In social science, agency is defined as the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure are those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, customs, etc.) that determine or limit agents and their decisions. The influences from structure and agency are debated—it is unclear to what extent a person's actions are constrained by social systems.
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One's agency is one's independent capability or ability to act on one's will. This ability is affected by the cognitive belief structure which one has formed through one's experiences, and the perceptions held by the society and the individual, of the structures and circumstances of the environment one is in and the position one is born into. Disagreement on the extent of one's agency often causes conflict between parties, e.g. parents and children.
Agency has also been defined in the American Journal of Sociology as a temporally embedded process that encompasses three different constitutive elements: iteration, projectivity and practical evaluation. Each of these elements is a component of agency as a whole. They are used to study different aspects of agency independently to make conclusions about the bigger concept. The iteration element of agency refers to the selective reactivation of past patterns of thought and action. In this way actors have routine actions in response to typical situations that help them sustain identities, interactions and institutions over time. The projective element encompasses the process of imagining possible future trajectories of action connected to the actor's hopes, fears, and desires for the future. The last element, the practical-evaluative element, entails the capacity of people to make practical and normative judgements amongst alternative possible actions in response to a context, a demand or a presently evolving situation.