The conceptualisations underpinning the ‘Agency versus Structure’framework are central to sociological theory (Stones, 2007).
‘Agency’ refers tothe extent of individuals to practice their own free will, whether that beindividually or as a collective group (Ritzer and Gindoff, 1994). Conversely,’Structure’ seeks to explain the factors that hinder an individual’s ability tolive as an autonomous agent. These factors can include social class, education,religion, gender, ethnicity and much more, even rudimentary biological andgenetic factors (Lane, 2001). In other words, structure supports the notionthat it is the social existence of an individual which determines theirconsciousness rather than that of their physical existence. Both seeminglyparadoxical elements of the framework seek to theorise one’s subjective state.Subjectivity is a term loosely used by social scientists to denote the sharedinner life of the subject and the way in which subjects feel, respond andexperience (Luhrmann, 2006; Ortner, 2005). The following definition of subjectivity offered by Holland andLeander (2004) is widely elected by many contemporary anthropologists; “wethink about subjectivities as actors’ thoughts, sentiments and embodiedsensibilities, and, especially, their sense of self and self-world relations” (Hollandand Leander 2004, p.127).
The dichotomy of structure and agency is significantof the position which social thinkers adopt in relation to this fundamentalontological question which often also dictates their stance on other deepquestions (King, 2010). Although ‘agency vs structure’ frameworks seek to conceptualisesubjectivities through giving prominence to either agency or structure, various modern social theorists rejectthe notion that agency and structure are conceptually or practically distinct(Berger and Luckman, 1966; Bourdieu, 1977; Giddens, 1986). This paper willargue in support of this stance. It will be argued that the ‘agency versus structure’ framework doesnot act as a particularly useful tool towards an understanding ofsubjectivities because various theories spawned from the framework have sincecontributed to a greater understanding of subjectivities. These theories takeon a ‘dialectical’ approach in that they posit that agency affects structure,but structure also affects agency and are concerned to provide an understandingof how structure and agency relate to one another and interact (McAnulla,2002). The paper will firstly establish the shortcomings of the framework. Theframework will then be compared to Gidden’s (1986) ‘Structuration Theory’,Bourdieu’s (1977) ‘Theory of Practice’ and lastly Archer’s (1982)’Morphogenetic Approach’.
Each of these theories offer a different yet moreconvincing take on subjectivities than that of the agency versus structure framework,thus undermining the usefulness of the agency vs structure framework. Criticisms of the ‘Agency vs Structure’ Framework(800 w)Amanifestation of an age-old debate, the structure vs agency framework hassubjugated and puzzled philosophers for centuries. It refers to the essentialissue of determinism against free will, i.e. to what degree are we products ofour environment as opposed to the extent to which we can completely dictate ourown choices and future. Such questions have confounded great notable thinkersthroughout human history.
Thus, the idea that an ‘antidote’ can be conceived tosuch a complexity seems unlikely. It would therefore be plausible to postulatethat, despite the fact that the issue of structure-agency is of deepphilosophical interest, it is an abstract and perhaps intractable debate and ofminimal use to the practicing social scientist in terms of reaching a genuineunderstanding of subjectivities. Definitively, the issue appears to boil downto little more than common-sense understanding that as humans we are hinderedby circumstances yet are given certain autonomy to be in charge of our owndestiny. As such, it is merely worth much reflection (McAnulla, 2002). Aparticular criticism of the framework is that it can be said to assume thatwhat causes events in the social world is a straightforward matter. Varioustheorists claim that the actions of individuals may be a consequence of deepunderlying structures which they may have no conscious awareness of (McAnulla,2002), the framework does little to address this idea. The conceptualisation of’structure’ was birthed from the structuralism movement, derived from the workof the linguistic philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure’s majorcontribution to the study of linguistics was to believe that language be viewedas a system, i.
e. the relationship between words is structured (Han, 2013). Aprominent criticism to structuralist literature is that it continuallyundermines, or eradicates completely, the potential of individualsorchestrating effective action outside of their ‘structures’. Through applyingindividuals a role as just the ‘operators’ within structures, it implicitlybanishes the possibility of humans having the ability to shape a course ofrigorous development. Overall, structuralism showcases a bleak subjectivitywhereby individuals operate in subservience of social structures to which theylittle or zero control (McAlluna, 2002). This concept therefore cannot justifyinstances in which individuals have successfully defied and worked againsttheir respective social ‘structures’ to the alteration of their lives and/orsociety e.g. Insert example from an ethnography.
