Structure and agency

Structure and agency

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The question over the primacy of either structure or agency in human behavior is a central debate in the social sciences. In this context, "agency
Agency (sociology)
In the social sciences, agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, "Structure" refers to the factors of influence that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions...

" refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. "Structure
Social structure
Social structure is a term used in the social sciences to refer to patterned social arrangements in society that are both emergent from and determinant of the actions of the individuals. The usage of the term "social structure" has changed over time and may reflect the various levels of analysis...

", by contrast, refers to the recurrent patterned arrangements which influence or limit the choices and opportunities available. The structure versus agency debate may also be understood as an issue of socialisation against autonomy, and can be contrasted with the "nature versus nurture
Nature versus nurture
The nature versus nurture debate concerns the relative importance of an individual's innate qualities versus personal experiences The nature versus nurture debate concerns the relative importance of an individual's innate qualities ("nature," i.e. nativism, or innatism) versus personal experiences...

" debate (i.e. "the natural versus the social").

Structure, socialisation and autonomy


The debate over the primacy of structure or agency relates to an issue at the heart of both classical and contemporary sociological theory: the question of social ontology: "What is the social world made of?" "What is a cause of the social world, and what is an effect?" "Do social structures determine an individual's behaviour or does human agency?"

For functionalists such as Émile Durkheim
Émile Durkheim
David Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist. He formally established the academic discipline and, with Karl Marx and Max Weber, is commonly cited as the principal architect of modern social science and father of sociology.Much of Durkheim's work was concerned with how societies could maintain...

, structure and hierarchy are essential in stabilising the very existence of society. Theorists such as Karl Marx
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

, by contrast, emphasise that the social structure can act to the detriment of the majority of individuals in a society. In both these instances "structure" may refer to something both material
Economic materialism
Materialism is a mindset that views the consumption and acquisition of material goods as positive and desirable. It is often bound up with a value system which regards social status as being intrinsically linked to affluence as well as the perception that happiness can be increased through...

 (or "economic") and cultural (e.g. related to norms
Norm (sociology)
Social norms are the accepted behaviors within a society or group. This sociological and social psychological term has been defined as "the rules that a group uses for appropriate and inappropriate values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. These rules may be explicit or implicit...

, custom
Custom
Custom may refer to:* Convention , a set of agreed, stipulated or generally accepted rules, norms, standards or criteria, often taking the form of a custom* Customization , anything made or modified to personal taste...

s, tradition
Tradition
A tradition is a ritual, belief or object passed down within a society, still maintained in the present, with origins in the past. Common examples include holidays or impractical but socially meaningful clothes , but the idea has also been applied to social norms such as greetings...

s and ideologies).

Some theorists put forward that what we know as our social existence is largely determined by the overall structure of society
Social structure
Social structure is a term used in the social sciences to refer to patterned social arrangements in society that are both emergent from and determinant of the actions of the individuals. The usage of the term "social structure" has changed over time and may reflect the various levels of analysis...

. The perceived agency of individuals can also mostly be explained by the operation of this structure. Theoretical systems aligned with this view include: structuralism
Structuralism
Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in linguistics, structuralism...

, and some forms of functionalism
Structural functionalism
Structural functionalism is a broad perspective in sociology and anthropology which sets out to interpret society as a structure with interrelated parts. Functionalism addresses society as a whole in terms of the function of its constituent elements; namely norms, customs, traditions and institutions...

 and Marxism
Marxism
Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

 (all of which in this context can be seen as forms of holism
Holism
Holism is the idea that all the properties of a given system cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone...

 -- the notion that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts").
In the reverse of the first position, other theorists stress the capacity of individual "agents" to construct and reconstruct their worlds. Theoretical systems aligned with this view include: methodological individualism
Methodological individualism
Methodological individualism is the theory that social phenomena can only be accurately explained by showing how they result from the intentional states that motivate the individual actors. The idea has been used to criticize historicism, structural functionalism, and the roles of social class,...

, social phenomenology
Structural functionalism
Structural functionalism is a broad perspective in sociology and anthropology which sets out to interpret society as a structure with interrelated parts. Functionalism addresses society as a whole in terms of the function of its constituent elements; namely norms, customs, traditions and institutions...

