Social Systems and Individual Agency | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
Sketch of men and women in bicycle attire in 1894.

Social Systems and Individual Agency

Students identify the parts, people, and interactions of various social systems, thinking about what bearing they have on character choices and behaviour, before considering responses to injustice.


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

lesson copy


English — UK


Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Human & Civil Rights


About this Lesson

In the previous lesson, students explored the character of Inspector Goole, discussing the message and modern relevance of his final speech on social responsibility. This process both assisted students in preparing for their GCSE exam and gave them the opportunity to consider the relevance of the play and the lessons we can learn from it. 

In this lesson, students will develop their understanding of human choices and behaviour by considering the social systems, such as class and patriarchy, that are operating in the play and in the society in which we live. These systems can influence our status in society and the amount of power we possess. The situation is complex, however, as there are multiple systems operating at the same time: one may give a person power in some areas, whilst another may render that same person powerless elsewhere. Since these systems can dictate how much power we possess and the scope of our influence – the Edwardian patriarchal system, for example, gave men greater rights than women, placing women in a subservient position – it is important to understand that they can have an impact on our experiences and, in some cases, may push people towards certain choices. However, it is also vital that students acknowledge that just because people operate within these social systems it does not mean they are not accountable for their actions. Ultimately, we are responsible for the choices we make, even if we feel ourselves pressured by the structures of a system. 

Students will then move on to learn about the roles of perpetrator, victim, bystander, and upstander, and identify how these roles are relevant to understanding the characters’ decision-making processes. Working in groups, students will explore the behaviour of one character in the play by focusing on two events (one in relation to their treatment of Eva Smith, and the other in relation to their behaviour at the dinner party). When students share their ideas, they will be able to see how the characters change and adopt a range of roles. In some moments, for example, they may behave like perpetrators; in others, like upstanders; and elsewhere, they may adopt two roles simultaneously. Their position in society may make them victim to a social system with limited power, whilst the choices they make may place them firmly in the role of perpetrator. Encouraging students to explore these roles through the characters will enable them to consider their fluid nature – people can move between roles and can occupy different ones at the same time – and their highly complex nature. These roles do not exist alone, and we must also consider the context of the situation and the amount of power people possess. Such understanding is important if students are to reflect on their behaviour and realise that they play a part in the society in which they live: what they do or don’t do has consequences that reach beyond their own lives.

  • Application of Contextual Information (Lit-AO3)
  • Critical Reading (Lit-AO1/AO3, Lang-AO1/AO4)
  • Critical Thinking (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)
  • Evaluation Skills (Lang-AO4)
  • Evidence-Based Reasoning (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)
  • Knowledge of Content (Lit-AO1/AO3)

Students use their critical thinking skills to dissect and discuss the social systems that are relevant to the play, applying their knowledge of the context of Edwardian England. Students then consider how certain characters exist within the systems, using a short extract of the play to prompt more general discussion. This not only boosts their knowledge of the play’s content, but also gives them an opportunity to use their critical reading skills and further incorporate their knowledge of contextual information. Then, when students discuss the behaviour of different characters and outline which roles they embody, they evaluate the characters’ choices and actions. If students complete the extension and homework tasks – a universe of obligation graphic organiser and iceberg diagram, respectively – they further demonstrate their knowledge of the content of the play and use evidence-based reasoning to justify their views. Additionally, the use of discussion and writing throughout gives students the opportunity to verbalise their thoughts and practise turning them into coherent sentences, which will help them across their English GCSEs.

Learn more about this unit’s Alignment with GCSE Specification

What can J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls teach us about the impact of our individual and collective decisions and actions on others?

  • What social systems exist in society and what impact do they have on our choices and behaviour?
  • How do the characters demonstrate the range and complexity of human behaviour when making decisions about how to treat each other?
  • Students will identify and discuss the parts, people and interactions of the social systems that existed in Edwardian society. 
  • Students will be introduced to the terms perpetrator, victim, bystander, and upstander and consider their relevance to the play.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 5 activities
  • 2 teaching strategies
  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 1 reading
  • 2 handouts
  • 1 extension activity
  • 1 homework suggestion

This lesson introduces students to the range of human behaviour that exists in response to injustice. Often when students think about acts of injustice, they divide those people involved into two groups: the victims and the perpetrators. But other individuals and groups contribute to the prevention of or the perpetuation of injustice. For example, a bystander is someone who witnesses or knows about an act of injustice, but chooses not to do anything about it. An upstander, on the other hand, is someone who, when confronted with information about an unjust act, takes steps to prevent or stop this act from continuing. The term bystander can be complicated. In most dictionaries, it means a person who is simply ‘standing by’ or who is present without taking part in what is going on – a passive spectator. But some scholars, like psychologist Ervin Staub, believe that even passive spectators play a crucial role in defining the meaning of events by implicitly approving the actions of perpetrators.

