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The Importance of Individual Agency and Civic Engagement in Creating Social Change


Women participating in a movement for create social change

Juliette Gordon Low, Girl Scouts founder, once said, “The work of today is the history of tomorrow, and we are its makers.”


She was right. Though the forces of history may often seem beyond individual influence, people can play a part in building the society they want. Many of the wins for human rights over the last century would not have happened without people taking it upon themselves to create a better future.


Individual Agency

According to sociologist Nicki Lisa Cole in an article for ThoughtCo, individual agency is defined by sociologists as “the thoughts and actions taken by people that express their individual power.”


Although individual agency is closely related to personal responsibility, it isn’t the same. Personal responsibility has at least two definitions. First, it can mean taking the initiative to make meaningful change. It can also mean taking responsibility for one’s actions. Both definitions imply an adherence to normal social rules for behavior. Individual agency is broader and relates to any action people take using their own initiative.


In her article for ThoughtCo, Cole points out that individual agency could include being irresponsible. Refusing to do something society expects, like quitting a job or in Cole’s example, dropping out of school, is understood to be individual agency, but not personal responsibility.

Cole also explains that individuals can use their agency to reinforce social norms. It could be said that people who protest against drag queen story times are using their individual agency to reinforce a social norm. Until recently, drag performances only took place in bars and night clubs.


History has many examples of individuals who have used their agency to incite social change. Mohandas K. Gandhi used his individual agency to sit in a first-class train compartment in South Africa, flouting racist South African laws. This began his long career of non-violent protest and civil disobedience. Rosa Parks similarly sat at the front of a bus despite the racist American laws of the time. This act is credited with sparking the civil rights movement in the United States of America.


Of course, individual and collective agency are linked. When enough individuals feel strongly about a goal, they may come together to exert their collective agency. Countless people followed Gandhi to protest unfair laws during British colonial rule in India very effectively. The civil rights movement in the U.S. was supported by vast numbers of people and also succeeded in changing American society and its laws.


Civic Engagement

Civic engagement involves participating in social and political life to improve the health of society.


Some might say that citizens in a democracy have a personal responsibility for civic engagement. Adults in the United States of America, for example, are often told they have a duty to vote in elections. Some feel inspired to do more, such as joining political parties or volunteering for community groups.


Political engagement can create change in government through voting, campaigning, financial support, and party membership. Youth support of former President Barak Obama is believed to have been an important factor in his 2008 win. He was popular among young voters who came out to vote in higher numbers that year.


People can also make change through social engagement. There are many organizations that seek to help others where government or other social structures fail. Habitat for Humanity, for example, is a non-profit, volunteer-driven organization that helps disadvantaged people access safe housing.


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Collective Action

Collective action is a broad term that means any group effort to reach a common goal.

Like civil engagement, collective action can encompass both political and social spheres including protesting, lobbying, or organizing a group of neighbors to build a new playground. Collective action often implies that the groups involved may be less formal grassroots organizations.

Collective action can be a very effective way to implement social change. The civil rights movement in the 1960s was a strong example of the power of collective action as were Gandhi’s movements in India.


On a smaller scale, collective action can help improve communities. Community groups may come together to stop a government from building a highway through a local greenspace, help improve the quality of drinking water in a particular area, or create a community garden.


Overcoming Apathy, Cynicism, and Despair

Today’s problems can be overwhelming and even seem insurmountable. Apathy, cynicism and despair related to politics are prevalent in America.


But it doesn’t have to be this way. Put into historical context, the problems Americans are grappling with today aren’t any larger than they were in the past. More people today have a better standard of living with less discrimination than they did 100 years ago. That’s not to say there isn’t work to be done. However, if people could turn the tables on hundreds of years of institutional racism during the civil rights era, surely people today can come together to solve the problems closest to their hearts now.

A journey towards increased empowerment can take time and many small steps that may not be the same for everyone.


On an individual level, overcoming feelings like apathy, cynicism and despair can include getting more exercise and eating a healthy diet, examining one’s sources of anger, and reaching out to community.


It’s important to understand the problem and see possibilities for a different future. For example, in the 1820s, many women may not have been bothered by their inability to vote in elections. Understanding the unfairness of the laws around voting was the first step to taking collective action to change the rules. In the 1960s, many African Americans undoubtedly knew racist policies were unfair, but may not have believed a different system was possible. The civil rights movement helped people envision a new future. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a shining example of this.


Once people believe change is possible, they may take steps to achieve it. These can include reaching out to positive, like-minded people, setting reasonable goals, and using positive self-talk.


On an institutional level, it’s also important to believe that change is necessary and possible. Unfortunately, many institutions including government are often resistant to change. People in positions of power may be thriving with the status quo and change could threaten their status. Protests and civil disobedience increase pressure for change.


Governments and institutions could support social change by being more responsive to grassroots organizations and issues. They could hold town halls or other forums in which individuals or representatives of smaller groups could voice their concerns, then take action.

Citizens could also hold their leaders accountable to follow through with campaign promises by staying aware of government actions, even between elections. Many special interest groups help their members do this by keeping tabs on legislation and communicating important developments.

The Takeaway

As humans evolve, their societies must too. Individuals play a key role in building the cultures of tomorrow. They can do this through individual agency or collective agency by participating in civil engagement or collective action.


But people who don’t understand there is a problem or don’t believe a bad situation can change won’t act. First, they must overcome apathy, cynicism or despair. There are no simple solutions to these emotions, but getting enough exercise, eating a healthy diet, building positive community, and introspection can all be helpful.


There are many examples in history of how people used their individual and collective agency to make enormous changes that benefited future generations. With belief, effort, and community, people today can do the same.

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