- Structure and agency
The debate surrounding the influence of structure and agency on human thought and behaviour is one of the central issues in
sociologyand other social sciences. In this context "agency" refers to the capacity of individual humans to act independently and to make their own free choices. "Structure" refers to those factors such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs etc. which seem to limit or influence the opportunities that individuals have.
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 and what is an effect? Do social structures determine an individual's behaviour or does human agency rule supreme?
There are three possible theoretical positions in the response to this line of questioning:Jary & Jary, "Collins Dictionary of Sociology", p663. Source for the summary of the three major theoretical positions.]
# Some theorists put forward that what we know as our social existence is largely determined by the overall structure of society. The perceived agency of individuals can also mostly be explained by the operation of this structure. Theoretical systems aligned with this view include:
structuralism, and some forms of functionalism and Marxism.
# 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, social phenomenology, interactionismand ethnomethodology.
# A third option, taken by many modern social theorists, 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.
The first approach was dominant in classical sociology. Theorists approached society from a position which saw unique aspects extant in the social world which could not be explained simply by the sum of the individuals present.
Emile Durkheimstrongly believed that the collective had emergent properties of its own and that there was a need for a science which would deal with this emergence.
This doesn't mean that methodological individualism is a new notion in social science (a very good early example is the theory of
Gabriel Tarde). Many theorists still follow this divide (e.g., economists are very prone to disregarding any kind of holism). The central debate, therefore, is between theorists committed to the notions of methodological individualismand methodological holism. The first notion, methodological individualismis the idea that actors are the central theoretical and ontological elements in social systems and social structure is an epiphenomenon, a result and consequence of the actions and activities of interacting individuals, and the second notion, methodological holismis the idea that actors are socialised and embedded into social structure and institutions that may constrain or enable and generally shape the individuals' dispositions towards and capacities for action, and this social structure should be taken as the primary and most significant theoretical element.
Georg Simmel(March 1, 1858 – September 28, 1918, Berlin, Germany) was one of the first generation of German sociologists. His studies pioneered the concept of social structure. His most famous work today is probably "The Philosophy of Money".
Norbert Elias(June 22, 1897 — August 1, 1990) was a German sociologist of Jewish descent, who later became a British citizen. His work focused on the relationship between power, behavior, emotion, and knowledge over time. He significantly shaped what is called process or figurational sociology.
Talcott Parsonswas a primary figure in structural functionalismin sociologyin the 1950s in America. His work attempted to reconcile both volitional action and social structure.
Pierre Bourdieupresented his "theory of practice" on the superation of 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 "" (1979), was named as one of the 20th century's 10 most important works of sociology by the International Sociological Association.
The key concepts in Bourdieu's work are habitus, field, and capital. The agent is socialized 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 relationships in the field. Bourdieu's theory, therefore, is a dialectic between "externalising the internal", and "internalising the external."
Berger and Luckmann
Peter L. Bergerand Thomas Luckmannin their "Social Construction of Reality" (1966) saw the relationships between structure and agency as a dialectical one. Society forms the individuals who create society - forming a continuous loop.Jary & Jary, "Collins Dictionary of Sociology", p664.]
Roy Bhaskardeveloped the "Transformational Model of Social Activity (TMSA)" in his "The Possibility of Naturalism" (1979) and "Reclaiming Reality" (1989). He put forward a critical realist approach. Going further than Berger and Luckmann he focused on the "relational" and "transformational" view of the individual and society: "society is both the ever present "condition" and the continually reproduced "outcome" of human agency."
Anthony Giddens's developed "Structuration Theory" in such works as "The Constitution of Society" (1984). He presents a developed attempt to move beyond the dualismof structure and agency and argues for the "duality of structure" - where social structure is both the medium and the outcome of social action.
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
economicsby Tony Lawsonand in sociologyby Margaret Archer. Kenneth Wilkinsonin 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.
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.
A European problem?
While the structure/agency debate has been a central issue in social theory, and recent theoretical reconciliation attempts have been made, it should be noted that 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 and microsociological perspectives.
George Ritzerexamines these issues (and surveys the structure agency debate) in greater detail in his book "Modern Sociological Theory" (2000).
