I’ve talked before at some length about my issues with the terms structure and agency. I think they often shed more heat than light, and often represent philosophical positions about how to interpret the world more than empirical alternatives. Recently, I had the opportunity to read Sewell’s classic piece, A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency and Transformation. Reading through his discussions of the structure vs. agency debate clarified my own thinking a great deal, and his own version (a slightly critical combination of Giddens and Bourdieu) is one of the least bothersome I’ve yet seen*. For example, Sewell does a nice job of laying out one debate often subsumed under the heading of structure vs. agency, but really orthogonal to the debate many sociologists want to have: the material vs. the cultural. In thinking through that issue, I came up with a list of 4 debates that sometimes fall under the heading of structure vs. agency:
The first and the last are a bit stranger than the middle two. The material vs. the cultural is often, as Sewell notes, an issue about what counts as a structure. For Anthropologists, culture is the structure of most interest. For some sociologists culture opposes the material as an alternative to deterministic theories like some kinds of Marxism.
Intentionality vs. accident is, on the other side, about what counts as agency. Does agency refer simply to the capacity of individual action to alter future circumstances (i.e. structures)? If so, then intentionality is irrelevant. In Foucault’s excellent phrase, “People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” (quoted in Dreyfus and Rabinow). Sewell, on the other hand, wants to restrict agency to the capacity for intentional action to intentionally change structures (as I read him – in particular, he’s interested in how actors take schemas and apply them to new situations or apply them in new ways to old ones, thus generating new structures).
The middle two are more self-explanatory, I think. Determinism vs. free-will goes back at least as far as Durkheim (in Sociology, that is). It’s pretty clear in the early parts of The Rules of the Sociological Method where, if I recall correctly, Durkheim directly opposes social facts (which exist outside of individuals and constrain their actions) to free will, thus setting this variant of the structure vs. agency debate at the center of the discipline.
Stability vs. change can be seen nicely in Bourdieu’s work, and Sewell’s criticism of it. Bourdieu creates an elaborate and useful way of thinking about stability – posit a field with a certain logic, a set of positions, a set of actors who possess certain kinds of resources, and the capacity to use those resources more or less effectively for the given field, and you can see what kinds of outcomes are stable. His framework is a little trickier when it comes to understanding change – as Sewell notes, change comes from exogenous shocks to the system rather than being produced endogenously by agents. The habitus is a reproductive concept – it’s about how the system stays the same rather than how it changes. Or, as a I said a few days ago, Bourdieu turns agents into structures (indeed, structured structures that are also structuring structures…). Sewell wants to add back in some ability for individual (purposive) action to alter structures without any exogenous shocks.
So, in sum, another reason I hate the whole structure vs. agency debate is that it’s not one debate. It’s several debates, nested into one big dichotomy. But perhaps if we parse out what those underlying debates are we can get somewhere a bit more productive.
Thoughts? Am I missing any other debates that fly under the banner of structure vs. agency?
* I know, damning with faint praise. But I do mean it – most of the time these debates give me headaches, at best.