Structure & Agency In Contemporary Social Theory

One of the main concerns of theorists of society in the 20th century has been the question of the relation between structure and agency.  Describe three different schools of thought in social theory (make sure that you identify the main figures in relation to that question and compare each school’s views on the possibilities of social change).


The enterprise of sociology is about trying to figure out social structures.  All of us think that we think independently and are autonomous individuals but there are structures in this world that contain, shape, and inform your actions.  Many of them are hidden to us and sociologists highlight their presence, actions, etc..  There is structure and then there is agency and sociology then studies how they interact with one another.  Below are three different schools of thought in social theory that question the relation between structure and agency: structuralism, symbolic interactionism, and post-structuralism.


Structuralism sees language as the site for the social world and where meaning is made through relational signification.  Understanding language as the center of any world view then the outside world is unintelligible to us or isn’t understood about the physical and/or social without the mediation of language.  We cannot have any idea about what the world is without the mediation of language.  The relationship between the signifier and sign is arbitrary.  The world of meaning then is constructed through a series of arbitrary relationships between the signifier and signified.  The relationship between signifier and signified has nothing to do with the physical world and is just a contract between communities that generates that system of meaning.

The main theorists in the structuralist school of thought include Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, Claude Levi-Strauss, Louis Althusser, and Pierre Bourdieu.  Saussure, Barthes, and Levi-Strauss’ scholarship provides the ground work for linguistic structuralism, with the assumption that sound images corresponded to physical realities.  According to Saussure, language is the product of social interaction; “for language is not complete in any speaker; it exists perfectly only within a collectivity” (Saussure 1986:14).  Language is a social institution that is unlike other institutions, it is a semiological system that includes the sign and the sign-mechanisms of individuals.  Sign-mechanisms represent the means of execution or rather speech while signs are social and in some way “always eludes the individual or social will” (Saussure 1986:17).  Levi-Strauss saw language as more of a value than a sign.  Levi-Strauss argued that when we speak of structure, we are in the realm of language and thus in the realm of the social world which represents human thought and informs human action/speech.  Thus these scholars’ work theorized how language became action.

The basic premise of Saussure’s linguistic structuralism is the distinction between language (social) and speech (individual act).  Linguistic structuralism then models the connection between the social structure and agency.  We understand things relationally rather than on the basis of intrinsic characteristics.  Such a statement questions scientific knowledge by destabilizing the notion of objective truths.  Mediation always generates the possibility of inaccuracy.  Structuralism is not only anti-positivist but also anti-humanist because it questions the assumption of an autonomous individual that operates in society.  Structuralism then holds that social structures are patterns of everyday life, the way that social relationships are organized on a consistent basis, which is what provides order to the social world.

Louis Althusser takes Saussure’s notion of Hegelian totality and replaces it with ‘social wholes’.  Social wholes are a way for Althusser to look at society in a way you can’t distinguish between structure and agency because they operate within the domain of one another.  According to Althusser, ideology is material, it’s not something you acquire somewhere, it’s who you are because when you act you are the embodiment of that ideology.  Althusser resolves the question of ‘base and superstructure’ by saying there is no distinction between base and super-structure because they’re all material because they are part of the social whole.  In this model of the social whole, Althusser understands social formations and social change as a consequence of over-determination because we don’t know how these different elements of the social whole are impacting social change.

Bourdieu discusses the ways in which social structures and human action come to combine and shape the conditions and possibilities of actions within society through “habitus”.  Bourdieu develops this theory of practice through understanding the ways that people become socialized in a way similar to apprenticeship through institutions like family, education, etc. The very things subjects are socialized into commonly remain invisible to subjects.  The interactions with these institutions help discipline people by providing them a chance to systematically appropriate from the system of dispositions. Bourdieu’s theory of practice helps bridge the connection between human consciousness and action – people act on what they believe and hence what people believe has material consequences.  Bourdieu’s habitus reveals that the unawareness of history and hence structure reveals a ghost-like force informing human relationships and interactions shaping the conditions of the present and to some extent the possibilities of the future.

