What is Distributed Agency? A definition and explanation

Distributed Agency: Definition and explanation


What is distributed agency?

Distributed agency refers to the situation where the actions or operations of a range of different individuals often with different motivations, interests and in different places combine to create an outcome they all wanted. Distributed agency can either be co-ordinated or uncoordinated, i.e by chance.

There are considered to be four factors which create agency or action:

  1. Intentionality, that the action and the end result of the action were intended and not merely the result of an accident or random event
  2. Causality or the understanding that this particular action or set of actions creates that effect: X action leads to Y event or outcome
  3. Flexibility, that the agent or people/machine or programme carrying out the actions can learn and adapt in the event of change  and
  4. Accountability, that the action of the agent is the cause of the outcome and not something else.

Distributed agency is gaining ground as a force in organisational and social change, especially with the prominence of social media where people with similar desires can find each other and co-ordinate action to create some effect.

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Enfield, N.J & Kockelman, P. (eds) (2017) Foundations of Human Interaction: Distributed agency. Oxford UK. Oxford University Press

Garud, R., & Karnøe, P. (2005). Distributed agency and interactive emergence. Innovating strategy process, 88-96.

Garud, R., & Karnøe, P. (2003). Bricolage versus breakthrough: distributed and embedded agency in technology entrepreneurship. Research policy, 32(2), 277-300.

Whittle, A., Suhomlinova, O., & Mueller, F. (2011). Dialogue and distributed agency in institutional transmission. Journal of Management & Organization, 17(4), 548-569.


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