Agency at Work

Ethnographies in/of Late Industrialism

by Monika Baer (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection 164 Pages
Series: Modernity in Question, Volume 17


Rooted in anthropological and ethnological traditions, this volume offers analytical insights into the workings of agency in late industrialism revealed in interactions between a coal power plant and a local community in Opole Silesia, in southwestern Poland. In this context, the authors show by the use of the ethnographic method, how variables and forces of various scales shape political events centered around the power plant; grassroots economic dynamics and entrepreneurship; the local semiosphere uniting the divided social group; affective dimensions of a social protest; (un)doing gender in the industrial workplace; and the mobile livelihoods of migrant industrial workers. By doing so, they concretize in different ways both the concept of late modernity and agency.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface (Monika Baer)
  • Opole Power Plant as a Sociopolitical Catalyzer (Petr Skalník)
  • Local Community in the Face of Intense Economic Changes: The Dobrzeń Wielki Commune in Opole Silesia (Konrad Górny)
  • Bottom-Up Economic Strategies in the Light of the Opole Power Plant Expansion (Mirosław Marczyk)
  • Revival of Local Identity Under Political Pressure: German Minority in Southwestern Poland (Marcin Brocki)
  • Affective Togetherness: Emotional Dynamics in/of the Field of the Political (Monika Baer)
  • Femininities in the Face of Large Industrial Investments (Ewa Kruk)
  • Mobility, Affects, and Agency in Late Industrialism (Marek Pawlak)
  • Series index

←6 | 7→

Monika Baer1


Agency seems to be a somewhat problematic issue. On the one hand, it has been more or less explicitly situated at the very heart of the discipline of ethnology and social and cultural anthropology since its emergence rooted back in the nineteenth century.2 On the other hand, this centered location made agency taken frequently for granted and therefore not the main focus of anthropological theorizing. This situation has significantly changed at the turn of the 1970s and the 1980s, when the broader turn toward theory of practice put human acting subjects at the center. As Sherry Ortner (1984: 144, 159) notes, at that time there was a growing interest in interrelated bundles of terms: “practice, praxis, action, interaction, activity, experience, performance” and “the doer of all that doing: agent, actor, person, self, individual, subject.” The consequent approach focused on human agency was “unique in accepting all three sides of the [Peter] Berger and [Thomas] Luckmann triangle: that society is a system, that the system is powerfully constraining, and yet that the system can be made and unmade through human action and interaction.”

In the following decades the above analytical perspective has been developed in many interesting ways. Certain universality of agency as ←7 | 8→a part of humanness and its particularity rooted in cultural and historical circumstances seem to provide a conducive prism for anthropological inquiry (see Ortner 2006: 129–153). However, such an approach is being commonly shaped by unproblematized premises of critical humanism that relates to “symbolic interactionism, pragmatism, democratic thinking, storytelling, moral progress, redistribution, justice and good citizenship,” and privileges “experience, meaning, and human subjectivity” (Plummer 2005: 359, 370). Those presumptions have therefore been denaturalized mainly due to critiques originating from the post-structural thought. Rosalind Morris (2007: 360–361) points out that Ortner’s call “for a recognition of the intentionality, subjectivity, and agency of individual actors …, who ‘(try to) act on the world even as they are acted upon’ (Ortner 2006: 110)” should be analyzed with regard to its links with neohumanist “possessive individualism.” On the other hand, thus understood agency reflects, in a sense, commodity logic that brings a concept of personhood defined by discrete attributes and boundaries, whereas “society” and “the individual” are seen as mutually forming antinomies, situated in specific relations of power (more on this issue see Strathern 1990: 3–40).

