Subjective measurement of human agency

Nayyar, Shivani (2018). 'Subjective Measurement of Human Agency' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


From a human development perspective, a nation’s progress should result in the expansion of two fundamental freedoms – the freedom of well-being, and the freedom of agency. Freedom of agency has always been an integral part of the concept of human development. However, when it comes to measurement, it is fair to say that the agency aspect has received considerably less attention than the well-being dimension. For example, the Human Development Index (HDI), a composite measure incorporating education, health and income, has gained broad acceptance as reflecting a country’s performance.

A nation’s progress is meaningful when it results in expanding the capabilities of its people and also in the expansion of their agency and empowerment. Expansion of agency freedoms must be in of itself an objective of development. People value, deeply, the ability to direct and shape their lives. No one values a life dictated by others, a life with no agency.

The agency freedoms that people are able to enjoy are shaped by the social and political context, among other things. The institutional set-up – national and global - determines the extent and nature of agency freedoms that can be enjoyed.  In addition, social norms and organizations determine to a large extent the agency enjoyed by people in different groups, such as women (Human Development Report 2016).

Human agency and empowerment, as experienced by different groups, have usually been measured using proxy indicators, such as voter turnouts, women's education, women's participation in the labor force etc. However, there is at least anecdotal evidence that in some countries impressive achievements such as those in education do not translate into more human agency, or participation and inclusion. In many countries and regions, most women may be completing tertiary education and yet lack a feeling of agency or control over their lives.

Subjective indicators have been used for measuring happiness, or more generally, overall wellbeing. However, it can be argued that a feeling of empowerment has an inherent subjective component. Agency and empowerment may never be fully captured by objective measures such as education, and it may be necessary to go beyond these. Most likely, objective and subjective measures can complement each other in the measurement of agency freedoms.

This paper explores the different ways in which human agency can be measured, emphasizing in particular subjective measures of human agency. For example, the Gallup World Survey asks people in over 160 countries, “In this country, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?” The data are very instructive, in how they vary over country, over time, across gender, and across other dimensions. Particularly attractive is the feature that this dataset allows for disaggregation by gender.

This paper has three main contributions. First, it will examine the extent of correlation in (changes over time in) objective measures of agency and proposed subjective measures. Results will have to be examined carefully, keeping in my mind the possibility of adaptive preferences. It is very conceivable, for example that based on a lifetime of social conditioning, women do not perceive that they lack agency.

Second, the paper will explore the use of subjective measures, those available and others to be designed, for keeping better track of the extent to which people feel that they are able to participate in the political discourse and hence impact their own life outcomes. It will examine the strengths, and also shortcomings, of using this data for assessing progress and for policy making. Any advantages of going beyond objective (proxy) measures will be discussed.

Finally, based on the details from the analysis, the paper will make recommendations for incorporating subjective measures in the discourse on agency in a measured and informed manner. Besides Gallup, there are Pew surveys and the World Values Survey. In many cases, the data are collected and held privately. Recommendations will also be made on building partnerships towards optimal availability and use of this data, for measuring human development progress and for policy making.

scroll to top