The Problem of Imaginary Agents

I have often pointed out to my students a kind of conceptual error endemic in the social sciences, a tendency to imbue names for large and complex processes with an imputed agency.  A familiar example is when we talk loosely about ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘globalisation’ being the cause of some result we decry.  For instance, if the university becomes more economistic in its cost/benefit calculations, this is an effect of neoliberalism.  In some very general sense this may be true, but to substantiate the claim we would need to trace out actual efforts by social actors to affect institutional policies, and the wider environments shaping those actions.  The promotion of formalised ‘workload allocation models’ in universities, which seek to standardise the amount of hours staff can claim for various activities, on one hand is driven by managerial objectives of rationalising the allocation of university resources.  But it is also driven by labour unions to insure equity among staff for their work contributions.  Together these bring about the more ‘neoliberal’ approach to labour calculations, even though we might only recognise the first as motivated by neoliberal assumptions.  However, the wider point is that ‘neoliberalism’ isn’t an historical actor doing anything.  It is a broad label for a set of ideas, policies, and processes.  But we very easily slide from this understanding to one in which we are readily complaining of neoliberalism doing bad things to our lives and oppressing us, of a dark ‘neoliberal project’, whose projectors remain unspecified.  This is partly an accident of language, in which the grammatical structure for saying an agent did something (‘Bob pushed me over’) and for saying a non-agent did something (‘The wind pushed me over’) can look and feel superficially the same.  And a complex object such as neoliberalism of course includes actors and actions, though it cannot be reduced to these, which makes the elision all the easier.

The problem goes deeper than this however.  In the study of nationalism there is what Ernest Gellner called the ‘Dark Gods theory of nationalism’, in which any resurgence of nationalism, particularly if in a right-wing form, is attributed to deep, atavistic ethnic impulses—natural forces unleashed from civilising bonds[1].  Gellner showed the inadequacy of this type of explanation, relying as it does on hypothetical forces from the collective subconscious, and failing to grapple with the structural demands for collective cultural identities generated by economically modern nation states.  So in addition to the problem stated above, of granting agency to things which aren’t agents, is the problem of positing agents (or ‘forces’) who just aren’t there. 

It seems to me that this has some relevance for current discourses around the subject of race.  This has to do with the drifting semantics of key terms.  It used to be conventional that the term ‘white supremacy’ referred to an explicit ideology that ‘whites’ are inherently superior to other ‘races’, as expressed by groups such as the KKK.  But now it is common to label all manifestations of racial inequality as evidence of ‘white supremacy’.  There is a similar issue with the more ambiguous term ‘white privilege’.  Technically, in its origins ‘privilege’ refers to laws that grant special rights to certain individuals (private law = ‘privi-lege’).  Thus we talk about the ‘exclusive privileges of membership’ or ‘attorney-client privilege’.  And indeed racism has long been encoded in law, in the US from slavery through Jim Crow.  Apartheid in South Africa was a classic example.  However the significance of the successes of the civil rights movement of the 1960s is precisely that they delegitimised legal racism.  There are still further gains to be made, but there were great advances in this period.  But the term ‘white privilege’ has been relatively detached from this specific context.  This is partly because in everyday use the legal meaning has fallen away, and the word is often used simply to refer to any advantage enjoyed by those with power (e.g. the rich are privileged).  But I would suggest there is analytic value in retaining this more specific, legal sense.

The term just raised, ‘advantage’ could probably be drafted to do more work.  A large part of existing racism, what is sometimes called ‘structural’ or ‘systemic’ racism, is a matter of advantage.  Because of the legacies of white supremacy and white privilege, other ‘races’, especially African-Americans, have been shut out of opportunities, such as to accumulate and pass down wealth through families.  Thus even if there were full equality of opportunity in the present (which there isn’t), inequalities in the racial wealth distribution could be expected to persist for a very long time.  This is just one major example.  But the point is that the term ‘advantage’ helps focus our attention on the actual problem.  If runners are running a race, and one set are given a 50-yard head start, we can see wherein the advantage lies.

But now let’s look at these three terms: white supremacy, white privilege, and what I’m calling white advantage.  By my reasoning, these are distinct concepts identifying distinct issues.  White supremacy is an explicit ideology of racial supremacy.  We know this exists as a distinct phenomenon that needs to be identified.  White privilege has wide meaning, but its more literal meaning, of white advantages explicitly encoded in law, again directs our attention to a crucial area in which racism must be confronted and addressed.  White advantage, directs our attention to how racial inequalities can be preserved in the absence of any explicit ideological or legal agenda.  Analytically, we are more able to define and discuss problems if our language allows us to make such distinctions.  Moreover, distinguishing concepts does not prevent us from considering situations where all three may come to bear, in different ways.  For instance, the ability to go about one’s daily business without a heightened probability (compared to other ‘races’) of being scrutinised and abused by the police is definitely an advantage most white people don’t have to think about.  But it is an important question to what degree such situations are caused by explicit ideological racism, biases in the law (e.g. stop and search policies), or some other routine behaviour which has racist effects without corresponding racist intent, or racial bias encoded in policy.

However, there is a strong tendency in some quarters not to seek conceptual precision, but to do just the opposite.  To treat the terms ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white privilege’ as omnibus terms that identify the entirety of issues we might associate with racism, somehow associating them with a racial collective unconscious.  This ends up being a way of falling into the problem identified at the start—of blurring the necessary distinction between agency and process.  It is further compounded by the use of terms such as ‘the white project’, which suggests some sort of conscious plan, even while it is used, again, to label some large historical process that could not conceivably be the coordinated act of any agents.  There is a deep ambiguity in a language that runs together a terminology of conscious belief and action with one of unintended consequences and complex historical processes, merging them into a kind of conceptual haze.  If the aim is to analyse a problem, this is the wrong approach, if the aim is to insinuate culpability as broadly as possible, it makes sense. 

I started this essay where I did to make clear that this is a general problem, not unique to discussions of race.  The misattribution of agency bedevils the language of social science.  This is because our concerns inevitably bear on issues of moral significance, and in matters of morality, agency is crucial in assigning blame.  There is always a strong temptation to infuse our analytic concepts that identify processes of which we are critical, with life, with animus, with agency, thus making them worthier of our moral condemnation.  The effect is to create a world populated by imaginary supernatural forces and beings that must be fought, rather than a more objective one that can be confronted more realistically[2].  There are many bad things in this world, even bad things that people do, that cannot be adequately attributed to agency.


[1] Ernest Gellner (1983) Nations and Nationalism, Ithica: Cornell University Press, p. 130; see also the blog by David McCrone, ‘Dark Gods Revisited’, at https://nationalism-studies.sps.ed.ac.uk/2018/09/19/dark-gods-revisited/

[2] See John McWhorter discussing: ‘Has Anti-Racism Become a New Religion?’, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPiNiTwf5bM

Published by jshearn

Professor of Political and Historical Sociology, University of Edinburgh.

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