The above problems do not need, however, to limit analytical potential of a notion of agency. They just require that the above idea of personhood and the specific vision of human acting subjects rooted in critical humanism become unsettled and removed from its very center. Following Tom Boellstorf’s (2007) discussion of a problematic relationship between concepts of gender and sexuality, one can think about agency not in semantic terms, that is, what it means, but in the pragmatic ones, that is, what it does. This, in turn, allows for asking how agency works for producing, sustaining, and destabilizing the social, which can all be recognized ethnographically. Such an approach seems particularly vital for ethnographies in/of late industrialism. Kim Fortun (2012: 451–452, 453) defines “late industrial times” as “complex conditions, conditions involving many nested systems – technical, biophysical, cultural, economic – and thus a multiplicity of interactions, which keep the parameters of ‘the problem’ from ever settling down.” This complexity brings uncertainty related to “discursive gaps,” when there is “no way of thinking that can grasp what ←8 | 9→is at hand,” and “discursive risks,” which result in “a tendency to rely on established idioms and ways of thinking, nonetheless.” Facing late industrialism, ethnography needs therefore to work as an experimental system “that generates surprises” and remains “open to intervention and foreigners.” Looking at agency through this prism allows to grasp how social phenomena of late industrial world are emerging at the intersections of diverse processes of various scales (see Rabinow et al. 2008: 74–81).

The discussed theoretical premises have all in one way or another shaped the team research project entitled Conflict, Tension and Cooperation: A Case Study of Mutual Impact between the Opole Power Plant and the Community of Dobrzeń Wielki,3 which comprised the point of departure of this book. Its purpose was to explore and analyze multidimensional and interrelated cultural, social, political, and economic processes of late industrialism, which were both the result and the context of interactions between the Opole Power Plant (OPP) and the community of Dobrzeń Wielki commune in Opole Silesia in southwestern Poland. Initially, the project took as its focus the expansion of the OPP conducted between 2014 and 2019, which at that time was one of the largest industrial investments in energy sector in Europe. However, the plan of shifting administrative borders of the neighboring city of Opole (including a takeover of the part of Dobrzeń Wielki commune’s territory with the OPP) announced in late 2015, and put in force on January 1, 2017, has also importantly shaped the research situation. In the above circumstances, the project aimed at developing analytical frameworks for exploring the complex interplay between a local community and an industrial investment; at enhancing theoretical and practical understanding of conflicts, tensions and cooperation which emerge at the intersections of interests embedded in specific local, national, European and global scales; and at deepening scientific understanding of discourses and practices within the context of ambiguities resulting from the accelerated change. To this end, between ←9 | 10→2015 and 2018 the research team of scholars based in two Polish universities, the University of Wroclaw and the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, conducted intensive, ethnographic field research focused on five overlapping research areas: politics, economics, ethnic and inter-group relations, gender relations, and migration and mobility. Some of their findings have been already published (see e.g. Skalník 2018). Others constitute a topic of this book.

The edited collection entitled Agency at Work: Ethnographies in/of Late Industrialism brought together analyses rooted in both ethnological and anthropological traditions materialized through an ethnographic detail. Whereas every chapter discusses issues related to the project main research areas, they are all engaged in conversations with one another, revealing various forms of agency in the specifically situated late industrial settings. In the opening chapter, Petr Skalník investigates the agency of the OPP as an important sociopolitical catalyzer of events in the Dobrzeń Wielki commune, both in a historical perspective and with regard to its recent expansion. In this context, he presents the process of initiating a construction of the OPP back in the 1970s; the changing relationships between the OPP and the community of the Dobrzeń Wielki commune from the mid-1990s, when the first four blocks of the plant started to operate; the political circumstances which brought a decision to enlarge the OPP with two more blocks; and further developments related to the ongoing expansion and the commune’s administrative division. These detailed analysis of “the most important political moments” related to the OPP has been located in a wider frame of discussion on energy security and (de)carbonization in the age of global overheating (Eriksen 2016). Thus, this is not only the OPP but also the European Union and the Polish nation state which are shown as important political agents molding the researched events in the Dobrzeń Wielki commune.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (July)
Industrial investment Local community Economic transformations Ethnic divisions Social protest Mobile livelihoods
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 164 pp.

Biographical notes

Monika Baer (Volume editor)

Monika Baer teaches social and cultural anthropology at the University of Wroclaw. Her main research areas comprise postsocialist transitions and Europeanization processes in Central/Eastern Europe with a special attention given to gender/sexuality, activism, and political engagement of social sciences and humanities.


Title: Agency at Work
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
166 pages