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Structure and agency

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The problem of reconciling social structure and human agency

A central issue in both classical and contemporary sociological theory is the question of social ontology - what the social world is made of; or what has the status of cause and what has the status of effect. Traditionally, there are two main camps in this debate: on the one hand are hermeneutical/ethnomethodological approaches (emphasis on agency/interaction), and on the other structural/functionalist ones (emphasis on structure). Historically, the latter approach was dominant in sociology, due to the fact that early sociologists sought to establish their discipline by finding the specificity of the social. In other words, they tried to show that the social can not be reduced to the sum of individuals - that the collective has emergent properties (Durkheim) and that there is a need for a science which will deal with this emergence. This doesn't mean that methodological indivdualism is a new notion in social science (a very good early example is the theory of Gabriel Tarde). Many theorists still follow this divide (i.e., economists are very prone to disregarding any kind of holism).

The central debate, therefore, is between theorists committed to the notion of methodological individualism - 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 theorists committed to a notion of methodological holism (see holism in science) - 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.

More recently, there is growing convergence in attempts to reconcile notions of social structure, such as the institutions and norms that shape the actions of individuals in society, with the notion of human agency where volitional agents are seen as being capable of making a difference in and changing the social systems they inhabit.

Structure/agency theory as a framework resolving the debate

Structure/agency theory is a now recognised as a branch of social theory that reconciles the debate between whether social structure or social agency should be given theoretical primacy - by refusing to grant theoretical primacy to either. Structure/agency theorists suggest that social agents are inherently socialised and that the actions of agents are informed by and shaped by social structure such as norms and institutions prevalent in the society they are socialised into. On the other hand, the actions of actors may, individually or collectively, alter and shape social structure such as norms and institutions.

The situation, therefore, is somewhat like asking 'which came first - the chicken or the egg?' Either answer is incorrect. There is a continuous cycle of actors influencing structure, and structure socialising actors. This has been called methodological relationism by several structure/agency theorists.

Some key structure/agency theorists

Structure/agency viewpoints may be traced back to sociologists such as Georg Simmel, Norbert Elias and Talcott Parsons. Parsons for example was a primary figure in action theory in sociology in the 1950s, and his work reconciled both action and social structure to a certain extent. The functionalist orientation of his work has however fallen out of favor after being criticized as tautological and value-laden.

The key contributions to the structure/agency theory literature however might be regarded as the contributions by Berger and Luckmann in their Social Construction of Reality, Pierre Bourdieu in his Outline of a Theory of Practice and his Logic of Practice, Anthony Giddens's works on Structuration Theory such as his work on The Constitution of Society, and Critical Realist approaches to structure/agency theory such as Roy Bhaskar's work on the Transformational Model of Social Activity (TMSA) in his Reclaiming Reality or The Possibility of Naturalism.

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 Economics by Tony Lawson and in Sociology by Margaret Archer.

An example of structure/agency thinking

Pierre Bourdieu presented 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 Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (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 reconciles 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.

Recent developments

The structure/agency approach 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.

Further considerations

While the structure/agency debate has been a central issue in social theory, and structure/agency theory is a vital and important solution to many of the methodological issues raised in the debate, 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 Ritzer examines these issues (and surveys structure/agency theory) in greater detail in his book Modern Sociological Theory.

Additional links


  • Archer, M. (1995), Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Berger, P. L. and 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. (1984), The Constitution of Society, Polity Press, Cambridge.
  • 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. and 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.
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