Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Searching for the Right Relationship Between Agency and Subjectivity

lgleysteen's picture

Searching for the Right Relationship Between Agency and Subjectivity

Web Event #3

December 4th, 2011


            Every person has the capacity to obtain agency to an extent.  Agency is the ability to make active decisions about one’s life.  Agency is something that is impossible to completely achieve because of cultural, gendered, ethical, and economic restraint.  To possess all-encompassing agency involves removing a right relationship between the individual and their society.  The amount of agency an individual has is determined by their culture, ethics, gender, and socio-economic status.  Agency is subjective.  For example, one woman might see the act of wearing a veil as restricting a woman’s agency or even worse, judging the woman for denying her agency while the woman wearing the veil feels empowered because of her devoutness.  Agency can be seen as “the interaction between our self-conscious self and the social context we find ourselves in.  It is embodied in that individuals may be more, or less aware of how their environment, social context and upbringing affect their lives and their decision-making. (Williams, 39) Transnational marriage migration of ‘bought brides’ in East Asia is a phenomenon in which agency meeting subjectivity. 

            With unbalanced sex at birth ratios in China, men reaching reproductive ages are having a difficult time finding wives.  It is estimated that by 2020 one in five men will not be able to marry in their culturally preferred way. (Greenhalgh, 24)  The men who will suffer most from the lack of women to marry are the lower-class, under-privileged men who are not appealing in the domestic marriage market.   Men who are desperate to marry but who are too poor to attract a wife often turn to the global marriage market to find a wife.  The rise in the number of woman involved in international marriages  is because of the economic hardships in their home countries and their image of what marriage is like in the country they are migrating to. (Yang, 34) Women who marry a man outside their country are either usually referred to by locals as either bought brides or migrant wives. (Hvistendahl, 193)  Vietnam and North Korea has the largest number of women exported and sold to Chinese men but those men often have the option of buying their brides from Thailand, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Russia, Malaysia, and Singapore.  (Davis)  Marriage migration is usually sustained by commercial brokers and social networks.  Without matchmakers most bought brides would never have been able to meet their future husbands.  There are also a large number of intermediary people because of long distance between supply and demand.

            There is a multitude of circumstances that causes a woman to become a migrate wife.  There are varying levels of agency a woman might possess that leads her to her marriage status in another country.  There are woman who choose to participate in the industry because they want a better life for themselves, woman who want to provide money for their family, woman who were forced into their situation and trafficked, and woman who marry transnationally because of other reasons.  Marriage is one of the few legal ways of permanently settling in a society outside and sometimes it offers women the opportunity for a better life.  Women’s cultural expectations of what marriage is like in another country is part of their decision making process.

  Women often have agency in choosing to become part of a transnational marriage but then they are often forced into a situation that they would not have chosen.  There are women who were promised by marriage brokers that they would have better lives but then they are forced to marry a much older and poorer man then they had expected and then have to live away from friends and family without acceptance from their host community.  (Davis)Brides usually cost 5,000 Yuan ($800) and their price depends on age, appearance, and destination.  Youth is an important factor in choosing women because younger women are more likely to produce a greater number of children.  The Singaporean agency “Life Partner Matchmaker” medically examines their brides to ensure virginity. (Hvistendahl, 189)  Women are sometimes forced into polyandrous marriages, where the wife expected to be sold to one husband, but is forced to service his brother’s as well.  Sometimes women try and cross the border because they were promised a job in the country they are migrating to but instead they are forced into marriage.

Migrant marriages have a different amount of structure and agency depending on the individual’s circumstances.  No one is entirely bound by structural constraints and no one has complete agency.  The majority of the world’s population has less agency because of their position in relation to developed to countries. (Williams, 2)  There are many structural factors that affect agency, especially in the case of marriage migration.

