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Structure-Agency Debate

  The issue of structure and agency is central for sociology. Sociologists recognize two main determinants of social phenomena, social structure and individual actions (human agency); what is contested is their relative importance. Social structure refers to those larger and relatively enduring features of society which provide the background against which social life is carried out: for example, the class structure. It highlights the fact that human societies have certain regularities in the social relationships which people engage in. Agency, on the other hand, refers to the volitional and purposeful nature of human activity. Social structure is believed to exert a constraining effect on human activity; agency refers to the ability of individuals to act independently of this.

It is possible to identify three main standpoints in the debate. (1) Some branches of sociology (such as structuralism, functionalism and Marxism) assert that social life is largely determined by social structure, and that individual activities can be explained mostly as an outcome of structure. (2) Other branches (for instance, phenomenological sociology, ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism) reverse this emphasis, stressing the ability of individuals to construct and reconstruct and give meaning to their world. Proponents of this view emphasize the need to provide explanations for social phenomena which reflect the views of the individuals they study. (3) Other approaches stress the complementarity of structure and agency. Social structure influences human actions, but individual activities can similarly influence social structure.

Most forms of sociological theory highlight the complementarity of structure and agency, though different theories exist about the nature of the relationship between the two. Berger and Luckmann suggest that the relationship between structure and agency is one in which society forms the individuals who create society in a continuous dialectic. Giddens has offered a formulation of structure which is both constraining and enabling. The debate is likely to be an on-going one. Whatever the sophistication of general theories of the structure-agency relationship, disputes are nonetheless likely to persist in their application to particular cases.

See also action perspective; exchange; generalized other; holism; idiographic; individualism; internalization; macrosociology; microsociology; norms; rational choice; social integration; socialization; social order; social self; structuration; values.Further reading T. Bottomore, , R. Nisbet (eds.), A History of Sociological Analysis. DA



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