Panic and perjury: a psychosocial exploration of agency

Hollway, Wendy and Jefferson, Tony (2005). Panic and perjury: a psychosocial exploration of agency. British Journal of Social Psychology, 44(2) pp. 147–163.



The aim of this article is to explore the predicament of one man in difficult circumstances, in order to produce a psychosocial analysis that could contribute to a social psychological understanding of agency. After a brief review of the problem of dualism in theorizing agency and relevant developments in theories of self, and a critique of assumptions about unitary rational subjects, we emphasize the effects of unconscious conflict on choice and agency. We also identify the importance of including people's biographically motivated investments in specific discursive positions. Vince, a middle-aged, working-class man from the north of England, the subject of our case study, had already been faced with difficult choices in order to hold on to a job that was bad for him. Now the choice appeared to be taken out of his hands by an illness without a discernible organic base and with no prospect of improvement that, for 5 months, had forced him to be on sick leave. Our approach in this paper, based on interpretation of material from two interviews, is to detail the multiple and contradictory meanings of Vince's job to him. In each of three areas — the daily experience of the job, the meaning of having a respectable job, and Vince's relationship with his boss — we illustrate the power of a psychosocial analysis to escape the limitations of both voluntaristic and deterministic accounts of individual action. In conclusion we define the agent of choice in Vince's case as the divided psychosocial subject of unconscious conflict; a subject located in social realities mediated not only by social discourses but by psychic defences.

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