Structure-Agency Debate

  • Created by: KDallers-
  • Created on: 03-06-19 00:50

Intro to Structure-Agency Debate

KEY QUESTION - "To what extent are socially situated agents free to act in an autonomous manner?" - what it boils down to is FREE WILL VS DETERMINISM and how much ACTORS can SHAPE THEIR OWN DESTINY

- AGENCY - the individual ability to affect their environment vs STRUCTURE - the context and conditions they have to deal with; for example US President's style vs context of globalisation

It is a DEBATE - there isn't a 'solution' (Fuller) - question of which is MOST IMPORTANT? Or is it a balance of the two

OBJECTIONS TO THE DEBATE: 1) TOO PERPLEXING - there are TOO MANY DUALISMS within this debate, meaning it is hard to find a solution - while an UNSOLVABLE DEBATE, many scholars argue that it is important to take a position (McAnulla); 2) EVERYDAY EXPERIENCE - is the debate just a matter of common sense? There is structure and agency to everything, so why discuss it - just get on with it? HOWEVER, this is relevant to highly contentious issues ie 'benefit scroungers' (McAnulla)

STRUCTURE CENTRIC - structuralism, institutionalism - less prevalent today, more dialectic

AGENCY CENTRIC - intentionalism, voluntarism, rational choice theory - again, more dialectic

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Structure-Centric Approaches

STRUCTURALISM - began with de Sassure's study of linguistics, viewing the systems which were at work - popularised by Althusser - saw individuals as 'bearers of structures', which blindly led them to decisions - these HIDDEN STRUCTURES drove the economy, society to crisis point - Marxist - HOWEVER, this is now more of a CRITICISM - everyone now accepts agency plays a role, so this is refuted (Colin Hay)

INSTITUTIONALISM - traditional institutionalism has transformed into new institutionalism; NEW - looks at INTERACTION rather than simply formal rules (traditionalists like Finer would compare nations based on their formal institutions) 

- Institutions are the 'rules of the game' (North); they are 'stable, recurring patterns of behaviour' (Goodin) - for example, the state, the judiciary, the treasury etc. - an organising perspective

- New institutionalists - look at theory, and interactions between institutions and agents to see how institutions operate and shape action; there are rules, dynamics, values, embedded in society - March and Olsen

OTHER TYPES: NORMATIVE - how do institutions use preference-shaping power?; HISTORICAL - looking at past 'patterns of behaviour' and seeing how they incorporate selective bias + path dependencies - for example, Hay's 'punctuated equilibrium of British politics'

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Agency-Centric Approaches

These are referred to as VOLUNTARISM, INTENTIONALISM - even behaviouralism explaining individual behaviour in the 1950s/60s - they all emphasise the ROLE OF ACTORS

- Rational choice theory (A.Downs) - this defines interests materially by looking at 'rational actors' and their INTERESTS - various types of interest; 'groups', 'national interest', 'power relations' - for example, the PRISONER'S DILEMMA - people only cting in their SELF-INTEREST - damaging - CRITICISED: - what are 'real' interests?; - who shpaes our preferences?; - how rational are people - they behave emotionally and can be misled by elites

- PUBLIC CHOICE - looking at bureaucracies and how they operate in their own interests

- INTENTIONALISM - agential approach which refers to the INTENTIONS OF INDIVIDUALS; a pluralist approach - individuals seen as SELF-INTERESTED and using their characteristics to form interests and puruse them - structures are CREATED by successful demonstrations of FREE WILL

CRITICISED: - huge role tht structures play; - some actions are done for VERY LITTLE SELF-INTEREST/PERSONAL BENEFIT; - critical theory: not all actors have EQUAL AMOUNTS OF FREE WILL

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Dialectical Approaches Part I

This relates to the idea that STRUCTURE and AGENCY interact with eachother and may be INDEPENDENT - Skocpol: "politics creates policies, policies also remake politics"

- STRUCTURATION - Giddens - idea that both are mutually dependent through structures constraining and enabling the behaviour of actors; they guide agents, but agents also help to FORM the structures they are constrained by - generates a selective bias/path dependencies - both operate together

OBJECTIONS - are structure and agency seen as one? (Archer); - no empirical proof for this

- POSTMODERNIST APPROACH - sees the structure-agency debate as a binary dualism which provides an 'arbitrary choice' - calls for the debate to be opened up and revised (Laclau); argues for the introduction of DISCOURSE into the debate - this GUIDES BEHAVIOUR and enables INTERACTION between the two; challenges institutionalism and fragmented approaches

Providing a challenge to AGENTIAL APPROACHES like RATIONAL CHOICE THEORY - Tsebelis - is rational choice theory actually a STRUCTURALIST MODEL? It views all individuals as EXACTLY THE SAME - no differentiation - so less free will and more deterministic

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Dialectical Approaches Part II

STRATEGIC-RELATIONAL APPROACH - Colin Hay + Jessop - this apporach argues there is a clear distinction between the two; uses STRUCTURES as the starting point - individuals then act in a certain way within the structure to gain a FAVOURABLE OUTCOME; individuals use this knowledge to form a STRATEGY TO OPERATE within the structure, and they learn and alter their responses - leading to ALTERATIONS TO THE STRUCTURAL CONTEXT

- This suggests that agents are fighting against structures to come up with the best response - what about structures being ENABLING of certain types of behaviour?

MORPHOGENETIC - Margaret Archer - argues that we need to DISTINGUISH between the two sides, as both possess unique powers and relate; argues for a STRUCTURE, then DISCOURSE AND INTERACTION, and either CHANGE OR REIFICATION OF THE STRUCTURE - a relationship as opposed to both being mutually dependent like STRUCTURATION

- ROLE OF IDEAS - Archer introduces the role of CULTURE as representing key ideas of people - these modify responses to structures and alter the types of discourse that are experienced - again, a CULTURE, then DISCOURSE AND INTERACTION, and as a result there is CHANGE OR REIFICATION OF THE CULTURE

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Role of Ideas

People operate for NON-MATERIAL REASONS, as we know, but the concept of ideas introduces a NEW ELEMENT to the debate - for example, Brexit - idea of democracy in voters' heads - individuals possess them from reality; no empirical proof for ideas, but they are held - separate from structure or agency (Marcuse)

FACTS VS VALUES - values are unidentifiable and intangible, yet they are what shape our ideas - if we hold certain values on an issue (ie Brexit) we are likely to develop different ideas about what we want - however, FACTS can often be used in conjunction with IDEAS - we can DEPLOY FACTS IN A CERTAIN MANNER to support our own ideas

- M.ARCHER - relates back to the ROLE OF CULTURE - structures are formed based on the ideational - a new role; these develop in the same way as structures, and introduce a 'third layer' to the debate

- What role do ideas play - bigger, same role, smaller than structure/agency? How do these thoughts and ideas ALTER the debate? 

Overall - ideas need to be analysed in the same way as the material - important, and can be analysed and criticised - for example Lukes' 3rd face of power - how do we acquire ideas?

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Key Structure-Agency Thinkers

Fuller - no solution to the debate

McAnulla - in favour of the debate

March + Olsen - new institutionalists

Althusser; de Sassure - structuralists; Hay - anti-structuralist; historical institutionalism, strategic-relational (w/ Jessop)

Finer - traditional institutionalist

Goodin - definition of institution

Downs - RC theory; Tsebelis - critic of RC theory

Giddens - structuration

Skocpol - quote regarding dialectical theory

Archer - morphogenetic approach and looking at ideational; Marcuse - pro-ideational

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