.

  1. Action or intervention producing a particular effect.

a.  A thing or person that acts to produce a particular result.

The Oxford Online Dictionaries. (2012). Oxford University Press. Retrieved from http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/agency?q=agency (Accessed May 20, 2013).

“The term agency is often juxtaposed to structure and is often no more than a synonym for action, emphasizing implicitly the undetermined nature of human action, as opposed to the alleged determinism of structural theories. If it has a wider meaning, it is to draw attention to the psychological and social psychological make-up of the actor, and to imply the capacity for willed (voluntary) action.”

Scott, J. and Marshall, G. (Eds.). (2012). Agency. A Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

“The capacity for autonomous social action. Agency commonly refers to the ability of actors to operate independently of the determining constraints of social structure. The origins of the term lie in the legal and commercial distinction between principal and agent, in which the latter is granted the capacity to act autonomously on behalf of the former. An agent in this sense may sign contracts or manage property autonomously, while still bound to serve the interests of a principal … agency raises questions about the importance of human intentions, the nature and social construction of free will, moral choice, and political capacity. In common usage, agency places the individual at the center of analysis. However, collectivities may also be said to possess greater or lesser capacity to exercise agency or autonomous action. In both cases, agency suggests not merely the ability to act, but to act in ways that demand the recognition and/or response of others. This distinction is sometimes described as that of action from mere behavior.”

Calhoun, C. (Ed.). (2012). Agency. Dictionary of the Social Sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 


Examples and/or Illustrations

“ […] think instead of the uncountable masses for whom UN agencies have been created. You must think of the refugee-peasants with no prospect of ever returning home, armed only with a ration card and an agency number” (emphasis added, Said, 2000: 175-176).

“By taking an iterative approach to gaining consent, which matches other dimensions of the participatory action research model, these problems can be overcome in a way that realizes the ethics that lies behind the idea, namely that people are exercising human agency in genuinely giving assent to making a contribution to the process.” (emphasis added, Hugman, Bartolomei and Pittaway, 2011; 656). 


Other Useful Sources

Alexander, J. (1992). Some remarks on ‘agency’ in recent sociological theory. Perspectives, 15, 1-4.

Andrijasevic, R. and Walters, W. (2010). The International Organization for Migration and the international government of borders. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28, 977-999.

Archer, M. (2000). Being human: The problem of agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bakewell, O. (2010). Some Reflections on Structure and Agency in Migration Theory. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 36(10), 1689-1708.

Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a Psychology of Human Agency. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(2), 164-180.

Betts, A. (2009). Institutional Proliferation and the Global Refugee Regime. Perspectives on Politics, 7(1), 53-58.

Biesta, G. and Tedder, M. (2006). How is agency possible? Towards an ecological understanding of agency-as-achievement. Learning Lives, Working Paper 5. Retrieved from: http://www.tlrp.org/project%20sites/LearningLives/papers/working_papers/Working_paper_5_Exeter_Feb_06.pdf (Accessed May 22, 2012).

Bousfield, D. (2005). The Logic of Sovereignty and the Agency of the Refugee: Recovering the Political from ‘Bare Life’. York Centre for International Security Studies, Working Paper Number 36.

Emirbayer, M. and Mische, A. (1998). What is agency? American Journal of Sociology, 103(4), 962-1023.

Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society. Outlines of the theory of structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Healey, R.L. (2006). Asylum-seekers and refugees: a structuration theory analysis of their experiences in the UK. Population, Space and Place, 12(4), 257-271.

Hugman, R., Bartolomei, L. and Pittaway, E. (2011). Human Agency and the Meaning of Informed Consent: Reflections on Research with Refugees. Journal or Refugee Studies, 24(4), 655-671.

Kagan, M. (2011). “We live in a country of UNHCR”: The UN surrogate state and refugee policy in the Middle East. New Issues in Refugee Research, UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service, Research Paper No. 201.

Levine, C. (2005). What happened to agency? Some observations concerning post-modern perspective on identity. In Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 5(2), 175-185.

Limbu, B. (2009). Illegible Humanity: The Refugee, Human Rights, and the Question of Representation. Journal of Refugee Studies, 22(3), 257-282.

Loescher, G. (2001). The UNHCR and World Politics: State Interests vs. Institutional Autonomy. International Migration Review, 35(1), 33-56.

Loescher, G. (2001). UNHCR and the erosion of refugee protection. Forced Migration Review, 10, 28-30.

Malkki, L. (1996). Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization. Cultural Anthropology, 11(3): 377-404.

Rosenfeld, M. (2002). Power Structure, Agency, and Family in a Palestinian Refugee Camp. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 34(3), 519-551.

Said, E.W. (2000). Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Stevenson, A. and Sutton, R. (2011). There’s No Place Like a Refugee Camp? Urban Planning and Participation in the Camp Context. Refuge: Canada’s Journal on Refugees, 28(1), 137-148.

Zizek, S. (1999). The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. New York: Verso. 



Hugman, R., Bartolomei, L. and Pittaway, E. (2011). Human Agency and the Meaning of Informed Consent: Reflections on Research with Refugees. Journal or Refugee Studies, 24(4), 655-671.

Said, E.W. (2000). Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.