‘The cherry tree appears to be in a cut down situation’ is not a good sentence construction if the reality is ‘I cut down the cherry tree’. The former construction is common in risk adverse modern life. Acknowledge just enough of the situation while obfuscating all direction, cause, effect and attribution. It also seeps into theory, where writers construct vast linguistic edifices in order to avoid saying why observable phenomena exist as they do. When people avoid agent focused language they are often up to something, obfuscating some uncomfortable cause or preferring not to attribute it. Sometimes there are more benign motives. Causality is complex and we should not uselessly reduce everything to a single cause when it is not sensible to do so. But we can recognise multi-causality and uncertainty while still allowing that events are happening because they were initiated, if not necessarily by a human. We can also examine the contradictions and paradoxes in claims about agency – for example, people dependent on drugs or alcohol are characterised as both lacking agency but also told to use willpower to overcome addiction (Brookfield et al., 2022). It is no simple thing either personally or in abstract terms. The reverse is a problem too. Massive datasets and statistical regression allow us to see causes everywhere.
Agent focused language is satisfying because it gives direction to the writing. But is it fundamentally untrue? The Pharaoh Khufu built the Great Pyramid is meaningful shorthand, but not literally true. He caused it to be built. He initiated its construction. He brought it into being. It combines several elements that are not the same. An awareness of cause, recognition that the world is shaped by human action within constraints, and that humans have this unique way of viewing their own affairs. That last point is one where we need to be careful. Some societies go all-in on this and it is not surprising to learn that our market-focused societies put a very specific kind of human self-maximising agency to the centre. There are other kinds. A religious person who sees themselves as enacting God’s will is no less an agent. It is also damaging to not recognise how a sense of loss of control affects humans in aggregate. If we look at the Brexit vote, sociologists tried every trick in the book to pretend it was something it was not. We were told it was due to misinformation, or imperial nostalgia, or flat out racism. All the opinion polling then and since shows it was about what people said it was about: taking back control.
We should also be sensitised to the different causal claims about the world. The debate about Doleac and Muhkerjee’s (2022) paper on the effect of naloxone access policy. Naloxone is given out to limit the effects of overdose. It should be a lifesaver. The paper examines whether there is a risk compensation effect, in that users are more likely to engage in risky behaviour when there is a perception of a safety net. Partly it received such a response because its claims were put so forthrightly, which is good. Better to have clear lines. Stevens (2020) criticises the concept of cause employed by them as consisting of ‘causal inference at a distance, monofinality, limited causal imagination, and overly confident causal claims.’ Imagining a causal process that is not there, not recognising that different circumstances may lead to the same outcome, theoretical sparseness about motive in human affairs, and moving too easily from observed concurrence to cause. Studies using rational addiction theory are arraigned for exhibiting these features. He outlines an alternative ‘depth ontology’ in which empirical observations are the first step in a dialogue which iterates out understanding about the underlying structures and processes that bring the world into its real being. This is in contrast to the flat ontology offered in actor network theory for example. It points us to a deep understanding of agency which is placed within a bio-ecological and social structure.