The agency of objects

“If, as I do, we translate the term ‘agency’ as meaning providing affordances and constraints for thoughts and actions, then I cannot understand why the term should trouble Ingold or anyone else.”

(Tilley, 2007)

I found this quote in a discussion edition of Archaeological Dialogues. The discussion was prompted by a piece by Tim Ingold with responses from various authors (including Christopher Tilley).

Innocent as I am, I came across the idea of ‘affordances’ relatively recently in Harry Collins’ (2010) book on tacit knowledge. He illustrates it a bit like this: Imagine a picture on a page of a book. We commonly say ‘that’s a picture of… (Brian Cox)’ but (Collins points out) it isn’t. It’s a aggregation of coloured dots on a page of paper which affords us the interpretation ‘Brian Cox’. The coloured dots might afford other interpretations but some interpretations are not afforded – we cannot legitimately say ‘that’s a picture of Margaret Thatcher’, for instance. I have to admit that my initial reaction to this idea is that it is merely an exercise in extreme pedantry. But the more I think about it the more useful this notion seems.

Tilley is talking about the ‘agency’ of objects. Used carelessly this term gives a quasi-mystical sense of the activity of objects but Tilley’s definition places the realm of activity more squarely in the human domain. Through its qualities (tactile, visual, olfactory) and it’s properties (which may be shifting and changeable (Ingold, 2007)) an object affords certain responses and constrains others from being possible. I would want to open up the nature of the response from ‘thoughts and actions’ to include perceptions and possibly provoked memories.

But the key thing is that the objects don’t do much at all – they allow us to do lots of things but not everything – within their mixture of properties they circumscribe the theatre of our responses. Nonetheless, the perceptions, memories, thoughts and actions are all in us. I really, really want to locate the action within the individual. I want to avoid metaphors such as the hybridity of tool and user because I think that the metaphors are too powerful. The tool (object) may be shaped by repeated use whilst the user learns to use the tool in particular ways until they are no longer aware of that learning but just because the user is no longer conscious of that learning, and has reached the point where they find it difficult to articulate the how and the why of the tool, doesn’t mean that some strange state of being has been achieved. Instead the user has learnt and adapted, shifted from cortex to cerebellum, from hesitant fumbling to unconscious fluidity.

I might say that objects provoke reminiscence but really it is our perceptions of the object that sparks our recollection. We are the locus of events.


Collins, H. (2010) Tacit and Explicit Knowledge, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Ingold, T. (2007) ‘Materials against materiality’, Archaeological Dialogues, 14, 1, 1-16

Tilley, C. (2007) ‘Materiality in materials’, Archaeological Dialogues, 14, 1, 16-20


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, Objects. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The agency of objects

  1. RM says:

    Objects have agency inasmuch as they – like all aspects of our environment – make certain things possible and others not. They do not have agency in the same way as we do. We may have intentions to perform actions (or at least that’s how we perceive it although intentionality is a problematic term for humans too in all sorts of ways) while objects obviously do not intend to act upon us. They still shape and influence our actions because of their materiality. You might like to read actor Latour’s Reassembling the Social on objects as it differentiates between kinds of actors and agency. I like this idea of different kinds of actors, intentions, and agency in the museum context because it seems to me to capture the myriad ways and reasons why decisions are taken – for example in the construction of an exhibition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s