structure and agency

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structure and agency

The two main determinants of social outcomes which are recognized in sociology, but whose relative importance is much debated as a central issue in sociological theory. Three main general positions can be identified:
  1. doctrines (e.g. STRUCTURALISM, some forms of FUNCTIONALISM, ALTHUSSERIAN MARXISM) that social life is largely determined by social structure, and that individual agency can be explained mostly as the outcome of structure;
  2. doctrines (e.g. METHODOLOGICAL INDIVIDUALISM, SOCIAL PHENOMENOLOGY, ETHNOMETHODOLOGY) that reverse the emphasis, stressing instead the capacity of individuals – of’individual agents’ – to construct and reconstruct their worlds and the necessity of explanations in the actors’ terms;
  3. approaches which, variously, emphasize the complementarity of the two processes, i.e. structural influences on human action and individual agency which is capable of changing social structure.

Despite many suggestions to the contrary (and notwithstanding that many difficulties and disagreements exist in defining STRUCTURE) most forms of sociological theory can be located in category (c), as recognizing the importance of both structural determinacy and individual agency. Crucial issues arise, however, in conceptualizing the relationship between the two, and it is here that a number of interesting formulations have emerged in recent years, especially those of BERGER and Luckmann (1967) and Berger and Pullberg (1966), Bhaskar (1979), and GIDDENS (1984) (see also BOURDIEU).

For Berger and Luckmann the relation between structure and agency is one in which society forms the individuals who create society in a continuous dialectic. For Bhaskar, a ‘relational’ and a ‘transformational’ view of the individual and society requires a stronger emphasis: 'society is both the ever present condition and the continually reproduced outcome of human agency’. Finally, Giddens, in perhaps the most sophisticated attempt to break free of the conception of a ‘dualism’ of structure and agency, argues for a conception of DUALITY of STRUCTURE in which:

  1. 'structure is both the medium and the outcome of the conduct it recursively organizes’;
  2. 'structure’ is defined as ‘rules and resources’, which do not exist outside of the actions but continuously impact on its production and reproduction; and
  3. analogies with physical structures, of the sort common in functionalism, are regarded as wholly illegitimate. In Giddens’ formulation 'structure’ must also be seen as both enabling and constraining.

Reformulations of relations between structure and agency have not ended debates about the appropriate conceptualization of relations between the two, or indeed about the prior, or interrelated, question of how ‘agency’ and 'structure’ should be defined in the first place. Thus Layder (1981), for example, regards Giddens’ conception of'structure’ as depriving this concept of any ‘autonomous properties or pre-given facticity’, and commentators have detected in Giddens’ formulation a persistent ‘bias’ towards agency. Moreover, whatever sophistication general formulations of the structure-agency relations may achieve, disputes are likely to persist in particular application of such notions to ‘concrete’ historical cases. See also STRUCTURATION THEORY, AUTONOMOUS MAN AND PLASTIC MAN.

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