Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology

2014 Edition
| Editors: Claire Smith

Agency in Archaeological Theory

  • Marcia-Anne DobresEmail author
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-0465-2_252


Agency is an explicitly humanistic perspective for understanding ancient people and social reproduction. It emphasizes the reciprocal relationship between people’s conscious and unintended actions and their social, ideological, and material conditions. Agency is an attempt to bridge three long-standing paradigmatic divides: between theories focused on egocentric individuals “in” society, those concerned with the deterministic nature of normative culture, and theories emphasizing the influence of external (material) conditions on both individuals and society.

After more than three decades of experimentation and critical reflection, there is still little consensus across paradigmatic boundaries as to precisely what agency is (Dobres & Robb 2000, for attempts at a comprehensive definition, see Johnson 1989; Bell 1992; Pauketat 2001; Dornan 2002). Nonetheless, as a conceptual framework and an analytic tool, the utility of agency for making sense of the past is undisputed. And...

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Barrett, J. 2001. Agency: the duality of structure and the problem of the archaeological record, in I. Hodder (ed.) Archaeological theory today: 140-64. Oxford: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  2. Barrett, J. C. 1994. Fragments from antiquity: an archaeology of social life in Britain, 2900-1200 BC. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  3. Bell, J. 1992. On capturing agency in theories about prehistory, in J.-C. Gardin & C. Peebles (ed.) Representations in archaeology: 30-55. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bourdieu, P. 1977. Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Dobres, M.-A. 1995. Gender and prehistoric technology: on the social agency of technical strategies. World Archaeology 27: 25-49.Google Scholar
  6. - 2000. Technology and social agency: outlining a practice framework for archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  7. Dobres, M.-A. & J. E. Robb. (ed.) 2000. Agency in archaeology. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  8. - 2005. “Doing” agency: introductory remarks on methodology. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 12(3):159-66.Google Scholar
  9. Dornan, J. L. 2002. Agency and archaeology: past, present and future directions. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 9:303-29.Google Scholar
  10. Englehardt, J. (ed.) 2013. Early writing and agency in archaeology. Boulder: University of Colorado Press.Google Scholar
  11. Giddens, A. 1984. The constitution of society: outline of a theory of structuration. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  12. Gosden, C. 2005. What do objects want? Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 12(3):193-211.Google Scholar
  13. Gosden, C. & Y. Marshall. 1999. The cultural biography of objects. World Archaeology 31:169-78.Google Scholar
  14. Johnson, M. 1989. Conceptions of agency in archaeological interpretation. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 8:189-211.Google Scholar
  15. Knappett, C. A. & L. Malafouris. (ed.) 2008. Material agency: towards a non-anthropocentric approach. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  16. Marx, K. 1969 [orig. 1869]. The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Publishers.Google Scholar
  17. Ortner, S. B. 1984. Theory in anthropology since the sixties. Comparative Studies in Society and History 26:126-66.Google Scholar
  18. Pauketat, T. R. 2001. Practice and history in archaeology: an emerging paradigm. Anthropological Theory 1:73-98.Google Scholar
  19. Robb, J. E. 2007. The early Mediterranean village: agency, material culture and social change in Neolithic Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  20. - 2010. Beyond agency. World Archaeology 42(4):493-520.Google Scholar

Further Reading

  1. Flannery, K. V. 1999. Process and agency in early state formation. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 9:3-21.Google Scholar
  2. Gardner, A. (ed.) 2004. Agency uncovered: archaeological perspectives on social agency, power and being human. London: University College London Press.Google Scholar
  3. Gell, A. 1998. Art and agency: an anthropological theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  4. Hodder, I. 2000. Agency and individuals in long-term processes, in M.-A. Dobres & J. E. Robb (ed.) Agency in Archaeology: 21-33. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  5. Hoskins, J. 2006. Agency, biography and objects, in C. Tilley, W. Keane, S. Küchler & M. Rowlands (ed.) Handbook of material culture: 74-84. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  6. Robb, J. E. 2005. Agency, in C. Renfrew & P. Bahn (ed.) Archaeology: the key concepts: 3-7. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  7. Silliman, S. 2001. Agency, practical politics and the archaeology of culture contact. Journal of Social Archaeology 1(2):190-209.Google Scholar
  8. Smith, A. T. 2001. The limitations of doxa: agency and subjectivity from an archaeological point of view. Journal of Social Archaeology 1:155-71.Google Scholar
  9. Varien, M. D. & J. M. Potter. (ed.) 2008. The social construction of communities: agency, structure, and identity in the prehispanic southwest. Lanham (MD): AltaMira.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of MaineOronoUSA