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].

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