Unpacking the black box: the problem of agency in the sociology of youth

While the term is used in many analyses of young people's lives, this paper argues that the nature and conceptual meaning of agency remain ambiguous: agency is a ‘black box’ which while fundamental to youth sociology remains unpacked

Julia Coffey; David Farrugia

2013

Scholarcy highlights

  • Agency is a conceptual problem for youth studies
  • While the term is used in many analyses of young people's lives, this paper argues that the nature and conceptual meaning of agency remain ambiguous: agency is a ‘black box’ which while fundamental to youth sociology remains unpacked
  • Ontological and epistemological confusion about the concept means that appeals to agency in contemporary youth sociology beg the very questions they claim to answer
  • The concept has become central to the conceptual and political basis of youth research, coming to stand for practices that are ‘bounded’ by structures and resist existing states of affairs. This limits the explanatory power of theoretical frameworks in youth studies, and does not serve the ethical commitments of a politically engaged discipline
  • Identifying conceptual and normative problems raised by the way agency is deployed, this paper argues that a conceptually powerful and politically engaged youth sociology must move beyond the problem of agency as it stands, and incorporates theoretical perspectives on youth subjectivities and social action that indicate possibilities for how this might take place
  • The authors thank the reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions in developing this article

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