, interactionism
Interactionism
In sociology, interactionism is a theoretical perspective that derives social processes from human interaction. It is the study of individuals and how they act within society. Interactionist theory has grown in the latter half of the twentieth century and has become one of the dominant...

 and ethnomethodology
Ethnomethodology
Ethnomethodology is an ethnographic approach to sociological inquiry introduced by the American sociologist Harold Garfinkel . Ethnomethodology's research interest is the study of the everyday methods people use for the production of social order...

.

Lastly, a third option, taken by many modern social theorists (Bourdieu, 1977, 1990), is to attempt to find a point of balance between the two previous positions. They see structure and agency as complementary forces - structure influences human behaviour, and humans are capable of changing the social structures they inhabit. Structuration
Structuration
The theory of structuration, proposed by Anthony Giddens in The Constitution of Society , is an attempt to reconcile theoretical dichotomies of social systems such as agency/structure, subjective/objective, and micro/macro perspectives...

 is one prominent example of this view.

The first approach (emphasizing the importance of societal structure) was dominant in classical sociology. Theorists saw unique aspects of the social world that could not be explained simply by the sum of the individuals present. Émile Durkheim
Émile Durkheim
David Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist. He formally established the academic discipline and, with Karl Marx and Max Weber, is commonly cited as the principal architect of modern social science and father of sociology.Much of Durkheim's work was concerned with how societies could maintain...

 strongly believed that the collective had emergent
Emergence
In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Emergence is central to the theories of integrative levels and of complex systems....

 properties of its own and that there was a need for a science which would deal with this emergence.
The second approach (methodological individualism, etc.), however, also has a well-established position in social science. Many theorists still follow this course (e.g., economists are very prone to disregarding any kind of holism
Holism
Holism is the idea that all the properties of a given system cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone...

).

The central debate, therefore, is between theorists committed to the notions of methodological holism and those committed to methodological individualism. The first notion, methodological holism, is the idea that actors are socialised
Socialization
Socialization is a term used by sociologists, social psychologists, anthropologists, political scientists and educationalists to refer to the process of inheriting and disseminating norms, customs and ideologies...

 and embedded into social structures and institutions that constrain, or enable, and generally shape the individuals' dispositions towards, and capacities for, action, and that this social structure should be taken as primary and most significant. The second notion, methodological individualism, is the idea that actors are the central theoretical and ontological elements in social systems, and social structure is an epiphenomenon
Epiphenomenon
An epiphenomenon is a secondary phenomenon that occurs alongside or in parallel to a primary phenomenon.-Medicine:...

, a result and consequence of the actions and activities of interacting individuals.

Georg Simmel


Georg Simmel
Georg Simmel
Georg Simmel was a major German sociologist, philosopher, and critic.Simmel was one of the first generation of German sociologists: his neo-Kantian approach laid the foundations for sociological antipositivism, asking 'What is society?' in a direct allusion to Kant's question 'What is nature?',...

 (March 1, 1858 – September 28, 1918, Berlin, Germany) was one of the first generation of German nonpositivist sociologists. His studies pioneered the concepts of social structure and agency. His most famous works today include The Metropolis and Mental Life
The Metropolis and Mental Life
The Metropolis and Mental Life is a 1903 essay by the German sociologist, Georg Simmel.-Simmel on the Metropolis:...

and The Philosophy of Money
The Philosophy of Money
The Philosophy of Money is a book on economic sociology by the German sociologist and social philosopher, Georg Simmel.-Contents:Probably considered Simmel's greatest work...

.

Norbert Elias


Norbert Elias
Norbert Elias
Norbert Elias was a German sociologist of Jewish descent, who later became a British citizen.-Biography:...

 (June 22, 1897 — August 1, 1990) was a German sociologist whose work focused on the relationship between power, behavior, emotion, and knowledge over time. He significantly shaped what is called "process sociology" or "figurational sociology
Figurational Sociology
Figurational sociology is a research tradition in which figurations of humans - evolving networks of interdependent humans - are the unit of investigation. Although more a methodological stance than a determinate school of practice, the tradition has one essential feature:* Concern for process, not...

."

Talcott Parsons


Talcott Parsons
Talcott Parsons
Talcott Parsons was an American sociologist who served on the faculty of Harvard University from 1927 to 1973....

 (December 13, 1902 – May 8, 1979) was an American sociologist and the main theorist of action theory
Action theory (sociology)
In sociology, action theory refers to the theory of social action presented by the American theorist Talcott Parsons.Parsons established action theory in order to integrate the study of social order with the structural and voluntaristic aspects of macro and micro factors...

