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Agency, Structure

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Part of the Contemporary Social Theory book series

Abstract

The principal issue with which I shall be concerned in this paper is that of connecting a notion of human action with structural explanation in social analysis. The making of such a connection, I shall argue, demands the following: a theory of the human agent, or of the subject; an account of the conditions and consequences of action; and an interpretation of ‘structure’ as somehow embroiled in both those conditions and consequences.1

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Notes and References

  1. See, for instance, G. E. M. Anscombe, Intention (Oxford: Blackwell, 1963);

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  2. Theodore Mischel, Human Action (New York: Academic Press, 1969);

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  3. Richard Taylor, Action and Purpose (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966);

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  4. Arthur C. Danto, Analytical Philosophy of Action (Cambridge University Press, 1973).

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  5. Emile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1964) pp. xlvii–xlix.

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  6. Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action (Glencoe: Free Press, 1949); cf. ‘Durkheim’s contribution to the theory of integration of social systems’, in Kurt H. Wolff, Emile Durkheim (New York: Harper, 1964).

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  7. In Hollis’s terms, however, the ‘action frame of reference’ would constitute a form of ‘weak actionism’, defined as a view which ‘takes the actor to be plastic and his actions to be caused by the normative structures requiring them’. Martin Hollis, Models of Man (Cambridge University Press, 1977) p. 85.

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  8. Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, Reading Capital (London: New Left Books, 1970) p. 180.

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  9. E. Paci, The Function of the Sciences and the Meaning of Man (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972).

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  10. For an attempt to place Paci’s writings in a general sociological context, see Barry Smart, Sociology, Phenomenology and Marxian Analysis (London: Routledge, 1976).

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  11. In non-Marxist sociology, Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality (London: Allen Lane, 1967) is closest to this type of standpoint. Their approach, however, completely lacks a conception of the critique of ideology. Moreover, notwithstanding the interest of some of their formulations, their work remains close to Parsonianism in stressing the centrality of ‘internalisation’ of values as crucial to the existence of ‘order’.

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  12. Marx, Grundrisse (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1973) p. 712.

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  13. Charles M. Sherover, Heidegger, Kant and Time (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971) p. 284.

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  14. This is pointed out by Schutz. Alfred Schutz, The Phenomenology of the Social World (London: Heinemann, 1972) pp. 8ff.

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  15. For the conception of durée, see Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1910).

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  16. See, for example, R. S. Peters, The Concept of Motivation (London: Routledge, 1958) pp. 12ff.

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  17. Peter Marsh, Elisabeth Rosser and Rom Harré, The Rules of Disorder (London: Routledge, 1978) p. 15.

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  18. Cf. Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1967).

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  19. Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology: see also Garfinkel’s contribution to Roy Turner, Ethnomethodology (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974) pp. 15–18.

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  20. Cf. Jerome Neu, ‘Genetic explanation in Totem and Taboo’, in Richard Wollheim, Freud, a Collection of Critical Essays (New York: Doubleday, 1974).

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  21. Cyril Barrett, Wittgenstein: Lectures and Conversations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967) pp. 42ff.

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  22. A well-known example discussed by Davidson is a good case in point. I move a switch, turn on a light, illuminate the room, and at the same time alert a prowler. Davidson’s interest in this is purely confined to the problem of action descriptions: do I do four different things, or only one that can be described in different ways? ‘Actions, reasons and causes’, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 60 (1963). One of the few philosophical discussions of action that approaches a concern with unintended consequences is Alvin I. Goldman, A Theory of Human Action (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1970) pp. 22ff, where he analyses the ‘generation’ of acts by other acts or ‘act-tokens’.

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  23. R. K. Merton, ‘Manifest and latent functions’, in Social Theory and Social Structure (New York: Free Press, 1957); for comments see ‘Functionalism: après la lutte’.

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  24. Raymond Firth, Elements of Social Organisation (London: Watts, 1956) pp. 30 and 39 (italics not in original).

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  25. The conception of structure I advance seems to me close to that advocated by Bauman, save that he uses ‘structure’ as more or less synonymous with ‘culture’. Zygmunt Bauman, Culture as Praxis (London: Routledge, 1973).

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  26. See, for instance, John R. Searle, Speech Acts (Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 33ff.

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  27. Raymond D. Gumb, Rule-governed Linguistic Behaviour (The Hague: Mouton, 1972) reaches the same conclusion that I do, in respect of language rules: ‘all linguistic rules have both a regulative and a constitutive aspect’ (p. 25).

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  28. For other relevant considerations, see Joan Safran Ganz, Rules, a Systematic Study (The Hague: Mouton, 1971); and Hubert Schwyzer, ‘Rules and practices’, Philosophical Review, vol. 78 (1969).

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  29. See Paul Ziff, Semantic Analysis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1960);

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  30. also Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1977). It might be noted that the notion of rule appears frequently in the symbolic interactionist literature, but with very little cross-referencing to the parallel literature in philosophy to do with rules.

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  31. See, for instance, the various contributions to George J. McCall et al., Social Relationships (Chicago: Aldine, 1970).

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  32. Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics (London: Methuen, 1967).

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  33. Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972) p. 25.

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  34. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972) pp. 80–1.

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  35. Cf. Georg Lukács, Die Zerstörung der Vernunft (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1965).