When discussing the range of human behaviour, it is important to discuss how perpetrator, victim, bystander, and upstander are fluid roles, not fixed parts of an individual’s identity. Individuals and groups do not solely fit into one category, even within a specific event. Rather, we slip in and out of these roles throughout our lives, depending on the choices we make and the extenuating circumstances we may face. 

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

One of the key divisive social systems in the UK and globally, which does not feature in An Inspector Calls, is race. When students are responding to the question, ‘Which other systems exist in society that benefit some people at the expense of others?’, after they have completed the ‘Characters within Systems’ activity in Part I, they may well volunteer race as a response. There is not much opportunity to discuss race in this scheme of work; however, if you feel your students would benefit from doing so, then you may want to guide them through the Facing History lesson The Concept of Race at an appropriate moment.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson. Provide students with their definitions if necessary and consider adding them to your classroom Word Wall.

  • Patriarchy
  • Perpetrator
  • Victim
  • Bystander
  • Upstander

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides.

The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson.

The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plans

Part I Activities

  • Explain to students that they will now be considering the complexity of the social systems at play in An Inspector Calls, and thinking about how they are relevant to the characters and the choices that they make, by completing an activity developed as part of the Agency by Design initiative of Project Zero at Harvard University known as Parts, People, and Interactions.
  • Before you ask students to identify the parts, people and interactions of the class system, give them the reading The Parts, People, and Interactions of the Patriarchal System in Edwardian England to read independently.
  • Once students have finished reading, check for understanding by fielding questions to clarify any confusion. Then, lead a brief discussion that draws from the following questions: 
    • How does a change in one element of the system affect the various parts and people connected to the system?
    • Are there any parts that you think are missing from the reading?
    • Are there any people that you think are missing from the reading?
    • What other interactions exist that might not be listed?
    • Which other changes could occur and how would they impact the patriarchal system in Edwardian England? 
  • Now, ask students to work in groups of four to complete a Parts, People, and Interactions activity for class in Edwardian England. Project the following prompts one at a time and circulate to help groups get started as needed:
    • What were the parts of the class system in Edwardian England?
    • Who were the people connected to the class system?
  • Ask students to share their ideas with the class, collecting their suggestions on the board, helping students if necessary by giving them some of the parts (i.e. class categories, etiquette rules, accents, wealth, education, personal connections, laws, titles) and/or some of the people (i.e. queen, king, upper-class man, upper-class woman, lord mayor, business owner, factory worker, person out of work, poor uneducated person, poor educated person, etc.).
  • Next, project the following two questions for the groups to discuss:
    • How did the people in the Edwardian class system interact with each other and with the parts of the system?
    • How did a change in one element of the system affect the various parts and people connected to the system?
  • Finally, give groups an opportunity to share their ideas and then lead a short class discussion using the following questions:
    • What new, different, or deeper understanding about the Edwardian class system do you have after the ‘Parts, People, and Interactions’ activity?
    • How did the Edwardian class system give some people power over others? 
    • What similarities and differences do you notice between the Edwardian class system and the class system today?
    • What do you think can be done to challenge the class system in modern society?
  • Explain to students that they will now consider the positions and choices of characters in relation to the social systems in Edwardian society. 
  • Divide the students into small groups and inform each group that they will be rereading a short section of the play and considering systemic factors.
  • Allocate each group one of the extracts and its relevant questions from the handout Characters within Systems.
  • Once students have read their extract and discussed the corresponding questions, you might want to ask one or two students for each extract to summarise their group’s discussions. 
  • Finally, lead a brief class discussion, using the following questions and inviting students to share any ideas they would like to:
    • How is the social construct of gender relevant to the characters in the play? 
    • How is the class system relevant to the characters in the play? Who does the class system empower? Who does it place in an inferior position?
    • Which other systems exist in the play that benefit some people at the expense of others?
    • Which other systems exist in society that benefit some people at the expense of others?
    • What does dissecting the parts, people and interactions of a system tell you about the various systems in existence?

Explain to students that they will reflect on social systems in a journal response, using the following prompts: 

  • Which systems give you power and influence in society? Which don’t?
  • Why are we all responsible for challenging unfair systems?

