Structure vs Agency

Agency is the ability of individuals to make their own decisions; autonomy.

Structure is any social mechanism that influences individuals. It can be formal (e.g. government), informal (e,g, traditions), material (e.g. transportation), semiotic (ideology). It can be macro scale (class structure), meso scale (networks of individuals), micro scale (norms in a family).

Functionalists tend to emphasize the importance of structure:

---Marx: "base structure" is economics, which causes the "superstructure" of culture. Causality in one direction. Good contemporary example in Paul Willis' book "Learning to Labor."

---Durkheim: referred to structure as "social facts;" emphasized their autonomous activity.

Symbolic Interactionists tend to emphasize the importance of agency:

---Garfinkle: “Members to an organized arrangement are continually engaged in having to decide, recognize, persuade, or make evident the coherent, or consistent, or chosen, or planful, or effective, or methodical, or knowledgeable character" of their actions."

---Goffman: Institutions apply constraints, but actors have a great deal of potential freedom within those constraints.

Postmodernists run the spectrum:

--Foucault: what appears to be agency is often actually structure, such as the sexual revolution or prison reform.

--Althusser : interpolation (subtle loss of agency when authority "calls").

--de Certeau: in "The Practice of Everyday Life" he contrasts the "strategy" of elite power (e.g. city architects) with the "tactics" of everyday life (e.g. taking a stroll).

Many scholars attempt to transcend the agency/structure dualism (although as Taylor says, "these dichotomies seem to be constantly declared dead only to be immediately resurrected"):

--Giddens: "Structuration" is Gidden's term for how agency and structure are in a recursive or feedback loop relationship.

--Bordieu: Actors are subject to a "field" (involving roles, relationships, "cultural capital", etc.). Some aspects are internalized over time as "habitus."


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