Agency and Structure, part II

What if.  For me this is a central way to start to understand agency and structure.  And there’s no better place to start than  “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick (who also wrote Blade Runner and a variety of other science fiction classics). In this book the Axis powers have won World War II and divided the former United States between a German protectorate on the East Coast, a Japanese protectorate on the West Coast and a quasi-independent zone in the middle. The following snippet is an excerpt from a discussion between a character named Wyndam-Matson (who covertly manufactures fake Civil War artifacts and other fake antique items of Americana for the Japanese market) and his mistress.  A text of the full novel is (for the moment) online at 

“…Getting up, Wyndam-Matson hurried into his study, returned at once with two cigarette lighters which he set down on the coffee table. ‘Look at these. Look the same, don’t they? Well, listen. One has historicity in it.’ He grinned at her. ‘Pick them up. Go ahead. One’s worth, oh, maybe forty or fifty thousand dollars on the collectors’ market.’

The girl gingerly picked up the two lighters and examined them.

‘Don’t you feel it?’ he kidded her. ‘The historicity?’

She said, ‘What is ‘historicity’?’

‘When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn’t. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it?’ He nudged her. ‘You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it.’

‘Gee,’ the girl said, awed. ‘Is that really true? That he had one of those on him that day?’

‘Sure. And I know which it is. You see my point. It’s all a big racket; they’re playing it on themselves. I mean, a gun goes through a famous battle, like the Meuse-Argonne, and it’s the same as if it hadn’t, unless you know. It’s in here.’ He tapped his head. ‘In the mind, not the gun. I used to be a collector. In fact, that’s how I got into this business. I collected stamps. Early British colonies.’

The girl now stood at the window, her arms folded, gazing out at the lights of downtown San Francisco. ‘My mother and dad used to say we wouldn’t have lost the war if [Roosevelt] had lived,’ she said.

‘Okay,’ Wyndam-Matson went on. ‘Now suppose say last year the Canadian Government or somebody, anybody, finds the plates from which some old stamp was printed. And the ink. And a supply of – ‘

‘I don’t believe either of those two lighters belonged to Franklin Roosevelt,’ the girl said.

Wyndam-Matson giggled. ‘That’s my point! I’d have to prove it to you with some sort of document. A paper of authenticity. And so it’s all a fake, a mass delusion. The paper proves its worth, not the object itself!’

‘Show me the paper.’

‘Sure.’ Hopping up, he made his way back into the study. From the wall he took the Smithsonian Institution’s framed certificate; the paper and the lighter had cost him a fortune, but they were worth it – because they enabled him to prove that he was right, that the word ‘fake’ meant nothing really, since the word ‘authentic’ meant nothing really….

She held out her hand. He gave her the document.

‘So it is genuine,’ she said finally.

‘Yes. This one.’ He picked up the lighter with the long scratch across its side….

At the bookcase she knelt. ‘Did you read this?’ she asked, taking a book out.

Nearsightedly he peered. Lurid cover. Novel. ‘No,’ he said. ‘My wife got that. She reads a lot.’

‘You should read it.’

Still feeling disappointed, he grabbed the book, glanced at it. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. ‘Isn’t this one of those banned-in-Boston books?’ he said.

‘Banned through the United States. And in Europe, of course.’ She had gone to the hall door and stood there now, waiting.

‘I’ve heard of this Hawthorne Abendsen.’ But actually he had not. All he could recall about the book was – what? That it was very popular right now. Another fad. Another mass craze. He bent down and stuck it back in the shelf. ‘I don’t have time to read popular fiction. I’m too busy with work.’ Secretaries, he thought acidly, read that junk, at home alone in bed at night. It stimulates them. Instead of the real thing. Which they’re afraid of. But of course really crave.

‘One of those love stories,’ he said as he sullenly opened the hall door.

‘No,’ she said. ‘A story about war.’ As they walked down the hail to the elevator she said, ‘He says the same thing. As my mother and dad.’

‘Who? That Abbotson?’

