Performance of Agency in Real-life Encounters: Turning Unequal Power and Structural Constraint into Collaboration

Nanna Mik-Meyer*, Mark Haugaard

*Corresponding author for this work

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This article explores the performance of agency within the context of unequal power resources and structural constraint. Based on 23 video‐recorded placement meetings in three homeless shelters, we find that participants' agency is the outcome of both collaboration and resistance. To avoid interaction that fails to empower, social actors engage in “repair work” and face‐saving practices. When clients display “wrong face”—that is, bring problems to the table that are not considered “reasonable”—then the service providers engage in “repair work.” Participants turn conflict into collaborative agency because interactions that fail to deliver mutually empowering forms of agency have costs for both: clients' problems are not solved, and service providers fail to reach organizational goals.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSymbolic Interaction
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)504-532
Number of pages29
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

Published online: 1 December 2020.


  • Agency
  • Face-work
  • Symbolic interactionism
  • Structural constraints
  • Video-data

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