Where do you go beyond structure and agency?

(c) ajusticenetwork
(c) ajusticenetwork

In his book The structure of social theory, Anthony King argues that understandings  of society need to go beyond the restrictive dualism of structure and agency – a dualism that according to him takes us too far away from human relations and leaves sociology marooned in the mythical state of the lone individual.

Contemporary social theorists across the entire political spectrum, from Giddens, Habermas and Bhaskar to Bourdieu and Foucault, try to explain how the individual reproduces [this] prior social structure. The lone individual confronts an imposing and distant structure. The dualistic ontology is now hegemonic and in this resides the irony and even the tragedy of sociology today, and these structures are maintained by a conceptual structure which directs individual action. A discipline whose primary discovery was the power of human social relations now disdains this living process in favour of static models which depict a deadened structure imposing upon the individual. Although irony escapes them, contemporary social theorists are academic hamlets ignoring human social relations. They prefer to live in a world in which isolated individuals are confronted by a distant autonomous being, structure. For them, mere human social relations are inadequate (King, 2004: 230).

He goes on to say

Since social reality is constituted by the way social actors mutual define it, agency is not the property of the individual. Agency arises in the social relations between humans (King, 2004: 231).

His solution to the dominance of structure and agency is a form of hermeneutic sociology – this is an interesting position to take and I want to return to his critique of structure/agency in subsequent posts. Of course, the hegemony of structure/agency is some beast to confront, and King should be applauded for taking it on. But whether or not hermeneutics provides an adequate alternative I will examine in the next set of posts.


By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

1 reply on “Where do you go beyond structure and agency?”

This I have got to see. I have been thinking for some time (beginning with Freire on praxis and continuing through Bowlby) that the best answers to the dualisms of western thought (philosophy, sociology and psychology – for a start) might well be in transcending the dualisms (I see Dewey and Honneth also of assistance here). BUT as all good students of these things I will await the next installment and read King!

I like the challenge posed by this question….

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