Reclaiming Choice and Agency in a Networked World

Reclaiming Choice and Agency in a Networked World

Welcome! We are happy you chose to open this blog post! In this article we will explore: 

  • The difference between choice and decision; and why awareness of choice matters – as a (fundamental) way to engage with life. 
  • Different levels of networks & systems and how to navigate the levels with agency. 
  • How to choose with your whole being – as a means to align your deeper values and actions. 
  • Exercises and prompts to practice choice as a capacity. 

We believe that it can be of use to change agents, social innovators, system entrepreneurs, and curious minds. Most importantly: We invite you to choose to fully engage with the article and share your reflections with us. We have laid out some opportunities to do so on the way 🙂

So let’s dive right in!

Choosing to Decide

Each day we make numerous decisions, from what we consume, such as food and media, to how we respond to others and to our environments, and beneath all of these decisions are choices. Yet, what is the difference between a choice and a decision? A decision often  implies reaching a conclusion you can act upon,  in this process something is determined.  While a choice implies an act of choosing between two or more possibilities. In this way, ‘choosing’ is a practice of continually aligning toward various decisions. If we zoom out we may see that choices are how we navigate through life and how we arrive at decisions. Let’s take a moment to ponder this. 

What was the most important decision you made today? 

And what was the underlying choice you made that led you to that decision? 

‍Choosing and deciding are related processes, yes, but they are fundamentally different in their nature. Choosing is relational, it is a process of orienting ourselves towards something of importance, such as our personal values, and what we hold dear. Choices lay out possible paths and open up fields of opportunities. While, deciding is directional; decisions are the concrete steps we take on that path. 

‍If we shift from considering the individual level of choice to the collective level, we can see that human actions are a dominant driving force for what’s happening, and going to happen, on this planet. From this perspective our actions may look insignificant at a larger scale.

But an easily overlooked perspective is that we are not passive consumers or bystanders in the course of history. There is choice and agency everywhere, in the seemingly small moments of our daily lives, in the conversations we have with loved ones, or in choosing, or changing, our careers. Each moment holds an underlying choice we can engage if we choose to. 

‍Now, a common argument is that the challenges we are facing are so grand and complex – that it doesn’t really matter what I intend, do or think.

In this article we will flip this argument around: In a networked world, there is nothing that matters more than what you do. Not only for you and your immediate environment, but also for the world at large. What you do, in turn, is deeply embedded in the choices you make, as your choices shape your orientation toward life.  

‍Engaging with choice can also foster your sense of agency. Agency refers to the ability to direct your own actions in a meaningful way. In the field of systems impact, agency is often the precursor to creating change within our immediate environment or the larger social context we exist within and care about. As we reclaim our sense of choice, we inhabit more of our agency, which in turn enables us to have a greater impact

‍Before we unpack this more and dive deeper into the exploration on how to reclaim choice and agency, we invite you to do a little exercise with us, to connect with what supports your sense of choice and agency. 

You can follow the steps below or use this mentimeter survey for guidance: 

(if you use the survey, we will anonymously keep track of the responses – and you can also read through the results of others for inspiration)‍

  1. Think of a current situation that frustrates you – where you feel you don’t have choice or agency. This can be something in your immediate environment – or a larger social issue. How would you describe that situation? What emotions are present for you? What is the root cause of your frustration? 
  2. Now, think of a moment in the past where you felt similar, but then experienced some sort of breakthrough – a moment where new opportunities emerged. Enter that moment now. Take a few deep breaths and observe what shows up for you – in terms of images, emotions or intuitions.
  3. Now consider, what made that breakthrough, that shift, possible? Note down a few words, lines or images.

We will return to this exercise at a later stage in this article. 

Agency in a  Networked World

‍We all exist in webs of relationships, which are the most basic form of networks. Networks exist within and around us. In nature we see networks of mycelium, mushrooms and fungi;  the internet is a network of networks consisting of computers, routers and webpages.  If we consider our bodies we can see that even our brain is made up of neural networks and synapses. Networks show us that it is important to focus on the individual elements as well as the relationships between them

‍In essence, referring to our world as “networked” mainly means four things

(1) We are part of more networks than ever before. Just count the number of initiatives, groups and organisations you are connected to – and compare it to the generation before you. 

(2) the networks we are part of are larger in scope than they have ever been. Technology, mainly the internet, has made it possible to decouple social connections from physical proximity, at least to a certain degree. 

(3) The networks themselves are connected. what happens within one network impacts others, for example a traffic jam or delayed trains in a transport system can lead to people being late to work. 

(4) The networks we are part of, or deliberately not part of, shape our identity and actions. In turn, we also shape the identity and possible actions of these networks, yet usually to a lesser degree. 