 (misleadingly called "structural functionalism") in sociology from the 1930s in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

. His works analyze social structure but in terms of voluntary action and through pattern of normative institutionalisation by codifying its theoretical gestalt into a system-theoretical framework based on the idea of living systems and cybernetic hierarchy. For Parsons there is no "structure"- "agency" problem. It is a pseudo-problem.

Pierre Bourdieu


Pierre Bourdieu
Pierre Bourdieu
Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociologist, anthropologist, and philosopher.Starting from the role of economic capital for social positioning, Bourdieu pioneered investigative frameworks and terminologies such as cultural, social, and symbolic capital, and the concepts of habitus, field or location,...

 (1 August 1930 – 23 January 2002) was a French theorist who presented his theory of practice
Practice (social theory)
Practice is a concept widely used in social sciences such as sociology, anthropology, and archaeology, referring broadly to anything people do. It overlaps with the Weberian notion of social action and the Marxist concept of praxis...

on the dichotomical understanding of the relation between agency and structure in a great number of published articles, beginning with An Outline of the Theory of Practice in 1972, where he presented the concept of habitus. His book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste
La Distinction
La Distinction is a book by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu , based on Bourdieu's empirical research on French culture. Taken from studies conducted by Bourdieu in 1963 and concluded in 1967-68, the book was originally published in France in 1979...

(1979), was named as one of the 20th century's 10 most important works of sociology by the International Sociological Association
International Sociological Association
International Sociological Association is a non-profit organization dedicated to scientific purposes in the field of sociology and social sciences...

.

The key concepts in Bourdieu's work are habitus, field
Field (Bourdieu)
Field is one of the core concepts used by French social scientist Pierre Bourdieu. A field is a setting in which agents and their social positions are located. The position of each particular agent in the field is a result of interaction between the specific rules of the field, agent's habitus and...

, and capital. The agent is socialized
Socialization
Socialization is a term used by sociologists, social psychologists, anthropologists, political scientists and educationalists to refer to the process of inheriting and disseminating norms, customs and ideologies...

 in a "field" (an evolving set of roles and relationships in a social domain, where various forms of "capital" such as prestige or financial resources are at stake). As the agent accommodates to his or her roles and relationships in the context of his or her position in the field, the agent internalises relationships and expectations for operating in that domain. These internalised relationships and habitual expectations and relationships form, over time, the habitus.

Bourdieu's work attempts to reconcile structure and agency, as external structures are internalised into the habitus while the actions of the agent externalise interactions between actors into the social relation
Social relation
In social science, a social relation or social interaction refers to a relationship between two , three or more individuals . Social relations, derived from individual agency, form the basis of the social structure. To this extent social relations are always the basic object of analysis for social...

ships in the field. Bourdieu's theory, therefore, is a dialectic between "externalising the internal", and "internalising the external."

Berger and Luckmann


Peter L. Berger
Peter L. Berger
Peter Ludwig Berger is an Austrian-born American sociologist well known for his work, co-authored with Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge .-Biography:...

 and Thomas Luckmann
Thomas Luckmann
Thomas Luckmann is a German sociologist of Slovene origin. His main areas of research are the sociology of communication, Sociology of knowledge, sociology of religion, and the philosophy of science.- Biography :...

 in their Social Construction of Reality
The Social Construction of Reality
The Social Construction of Reality is a book about the sociology of knowledge written by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann and published in 1966....

 (1966) saw the relationships between structure and agency as a dialectic
Dialectic
Dialectic is a method of argument for resolving disagreement that has been central to Indic and European philosophy since antiquity. The word dialectic originated in Ancient Greece, and was made popular by Plato in the Socratic dialogues...

al one. Society forms the individuals who create society - forming a continuous loop.

James Coleman


James Samuel Coleman's Coleman boat provides a link between macrosociological phenomena and individual behavior. A macro-level phenomenon is described as instigating particular actions by individuals, which results in a subsequent macro-level phenomenon. In this way, individual action is taken in reference to a macrosociological structure, and that action (by many individuals) results in change to that macro structure.

Anthony Giddens


Contemporary sociology has generally aimed toward a reconciliation of structure and agency as concepts. Anthony Giddens
Anthony Giddens
Anthony Giddens, Baron Giddens is a British sociologist who is known for his theory of structuration and his holistic view of modern societies. He is considered to be one of the most prominent modern contributors in the field of sociology, the author of at least 34 books, published in at least 29...

