Agency and Structure: a reflection and a practical exercise

By Sebastian Ansaldo

This is a work in progress reflection from CPGJ’s Realist Social Theory reading group

In his seminal work “The sociological imagination” C. W. Mills advocates for the importance of critical reflection about the relationship between our personal lives and larger social realities. Jesus Martín-Barbero, likewise, claimed that for social research focused on the construction of meaning in the everyday life of real people, it’s also necessary to incorporate structural and cultural matrixes. Pierre Bourdieu, with concepts like habitus and field, designed a way to bind the actions and dispositions of people with the conditioning influences derived from surrounding environments.  

The list could fill several pages. Social scientists, theorists and philosophers from different backgrounds, disciplines and levels of influence have confronted the agency-structure problem in various forms. The narrative about the proper approaches, theories, metatheories, etc. to reconcile agency with structure in a coherent and consistent way is almost a trope in social research. An acceptable, sensible, and laudable way of dealing with the agency-structure issue is to never take sides or neglect one dimension at the expense of the other. This serves a regulatory purpose, but it is also a discursive or performative device. Apparently, in present day social science or at least in my own epistemic community, the divide between collectivists and individualist has been overcome, at least in the non-dialectical sense.

To give an example drawn from my own research: Nick Couldry, a media and communication sociologist, when discussing the scope and research object of media research claims:

A media phenomenology not grounded in political economy is blind, but a political economy of media that ignores the phenomenology of media use is radically incomplete.

(Nick Couldry, 2012, p. 30)

And even when he is not using “agency” or “structure” as terms, there is a conceptual equivalence, considering that in the context of the quote phenomenology is related to uses and individual practices and political economy is about institutions and how power is sustained at a macro level.  

Similar examples have been recurrent in my reading lists. Almost nobody wants to willingly disregard agency or structure, the macro or micro, individual or collectives, or whatever terminology is preferred to reference similar things. And in my own experience, before Archer´s reading, there was a sense of validation every time I read about the importance of analysing both poles. By declaring the relevance of a comprehensive reflection of the two aspects, I had a reassuring feeling, perhaps as a result of my inexperience or unfamiliarity with the deep intricacies in the agency-structure reflection. 

This is why Archer’s works are so relevant and useful: It enables a profound deliberation that goes beyond the discursive exterior and the declarative principles, digging towards the ontological depths of social theory. To really engage in the complexities of the social world it is not enough to just declaring the importance of agency and structure. Especially considering that the agency-structure problem has been confronted using different concepts and terminology, that nevertheless refers to similar elements. It requires an ontological expression that help us to visualize the fundamental entity that we want to explore, beyond different terminology or usage. 

One of the core ideas I extract from the 3 first chapters of Archer´s book is the following: If you want to understand a certain aspect of social reality, you have to pay attention to the interactions of agency and structure, not in a discursive fashion, but  questioning the nature of each dimension, because in Archer’s words, “structure and agency are analytically separable and temporally sequenced”. Therefore it is not just assuming that agency and structure both play a role in a determined aspect of reality, it is also questioning the ontological premises that will sustain the relation between both and the interplay with the selected aspect of social reality. 

The challenge, as Archer puts it, is “linking two qualitatively different aspects of society (the ‘social’ and the ‘systemic’, or if preferred ‘action’ and its ‘environment’)”, because sometimes it is easy and even appealing to make mechanic or linear relations that could lead to causality, especially if we tried to tie practices or action with a social environment. It seems that the theoretical operation of attaching together the two poles  can’t be done without an ontological regression that leads us away from “linkage by aggregation, homology or in short by conflation”, in Archer’s words. 

As an exercise I will again, draw on some aspects of my own research to try and make sense of these theoretical questions in a way that can help us think about Archer’s work.

I am currently reflecting about changes in schoolteacher’s practices and visions regarding media and technology, and how this affects their role in today’s society. One issue that has emerged in the interviews is the ambivalent relation that teachers have with school management software. They claim that generally it’s a good tool that allows them to save time, make administrative work more efficient and to keep a better track of the progress or difficulties of students. They also mention it can be too restrictive, sometimes entailing double work or that it is used to add extra pressure to an already difficult job. 

The systemic dimension is related to how technology is infiltrating different aspects of the school system around the globe because institutional, economic (market and finances) and political conditions, and the social dimension is about the uses and practices of teachers regarding technology.

The next step would be the ontological questioning: What is the nature of technology in a systemic approach? Which are its irreducible characteristics? What are the qualitative aspects that constitute it and shape it? And given the necessary  association between ontology and methodology, given that characteristics, which would be the best way to analyse it? 

Similarly, we should ask about teachers and their ontology. What are the expectations and reality about their role? What makes them a collective with shared characteristics? What are the specificities of the selected group? Which ontological properties have remained or changed? 

We should apply analytical dualism, by “emphasizing linkages by unpacking what was referred… as the ‘impact’ and ‘import’ of and between different strata”. That operation would enable the emergentist approach. In Archer´s explanation “the emergent properties of structures and agents are irreducible to one another, meaning that in principle they are analytically separable”. Also, she mentions that “given structures and agents are also temporally distinguishable… and this can be used methodologically in order to examine the interplay between them and thus explain changes in both – over time. In a nutshell, ‘analytical dualism’ is a methodology based upon the historicity of emergence”.

Going back to the example, could we say that the new software for school management is an emergent property of the school system? And the practices and uses that teachers developed because of that are the emergent properties in the social dimension? Or, is it more complex and the irreducible aspects of technology in school systems are not the software per se, but the changing conditions of the structure such as institutional affordances, adequacy or discord regarding the emergent property? And similarly, the irreducible aspects in the “action” side that could be an emergent property are the conflict perceived by the teachers in the use of that type or technology, its impact in the nature of their work, the change of dispositions, or everything that and more?

At this point, I am not sure about the answers to the example, or its overall pertinence, however, to think about these issues using Archer´s work has been a challenge that I would like to keep pursuing, and maybe with the help of the reading group a more profound reflection could be achieved. Perhaps a similar exercise using other participants’ research could help in that purpose. I hope we can keep discussing!