Panel 51

Agency: A Key Concept for a Political STS

Organizers: Giovanni Fava (1); Giulia Gandolfi (1,2); Pietro Daniel Omodeo (1); Francesca Putignano (1)

1: Università Ca' Foscari di Venezia, Italy; 2: Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Topics: Health policies, governance and practices in a postpandemic era; Knowledge co-creation, citizens science, co-design processes, material publics and grassroot innovation; Methodological challenges in a more-than-human world; Technofeminism and interspecies solidarities; The value of science, technology, innovation and research practices

Keywords: STS, agency, Anthropocene, political epistemology, feminism, health

Agency is a central concept of contemporary debates surrounding science, technology and society. It became an established conceptual tool in the sociology and cultural studies in the late 1970s, often as a reworking of the Gramscian concept of praxis in opposition to structuralism. It then extended its field of application to the most diverse disciplinary areas, such as anthropology, philosophy, STS – this concept almost signalises a praxeological paradigm in the study, in their mutual and conflicting relationship, the forms of life and discourses of our time. The aim of the panel is to frame the concept of agency through a methodology that can be defined as "historical-political epistemology" or “Political STS.” This approach aims to investigate the preconditions underlying epistemic formations understood as the product of collective actions. Science and scientific practices always represent the outcome of sedimented and historical social practices. So-called scientific practices are the outcome of the mediations between the socioeconomic, ideological-cultural and technical-informational spheres. On the one hand, historico-political epistemology attempts to investigate how science provides both the production and reproduction of social configurations; on the other, how the "ideological" efficacy of science modifies, reorients, and transforms social structures.

This panel attempts to reflect and eventually redefine agency from the aforementioned Political STS approach, in order to show that the various forms of agency should be framed within complex socio-historical structures that are modified by them while, in turn, affecting the former.

Examples of such entwined cultural dynamics, in the medical field, are the practices that defined and redefined illness thanks to feminist groups such from the Boston Women Health Collective up to the contemporary practices of reading imaging reports by women's groups gathered in the oncology units of British hospitals. Moreover, the concept of agency enables interesting connections between feminist reflections and subaltern approaches. Feminism contributes to the empowerment of marginalized subjects; hence, it pays great attention to the capacity of action and reaction, especially by those subjects that are crushed by power structures as the latter tend to limit and harm the agency of certain individuals over others. Finally, the concept of agency has a pivotal role in the debate concerning the Anthropocene. Many environmental thinkers claim that the Anthropocene should be read as the epoch in which human agency is confronted with non-human forms of action. An historical-political epistemology of agency in the Anthropocene should be able to link those discourses to the broader technological and social contest in which they interact and are structured.

The panel welcomes contributions that deal with the issue of agency according to the mentioned outlooks and with the following topics :

  • genesis and development of the concept of agency;
  • agency from the point of view of its political and epistemological effects;
  • agency as counterpower in subaltern knowledge and practices;
  • agency as an epistemological issue in new technologies studies;
  • agency as fundamental background for biomedical fields;
  • agency and the Anthropocene;
  • the concept of agency and new historical materialisms.