Migrant wives are almost always depicted as powerless victims of trafficking and coercion, or mail-order brides.  Understanding an individual’s agency involves understanding their motivations, intentions, and aspirations. (Williams, 34)  Agency usually occurs under the constraint of the power structures of family, locality, culture, and internationals institutions.  Women can make their own decisions within the framework of their culture, but true agency would allow them to make decisions despite their cultural influences.  Women who actively choose to participate in the marriage business to improve their lives are often seen in their community as immoral, dishonest, and fostering a social disorder. (Williams, 40).  Many women choose this life without the support of their community and family which involves agency in itself.  Agency is often seen as a creative process that involves innovation and risk–taking.  The women who choose to participate in the marriage industry are active agents because they are shaping their own migratory experience in a way that is traditionally different than the life they were expected to have in their home community.

Despite the fact that there is agency within some migrant marriages, women who become bought brides become material goods.  When women are bought and sold they embody commodification whether or not they have chosen to or not.  They’re agency is removed and they become subjected to the demands of the men who bought them.  When women are sold, they become a product, and they are often treated as such.  Husbands who buy their wives often expect to get everything that they paid for, which limits that amount of agency a woman can have.   Women may find economic security but still lose their independence and feeling of having a place in society.  Especially if there is a language, barrier, women may often feel like they are only bodies for their husband’s needs. Women and their husbands are both marginalized within their society because usually the men who cannot find wives in their own community are the poorest, least attractive, and non-elite males.

      It is impossible to find the right relationship between agent and object because every situation varies from person to person.  A right relationship is impossible because it can only be formed when an individual has unconditional agency.  Unconditional agency means ignoring cultural, ethical, and economic rules.  There is no exact measurement of agency because every culture sees it differently.  Agency and objectification are not mutually exclusive.  The act of becoming a migrant wife involves a combination of agency and objectification.





  • Davis, Kathleen. "Brides, Bruises and the Border: The Trafficking of North Korean Women into China." SAIS Review 26.1 (2006): 131-41. Print.
  • Greenhalgh, Susan. Cultivating Global Citizens: Population in the Rise of China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2010. Print.
  • Williams, Lucy. Global Marriage: Cross-border Marriage Migration in Global Context. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.
  • Hvistendahl, Mara. Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. New York: PublicAffairs, 2011. Print.
  • Yang, Wen-Shan, and Melody Chia-Wen. Lu. Asian Cross-border Marriage Migration: Demographic Patterns and Social Issues. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2010. Print.





Anne Dalke's picture

agency and objectification

You've chosen a fascinating example of the dilemma of agency in a constrained world (your title refers to "agency and subjectivity," though your punch line--and I think your real topic--is about "agency and objectification").  I find myself particularly interested in the questions you raise because of the conversation taking place just now, elsewhere on Serendip, about the possibility/impossibility of choice for someone who is the survivor of sexual violence: /exchange/node/11390#comment-132454

What strikes me most in this project--and what I hope we might talk about when we meet tomorrow-- is your claim that "right relationship is impossible because it can only be formed when an individual has unconditional agency,"  that "agency is something that is impossible to completely achieve because of cultural, gendered, ethical, and economic restraint." I think I'm curious about these claims because what I found most helpful in Humbach's essay was his insistently locating a "Natural Justice of Right Relationships" NOT in the ideal, but in the nitty gritty of the real. For example:

 "nobody is counting. In right relationships it is not tit-for-tat but the members' mutual and effective commitments to one another...." Even Aristotle weighs in here: "it is plainly impossible to pronounce with complete accuracy upon such a subject-matter as human action. For where the thing to be measured is indefinite the rule must be indefinite..."

"…legal rules must of necessity be written to provide for the general case, the most usual kind of case. Because of the infinite nuance of life, however, rules (and, hence, the rights they prescribe) often do not work well to meet the particularized, context-specific moral challenges that later arise. Indeed, one might say...the clumsy stiffness of abstract rules and rights almost always miss the moral mark."

The other bit to note here is my surprise that you didn't include among your citations the several articles we read in class on this topic, for example:

Therese Hesketh and Zhu Wei Xing. Abnormal sex ratios in human populations: Causes and consequences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103, 36 (2006): 13271-13275 (in our password-protected file).

Christophe Z. Guilmoto.  "The sex ratio transition in Asia."  Population and Development Review  35, 3 (2009): 510-549 (in our password-protected file).

I'd be curious, in other words,  to see you locate your exploration more fully in the context of our ongoing conversations, rather than as a stand-alone statement.