Let’s explore one aspect further: having agency within a networked world. To distill things a bit, we can say that there are three major levels of networks. For simplicity’s sake, moving forward, we will use the terms “network” and “system” interchangeably. ‍

  1. Individuals: Human beings in their full complexity and wholeness 
  2. Intermediary institutions: Systems we can belong to and that we can shape, e.g. a family, sports club, impact network, or organisation. 
  3. Societal systems / institutions: governments, the financial sector, etc.

Source: based on Berger & Luckmann: The Social Construction of Reality

‍Now, there are connections within each system, e.g. between coworkers of an organisation; between systems of the same level, e.g. organisations within an alliance; and between systems of different levels, e.g. an activist group trying to influence a policy. ‍

We each will have varying degrees of agency in relation to the three levels of networks mentioned above. For example, personally fighting financial injustice, individual level, by ignoring letters from the financial department, societal level, is not the most promising strategy. As individuals, we usually have very little leverage over societal institutions and matters. However, joining an organisation, an intermediary institution, that creates financial literacy among disadvantaged groups and lobbies for policy changes, might actually work. 

With an awareness of each level it becomes easier to choose which level and interaction you say yes to and no to. Choices are an opportunity to lean in and engage with the networks within and around us. Yet we may often jump to decisions without being aware of the choices that are available to us. This awareness, from our perspective, is the first step towards reclaiming choice and agency.

Choice for Impact

In engaging choice for creating systemic impact, a key question is: What’s the issue or vision I want to contribute to? To achieve that, what is the relevant system that I want to change, and in which direction do I want to change it? Let’s apply what we’ve learned so far, by drawing on the concepts of choice and agency as well as the three levels of systems. To make this more tanglible, you can bring to mind the situation that frustrates you from the initial exercise, and take a moment to think about the societal issues that underlies it. 

‍To move from inertia to agency, we see four levels of choice. 

‍The first choice is about living into your values and allowing yourself to take your inner compass and drive for social change seriously. This can be in relation to a social issue or external “trigger”, such as observing environmental destruction or diversity loss in your area.

‍The second choice is to think systemically and be strategic, asking the question: what is the relevant societal system I can engage with in relation to this topic? This choice is context dependent and will vary depending on where you live,  the resources you have access to, and which systems may be standing in the way of it becoming a reality. For example, there may be a larger societal system that needs to be shifted, such as the energy supply system with its given sources of energy and the extraction of these resources. 

‍The third choice is to engage my agency and seek intermediary institutions to engage in.  It’s a choice to be proactive about changing the status quo with an attitude of both realism, “we should do something or else..”, and optimism, “there is something I / we can do”. Taking the example of climate justice, this might result in joining an energy coop or an activist group to influence politics.  

‍Lastly, the fourth choice is to remember the choices above and embody them with joy and a sense of optimism. We can only be effective change agents if, to paraphrase Gandhi, “our lives are our message”. 

Our modern day and age provide us with the unique opportunity to use network effects on a global level to contribute to causes we care about. The Four Levels of Choice can serve as a general orientation, acknowledging that it’s rather circular and interdependent than linear in its application. 

‍Another way we can understand the levels of choice is through imagining an iceberg. Part of the iceberg is above water yet the majority of the iceberg exists beneath the water’s surface. The part below the surface represents our values, beliefs and mental models, while the part above the surface represents our behavior and actions. Choice is how we align what is beneath the surface, with what is above the surface, therefore aligning our values with our behavior and actions.

‍We invite you to go back to your personal situation and example, either for yourself or in the mentimeter survey: How can you relate differently to move from frustration to agency? What are the underlying choices you have? 

‍To give the topic more depth, there are two additional perspectives we’d like to explore, starting with ourselves and the choices we have within. 

Choices within 

Choice is in essence a process of alignment. At the deepest level choice can be seen as aligning with life, both in a general sense and in the present moment. Through choice we can also engage the intelligence of our body, our senses, organs and our imagination, in noticing what arises in response to a particular direction. Upon waking up in the morning, you can ask yourself what am I choosing today?’ and then notice what arises, not only in the realm of thought, but also through sensations, images, textures, sounds and other experiences. Over time, by cultivating an awareness of how we respond to a given direction, we become able to choose more fully from our whole being and find greater alignment in our subsequent decisions. 

‍At one level these choices within are momentary. They can arise through what we give our attention to, how much we open ourselves to experience something, and how much context to bring in and share with another. Choices can also span time and serve as a north star. For example, choice can manifest through a sense of calling, something we choose again and again that moves us closer to a dream we have for the world. As such, choice becomes the fuel for moving forward. Choice in that sense is an ongoing journey. As we pursue our calling we can reflect on the values we are choosing to enact and the principles we are choosing to embody in service of those values. 

