Blaming for Columbine: conceptions of agency in the contemporary United States

Claudia Strauss, Pitzer College

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Modern Westerners are supposed to embrace a notion of unfettered personal agency. An analysis of public commentary (interviews, editorials, and online message boards) in the United States about the Columbine school shootings shows that the voluntarist cultural model of persons as autonomous agents, while certainly very important, is just one of a number of cultural models Americans use to explain human action and has particular political and interpersonal uses. We might think that conceptions as basic as those of personhood and agency would be hegemonic: both singular and internalized as unexamined, taken‐for‐granted assumptions. In some contexts, voluntarist ideas about agency are taken for granted, but in others they are promoted quite deliberately. A particularly interesting phenomenon in the United States at this time is the presence of a discourse that may be called defensive voluntarism, an explicit, argumentative version of voluntarism invoked to combat other widely circulating views of behavior. The very need for emphatic pronouncement betrays speakers’ awareness that voluntarism needs to be defended. These findings point to the need for a person‐and‐context‐centered approach to social discourses instead of one that assumes discourses to be constitutive.