‘That’s his theory. If Joe Zangara had missed [shooting Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Roosevelt] would have pulled America out of the Depression and armed it so that – ‘

She broke off. They had arrived at the elevator, and other people were waiting.

Later, as they drove through the nocturnal traffic in Wyndam-Matson’s Mercedes-Benz, she resumed.

‘Abendsen’s theory is that Roosevelt would have been a terribly strong President. As strong as Lincoln. He showed it in the year he was President, all those measures he [would have] introduced. The book is fiction. I mean, it’s in novel form. Roosevelt isn’t assassinated in Miami; he goes on and is reelected in 1936, so he’s President until 1940, until during the war. Don’t you see? He’s still President when Germany attacks England and France and Poland. And he sees all that. He makes America strong.  Garner was a really awful President. A lot of what happened was his fault. And then in 1940, instead of Bricker, a Democrat would have been elected – ‘… ‘His theory is that instead of an Isolationist like Bricker, in 1940 after Roosevelt, Rexford Tugwell would have been President.’  Her smooth face, reflecting the traffic lights, glowed with animation; her eyes had become large and she gestured as she talked. ‘And he would have been very active in continuing the Roosevelt anti-Nazi policies. So Germany would have been afraid to come to Japan’s help in 1941. They would not have honored their treaty. Do you see?’

Turning toward him on the seat, grabbing his shoulder with intensity, she said, ‘And so Germany and Japan would have lost the war!’

He laughed.

Staring at him, seeking something in his face – he could not tell what, and anyhow he had to watch the other cars – she said, ‘It’s not funny. It really would have been like that. The U.S. would have been able to lick the Japanese. And – ‘

‘How?’ he broke in.

‘He has it all laid out.’ For a moment she was silent. ‘It’s in fiction form,’ she said. ‘Naturally, it’s got a lot of fictional parts; I mean, it’s got to be entertaining or people wouldn’t read it. It has a human-interest theme; there’s these two young people, the boy is in the American Army. The girl – well, anyhow, President Tugwell is really smart. He understands what the Japs are going to do.’

Anxiously, she said, ‘It’s all right to talk about this; the Japs have let it be circulated in the Pacific. I read that a lot of them are reading it. It’s popular in the Home Islands. It’s stirred up a lot of talk.’

Wyndam-Matson said, ‘Listen. What does he say about Pearl Harbor?’

‘President Tugwell is so smart that he has all the ships out to sea. So the U.S. fleet isn’t destroyed.’ –

‘I see.’

‘So, there really isn’t any Pearl Harbor. They attack, but all they get is some little boats.’

‘It’s called ‘The Grasshopper something?’ ‘

‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. That’s a quote from the Bible.’

‘And Japan is defeated because there’s no Pearl Harbor. Listen. Japan would have won anyhow. Even if there had been no Pearl Harbor.’

‘The U.S. fleet – in his book – keeps them from taking the Philippines and Australia.’

‘They would have taken them anyhow; their fleet was superior. I know the Japanese fairly well, and it was their destiny to assume dominance in the Pacific.

The U.S. was on the decline ever since World War One. Every country on the Allied side was ruined in that war, morally and spiritually.’

With stubbornness, the girl said, ‘And if the Germans hadn’t taken Malta, Churchill would have stayed in power and guided England to victory.’

‘How? Where?’

‘In North Africa – Churchill would have defeated Rommel finally.’

Wyndam-Matson guffawed.

‘And once the British had defeated Rommel, they could move their whole army back and up through Turkey to join remnants of Russian armies and make a stand-in the book, they halt the Germans’ eastward advance into Russia at some town on the Volga. We never heard of this town, but it really exists because I looked it up in the atlas.’

‘What’s it called?’

‘Stalingrad. And the British turn the tide of the war, there. So, in the book, Rommel never would have linked up with those German armies that came down from Russia, von Paulus’ armies; remember? And the Germans never would have been able to go on into the Middle East and get the needed oil, or on into India like they did and link up with the Japanese. And – ‘

‘No strategy on earth could have defeated Erwin Rommel,’ Wyndam-Matson said.

