Departmental Papers (ASC)

Document Type

Conference Paper

Date of this Version


Publication Source

American Society for Cybernetics ASC 2008 Conference


May 11-15, 2008


In this paper I am concerned with human agency and the construction of social organization. I am suggesting three concepts of human agency derived (a) from radical constructivism and autopoiesis, (b) from interactive use of language, and (c) from my work in the sociology of design. The former provides a background for human agency. The latter lead to two concepts of organization that acknowledge human agency in slightly different ways. In that process I am extending the second-order cybernetic idea of putting the observer into the observed to acknowledging the agency of humans in the construction of social organization of which they are a part. I think, talking about social systems as if that talk had nothing to do with the systems it brings about gets us back into first-order cybernetics, perhaps with the awareness that we are the observers of social systems. So, I will be concerned not with observation but with constituting social reality by participating in it constitutively. I am opposed to trivializing human agency that takes place when adopting vocabularies from discourses that cannot reflect on their communicative roles.

The most blatant trivialization of human agency that I observe is found in the design of "agent based computer programming," attributing agency to particular algorithms on account of being useful to computer users. One may take this use of agency as merely metaphorical, much as opening files and documents in human-computer interfaces are metaphors of what happens behind the screen, but the latter should not be confused with human agency. A more serious trivialization of human agency can be seen in the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) of M. Callon (1986) and Bruno Latour (1997), attributing agency to text, images and technological artifacts alike. A third example is to talk of social systems as abstractions from the everyday practices of living, sociological abstractions in particular, in effect generalizing and offering causal relationships between these abstractions in which human agency – intentionality, choices, actions, purposes, language and communication – which is important in social life, is no longer recognizable, thereby delivering the human use of human beings to those who are able to use their human agency irresponsibly and unchecked.

However, in this paper I will take Richard Rorty's (1989) suggestion to heart not to get sidetracked into critically reviewing what I am opposing and I shall propose instead vocabulary of what I am favoring, keeping in mind why I am doing this.

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Date Posted: 20 March 2018