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The Dark Side of Agency: A Life Course Exploration of Agency among White, Rural, and Impoverished Residents of New York State

  • Obernesser, Laura
  • Seale, Elizabeth
Publication Date
Apr 30, 2024
Repozytorium Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego (University of Lodz Repository)
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This study examines how people who have been constrained by extreme or chronic poverty, rural location, and adversity in interpersonal relationships make decisions and engage in agency through their narratives and everyday experiences. As a social scientific concept, the agency indicates the intentional behavior of individuals in the context of their environments, relations, and situations. In-depth, semi-structured interviews were collected with sixteen participants in rural south-central New York state who were living in extreme and/or chronic poverty. While exercising agency is viewed as important to the upward mobility of families and individuals in poverty, our participants encountered not only complex contexts for doing so but, at times, engaged in rebellious or counterproductive forms of agency. Furthermore, family ideology, such as traditional family values, shaped the perceived possibilities for forming one’s life course. We find the structure-agency dichotomy less useful than a framework that incorporates additional sources of constraints on agency, such as embodiment and culture. We also encounter difficulty in applying the concept of agency to the experiences of our research participants in ways that point to the necessary reworking of the concept.

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