Theory of structuration
* Archer, M. (1995), "Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach", Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
* Berger, P. L.; T. Luckmann (1966), "The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge", Anchor Books: Garden City, NY.
* Bhaskar, R. (1979/1998), "The Possibility of Naturalism" (3rd edition) Harvester Wheatsheaf: Hemel Hampstead.
* Bhaskar, R. (1989), "Reclaiming Reality", Verso: London.
* Bourdieu, P. (1977), "Outline of a Theory of Practice", Cambridge University Press: London.
* Bourdieu, P. (1990), "The Logic of Practice", Polity Press: Cambridge.
* Bourdieu, P. and L. J. D. Wacquant (1992), "An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology", University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
* Elias, N. (1978), "What is Sociology?", Hutchinson: London.
* Giddens, A. (1976 "New Rules of Sociological Method".
* Giddens, A. (1984), "The Constitution of Society", Polity Press: Cambridge.
last = Jary
first = David
coauthors = Julia Jary
title = Collins Dictionary of Sociology
date = 1991
location = Glasgow
pages = 774
id = ISBN 0-00-470804-0
* Lawson, T. (1997), "Economics and Reality", Routledge: London and New York.
* Mouzelis, N. (1995), "Sociological Theory: What Went Wrong?", Routledge: London and New York.
* Ritzer, G. (2000), "Modern Sociological Theory" (5th ed.), McGraw-Hill.
* Ritzer, G.; P. Gindoff (1992) "Methodological relationism: lessons for and from social psychology", "Social Psychology Quarterly", 55(2), pp.128-140.
* Turner, J. H. (1991), "The Structure of Sociological Theory" (5th edn.), Wadsworth Publishing Company: Belmont CA.
* Wilkinson, K. (1991)., "The Community in Rural America". Greenwood Press: New York, NY
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.
Look at other dictionaries:
Organizational structure and hierarchy of the United States Air Force — The Organizational structure and hierarchy of the United States Air Force refers to the unit designators and organizational hierarchy of the United States Air Force, which starts at the most senior commands. Contents 1 Current levels 1.1… … Wikipedia
Structure — is a fundamental and sometimes intangible notion covering the recognition, observation, nature, and stability of patterns and relationships of entities. From a child s verbal description of a snowflake, to the detailed scientific analysis of the… … Wikipedia
Agency — may refer to any of the following:*Agency (country subdivision) *Agency (law), the status of a person who acts for another person. *Agency (Mormonism) *Agency (philosophy), the capacity to make choices *Employment agency, a business that serves… … Wikipedia
Structure (disambiguation) — The structure of a thing is how the parts of it relate to each other, how it is put together .Structure may also refer to:* architectural structure, a man made structure used or intended for supporting or sheltering any use or continuous… … Wikipedia
agency — The term agency is usually juxtaposed to structure and is often no more than a synonym for action, emphasizing implicitly the undetermined nature of human action, as opposed to the alleged determinism of structural theories. If it has a wider… … Dictionary of sociology
structure — structure, social structure A term loosely applied to any recurring pattern of social behaviour; or, more specifically, to the ordered interrelationships between the different elements of a social system or society . Thus, for example, the… … Dictionary of sociology
Agency.com — is an interactive marketing agency based in New York City with offices worldwide. The company is a part of Omnicom Group Inc. [ [http://www.hoovers.com/agency.com/ ID 58843 /free co factsheet.xhtml Agency.com Company Overview Hoover s ] ] [ [http … Wikipedia
Structure of the United States Armed Forces — The structure of the United States armed forces is a chain of command leading from the President (as commander in chief) to the newest recruits. The United States armed forces are organized through the United States Department of Defense, which… … Wikipedia
agency theory, financial — Introduction in organizational economics, a means of assessing the work being done for a principal (i.e., an employer) by an agent (i.e., an employee). While consistent with the concept of agency traditionally advanced by legal scholars and … Universalium
Structure of the Canadian federal government — The following list outlines the Structure of the Canadian federal government.Cabinet level Departments, Agencies, Secretariats and Offices are denoted in bold with the corresponding Minister listed alongside.Crown* Monarchy of Canada ** Governor… … Wikipedia