Structure and Agency Essay

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The concepts of structure and agency are central to sociological theory. Structures are typically seen as the more fixed and enduring aspects of the social landscape. As used by Durkheim and others working within a similar tradition, structure is a metaphor that denotes qualities of society that are akin to the skeleton of a body in the field of anatomy, or to the frame of a building in architecture. Durkheim insisted that there are structured ways of acting, thinking, and feeling that are general throughout particular societies; that act as external pressures and constraints; and that are not reducible to biology or psychology. This was also to emphasize the role of society in the process of causation as opposed to individual or group agency. Some writers taking issue with this position went to the other extreme. Weber, for example, emphasized the role of individuals and rejected the idea that terms such as ”society” or ”group” could refer to any reality other than that of individuals and their actions. Others, seeking to embrace both structure and agency in their analytic frameworks, which is by now the dominant conception in contemporary social theory, maintained the Durkheimian emphasis on structures but conceived agency as the more processual, active, dimension of society – analogous to the physiology of an organism. Agency here is the dynamic ability of individuals   or   groups,   such   as   class movements, governments, or economic corporate bodies, to ”make things happen”.

Although mutually entwined, structure and agency can still be conceptualized independently. Lopez and Scott (2000) argued that there are two primary ways of conceptualizing structure, both deriving from Durkheim, and a third mode that can be found in more contemporary theorizing. The first is the relational notion of structure, referring to networks of social relations that tie people together into groups and social systems. These networks of inter-dependencies, characterized by mutual reliance within divisions of labor, are typically clustered into specialized sectors of social relations such as kinship, religion, the economy, the state, and so on. Durkheim referred to these as collective relationships. Georg Simmel similarly saw society as a dynamic complex of social forms and interactions that structure agents’ behavior, just as Norbert Elias’s figurational sociology emphasized the webs and networks of relationships within which individual agents act.

The second notion of structure, the institutional, refers to the beliefs, values, symbols, ideas, and expectations that make up the mutual knowledge of members of a society and that allow them to communicate with each other. Durkheim (1984) referred to this dimension of structure as society’s collective representations. The structural-functionalist tradition associated with the work of Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton, and others, captured this aspect of structure under the rubric of ”social institutions.” Other writers characterized it in terms of cultural patterns. Parsons’ focus was on the rules and normative expectations into which agents were socialized as children, and on their adaptation to the various roles and positions they occupied as adults. This emphasis on rules and norms held in individual minds within institutions merges into Lopez and Scott’s third notion of structure, that of embodied structure, and the combination of both can be seen in diverse strands of current writing, including new institutionalism, Jeffrey Alexander’s cultural sociology, and in the theories of Pierre Bourdieu (habitus) and Anthony Giddens (practical consciousness).

Agency theorists argue that structural approaches fail to recognize the central role played by agency in the production of structured patterns or of social change. Two overlapping traditions have dominated here. One includes Weber, Schutz, Berger and Luckmann, Garfinkel, and, more recently, Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thevenot, in the neo-Kantian and phenomenological traditions. The emphasis here is on types of action and on the storehouse of preconceptions, typifications, of objects and practices – the latter as ”recipe knowledge” – that we draw upon in appropriate circumstances, and also on the array of competencies, skills, and moral commitments that are intrinsic to agents’ routine accomplishments. There is also an emphasis on the shifting role played by the agent’s situational ”horizon of relevance” in affecting how she draws upon stocks of knowledge. The other tradition – that of pragmatism and symbolic interactionism – includes Mead and Blumer, and has more recently influenced Hans Joas, Alexander and Nicos Mouzelis, who emphasize the reflection, reflexivity, and creativity inherent in the very process of interaction itself, and in the making of selves. Critical realist Margaret Archer has also made valuable contributions to this strand through her discussions of the relationship of reflexivity to ”internal conversations,” whilst Andrew Sayer has launched a critique of the neglect of values and emotions – ”what people care about” – within theoretical understandings of agency.

Major contemporary theorists such as Bourdieu, Giddens, and Jurgen Habermas, along with many of the other more recent theorists mentioned above, have attempted to synthesize and combine the three notions of structure and the two traditions of agency outlined. Other current trends focus on explicit links between such syntheses and the empirical, in-situ level.


  1. Durkheim, E. (1984) [1893] The Division of Labour in Society. Macmillan, London.
  2. Emirbayer, M. & Mische, A. (1998) What is Agency? American Journal of Sociology 104: 962-1023.
  3. Lopez, J. & Scott, J. (2000) Social Structure. Open University Press, Philadelphia.
  4. Stones, R. (2009) Theories of social action. In: Turner, B. (ed.), The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory. Blackwell, Oxford.

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