Why have structuralist approaches often been criticised in political inquiry? Are these criticisms justified?
‘Structuralism is the explanation of political effects, outcomes and events exclusively in terms of structural and contextual factors’. That is to say that, in the fundamental political debate between structure and agency, and the role they play in political processes, the structuralist approaches come down firmly on the side of structure. As an approach they seek expose imbedded structural systems by looking below the meaning of events. However, among social and political theory, structuralism is far from enjoying popular support or following. In fact, the brand ‘structuralist’ is considered little more than a term of abuse. Indeed, over the years, it has been exposed to a barrage of critiques, whether justified or not. In this essay I will present the major criticisms that have been made of the structuralist approaches in political inquiry and analyse the extent to which they are justified. Some of the criticisms made of the structuralist approaches by critics are perhaps unfairly classed as a criticism. More accurately, they are drastic disagreements with the fundamental concepts of the structuralist beliefs. I will begin by detailing these, before going on to explain the criticisms which can be seen as more damaging to the structuralist view as they involve a challenge to its logical plausibility. The first, and most significant, of the critiques arising due to a differing belief is the critique structuralist approaches receive for their dismissal of agents as a factor in political processes. In structuralism agents are seen only as ‘bearers’ of their structural position. Actors are incapable of taking any effective independent action. Instead their actions are determined by underlying economic structures, therefore reducing agency to the status of merely an epiphenomenon. This stance explicitly denies the popular belief that is it agents who shape their own history and the history of the world around them. Their critics counter with the claim that without the input of actors nothing would change and there would be nothing to explain, therefore making structuralism nonsensical. To an extent I believe this critique is highly justified. In completely disregarding the influence of agency in political processes and society those subscribing to the structuralist views occupy a stance which is difficult indeed to justify. It is hard to disagree with the claim that structures do in fact hold a significant influence over politics. However, to harbour the claim that they are totally responsible seems ignorant given evidence and logic to the contrary. This is also the second criticism made, that structuralism is too extreme in its beliefs. It is no coincidence that a number of approaches to political science have arisen that occupy a middle ground in the debate between structure and agency. One of the major issues some analysts have with structuralism is its apparent ‘concreteness’, if structuralism were to accept that in some cases agency can influence political process, however small the influence, it may encounter less criticism and rejection from political enquiry. As the postmodernist view of political science correctly notes, in its definite privileging the role of structure Structuralism marginalises and overlooks the ways in which agency has a role. Though this is no doubt a valid criticism of the structuralist views it is perhaps unjust given that social science as a whole, not just structuralism, has a tendency to encourage an ultimately arbitrary choice between two terms. Any Binary Opposition, be it structure and agency, context vs. conduct, or any other competing theories, results in a polarisation of the two approaches where, the truth, more often than not, the answer may lie in an amalgamation or compromise between the two.
Another criticism of the structuralist view of political science lies in the...
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