Here are some guiding questions to work with choice as an ongoing journey and a calling: 

  1. What is so dear to you that you are willing to choose it over and over again?
  2. What is choosing you? What are themes you repeatedly run into? 

As stated earlier on, our choices reveal our basic attitudes, beliefs and feelings toward life. 

Choices underlie our decisions; they move us from thought into action. 

Choices in Impact Networks

Yet there is still another dimension of choice, namely within networks or intermediary institutions. We can see these choices through the levels we outlined above as well as in any context where we exist in relation to other beings. An example of this kind of intermediary institution is an impact network, a network that is intentionally created…

Here we can see that there are two fundamental dynamics at play.

‍In the first dimension such a network coordinates and synergizes individual actions around shared principles and a collective purpose that individuals have chosen to participate in. The purpose of the network may not mirror the individuals’ purpose, however there is usually a synergy between the individuals’ purpose and the purpose of the network. 

‍In the second dimension, impact networks support and carry out collaborative action and learning for deliberative change on social and environmental issues. 

Choice shows up in each of the two dimensions within an impact network: 

Dimension 1 is about choosing how to create the best possible conditions to engage network members. This requires the network to provide incentives to individuals to actively engage, and at the same time recognise the overall purpose and strategy of the network. For example, establishing rules around membership and criteria for internal decision making. 

Dimension 2 is about choosing how to relate proactively to the societal issue and its related system(s). Impact networks, therefore, are an ideal testing ground to practise agency and choice in an intentional way. 

Practicing Choice

We’ve seen that the decisions we make are often preceded by an underlying choice we’ve made at a conscious or subconscious level. When we connect with the dimensions of choice we can connect with a greater sense of agency in our immediate context and within the larger systems we are a part of. This awareness, in turn, supports us to become more intentional and impactful in the decisions we make and actions we take. ‍

Choosing is also a capacity that we can cultivate through practice. Throughout each day we can notice the choices available to us and choose to engage our choices consciously. Awareness is the first step. We can practice recognizing the choices we have in the moment as well as the different dimensions that we can engage our choice in. Choosing deliberately increases our agency – the ability to direct our own actions in a meaningful way. 

Choices help us to orient ourselves towards the world we wish to create- with all its complex challenges. 

It’s a practice, like building a muscle or learning a new skill. 

‍With this article we hope to provide an accessible framework to rethink and reclaim choice & agency, to invite each of us to begin to practice engaging the choices we have, from the large, to the seemingly mundane or small. 

The following worksheets are designed to support you in that practice: 

Download all 3 worksheets in one package HERE

Happy choosing! All worksheets are under a creative commons license, so feel encouraged to invite friends, colleagues and whoever comes to mind into the practice.  

About Elsa & Jannik – the authors

This article is a co-creation in the truest sense. We noticed early on in our explorative conversations that we share interests and perspectives on many topics, such as impact networks, creating and evaluating systemic change, and capacity development. We also recognised our complementary backgrounds.

Elsa Henderson is a practitioner at the Converge Network and faculty at the Metavision Institute. She moves between the roles of network consultant, facilitator and educator supporting individuals and groups to deepen their capacity to collaborate for systems impact and find meaning even in the midst of uncertainty. Her background is in process-oriented psychology and anthropology, with an interest in phenomenology, systems thinking and consciousness studies.

Jannik Kaiser is co-founder of Unity Effect, where he leads the area of Systemic Impact Evaluation, grounded in the knowledge that evaluation can be participatory, meaningful and energising. His background is in sociology, with a continuous passion for complexity science, phenomenology and asking fundamental big questions about life. 

In our conversations, we also allowed our minds to wander and our intuition to speak. In the end, it felt more like the topic of choice ‘chose’ us. And we could feel the depth and richness in it that is calling for further explorations. 

To give one example: The image of the iceberg and choice as a process to align our values and principles and translate them into action. This aligns with the three levels of reality process-oriented  psychology, namely (1) consensus reality, (2) Dreamland (inner worlds & imaginations) and the (3) Essence level (the non-dual pre-manifest field of ‘implicate order’ as coined by Bohm. It also fits with Ken Wilber’s AQAL model, according to which each system has an interior (invisible) and exterior (visible) dimension. 

An interesting exploration could be how individual and collective choices are connected. The iceberg is swimming in a vast ocean of water. Similarly, our individual choices are embedded in what we could call consensus reality or culture. Yet this consensus reality is currently being questioned, and the topic of choice could inform how we transition between such collective realities. 

So stay tuned, there might be more coming up.

originally published at Unity Effect

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