Justifications for such examples can henceforth involve awkward epistemologicalshifts under the perspective of structure (Sewell, 1992). Furthermore,structuralist accounts undermine the reflexivity and autonomy of humanactivity. There is a tendency to focus on an individual’s position in ahierarchy and to not acknowledge the ambiguity and ambivalence of humansubjectivity. A misleading view of reality can be said to be present understructuralism as excessive power and influence is given to few structures. Forinstance, feminists have accused Marxists of disregarding gender as astructure.
Moreover, repetitive patterns of behaviour is a key implication ofstructuralism (Sewell, 1992) and therefore fails to address instances in which individualsshowcase successful defiance against the ‘status quo’. In response,individualised forms of agency are criticised by advocates of a structuralistposition, for classifying single actors as the key causes of events, which isconsidered to be a flawed starting point when aiming to conjure up anunderstating of the subjective state of individuals (Callinicos, 2004).Essentialism,’where something either is or “has” agency or structure but not both’ (Fuchs,2001, p.26), should be therefore avoided in order to eradicate thedeterministic implications of adopting just one of the stances of the framework.Yet, establishing the real differences between structure and agency does notrule out their relatedness, especially when considered over a period of time.
Thus, an orthodox notion of agency which acknowledges the potential ofindividuals to produce conscious goal orientated activity and exercise power inorder to follow through on these intentions should be elected with a particularcondition. That is, the power that ‘agents’ are able to demonstrate and theinterests which could help inform the goals to which this activity is to bedirected are as a result of the position occupied within the respective socialstructures by the actor in question (Callinicos, 2004). The followingdialectical approaches which aim to form an understanding of subjectivitiesfollow this particular condition, thus serving as more useful frameworks than thatof the traditional structure versus agency framework. This is because thedialectical approaches provide a more accurate, realistic and plausible understandingof subjectivities through various ways, of which will be described in thefollowing exerts of this paper. Giddens’ (1986) ‘Structuration Theory'(850 w)AnthonyGiddens began to reflect on the debate of structure versus agency due to his disapprovaland frustration with the habit of social scientists opting to side themselveswith one or the other of this basic dichotomy (Giddens, 1979). Subsequently, hedevised ‘structuration’ theory in an attempt to produce an adequate theoreticalaccount of subjectivity which neither eliminates the role of structure nor thatof agency (Jary and Jary, 1995). Giddens’ metaphor for this is that, as opposedto being distinct phenomena, structure and agency are in fact “two sides of thesame coin” (Giddens, 1984, p. 374).
The essential premise of the theory is thatstructure and agency are not dualistic in nature but are mutually dependent andinternally related. It is posited that structure only exists via agency andagents harbour ‘rules and resources’, which Gidden’s refers to as ‘modalities’,between them which will aid or hinder their actions. Giddens claimed that thatstructures such as establishments, moral codes and other sets of expectations,are universally steady yet have the potential to be modified mainly during theunintentional consequences of action, e.g. when individuals choose to turn ablind eye to the social norms, substitute them, or replicate them in an alteredway (Lamsal, 2012).
Like structuralists, Giddens acknowledges that structuresdo limit the autonomy of individuals. Conversely, unlike structuralists,Giddens states that the ‘rules and resources’ also permit certain autonomousactions. e.g. “For example, citizens living withinthe EU are subject to particular rules and resources. These constrain peopleliving in the EU: e.
g. they may have no option but to abide by decisionsreached in the European Court of Justice. However, such rulings can be enablingfor citizens, e.g. directives on working conditions”.
Replace with example fromethnography. According to Giddens, there are three types of structures at playwithin a social system: signification, legitimation and domination. He devisedthe stratification model of structure in a bid to demonstrate the links betweenthe structure and the system of action (Jacobs, 1993). Firstly, signification issaid to produce meaning through organised webs of language (semantic codes,interpretive schemes and discursive practices), Giddens is extending the roleof the actor to have the ability to distinguish and manipulate a structuredlanguage by interpretive meanings.
