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Sunday, 2 February 2014

Abstract for cognitive semiotics conference: "Will the agents of nature please rise: What is agency?"

Some days ago I composed and submitted the abstract below to the organizers of the First International Association for Cognitive Semiotics (IACS) Conference (to be held in Lund, Sweden, September 25-27, 2014).

Will the agents of nature please rise: What is agency?
Morten Tønnessen
Associate professor at Department of health studies, University of Stavanger
What is agency? And who (sic) qualify as agents? In this talk I will present findings from a survey conducted in the biosemiotic community. The survey in question is the first of a series of surveys to be conducted in relation to the Biosemiotic Glossary Project, which is carried out by the journal Biosemiotics. Each survey is done in preparation of a review article which investigates one or a few terms – cf. Tønnessen, forthcoming. 
The questionnaire for the first review article was distributed November 16th 2013, with December 15th as deadline for replies (in practice late responses were accepted). It was sent as email attachment to the members of the editorial board and advisory board of Biosemiotics, the board members of the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies (ISBS) and of the International Society of Code Biology (ISCB), and via the biosemiotics email list ( The questionnaire was furthermore made available online (on, and the same message as had been sent by email was posted in the Biosemiosis blog ( 18 scholars returned questionnaires that were fully or partially filled-in, most of whom have given their permission to be cited in the review article. 
As part of the analysis of survey material, I will give an overview of various differing definitions of agency, and in conclusion I will attempt to arrive at a synthesis of existing definitions. In the survey, respondents were asked to state whether each of 5 citations involving the term ‘agent’ and 4 citations involving the term ‘agency’ were (A) perfectly suitable, (B) generally suitable, (C) somewhat suitable, or (D) not at all suitable. They were furthermore asked to define the terms, and to refer to their own work or that of others in doing so. Respondents were also asked to delimit relevant contexts of use, to mention related terms in English and other languages, and to point out the difference, if any, between the mainstream meaning of ‘agent’ and ‘agency’ and the meaning of these terms in biosemiotic usage.
This work has been carried out thanks to the support of the research project Animals in Changing Environments: Cultural Mediation and Semiotic Analysis (EEA Norway Grants/Norway Financial Mechanism 2009-2014 under project contract no EMP151).
Tønnessen, Morten, forthcoming. The biosemiotic glossary project: Agent, agency. To appear in Biosemiotics 7(3), December 2014.

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