Part II Activities

  • Explain to students that now they have considered the broader social systems at play as a means of understanding the characters and their choices, they will focus on understanding individual agency. It is important that they understand that whilst a social system can impact our behaviour, we ultimately have a choice in how we act, unless we have certain roles forced upon us. To help students understand this, they will be looking at behaviour roles that exist in situations of injustice, thinking about which ones the characters embody in the play. They will also be using their ideas from the previous lesson to consider the impact that the social systems they explored have on these roles.
  • First, have students make connections between injustice and their own lives by asking them to respond in their journals to the following questions. Project or write the questions on the board one at a time. Let students know that they will not be sharing their responses.
    • Write about a time when you could have helped someone but chose not to. What happened? What choices did you have in that moment? What made it hard to help in that moment?
    • Write about a time when you made the choice to help someone. What happened? What choices did you have in that moment? How did it feel?
  • Pass out the handout The Range of Human Behaviour Vocabulary Terms. Students should work in pairs to write the predicted meaning of each term in the middle column. Project, dictate, or provide the definitions of the terms: 
    • Perpetrator: A person carrying out a harmful, illegal, or immoral act
    • Victim or Target: A person being targeted by the harmful, illegal, or immoral acts of a perpetrator
    • Bystander: A person who is present but not actively taking part in a situation or event
    • Upstander: A person speaking or acting in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied
  • Tell students that ‘victims’ can also be called ‘targets’. Because these are roles and not parts of our identities, we say ‘victim of bullying’ or a ‘target of bullying’ rather than ‘he is a victim’. 
  • Explain that individuals and groups do not fit solely into one category. Instead, they slip in and out of these roles throughout their lives and because of extenuating circumstances. Individuals can also play more than one role at the same time.
  • Inform students that they will now be working in small groups and will be discussing one of the following characters: Eric, Gerald, Mr Birling, Mrs Birling, or Sheila.
  • Divide students into groups and assign each group one character.
  • Ask the students to focus on two separate incidents in the character’s behaviour: one must be connected to their treatment of Eva Smith and the other to their behaviour at the dinner party. Students must discuss what role(s) the character occupied in both instances, and outline the social systems that were relevant to the situation. 
  • Project the following questions to guide students in their discussion. Let them know they have fifteen minutes to complete the task and should take notes in their books to refer to later in the lesson. 
    • What was the incident? 
    • What role(s) did your character choose to adopt?
    • Why was this choice expected, surprising, and/or troubling?  
    • What social systems were relevant in this situation?
    • What impact could they have had on your character and/or their decision-making process?
  • You may wish to model your own example, fielding ideas from the class, or write this example for Eva Smith on the board:
    • Incident: Eva Smith leading a strike at Birling & Company.
    • Role: She was an upstander, campaigning against the unfair working conditions for factory girls, but she was also a victim as a worker with few rights and limited power to make change.
    • Surprising: Eva was challenging people and structures that possessed great power.
    • Relevant Social Systems: Capitalism, class and gender. 
    • Impact: All of these systems denied Eva power. 
  • Debrief the activity by inviting students to share a summary of one of their instances, outlining what they discussed briefly. If desired they can use the same structure as the example above. 
  • Next, project the following questions on the board and facilitate a short class discussion:
  • Did your character move between roles or adopt roles simultaneously in either of the instances you explored? 
  • How much choice did the character have over the choice that they embodied? 
  • In which roles are people likely to have more choice? 
  • Why is it important to remember that these roles are not a part of someone’s identity and that people can switch roles? 
  • Why is it important to consider the amount of power that someone has in society when we are considering their role? 
  • Why, if people are ‘victims’ of a system, are they still responsible for their actions?

Extension Activity

  • Explain to students that they will now consider how these different systems interact in society, and how they prioritise some people above others, by creating a universe of obligation for 1912 Edwardian society. 
  • Give students the handout Universe of Obligation Graphic Organiser and ask them to complete it in pairs by placing the different characters in the play where they think they fall in society’s universe of obligation and justifying their positioning with references to the sociohistorical context and the content of An Inspector Calls. To ensure students do not leave out any of the characters, you may want to provide them with a list: Edna, Eric, Eva, Gerald, Inspector Goole, Mr Birling, Mrs Birling, Sheila.
  • Once students have finished their universe of obligation, draw one on the board and invite one pair of students to share where they placed the characters and why. If other pairs disagreed, invite them to share their responses. 
  • Finally, lead a short class discussion using the following questions: 
    • What impact do social systems have on people’s identity and choices? Why are people still responsible for the choices they make?
    • If social systems encourage the imbalance of power and treat people differently, what can we do to challenge their existence? Whose responsibility is it?

Homework Suggestion

Ask students to complete an Iceberg Diagram for homework to consider what visible and invisible factors and social forces led to the death of Eva Smith. Explain that the tip of the iceberg are the visible factors that resulted in the death of Eva Smith, and that the part of the iceberg hidden underwater relates to the unseen factors and social forces that led to her death.

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

These are the handouts that students use throughout the Social Systems and Individual Agency lesson plan.

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