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  36. The nature of Weber’s conceptualisation of power is still a matter of some controversy. Weber says ‘Macht bedeutet jede Chance, innerhalb einer sozialen Beziehung den eigenen Willen auch gegen Widerstreben durchzusetzen, gleichviel worauf diese Chance beruht’ (Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Tübingen: Möhr, 1956) p. 28). Although most English translations render Chance as ‘capacity’, it has been argued that, understood as ‘chance’ or ‘possibility’, the definition is less individualistic than appears to be the case. See Niklas Luhmann, Macht (Stüttgart: Enke, 1975).

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  40. Cf. Howard S. Becker, Sociological Work (London: Allen Lane, 1971).

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  41. For one of the most acute pieces of research reporting around this theme, see Paul Willis, Learning to Labour (Westmead: Saxon House, 1977).

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  42. Alfred Schutz, Reflections on the Problem of Relevance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970) pp. 120ff and passim.

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  43. Amitai Etzioni, The Active Society (New York: Free Press, 1968).

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  45. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System Theory (London: Allen Lane, 1968) p. xvii.

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  46. See also John W. Sutherland, Systems: Analysis, Administration, and Architecture (New York: Van Nostrand, 1975).

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  47. For comments on this, see Russell L. Ackoff, ‘General system theory and systems research: contrasting conceptions of system science’, in Mihajlo D. Mesarovic (ed.), Views on General Systems Theory (New York: Wiley, 1964).

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  48. Cf. Jürgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann, Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie? (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973). Bertalanffy stresses the importance of approaching systems theory with ‘humanistic concerns’ in mind, recognising the very real ‘fear that system theory is indeed the ultimate step towards mechanisation and devaluation of man and towards technocratic society’ (General System Theory, p. xxi).

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  49. See also Bertalanffy, Perspectives on General System Theory (New York: Brazillier, 1975).

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  50. See, for example, W. Ross Ashby, An Introduction to Cybernetics (London: Chapman and Hall, 1956).

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  51. Walter Buckley, Sociology and Modern Systems Theory (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1967).

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  52. See M. L. Minsky, Computation, Finite and Infinite Machines (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1967).

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  53. F. G. Varela et al., ‘Autopoiesis: the organisation of living systems, its characterisation and a model’, Systems, vol. 5 (1974). See also M. Gardner, ‘On cellular automata, self-reproduction, the Garden of Eden, and the game “life”’, Scientific American, no. 224 (1971); M. Zeleny and N. A. Pierre, ‘Simulation of self-renewing systems’, in E. Jantsch and C. H. Waddington (eds), Evolution and Consciousness (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1976).

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  54. G. Spencer Brown, The Laws of Form (London: Allen and Unwin, 1969). I have also drawn upon an unpublished paper by Hayward R. Alker, ‘The new cybernetics of self-renewing systems’, Center for International Studies, MIT.

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  55. David Lockwood, ‘Social integration and system integration’, in George K. Zollschan and W. Hirsch, Exploitations in Social Change (London: Routledge, 1964). I do not, however, understand the differentiation in the same way as Lockwood.

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  56. Anthony Giddens, Class Structure of the Advanced Societies (London: Hutchinson, 1973).

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  57. See, in particular, Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975).

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  58. Peter Winch, The Idea of a Social Science (London: Routledge, 1958) pp. 32–3.

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  59. Cf. Astri Heen Wold, Decoding Oral Language (London: Academic Press, 1968).

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  60. Ziff, Semantic Analysis. See also Ziff, ‘About what an adequate grammar could not do’, in Philosophical Turnings (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966);

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  62. Steven Lukes, Power, a Radical View (London: Macmillan, 1974).

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  63. W. B. Gallie, ‘Essentially contested concepts’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 56 (1955–6). Gallie gives (pp. 171–2) five criteria of ‘essential contestedness’.

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  64. Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, vol. 2 (London: Routledge, 1966) p. 98.

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  65. An idiosyncratic contribution to these issues has recently been offered by Cutler et al. in their Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today (London: Routledge, 1977). ‘There is nothing’, they say, ‘in the concept of agent to ensure that all agents must be conceived as human subjects …’ (p. 266). Thus the capitalist is recognised as an agent in company law: however such a category is not limited to human individuals, but can include the business firm. ‘The joint-stock company is a legal agent and a locus of economic decision distinct from its shareholders … As for the other attributes required of an entity if it is to function as an agent of capitalist possession, it is clear that these do not require that the agent be a human individual’ (p. 277). These comments are unobjectionable, but also wholly unenlightening; they do not address the philosophical problem of agency at all. It is perfectly true that a corporation can be an agent in law. But laws have to be interpreted, and applied; it takes human agents to do that, as well as to frame them in the first place. In the sections where the authors do confront the issue of agency more directly, they make claims that simply seem to me wrong. Thus they say that, if we impute any universal attributes to human subjects, it follows that social relations ‘are relations between subjects and they exist in and through the will and consciousness of subjects’ (p. 268). But it does not follow at all; although certainly no approach which ignores the will and consciousness of human subjects is likely to be of much use in social theory.

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© 1979 Anthony Giddens

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Giddens, A. (1979). Agency, Structure. In: Central Problems in Social Theory. Contemporary Social Theory. Palgrave, London. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-16161-4_3

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