's developed "Structuration Theory"
Structuration
The theory of structuration, proposed by Anthony Giddens in The Constitution of Society , is an attempt to reconcile theoretical dichotomies of social systems such as agency/structure, subjective/objective, and micro/macro perspectives...

 in such works as The Constitution of Society (1984). He presents a developed attempt to move beyond the dualism
Dualism
Dualism denotes a state of two parts. The term 'dualism' was originally coined to denote co-eternal binary opposition, a meaning that is preserved in metaphysical and philosophical duality discourse but has been diluted in general or common usages. Dualism can refer to moral dualism, Dualism (from...

 of structure and agency and argues for the "duality of structure" - where social structure is both the medium and the outcome of social action. For Giddens, an agents' common interaction with structure, as a system of norms, is described as "structuration
Structuration
The theory of structuration, proposed by Anthony Giddens in The Constitution of Society , is an attempt to reconcile theoretical dichotomies of social systems such as agency/structure, subjective/objective, and micro/macro perspectives...

". The term "reflexivity
Reflexivity (social theory)
Reflexivity refers to circular relationships between cause and effect. A reflexive relationship is bidirectional with both the cause and the effect affecting one another in a situation that does not render both functions causes and effects...

" is used to refer to the ability of an agent to consciously alter his or her place in the social structure; thus globalization
Globalization
Globalization refers to the increasingly global relationships of culture, people and economic activity. Most often, it refers to economics: the global distribution of the production of goods and services, through reduction of barriers to international trade such as tariffs, export fees, and import...

 and the emergence of the 'post-traditional' society might be said to allow for "greater social reflexivity". Social and political sciences are therefore important because social knowledge, as self-knowledge, is potentially emancipatory
Emancipation
Emancipation means the act of setting an individual or social group free or making equal to citizens in a political society.Emancipation may also refer to:* Emancipation , a champion Australian thoroughbred racehorse foaled in 1979...

.

Roberto Unger


Social theorist and legal philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger
Roberto Mangabeira Unger
Roberto Mangabeira Unger is a philosopher and politician. He has written widely on social, political, legal, and economic theory, much of which has laid the philosophical and theoretical groundwork for reimagining and remaking the social and political order...

 developed the thesis of negative capability
Negative Capability
Negative capability is the ability to perceive and to think more than any presupposition of human nature allows. It describes the capacity of human beings to reject the totalizing constraints of a closed context, and to both experience phenomenon free from any epistemological bounds as well as to...

 to address this problem of agency
Agency (sociology)
In the social sciences, agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, "Structure" refers to the factors of influence that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions...

 in relation to structure
Social structure
Social structure is a term used in the social sciences to refer to patterned social arrangements in society that are both emergent from and determinant of the actions of the individuals. The usage of the term "social structure" has changed over time and may reflect the various levels of analysis...

. In his work on false necessity
False necessity
False necessity, or "anti-necessitarian social theory," is a contemporary social theory that champions the plasticity of society and the unlimited potential for transformation. It is foremost a critique of necessitarian thought in conventional social theory, which holds that parts of the social...

--or anti-necessitarian social theory—Unger recognizes the constraints of structure and its molding influence upon the individual, but at the same time finds the individual able to resist, deny, and transcend their context. The varieties of this resistance is negative capability. Unlike other theories of structure and agency, negative capability does not reduce the individual to a simple actor possessing only the dual capacity of compliance or rebellion, but rather sees him as able to partake in a variety of activities of self empowerment.

Recent developments



The critical realist structure/agency perspective embodied in the TMSA has been further advocated and applied in other social science fields by additional authors, for example in economics
Economics
Economics is the social science that analyzes the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. The term economics comes from the Ancient Greek from + , hence "rules of the house"...

 by Tony Lawson and in sociology
Sociology
Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

 by Margaret Archer
Margaret Archer
Margaret Archer is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK, since 1973. She is best known for coining the term elisionism in her 1995 book Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach....

. In 2005, the Journal of Management Studies debated the merits of critical realism.

Kenneth Wilkinson
Kenneth Wilkinson
Kenneth Ernest Wilkinson was an audio engineer for Decca Records, known for engineering classical recordings with superb sound quality....

 in the Community in Rural America took an interactional/field theoretical perspective focusing on the role of community agency in contributing to the emergence of community.

