An Agentic Theory of the Self (Bandura – 1997)

Although the subject of human agency was raised briefly under the topic of self-efficacy in Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Learning Theory (Bandura, 1986, p. 393) it was not until later that Bandura began to articulate his theory of agency (1997; 1999b; 2001; 2006b; 2008b; 2008c; 2009a). Following his lead of elevating human agency into a subsuming relationship with self-efficacy (see, for example, Bandura, 1999b, pp. 28-32; 2009a, p. 9), and affording it a more prominent elaboration of learner control in the social cognitive theory framework (Bandura, 2005, pp. 16-22, 26-28; 2008b, pp. 170-171, 178-180), I have chosen to review it separately in the present review.

Bandura has discussed the topic of agency several times in recent years from perspectives such as an agentic perspective of social cognitive theory (1999b; 2001), the exercise of human agency (2000), the psychology of human agency (2006b), an agentic perspective on positive psychology (2008a), the reconstrual of free will from an agentic perspective (2008b), and an agentic theory of the self (2008c). Based on my own reading and comparison of each, I find there is significant overlap in these accounts, and though there is an obvious course of iteration in play from his earlier treatments to the more recent, the differences are relatively minor, primarily being additions, rather than modifications or deletions. Hence, because of both its clarity and recency, I have selected as my primary source for review in this section a summary which Bandura published in the Encyclopedia for the Life Course and Human Development (2009a).

Bandura (2009a) defined human agency as “the human capability to exert influence over one’s functioning and the course of events by one’s actions” (p. 8). “Through cognitive self-guidance, humans can visualize futures that act on the present; construct, evaluate, and modify alternative courses of action to gain valued outcomes; and override environmental influences” (p. 8). “To be an agent is to influence intentionally one’s functioning and life circumstances” (Bandura, 2008c, p. 16).

Four core properties of human agency were described in Bandura (2006b, pp. 164-165) They are (a) intentionality, (b) forethought, (c) self-reactiveness, and (d) self-reflection. Intentionality deals with the forming of intentions that “include action plans and strategies for realizing them” (Bandura, 2009a, p. 8). Forethought involves “the temporal extension of agency” (p. 8) by setting goals and anticipating future events:

[Forethought] includes more than future-directed plans. People set goals for themselves and foresee likely outcomes of prospective actions to guide and motivate their efforts anticipatorily. When projected over a long-term course on matters of value, a forethoughtful perspective provides direction, coherence, and meaning to one’s life. (Bandura, 2009a, p. 8)

Self-reactiveness broadens the role of the agent to be more than just “planners and fore thinkers” (Bandura, 2009a, p. 8) and includes processes of self-management and self-motivation, as well as emotional states that can undermine self-regulation:

The translation of plans into successful courses of action requires the self-management of thought processes; motivation to stick with chosen courses in the face of difficulties, setbacks, and uncertainties; and emotional states that can undermine self-regulatory efforts. (Bandura, 2009a, p. 8)

Lastly, self-reflection refers to the self-examining nature of human agents. “Through self-awareness, they reflect on their personal efficacy, the soundness of their thoughts and actions, the meaning of their pursuits, and…[if needed] change existing life course patterns” (Bandura, 2009a, p. 8).

Human agency is exercised through three different modes: personal, proxy, and collective (Bandura, 1997).  Personal agency is exercised individually, and is the process by which an individual affects what he or she can control directly. In some cases, however, direct influence is not possible. The exercise of agency through proxy is the indirect influence a person can exert on circumstances beyond their immediate control, by acting through others:

In many spheres of functioning, people do not have direct control over conditions that affect their lives. In such cases, they exercise proxy agency. They do so by influencing others who have the resources, knowledge, and means to act on their behalf to secure the outcomes they desire. For example, children work through parents to get what they want, marital partners through spouses, employees through labor unions, and the general public through their elected officials. (Bandura, 2009a, p. 8)

Agency can also be exercised in groups. “People do not live their lives in individual autonomy. Indeed, many of the outcomes they seek are achievable only through interdependent efforts” (Bandura, 2000, p. 75). Collective agency is an interdependence of human functioning that is enacted when people who share common beliefs act as a group to produce effects by collective action. “A group’s attainments are the product not only of shared knowledge and skills of its different members, but also of the interactive, coordinative, and synergistic dynamics of their transactions” (pp. 75-76).

Beliefs of personal and collective efficacy are the most central and pervasive mechanisms of human agency. “Unless people believe they can produce desired effects and forestall undesired ones by their actions, they have little incentive to act or to persevere in the face of difficulties” (Bandura, 2009a, p. 9). Regardless of whatever other factors might also serve as guides and motivators, they are all dependent on a person’s core belief that he or she has power to affect changes by their actions.

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