‘And no events like this guy dreamed up, this town in Russia very heroically called ‘Stalingrad,’ no holding action could have done any more than delay the outcome; it couldn’t have changed it. Listen. I met Rommel. In New York, when I was there on business, in 1948.’ Actually, he had only seen the Military Governor of the U.S.A. At a reception in the White House, and at a distance. ‘What a man. What dignity and bearing. So I know what I’m talking about,’ he wound up.

‘It was a dreadful thing,’ Rita said, ‘when General Rommel was relieved of his post and that awful Lammers was appointed in his place. That’s when that murdering and those concentration camps really began.’

‘They existed when Rommel was Military Governor.’

‘But – ‘ She gestured. ‘It wasn’t official. Maybe those SS hoodlums did those acts then . . . but he wasn’t like the rest of them; he was more like those old Prussians. He was harsh – ‘

‘I’ll tell you who really did a good job in the U.S.A.,’ Wyndam-Matson said, ‘who you can look to for the economic revival. Albert Speer. Not Rommel and not the Organization Todt. Speer was the best appointment the Partei made in North America; he got all those businesses and corporations and factories – everything! – going again, and on an efficient basis. I wish we had that out here – as it is, we’ve got five outfits competing in each field, and at terrific waste. There’s nothing more foolish than economic competition.’

Rita said, ‘I couldn’t live in those work camps, those dorms they have back East. A girl friend of mine; she lived there. They censored her mail – she couldn’t tell me about it until she moved back out here again. They had to get up at six-thirty in the morning to band music.’

‘You’d get used to it. You’d have clean quarters, adequate food, recreation, medical care provided. What do you want? Egg in your beer?’

Through the cool night fog of San Francisco, his big German-made car moved quietly.

Agency and Structure

One of the things I think about a lot, though not with enough rigor, is the question of agency and structure. Do we act or do we reflect? If the later “what” is doing the acting? A better question is probably, “how much” do we act and “how much” do we reflect, and this probably varies wildly depending on circumstances, and the further back you pull the camera, the bigger the scope or the time frame, the less behavior looks like action at all, the less any individual actor matters. Well in search of answers I found the text below which I reprint here with the hope that it will spur some thought (and in the confidence that such reprinting is acceptable since all of the text below is fully available on the page for the book itself.

Elder-Vass, Dave.  2010.  The Causal Power of Social Structures:  Emergence, Structure and Agency.  Cambridge University Press, 2010.

The problem of structure and agency   Sociology is founded on the belief that our behaviour is causally influenced and in particular that there are social factors that influence our behaviour. Karl Marx, for example, famously wrote ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness’ (Marx 1978 [1859]: 4). Emile Durkheim, similarly, argued that ‘the individual is dominated by a moral reality greater than himself: namely, collective reality ‘ (Durkheim 1952 [1897]: 38). Conventionally, the social factors that are held to influence our behaviour are known as social structure, a ‘concept that even today remains implicit in, and indeed essential to, much of the work done in the social sciences.

Yet there is also widespread disagreement about what social structure really is and how it could affect us. One recent text described the meanings ascribed to social structure as ‘strikingly nebulous and diverse’ (Lopez and Scott 2000: 1). Furthermore, many sociologists mistrust the existing theoretical accounts of its role. Structure, it sometimes seems, is taken for granted, not because the concept is clearly understood and uncontroversial, but because addressing the theoretical issues seem so [end of page 1] problematic (see Crothers 1996: 21). This has led some to challenge the very concept of social structure, questioning whether social factors can have a causal effect on our behaviour at all.

