African Studies Research Seminar - The Trouble with ‘Agency’, and How to Use the Concept More Specifically

Conveners: Rebekah Lee and Miles Tendi

Speaker: Felicitas Becker (Ghent University)


Lynn Thomas and Walter Johnson have delivered sharp critiques of the use of ‘agency’ as a rationale for writing African and African diasporic history, describing it as a ‘safety argument’, a fallback used so widely as to make the concept almost meaningless. Drawing on recent work on women and the aftermath of slavery in East Africa, this presentation seeks to make sense of the inflationary use of the term by differentiating between different uses. In particular, there is a ‘strong’ sense, of being able to change one’s material circumstances in line with one’s preferences. A very different version of agency is found in a kind of self-possession in the face of a lack of control over one’s circumstances and the ability to wring meaning out of events beyond one’s control. The paper argues that individuals lacking agency in the strong sense is a fairly routine historical occurrence. Rather than treating this kind of effective agency as a stable property of historical subjects, it is better thought of as a relational quality that individuals gain and lose in their interactions with others, and that can be exerted through others. Agency as self-possession and meaning-making, meanwhile, is more widely practicable, but arguably sometimes gets in the way of effective agency. Recognizing and differentiating between these constrained and contingent forms of agency and accepting the routine nature of lack of agency helps bring into focus the historical trajectories of marginal groups such as women and (former) slaves.


Felicitas Becker is professor of African history at Ghent University, Belgium, and a specialist in modern East African history, with a particular interest in Islam, post-slavery, poverty and development. She is currently PI of the ERC grant ASEA 'Aftermaths of slavery in East Africa'. Her publications include Becoming Muslim in Mainland Tanzania (OUP, 2008), The Politics of Poverty: Policy-making and Development in Rural Tanzania (CUP, 2019), and articles in Journal of African History, Africa, African Affairs, Slavery and Abolition and Journal of Global History, among others.