Secondly, the dimension of legitimationcreates a moral order via naturalisation of societal norms, values andstandards. As individual agents come into contact, they display consciously,subconsciously or consciously meaning of their actions. This manner ofinteraction dictates the present social norms and are weighted against themoral rules of the structure. As a result, despite an action being viewed aslegitimate in the social order, it is structured by this dimension oflegitimation (Lamsal, 2012).
Lastly, the element of domination centres on theproduction and practice of power which are initiated from the control ofresources. Giddens posits that the forces of domination and submission arepresent in the sensitive power play which Karl Marx is notable for remarkingupon. Resources can be utilised as a type of authority demonstrated by amanager and employee interaction. Resources can furthermore be used as in theform of property such as the allocation of wealthy or property (Lamsal, 2012). Acombination of the three key structures explained above be demonstrated in Insert example from ethnography. Despite the applicability of Gidden’s structuration theory, manyauthors contend that although Gidden’s goal of transcending the traditionaldualism of structure and agency may be well-intentioned, it is ultimatelyunsuccessful (Craib, 1992; Archer, 1996, Layder, 1997). They posit that Giddensis false in his claim that structure and agency are mutually constitutive: thatthey are in fact one and the same thing. Archer (1996) states that thisproduces a state of ‘central conflation’, whereby agency and structure areelided together to the point where the distinction between them becomesobsolete.
As a result, it becomes challenging to investigate the nature of theinterrelationship or dialectic between structure and agency (McAnulla, 2002).Subsequently, there is a difficulty in using structuration theory empirically.Gidden’s resolve on the mutual constitution on structure and agency means thathe is incapable of giving any understanding of the practical interactionbetween structure and agency in his own work (Layder, 1997). Furthermore, Craib(1992) contends that it is not plausible to develop one, all-embracing theoryof the social world. Rather, he believes that ‘the world is made up of manydifferent phenomena which do not fit together’ (Craib, 1992, p.7). Thiscriticism lends itself to Feyerabend’s concept of ‘theoretical pluralism’ (Feyerabend,1965); which denotes a theoretical meld in which all differences disappear andfails to relate adequately to a world which is increasingly fragmented,unhinged and disordered.
Despite these criticismsstructuration theory still works better than A vs S because… Bourdieu’s (1977) ‘Theory of Practice'(850 w)Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002)was a French sociologist and philosopher whose research “left an indelible markon the field of educational and cultural sociology” (Ozbilgin & Tatli,2005, p. 855). Bourdieu’s writing comes to provide a genuine advance in socialtheory, making a substantial contribution to the development of the agencyversus structure dichotomy (King, 2000). The ‘Theory of Practice’ conceived byBourdieu harbours significant implications for contemporary structure versusagency debates because it leans in favour of a social ontology which eradicatesthe dualism of the debate. The concept of ‘habitus’ is fundamental toBourdieu’s theory of practice. This conceptualisation refers to “our overallorientation to, or way of being in the world; our predisposed way of thinking,acting and moving in and through the social environment” (Sweetman, 2003,p.
532) and is intended to remove the structure and agency dichotomy as itmirrors the embodiment of social structure. Via shaping disposition andpractice, habitus can replicate social structure and, in this way, collectivelyhabitus and social structure are continually reconstituted (Akram, 2013). Habitusoccupies various ‘fields’, Bourdieu described field as a network ofrelationships between individual and institutional agents that rules how theydistribute certain types of resources, such as economic or cultural capital(Bourdieu,1977). Each field is said to contain its own logic and it is thefield which dually informs and imposes various parameters on practice. Despitethe implication that habitus and field are not exclusively bounded together,Bourdieu considers each as sharing a compatibility, it is this compatibilitywhich determines the viability of institutions. Essentially, institutions (e.g.
political, economic) are only completely viable if they are durably woven intothe temperament of agents operating within the field (Bourdieu, 1977). Although the field imposesrestrictions upon practice, the activity of agents also dictates the habitus ofthe field and hence the field itself. As a result, distinct ‘games’ are playedwithin fields.
For instance, in the artistic field players contend for thenumerous goods and resources that are deemed to be valuable within therespective field of action. Through this process players both orchestrate thehabitus of that field and the types of action that are constitutive of thatfield (Adkins, 2003). Insert example from ethnography.
