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Psychology and the Question of Agency

Jack Martin, Jeff Sugarman, Janice Thompson

Publication Year: 2003

Disciplinary psychology has failed to achieve a coherent conception of human agency. Instead, it oscillates between two differing conceptions of agency that are equally untenable: a scientistic, reductive approach to choice and action, and an instrumental approach that celebrates a romantic notion of free will. This book examines theoretical, philosophical psychology and argues for a historically and socioculturally situated human capacity for choosing and acting in ways not entirely determined by culture and/or biology. The authors present a detailed developmental theory of how agentic capability emerges from the pre-reflective activity of humans in a real physical and social world. Implications of the theory are considered for psychological research and practice, and for the broader socio-political impact of disciplinary psychology in Western liberal democracies.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: SUNY series, Alternatives in Psychology

Front Cover

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About the Series, Title Page, and Copyright

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pp. ix-x

Most contemporary persons believe in both science and their own ability to direct their lives, a joint commitment reflected and encouraged by disciplinary and professional psychology. Nonetheless, it is by no means clear that such a commitment can be coherently maintained. While the determinism of science might fit well with the inevitability of death and taxes, it seems ...

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1. Psychology and the Question of Agency

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pp. 1-16

PROBABLY NO CONCEPT is as central to psychology and its aspirations, yet as poorly articulated within psychology, as that of human agency. Broadly speaking, agency is the freedom of individual human beings to make choices and to act on these choices in ways that make a difference in their lives. Exactly what is implied by such a freedom has been the...

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2. Reductionism in Psychology

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pp. 17-44

THE NATURALISTIC PROJECT that attempts to explain psychological kinds (human experience, understanding, thought, and action) according to empirical regularities and causal laws, is possible only if one holds the belief that psychological phenomena can be reduced to what are thought to be more basic, constitutive phenomena amenable to the methods of ...

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3. Between Hard Determinism and Radical Freedom

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pp. 45-80

HAVING PROVIDED a historical overview of reductionism in psychology, with the aim of indicating the extent to which agency has been reduced, disavowed, simplified, and thus devalued in disciplinary scientific and professional psychology, it now is appropriate and necessary to focus more directly on agency itself. As recently noted by the psychologist, ...

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4. The Underdetermination and Irreducibility of Agency

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pp. 81-102

WE BELIEVE that an adequate conception of human agency requires a compatibilist notion of self-determination but one that goes beyond traditional dissolutionist or voluntarist arguments and proposals to include a limited aspect of origination. This is so because, as we will argue, some human actions, especially in nonstandard situations of uncertainty and ambiguity, ...

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5. A Theory of Situated, Emergent, and Deliberative Agency

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pp. 103-132

THE UNDERDETERMINATION and the irreducibility of human agency mean that any adequate account of psychological kinds must make contact with an adequate theory of human agency. Psychological kinds are agentic kinds. They interact with those classifications, practices, and categories employed to describe and inquire into them (Hacking, 1995, 1999) precisely ...

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6. Putting Agency Into Psychology

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pp. 133-166

A MAJOR THEME in this book has been disciplinary psychology’s failure to develop an adequate conception of human agency because of its untenable joint commitments to an overly reductionistic science and a too facile professionalism. To create the perception of success in both these ventures, psychology has committed itself to an impossibly and wrongly detached, ...


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pp. 167-174


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pp. 175-186

E-ISBN-13: 9780791486849
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791457252
Print-ISBN-10: 0791457257

Page Count: 196
Publication Year: 2003

Series Title: SUNY series, Alternatives in Psychology