Origin of the Theory of Agency: An Account By One of the Theory's Originators

21 Pages Posted: 10 Oct 2007 Last revised: 2 Jun 2019

Date Written: May 30, 2019


The first scholars to propose, explicitly, that a theory of agency be created, and to actually begin its creation, were Stephen Ross and Barry Mitnick, independently and roughly concurrently. Ross is responsible for the origin of the economic theory of agency, and Mitnick for the institutional theory of agency, though the basic concepts underlying these approaches are similar. Indeed, the approaches can be seen as complementary in their uses of similar concepts under different assumptions. In short, Ross introduced the study of agency in terms of problems of compensation contracting; agency was seen, in essence, as an incentives problem. Mitnick introduced the now common insight that institutions form around agency, and evolve to deal with agency, in response to the essential imperfection of agency relationships: Behavior never occurs as it is preferred by the principal because it does not pay to make it perfect. But society creates institutions that attend to these imperfections, managing or buffering them, adapting to them, or becoming chronically distorted by them. Thus, to fully understand agency, we need both streams -- to see the institutional structures as well as the incentives. This paper describes the origin and early years of the theory, placing its development in the context of other research in this area.

Keywords: agency theory, institutional theory, transaction cost theory, agency costs, principal, agent

JEL Classification: D21, D23, D72, D73, D80, D82, H11, K00, K20, L22

Suggested Citation

Mitnick, Barry M., Origin of the Theory of Agency: An Account By One of the Theory's Originators (May 30, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1020378 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1020378

Barry M. Mitnick (Contact Author)

University of Pittsburgh ( email )

Katz Graduate School of Business
261 Mervis Hall
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
United States
412 648-1555 (Phone)

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