What is (an) Agenc(y’/ie)s Structure?

This weekend I discovered a nice post on Daniel Little´s Blog UnderstandingSociety dealing with an old (nearly classic) topic of sociology. Daniel reviewed a new book by Peter Martin and Alex Dennis that (2010) that promisses to remodel the old problem of structure and agency – I just ordered it to review it myself. From the TOC it seems to me that the impression I had when I first read the title “HUMAN agency and SOCIAL structure” seems true: There is Habermas, there is Bourdieu, there is Giddens, there is Foucualt. A classic collection of protagonists of the 1990s structure/agency debate (the one about conflations, remember?). 

Here is a piece of Daniel Little´s review: 

This group of researchers addresses the contrast between agency and structure; but really their goal is to help to dissolve the distinction.  They want to show that “structures” do not exist in any strong sense (including the senses associated with critical realism), and that a proper understanding of “agency” involves both subjective and objective features of the individual’s actions, thoughts, and situation.  Social relationships are densely intertwined with reasons, emotion, commitments, beliefs, and attitudes — the aspects of consciousness that make up agency and action.

Here is a representative statement about social structures:

The collective concepts (such as family, state, organisation, class and so on) — which have often been seen as fundamental to sociological analysis — have often encouraged ‘the temptation to reify collective aspects of human life’ (Jenkins 2002a:4); that is, to treat them as if they were real entities, independent of the human beings who constiTute them. (7)

Their affirmative theory of agency — now stripped of the notion that it is a polar opposite to structure — has much in common with the traditions of micro-sociology — Goffman, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, and phenomenological sociology.  The idea here is to emphasize the very concrete ways in which each of these traditions succeeds in identifying the agent, the social actor, as both subjective and objective.  He/she is a subject, in the sense that the agent possesses thoughts, emotions, desires, aversions, allegiances, and the like, which in turn contribute to the actions and lives they live.  But the agent is objective, in the sense that he/she is embedded and developed within a concrete set of social relationships and institutions.

Thus each of these approaches develops in its own way the idea that human social life is carried out through processes of interaction among real people in specific situations, and each seeks to avoid the reification of collective concepts — there are no such ‘things’ as social ‘structures,’ ‘classes’, or indeed ‘societies’, yet terms such as these are indispensable, not only for sociologists but for the purposes of everyday communication. (14)

Social theory in sociology as well as in STS has gone a long way since the 1990s – and it seems to me that the temporary solution of the now 20 year old debates (“make it micro, place structure and agency both into your concept of (human) action”) has been challenged by a diverse set of approaches today. Boltanski and Thevenot, Schatzki, Latour (oh well, and don´t forget their ancestors Dewey and Tarde) all argue (in different ways), that agency is not a quality that (human) actors possess – but an effect of a temporary structuring so that the basic qustion is not: “How do agents structure their relationships and institution?” but “How do different ways of structuring collective relations bring about modes of agency?” 
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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

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