Concepts and Measures of Agency

OPHI Working Papers

Agency is inescapably plural in both concept and measurement. In Sen’s account of agency, i) agency is exercised with respect to goals the person values; ii) agency includes effective power as well as direct control; iii) agency may advance wellbeing or may address other-regarding goals; iv) to identify agency also entails an assessment of the value of the agent’s goals; v) the agent’s responsibility for a state of affairs should be incorporated into his or her evaluation of it. This chapter refracts the literature on agency measurement through the first four fo these characteristics showing how particular survey-based measures of individual agency elucidate or obscure each distinction. It also observes that existing measures used in development tend to focus on control but not effective freedom, on goals the agent has reason to value rather than goals she values, and on own rather than other-regarding agency. The literature on measurement also raises a number of very relevant issues for the conceptual approach. 

Author: Sabina Alkire

Year: 2008

Citation: Alkire, S. (2008). 'Concepts and measures of agency', OPHI Working Paper 09, Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), University of Oxford.

Also published in K. Basu and R. Kanbur, 2008, Arguments for a Better World: Essays in Honor of Amartya Sen, Part IV: Identity, Collective Action and Public Economics, Oxford University Press, ch. 24, ISBN 9780199239115

agency, authonomy, control, effective power, efficacy, empowerment, freedom, imperfect, obligation, well-being

Sabina Alkire
Series Name
OPHI Working Papers
Publication date
Publication Number
WP 09