Theoretical Paper

Human Studies

, Volume 34, Issue 1, pp 67-92

First online:

Structure and Agency in Scholarly Formulations of Racism

  • Kevin McKenzieAffiliated withProgram in Conflict Studies and Dispute Resolution, University of North Carolina at Greensboro Email author 

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That the issue of racism is a pressing social concern which requires serious and detailed attention is, for ethnomethodology, not a first principle from which its own inquiry is launched but rather a matter to be considered in light of how mundane actors (both professional and lay) treat that very topic. This paper explores how the assumption of an ontological distinction between social structure and individual agency is integral to the intelligibility of racism as formulated in scholarly accounts. In particular, I explore how recent scholarly treatments of racism pose as problematic the diverse formulations of racial identity assembled through the deployment of various measures, and then seek to adjudicate upon the resulting inconsistency with an analytic heuristic that assumes an underlying or foundational source for the various expressions it seeks to resolve. Further, I explore examples of analytic work that makes use of first-person accounts of racially significant episodes and experiences as a means to document the formulation of the events and actions those accounts describe in terms that warrant a reading informed by the assumption of the structure-agency distinction. I relate the corroborative work that takes place in the research relationships between students and teachers with ethnomethodology’s own project to explore how the efficaciousness of analytic readings of racism entail the pervasive assumption of the structure-agency distinction in order to be rendered them with the sense they have for the various participants involved.


Accountability Ethnomethodology Ontology Race Racism Structure and agency