This position establishes that social situations tend to vary, and that a “goodplayer” must often showcase creativity and adaptability. Through the analogy ofthe game and the game player, Bourdieu can disqualify (theoretical) concepts,such as rules and intentional action, from the process whereby structures andagents interact: the process in many ways becomes seamless, mundane andordinary (Akram, 2013).Variouscriticisms have been applied to Bourdieu’s theory of practice. For example, thetheory has been thought to entail a deterministic schema with the formula”structures produce habitus, which determines practices, which producedstructures”; (Bidet, 1979; Jenkins, 1982, Gorder, 1980; Giroux, 1982) therebyimplying that position in structure inevitably dictates social strategy.
Moreover, the incoherence between the habitus and practical theory inBourdieu’s writing and the sociological superiority of practical theory overthe habitus is graphically demonstrated by the problem of social change as manycritics have voiced (e.g., Garnham and Williams, 1980; Gorder, 1980;Swartz, 1977:, Wacquant, 1987, Brubaker, 1985). The issue, as claimed by thesecritics is this: should the habitus be determined by objective conditions, guaranteeingsuitable action for the social position in which any individual was placed, andthe habitus acted as unconscious dispositions and categories, then socialchange would be inconceivable. Individuals would act based on the objectivestructural condition in which they found themselves. Subsequently, they wouldmerely replicate such objective condition by repeating the same practices.Giroux (1982) concurs; “its definition and use reduce it to a conceptualstraight-jacket that provides no room for modification or escape. Thus, thenotion of habitus smothers the possibility for social change” (p.
7).Despite these criticisms theory of practice stillworks better than A vs S because…Archer’s (1982) ‘Morphogenetic Approach'(850 w)Depelteau (2008) suggests thatthe general conceptions underpinning the theories brought about by Gidden andBourdieu, as explored above, are flawed in that they give too much power tosocial structures or agency. Margaret Archer (1982) developed the morphogeneticapproach to combat this shortcoming, the approach is now considered to be oneof the most sophisticated attempts to define the relationship between structuresand agency and, in turn, subjectivity itself (Depelteau, 2008). Unlike Giddens,Archer insists upon the idea that structure and agency are indeed different andthat we require a very clear analytical distinction between the dualisms.Structure operates in certain ways as agency operates in different ways.Moreover, it is posited that both structure and agency demonstrate uniqueproperties and powers and, as such, are irreducible to one another. Archerproposes that as opposed to structure and agency being two sides to the samecoin, they are in fact comparable to two distinct strands which intertwine withone another. It is also suggested that the way to avoid structuralism orintentionalism is not, as Giddens postulates, to conflate structure and agency,but instead to analyse how structure and agency relate to one another overtime.
Through this method, Archer suggests, that we can acknowledge theinterplay, or dialectical relationship between structure and agency (McAnulla,2002). Essentially, structure and agency operate in dissimilar ways over time;they are temporally separable. Under this theory, structure necessarilypredates agency and alters the structure necessarily post-date these actions.Archer explains; “Structures, as emergent entities are not only irreducible topeople they pre-exist them, and people are not puppets of structures becausethey have their own emergent properties which mean their either reproducetransform social structures rather than create them” (Archer, 1996:1).The morphogenetic cycledevised by Archer is a basic model of the relationship between structure andagency over time, consisting of three key parts; structural conditioning (T1),structural interaction (T2-T3) and structural elaboration (T4). Structuralconditioning (T1) refers to the context in which action subsequently commences.Based on past actions particular conditions emerge (e.
g. climate change, theindustrial revolution, the structure of political institutions), of which impactthe interests people have, such as career, educational opportunities andlifestyle. Action is limited to take place within set of pre-determined,structured conditions. Social interaction (T2-T3) seeks to explain the ideathat agents are highly influenced by the structured conditions at T1.
Yet, theycan exercise some degree of power to affect events. Within this stage of thecycle, groups and individuals come into contact, showcasing their ownabilities, skills and attitudes. Agents will strive to attain their own goalsand affect outcomes. Generally, they will participate in processes of conflictand/or consensual compromise with other agents. Structural elaboration (T4)occurs when the activity at T2-T3 causes the structural conditions to change,either marginally or significantly. At this stage, some groups could havesuccessfully modified conditions to coincide with their interests and other groupsmay not have achieved such a successful scenario. More often than not, changeswhich takes place in structural conditions