Structuralism holds that language mediates between the subject’s mind and the world.  Structuralism then sees the possibility of social change lies in the instability of the structure.  Coupling the contributions of these theorists together, it becomes clear that social change requires that the conditions or the actions of the masses of people must change in order for social change to occur.  Thus transformation of the structures like the family, education, etc. must change in order for social change to occur.  Structuralism is then a macrosociology that sees individual human action heavily impacted by the conditions that structures spur.


Symbolic interactionism sees meaning as a social product.  This is because symbolic interactionism sees action as a process of meaning production through interactions with others.  Thus, society can only exist through human action and interaction which are processes of meaning making.  Within understanding human society, there are two dominant conceptions: culture and social structure.  Culture is derived from what people do while social structure refers to relationships derived from how people act toward each other.  The human being is an acting organism that also sees itself as an object in order to interact with others and make interpretations of objects and what they come to see themselves as meaning and the actions of other self-objects and their actions.  The key theorists in the symbolic interactionist school of thought include: George Herbert Mead, Erving Goffman, and Herbert Blumer.

Symbolic interactionism is an interesting microsociology that is concerned with interpretive and modification processes that happens in every person’s consciousness to generate different kinds of subjectivities.  Herbert Blumer’s understanding of symbolic interactionism is based on the three principles.  The first principle is that people act toward things on the basis of the meaning those things have for them.  The second principle argues that the meaning of things arises from interaction between individuals.  The third principle is that we each separately go through our own modification and interpretive process in our mind. So while social interaction is crucial to finding meaning, we also form our own ideas and thoughts about the meaning.  Thus meaning producing activity goes through modification and interpretive act and then generates differences in subjectivities.

Herbert Mead argued that the self is created through the interactions between the “I” and the “Me”.  George Herbert Mead argued that the “self” involves two phases: the “Me” and the “I”.  The self is then a product of the interaction between your own impulses (I) and how you understand other people’s reactions to your impulses (Me).  The moment we see ourselves through the eyes of others, that ‘self’ is formed the very first time we see ourselves through the eyes of other “generalized self/other”.  The “I” is the effectual actor who acts without prior knowledge and is only knowable after the fact.  It is only in retrospect that we understand “I”: first you act then you realize its outside the aspects of the generalized other (irrational).  On the other hand, the “Me” is the actor who thinks.

Goffman’s dramaturgical method becomes especially useful as we see the social world as filled with fields for people to play games and take on roles based on the conditions of the situation.  Goffman allows us to see the social world through his interpretation of social interaction as a dramatic performance.  People then have a “front” and “back” stage through which they have to perform particular roles based on their status and the conditions of the situation.  While Mead saw the self as constructed by the interactions between the “I” and the “Me”; Goffman’s dramaturgical method allows us to then see the social world as constructed by the dramaturgical performance of actors attempting to be a dramaturgically disciplined performer.  Goffman’s front stage is the field of play where people play roles that we don’t always consciously think about.  Anne Rawls (1987) argued that Goffman understood the self as a performer that is the product of many interactions.

The one thing that I do not see symbolic interactionism explaining is how background expectations and roles come to be defined by specific groups of people.  Working consensus is not enough to explain the probability that a person will give a command and a group will obey it.  Symbolic interaction sees meaning as constructed through human interaction.  It follows that the possibilities for social change in the symbolic interactionist sense is that the meaning of what people do (the meaning of their actions) must change.  This requires a transformation of the interaction order to create the possibility of generating a different kinds of subjectivities but whether or not those micro changes generated by these interactions will transform entire social systems is up for contestation.


Structuralism (early 1900s) and post-structuralism (1950s-60s) co-exist.  Post-structuralists come from the structuralist intellectual tradition but want to extend structuralist assumptions to other ways to understand the social world.  They take Saussure’s understanding of the arbitrary relationship between the signified and signifier and extend that it is flexible and thus not fixed.  They then extend that arbitrariness to make more radical claims about language and the outside world.  They move away from language as something that makes the world legible to us to the claim that language makes the world (a discursive claim about language).  This understanding opens up tremendous possibilities for understanding social action.  Most feminists and cultural studies come from this intellectual tradition because it allows them to understand the subject/individual in a way that the subject represents multiple, plural, and at times conflicting entities at the same time.  What post-structuralists argue is that there are brute/unarticulated phenomena but is irrelevant to the way that we understand the world.  The world is not a reflection of these objective realities out there but the world is an outcome of our engagement with it.  Key theorists of post-structuralism are Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

