What is structure and agency? How does this framework help us in political analysis?
For it is part and parcel of daily experience to feel both free and enchained, capable of shaping our own future and yet confronted by towering, seemingly impersonal constraints. Consequently in facing up to the problem of structure and agency social theorists are not just addressing crucial technical problems in the study of society, they are also confronting the most pressing social problem of the human condition.’1
Structure and agency is a key understanding mechanism within social science. The approach attempts to answer the question of action; how is it that I can do what I want with others when their goals are different, and often incompatible with mine? Prominent social scientists including Giddens and Archer have suggested that the ‘Structure-Agency’ question is the most important theoretical issue within the human sciences. This debate has been slower to make an impact on political science than on some other social science disciplines yet it has been argued that structure-agency questions should be recognised as central to the way we study politics.
It can be argued that there is no ‘escape’ from issues of structure-agency. Hay argues: “Every time we construct, however tentatively, a notion of social, political or economic causality we appeal, whether explicitly or (more likely) implicitly, to ideas about structure and agency.”2 The structure and agency can be regarded as crucial to an understanding of Social Sciences; it has at its base a fundamental question which humans have posed for a long time. This is an essentially normative question; are we free to act as we please, or are we shaped and governed by structures? Nobody would argue that structure controls us completely, but neither, in the post-modern world, are we completely free.
It is prudent to first determine examine what we can understand by the terms ‘structure’ and ‘agency’. This paper will begin will deal with some definitions and summarise the position from both sides of the agency structure debate. By examining the case of the recent second Gulf War in Iraq, an analysis of the usefulness of the framework will be discussed to ascertain its validity in political analysis.
The 'agency approach' is sometimes twinned with methodological individualism, which argues that the only reality we can grasp is the deeds/actions of individuals, not classes. The approach suggests structural forces such as hegemony cannot be seen as real; they are intangible and thus we can say nothing provable about them. This implies an epistemology that we cannot look at classes to explain the behaviour of individuals. It is therefore quite a severe approach to the human sciences. Giddens suggests the actor is an embodied unit and as such, a possessor of causal powers that she may choose to employ to intervene (or not) into the ongoing sequence of events in the world. This makes her an agent. Giddens “…define[s] action or agency as the stream of actual or contemplated causal interventions of corporeal beings in the ongoing process of events-in-the-world.”3 It is analytical to the concept of agency that a person or agent “could have acted otherwise.”4 This conception of the agent ties agency to power.
Agency approaches see the individual as atomized, positting a voluntarist approach to human action. They argue that the context in which an individual lives is a pluralism; social power is spread between groups, and that no single group dominates. The way to analyse, therefore, is by looking at what the individual tells us - there is an onus on reflexivity; on the individual being able to account for and be aware of the reasons and implications of their actions. This approach also pays attention to time. History is taken to be the outcome of freely chosen choices and self-determined deeds: the "great man" view of history which sees Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, Margaret Thatcher...
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