Sociocultural Evolution in the Individual and Collective Agency

Sociocultural Evolution in the Individual and Collective Agency

To understand sociocultural evolution, it seems necessary to consider the effects of psychological agents on their societies. And if such effects can push societies beyond prevailing sociocultural practices, means, and shared understandings, it must be the case that psychological reality, reflected in individual psychological agency, is not entirely determined by those same sociocultural conventions. Thus, while the psychological reality of individuals largely derives from sociocultural reality, it is not entirely reducible to these sociocultural origins.

All human experience, action, and modes of being and understanding emerge contingently within the existential condition of human biological individuals born into and acting within preexisting sociocultural and physical reality. There is no essential, a priori nature of human psychological, agentic kinds. This would be where to note the relationship between intergroup contact and participants’ willingness to engage in collective action to challenge social inequality, structural violence, injustice, and the like. We have also, with intergroup contact theory and social integration theory, been provided with new insights into the processes driving contact to trigger motivation for social change among both advantaged and disadvantaged groups.

Social psychologists have traditionally sought to
develop interventions to produce positive outgroup attitudes, reduce intergroup conflict, and promote equality between groups. Intergroup contact is often portrayed as one of the most effective strategies for reducing prejudice and producing a more equal society. Theoretical understanding of the relationship between contact and social change motivations is present within social integration theory, a theory focused on understanding when and why individuals engage in collective actions aimed at changing the hierarchical structure of society.

Henceforth, we find that combining collective agency with strong iconic leadership is a complicated undertaking. Collective agency means that a system is able to act as a unity, to behave in a coordinated manner in line with a common narrative, and to pursue common goals. The relationship between individual intentionality and its behavior is often not linear and unclear; a group’s agency is even more problematic due to the high number of individuals—and therefore the many individual purposes—that it is composed of. The bigger the system, the harder it is for it to feel and behave like a unity. Size is a direct indicator of group cohesion or division. Like many other social movements in history, but probably more so than many, passionate enactivism networks have demonstrated a significant capacity to combine the empowerment of bottom-up collective agency and identity with a strong and highly recognizable leadership.

For us, a person (or psychological person) is an identifiable, embodied individual human with being, self-understanding (self), agentic capability, and personal identity. The adjective identifiable references the physical characteristics and social identity of a person. Social identity refers to those socially constructed and socially meaningful categories that are appropriated and internalized by individuals as descriptive of themselves and/or various groups to which they belong (e.g., female, African American, soccer player, attorney, mother, community leader, and so forth). The adjective embodied captures the sense of a physical, biological body in constant contact with the physical and sociocultural life-world. Being refers to the existence in such a life-world of a single human being (an individual). Importantly, the manner of such being is historically and socioculturally affected within traditions of living. Self, for us, is understanding that discloses and extends a person’s being and activity in the world. Thus, our conception of the self is one of relational understanding, not of physical or transcendental substance. Such a conceptual self is dependent on, but very different from the developmentally more primitive, prelinguistic sense of self that equates with one’s recognition of one’s physical body as distinct from other objects and people. Personal identity, for us, refers to the particular concerns, cares, and commitments to which self-reflective agents direct their actions and efforts. 

Finally, agency, in our conception of personhood, refers to the deliberative, reflective activity of a human being in selecting, framing, choosing, and executing his or her actions in a way that is not fully determined by factors and conditions other than his or her own understanding and reasoning. More generally, however, we consider agency to relate intimately to the activity of a person in the world and claim that the philosopher’s (and our own) reflective, deliberative agency emerges from prereflective activity as part of the developmental unfolding of an individual life within a collective life-world. It is to the developmental emergence of reflective, deliberative agency and self-understanding that we now turn.

The concept of agency also requires characterization. It is not only a contested notion within philosophy but also deployed in rather different ways in different disciplines outside of philosophy. In sociology, for instance, agency is often strongly connected with the independence of the subjects in making their choices, while in computer science the notion is often used to characterize artificially intelligent entities, in conjunction with notions such as autonomy, proactiveness and self-direction. 

In the individual case, this creates a need to identify what, from among all the stuff that goes on in and around an agent, should count as their actions, and what the correct intentional characterization of those actions is. This is also the case at the collective level, but there are additional complicating factors: collective agents can count as performing an action in quite a few ways, and in addition, one collective can differ quite a bit from another in what actions they can perform and how they can perform them. Here are some examples of ways a collective agent might act:

  • A collective agent might perform an action by means of some individual agential component (i.e. a human agent, a non-human agent, or a partial agent) of the collective performing an action on behalf of the collective;
  • A collective agent might perform an action by means of some subset of the collective’s components, which itself constitutes a smaller collective agent within the larger collective agent, performing an action on the larger collective’s behalf;
  • A collective agent might perform an action by means of some subset of the collective’s agential components acting jointly on the collective’s behalf, but without constituting a full-fledged collective agent within the larger collective;
  • A collective might perform an action by means of all of the components (agential or non-agential) acting jointly on behalf of the collective.
What is collective action?

Thus, the procedure used for interpreting collective agents may be thought of as having an extra preliminary stage that doesn’t feature in the procedure of interpreting individuals or features there in a way that’s much more minimal. This is a stage in which the interpreter determines the structure of the collective under examination, and thereby its evidence and actions.


__Brouwer, T., Ferrario, R., & Porello, D. (2021). Hybrid collective intentionality. Synthese199(1), 3367-3403

__Di Bernardo, G. A., Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., McKeown, S., Cocco, V. M., Saguy, T., & Dixon, J. (2021). Fostering social change among advantaged and disadvantaged group members: Integrating intergroup contact and social identity perspectives on collective action. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations24(1), 26-47.

.__Francesconi, D., Symeonidis, V., & Agostini, E. (2021). FridaysForFuture as an Enactive Network: Collective Agency for the Transition Towards Sustainable Development. Frontiers in Education 6: 636067. doi: 10.3389/feduc.

__Martin, Jack, et al. (2003) Psychology and the Question of Agency. State University of New York Press. ProQuest Ebook Central.

__Vrousalis, N. (2021). The capitalist cage: Structural domination and collective agency in the market. Journal of Applied Philosophy38(1), 40-54.


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