Structure and agency

Structure and agency

The debate surrounding the influence of structure and agency on human thought and behaviour is one of the central issues in sociology and other social sciences. In this context "agency" refers to the capacity of individual humans to act independently and to make their own free choices. "Structure" refers to those factors such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs etc. which seem to limit or influence the opportunities that individuals have.

The debate

The debate over the primacy of structure or agency relates to an issue at the heart of both classical and contemporary sociological theory - the question of social ontology. What is the social world made of? What is a cause and what is an effect? Do social structures determine an individual's behaviour or does human agency rule supreme?

There are three possible theoretical positions in the response to this line of questioning:

  1. Some theorists put forward that what we know as our social existence is largely determined by the overall structure of society. The perceived agency of individuals can also mostly be explained by the operation of this structure. Theoretical systems aligned with this view include: structuralism, and some forms of functionalism and Marxism.
  2. In the reverse of the first position, other theorists stress the capacity of individual "agents" to construct and reconstruct their worlds. Theoretical systems aligned with this view include: methodological individualism, social phenomenology, interactionism and ethnomethodology.
  3. A third option, taken by many modern social theorists, is to attempt to find a point of balance between the two previous positions. They see structure and agency as complementary forces - structure influences human behaviour, and humans are capable of changing the social structures they inhabit.

The first approach was dominant in classical sociology. Theorists approached society from a position which saw unique aspects extant in the social world which could not be explained simply by the sum of the individuals present. Emile Durkheim strongly believed that the collective had emergent properties of its own and that there was a need for a science which would deal with this emergence.

This doesn't mean that methodological individualism is a new notion in social science (a very good early example is the theory of Gabriel Tarde). Many theorists still follow this divide (e.g., economists are very prone to disregarding any kind of holism). The central debate, therefore, is between theorists committed to the notions of methodological individualism and methodological holism. The first notion, methodological individualism is 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 the second notion, methodological holism is 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.

Major theorists

Georg Simmel

Georg Simmel(March 1, 1858 – September 28, 1918, Berlin, Germany) was one of the first generation of German sociologists. His studies pioneered the concept of social structure. His most famous work today is probably "The Philosophy of Money".

Norbert Elias

Norbert Elias (June 22, 1897 — August 1, 1990) was a German sociologist of Jewish descent, who later became a British citizen. His work focused on the relationship between power, behavior, emotion, and knowledge over time. He significantly shaped what is called process or figurational sociology.

Talcott Parsons

Talcott Parsons was a primary figure in structural functionalism in sociology in the 1950s in America. His work attempted to reconcile both volitional action and social structure.

Pierre Bourdieu

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 Judgement 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 attempts to reconcile 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."

Berger and Luckmann

Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their Social Construction of Reality (1966) saw the relationships between structure and agency as a dialectical one. Society forms the individuals who create society - forming a continuous loop.

Roy Bhaskar

Roy Bhaskar developed the "Transformational Model of Social Activity (TMSA)" in his The Possibility of Naturalism (1979) and Reclaiming Reality (1989). He put forward a critical realist approach. Going further than Berger and Luckmann he focused on the "relational" and "transformational" view of the individual and society: "society is both the ever present condition and the continually reproduced outcome of human agency."

Anthony Giddens

Anthony Giddens's developed "Structuration Theory" in such works as The Constitution of Society (1984). He presents a developed attempt to move beyond the dualism of structure and agency and argues for the "duality of structure" - where social structure is both the medium and the outcome of social action.

Recent developments

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.

Kenneth Wilkinson in the Community in Rural America took an interactional/field theoretical perspective focusing on the role of community agency in contributing to the emergence of community.

The structure/agency debate 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.

A European problem?

While the structure/agency debate has been a central issue in social theory, and recent theoretical reconciliation attempts have been made, 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 the structure agency debate) in greater detail in his book Modern Sociological Theory (2000).

See also



  • Archer, M. (1995), Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
  • Berger, P. L.; 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. (1976 New Rules of Sociological Method.
  • 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.; 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.
  • Wilkinson, K. (1991)., The Community in Rural America. Greenwood Press: New York, NY
Search another word or see Structure and agencyon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature