Science likes facts and clear cause and effect relationships. Social sciences are no exception; they strive to fully understand social process and determine the moving forces behind these process and events. Yet, unlike natural scientists, sociologists cannot reach agreement as to whether society shapes and conditions individuals and their actions, or are individuals acting and behaving freely, undetermined by social structures and institutions. These controversy is known as agency vs. structure debate which has been troubling social scientists for as along as sociology has been around. Close examination of theoretical and practical implications of both sides of agency vs. structure debate leads one to accept the middle ground which recognizes the importance of both social structure and individual agency for maintaining the social world as we know it.
Each side of the agency vs. structure debate has some powerful arguments to offer. Proponents of the agency side of this debate claim that people essentially exercise free will, and thus, act freely and unconstrained at all times. Every action is a choice the individual has made himself or herself. Even if individual’s actions resemble those of other individuals, he has acted this way voluntarily. Exercising agency means that individuals’ actions can shape the society around them (Giddens, & Sutton, 2014). Hence, from this point of view society is understood as a result of free individual’s actions.
The above described approach to the agency vs. structure debate essentially claims that it is the individual actors who create and shape society as we know it. This places a lot of power over social process and social institutions on individuals. Along with power comes responsibility to shape individual and social life in desirable way without blaming the social, economic, or other circumstances for getting in the way. It is this fundamental belief in the might of individual agency that fuels democratic processes, grass root activism, capitalistic optimism, and social responsibility in Western societies.
Proponents of the structure side of debate believe that individual lives and actions are structured and determined by social institutions, norms, and rules. Individuals are born into social world they did not create and they soon learn its rules, values, and acquire necessary skills for operating in it (Plummer, 2010). They merely adapt themselves to society. The process of socialization serves an important function of teaching the young person key social structures and implications they have for his behavior and actions (Macionis, 2017). Hence, the individual is not completely free, but is rather constrained by the limited number of options available in particular social situation.
This line of reasoning leads us to some important implication about social justice that have influenced domestic politics in many countries around the world. Namely, if individuals lives are for the most part constituted by social circumstances and individuals themselves have little influence over social institutions and larger scale social processes, it is important to make sure that key social structures and institutions are designed in a way that allows them to treat every individual in a fair way. It makes society, or the representative government responsible for ensuring that the existent social institutions and the way they function are inherently just toward all individuals.
While both sides of this debate have their supporters, the majority of social scientists tend to acknowledge that both individual agency and social structure maintain, shape, and transform society as we know it. Sociologists for the most part agree that society would not be possible without certain structures that get reproduced by generations of individuals that create a social environment where individuals can exercise their freedom regarding certain things. Individuals are free to step away from certain social practices and attempt doing them in other way. They basically have the opportunity to refuse socially established way of doing something and come up with a different approach that may be accepted by others and become the new social norm (Little, 2011). Thus, agency and social structure are interdependent.
At the same time it is important to be aware of the limitations of each position. For instance, the social environment individual is socialized in may turn out to be determining of ow much freedom will that person be able to exercise in the future. All individuals are born free and mostly capable to pursue various opportunities for success. Yet, studies report that family’s socioeconomic status is a strong predictor of the child’s life chances (Conger, Conger, & Martin, 2010). In other words, socialization in disadvantaged environment may prevent the child from developing skills, knowledge, and social capital needed to achieve success and greater degree of individual freedom in the future.
On the other hand, history knows multiple examples of how individuals were able to bring about transformation of existing social structures and norms. Malcolm Gladwell(2000) points out that an individual may transform social structures if his or her alternative way of approaching certain matters happens to be presented to people who also sense the need of change at the right point of time. When many individuals simultaneously stop adhering to certain social norm, the norm will have to change.
Drawing conclusions, individual agency vs. social structure debate makes up one of the sociology’s cornerstones, as the theory of society attempts to conceptualize discrepancies and interconnections between individual actor and social institutions. All in all, social structure and agency are interdependent. Individuals have to voluntarily comply with existing social institutions for them to exist, while social structure is needed to offer individuals an organized environment where they can extract the most out of their ability to act freely.
- Conger, R.D., Conger, K.J., & Martin, M.J. (2010). Socioeconomic Status, Family Processes, and Individual Development. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(3), 685-704.
- Giddens, A., & Sutton, P.W. (2014). Essential Concepts in Sociology. Polity.
- Gladwell, M. (2000). The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Little, Brown and Company.
- Little, D. (2011, March 19). New Ideas About Structure and Agency. Retrieved from http://understandingsociety.blogspot.com/2011/03/new-ideas-about-structure-and-agency.html.
- Macionis, J.J. (2017). Sociology. Sixteenth Edition. Pearson.