Such challenges constitute the core problem of structure and agency: is there something social that can be causally effective in its own right and not just as a side-effect of the behaviour of individual people? For methodological individualists, the answer is ‘no’. For them, there is no place in sociology for explanations of social action that ascribe causal power to social structure. If methodological individualists are correct, then the social sciences cannot study what Durkheim called social facts, nor can they invoke structural forces like Marx’s social relations of production. Instead, they can only explain social effects on the basis of the actions of the individuals who make up society. Some sociologists, indeed, give up the attempt to offer causal explanations entirely and concentrate instead on investigating the meanings that are implicit in our actions. Others examine how ‘rational’ individual responses to different types of situation aggregate up to produce social phenomena.

Individualist accounts like these, in denigrating the role of social structure, privilege instead the role of human agency in explaining social behaviour – the capabilities that humans have to act in their own right. Yet agency too is a problematic concept. Some, at least, of the problems are reflections of the problem of structure: some more voluntarist thinkers see agency as the exercise of human reflexivity, of conscious decision making about our actions, while other, more determinist authors see it as flowing unthinkingly from sets of dispositions that are acquired, equally unthinkingly, from our social context. Individualists about structure, it would seem, must be voluntarists about agency, while it is often believed that those who attribute causal significance to social structure must be determinists about agency. Furthermore, just as there is a tension between explaining social phenomena in terms of social forces or individual ones, there is also a similar tension between explaining individual behaviour in terms of individual agency or forces at a still lower level.  Some thinkers – biological reductionists – have started to argue that human action is really a product of the neural networks in our brains, for example, or of our generic make-up, thus introducing an entirely different dimension to the explanation of social behaviour that sometimes seeks to render both individualist and structural approaches redundant. [End of page 2]

These disagreements over the role of social structure are nothing less than a battle for the heart and soul of sociology; and indeed of the social sciences more generally, since just the same issues arise in any discipline that seeks to examine what happens in the social world. The social sciences look completely different through structuralist and individualist spectacles. Are they to be concerned with explaining social phenomena purely in terms of the contributions of individuals, or are there characteristically social forces that affect social phenomena?

Many contemporary authors, however, reject the implication that structure and agency represent a binary choice: that either social behaviour is determined by structural forces or it is determined by the free choices of human individuals. Indeed, if we look more closely, it is striking that many apparently structuralist thinkers have been unable or unwilling in practice to dispense with agency and apparently individualist thinkers have been unable or unwilling in practice to dispense with structure.

In another famous quote from Marx, for example, he tells us that men make their own history, but they do not make it just us they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past (Marx 1978 (1852]: 595). Here the circumstances represent the structural influences on action; yet Marx is at pains to point out that within these constraints, people do indeed make their own history.  Indeed, as a communist activist, he was actively involved in inciting them to do so. Though he is often accused of determinism, it seems that for Marx both structure and agency matter. Similarly, although Durkheim may be best known for his advocacy of sociology as a science of social facts, he also insisted on the capacity of the individual to resist collective pressures: ‘in so far as we are solidary with the group and share its life, we are exposed to [the influence of collective tendencies]; but so far as we have a distinct personality of our own we rebel against and try to escape them’ (Durkheim 1952 [1987]: 318-19). And although Weber is generally known as an individualist, his most famous work theorises the impact of social forces­ the protestant ethic and the iron cage of the capitalist market – on social behaviour (Weber 2001 [1930]).

The most characteristic move in recent work on structure and agency has been to recognise that there are good reasons for these apparent ambiguities: they arise because we cannot successfully theorise the [end of page 3] social world without recognizing and reconciling the roles of both structure and agency. Broadly speaking, there have been two alternative ways of reconciling the two: structurationist and post-structurationist theories (Parker 2000). On the stucturationist side, we find most prominently Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu, who have stressed the importance of both structure and agency, but see structure as something that resides at least in part within human individuals — a move that Margaret Archer has criticized as ‘central conflation’ of structure and agency. On the post-structurationist side, Parker picks out Nicos Mouzelis and Margaret Archer as theorists who also stress the importance of both structure and agency, but insist that the two must be understood as analytically distinct: that structure exists out­ side individuals in some sense. The debate between the two schools turns primarily then, on questions of social ontology: the study of what sorts of things exist in the social world and how they relate to each other [middle of page 4].