Towards a Social Theory of Agency


Robert M. Wiseman, Eli Broad Graduate School of Management, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824-1122, USA (


We challenge critics of agency theory who suggest that agency theory's value does not extend outside a narrow context dominated by egocentric agents seeking only to maximize wealth at the expense of the principal. Instead, we argue that agency theory's flexibility allows for its application to a variety of non-traditional settings where the key elements of agency theory, such as self-interest, information asymmetry, and the mechanisms used to control agency costs can vary beyond the narrow assumptions implied in traditional agency-based research. We suggest that extending agency theory to diverse settings using a deductive approach can be accomplished by formally recognizing and incorporating the institutional context surrounding principal–agent (P–A) relations into agency-based models. Thus, criticisms that agency theory fails to acknowledge the social context in which P–A relations occur provides not a barrier but an opportunity for extending our understanding of P–A relations to a variety of diverse contexts.