With Critical Psychology
Critical psychology
Critical psychology is an approach to psychology that takes a critical theory–based perspective. Critical psychology is aimed at critiquing mainstream psychology and attempts to apply psychology in more progressive ways, often looking towards social change as a means of preventing and treating...

 as framework, the Danish psychologist Ole Dreier, proposes in his book Psychotherapy in Everyday Life that we may best conceptualize persons as participants in social practices (that constitute social structures) who can either reproduce or change these social practices. This indicates that neither participants, nor social practices can be understood when looked at in isolation (in fact, this undermines the very idea of trying to do so), since practice and structure is co-created by participants and since the participants can only be called so, if they participate in a social practice.

The structure/agency debate continues to evolve, with contributions such as Nicos Mouzelis's Sociological Theory: What Went Wrong? and Margaret Archer's Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach continuing to push the ongoing development of structure/agency theory.
Work in information systems by Mutch (2010)has emphasized Archer's Realist Social Theory. In entrepreneurship a discussion between Sarason et al. and Mole and Mole (2010) used Archer's theory to critique structuration view arguing that starting a new business organization needs to be understood in the context of social structure and agency. However, this depends upon one's view of structure which differs between Giddens and Archer. Hence if strata in social reality have different ontologies, then they must be viewed as a dualism. Third, agents have causal power, and ultimate concerns which they try to fallibly to put into practice. Mole and Mole propose entrepreneurship as the study of the interplay between the structures of a society and the agents within it.

A European problem?



While the structure/agency debate has been a central issue in social theory, and recent theoretical reconciliation attempts have been made, structure/agency theory has tended to develop more in European countries by European theorists, while American social theorists have tended to focus instead on the issue of integration between macrosociological
Macrosociology
Macrosociology is an approach to the discipline which emphasizes the analysis of social systems and populations on a large scale, at the level of social structure, and often at a necessarily high level of theoretical abstraction. Microsociology, by contrast, focuses on the individual social agency...

 and microsociological
Microsociology
Microsociology is one of the main branches of sociology, concerning the nature of everyday human social interactions and agency on a small scale. Microsociology is based on interpretative analysis rather than statistical or empirical observation, and shares close association with the philosophy of...

 perspectives. George Ritzer
George Ritzer
George Ritzer is a sociologist who studies American patterns of consumption, globalization, metatheory, and modern and postmodern social theory...

 examines these issues (and surveys the structure agency debate) in greater detail in his book Modern Sociological Theory (2000).

See also

  • Social structure
    Social structure
    Social structure is a term used in the social sciences to refer to patterned social arrangements in society that are both emergent from and determinant of the actions of the individuals. The usage of the term "social structure" has changed over time and may reflect the various levels of analysis...

  • Social relation
    Social relation
    In social science, a social relation or social interaction refers to a relationship between two , three or more individuals . Social relations, derived from individual agency, form the basis of the social structure. To this extent social relations are always the basic object of analysis for social...

  • Agency (sociology)
    Agency (sociology)
    In the social sciences, agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, "Structure" refers to the factors of influence that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions...

  • Structural-functionalism
  • Theory of structuration
    Structuration
    The theory of structuration, proposed by Anthony Giddens in The Constitution of Society , is an attempt to reconcile theoretical dichotomies of social systems such as agency/structure, subjective/objective, and micro/macro perspectives...

  • Action theory (sociology)
    Action theory (sociology)
    In sociology, action theory refers to the theory of social action presented by the American theorist Talcott Parsons.Parsons established action theory in order to integrate the study of social order with the structural and voluntaristic aspects of macro and micro factors...

  • Base and superstructure
    Base and superstructure
    In Marxist theory, human society consists of two parts: the base and superstructure; the base comprehends the forces and relations of production — employer-employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations — into which people enter to produce the necessities and...

  • Nature vs. nurture
  • Actor-Network Theory
    Actor-network theory
    Actor–network theory, often abbreviated as ANT, is a distinctive approach to social theory and research which originated in the field of science studies...

  • Phronetic social science
    Phronetic social science
    Phronetic social science is an approach to the study of social – including political and economic – phenomena based on a contemporary interpretation of the Aristotelian concept phronesis, variously translated as practical judgment, common sense, or prudence. Phronesis is the intellectual virtue...

  • Principal–agent problem
  • Negative capability
    Negative Capability
    Negative capability is the ability to perceive and to think more than any presupposition of human nature allows. It describes the capacity of human beings to reject the totalizing constraints of a closed context, and to both experience phenomenon free from any epistemological bounds as well as to...