EGU General Assembly 2021
© Author(s) 2021. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Shifting the patterns of agency: identifying some requirements for transformative change

Daniel Hausknost
Daniel Hausknost
  • Vienna University of Economics and Business, Institute for Social Change and Sustainability, Socioeconomics, Vienna, Austria (

I propose an analytical distinction between four different modes of human agency: decision, choice, solution and routine. These modes are distinct through their respective combination of two basic criteria: one is the question, if the options the agentic mode is dealing with are commensurable or incommensurable; the other concerns the question whether the agentic mode is eliminating or retaining options. That way, the four modes of agency do very different things to the reality they are applied to. I suggest that purposive interventions into socio-ecological reality follow patterns that are typical to the respective political-economic order they are part of. For example, contemporary liberal democratic orders tend to favor combinations of solution (typically: technological innovation) and choice (typically: individual market behavior), while avoiding decisions (the collectively binding selection between incommensurable options) for their disruptive potential. At the same time, the establishing of new niche routines in terms of more sustainable social practices is encouraged or at least tolerated. I argue that the resulting agentic regime of liberal democratic orders (i.e. their constitutive pattern of agency) is only very weakly transformative, as it shuns decisions and individualizes the selection of incommensurable options (e.g. ‘ideological’ choices between different production standards, forms of mobility or models of infrastructure). It tends to institute an agentic regime resulting in ‘evolutionary’ patterns of change (the combination of technological variation and market selection) rather than opting for willful, political and (therefore) conflictive forms of change.

A purposive steering of human-environment interactions under time pressure towards radical system transformation, however, requires a different type of agentic regime: a new combination of agentic modes with a much stronger weighting of (collective) decisions. Indeed, the paper argues, any purposively ‘transformative’ agentic regime would have to institute patterns of agency that combine solutions, choices, routines and decisions in a novel, and much more disruptive, way. For example, solutions (technological innovations) and new routines (social innovations) that are proven to have a highly transformative impact when rolled out would need to be subject to collective decisions rather than individual choice. The result would be a new pattern of agency leading to a different rhythm and pattern of change, but also to new political-economic challenges and conflicts. Therefore, shifting the patterns of agency is at the same time a necessity and a massive institutional and political challenge for complex societies.

The paper concludes by outlining some suggestions as to how the proposed distinction of agentic modes can be operationalized for empirical investigations into the transformative capacities of human agency in different political-economic settings. 

How to cite: Hausknost, D.: Shifting the patterns of agency: identifying some requirements for transformative change, EGU General Assembly 2021, online, 19–30 Apr 2021, EGU21-15137,, 2021.


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