Agents: Rational, Natural or Open Systems?

If there is one meta/theoretical debate in Sociology that continually frustrates me it is the dichotomy between agency and structure. Maybe I missed a meeting early on in my sociology education where someone usefully defined them in a coherent way, but these two terms have continually struck me as underdefined, confused, and more harm than help, especially when employed casually and without a rigorous and consistent set of definitions.

A brief example of the kind of thing I’m talking about: As part of a summer program for new graduate students, I attended a presentation on finding good mentorship given by a couple of professors of higher education. The presentation itself was bland but not useless – a few tips here and there about making sure to actively seek mentorship if you don’t happen upon it with your initial advisor, how to make sure you get connected with important faculty so you can find a job, etc. One of the professors leading the presentation then went on to make an extended argument about how you have to exercise agency against the structure of the system. In particular, he meant taking an active role in seeking out resources and assistance from faculty and staff rather than assuming that existing organizational routines will provide adequate amounts without any work on your part.