Post-structuralists argue that the signifier-signified relationship is contested and fluid and it changes over time or the same moment in time.  You can’t assume that once someone says something that the other person will understand the intention within the sound-image.  Post-structuralists argue that for example when you say ‘woman’ it doesn’t necessarily directly connect to the concept of ‘woman’ but may relate to other conceptual constructs that it generates in a patriarchal society like weak, motherhood, etc..  There are all these possibilities that can generate particular kinds of conceptual understandings.  Sound image thus doesn’t have a fixed unchanging connecting with the concept within one culture.

Post-structuralists argued that signifier and signified creates a chain of signification because you create a system where one signifier relates to another and another and another and therefore the signified is constantly deferred.  For post-structuralists, meaning is not given.  Meaning is always something that is always contested and constantly in the process of being made.   Structuralists consider language a given totality in every given moment in history while post-structuralists argue that language is a system of competing discourses.  Understanding language as a series of competing discourses would suggest that language makes the world.

Language constructs the world versus the structuralist understanding of it just relating to the physical world.  Language constructs subjectivity and constructs the subject (Fouc.  The way language does that work is through series of discursive interventions.  The world is not made comprehensible to us but made and constructed through series of manageable and transformable elements that become part of our existence. People then understood post-structuralism as a philosophical and metaphysical understanding of the world.  There is no place we can find and anchor the knowledge of the world in external reality and post-structuralists argue that the physical world appears as a featureless continuum.  Its only through language that we generate possibilities of understanding something called the world.  Its only through language that we create physical boundaries between things like colors (green and blue), such boundaries are arbitrary.  Language generates these classifications that don’t really have correspondence to the physical world.  Nature doesn’t operate through binaries.  The binaries we understand the world through are only there to create a discursive construct.  They are moving beyond binary understanding: binaries are always hierarchical and reproduce hierarchies. Post-structuralists believe that non-binary understanding is where we can come to better understand the world and in our consciousness binaries become a discursive phenomenon.

Deconstruction is an attempt to historicize (Derrida 1967).  What are the consequences for proposing a non-binary understanding of social and physical phenomena?  Post-structuralism proposes a kind of suspicion of concise definitions because definitions are the product of a particular time and place, definitions are always contingent.  Post-structuralists question the assumptions we make that are part of the discursive world in which we already operate.  These theorists are skeptical of things like grounded theory because you can’t go to any field ‘theory-less’.  This is all about relations of power and post-structuralists are trying to find a model that negotiates between language, social world, discursive world, the physical world and systems of power.  If the relationship between an individual and their subjectivity isn’t fixed, then a person can represent competing contradictory interests.

Post-structuralism opened up possibilities for sociological research that doesn’t operate from a fixed conceptual standpoint and problematizes normative understandings of social relations.  Post-structuralism then approaches the issue of structure and agency in a way that provides flexibility to structure, that for social phenomena that we assume operates in a fixed way and can only be one thing is in fact a dynamic set of plural meanings and impacted by a wide variety of social contestations.  For post-structuralism language constructs the world (as discursive contentious moves that constructs the world and our subjectivity).  Thus, social change for post structuralists then requires a new language be constructed to bring a new social world into existence.  In this sense, particular meanings would have to lose within those contestations.  But some post-structuralists like Foucault do question whether we ever can outside of current language/social world we currently have.  As Foucault argued, history is subject-less because it’s always the deeds that construct the doer.  At what point can we contribute any kind of agency to the doer in a sense that it’s not already the consequence of some other deeds?



Althusser, Louis. 1977. Lenin and Philosophy and other essays. London: New Left Books.

Barthes, Roland. 1967. Elements of semiology. New York: Noon Day Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre and Richard Nice. 1977. Outline of a theory of practice. Vol. 16, Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.

——– 1992. The logic of practice. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press.

Blumer, Herbert. 1986. Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Derrida, Jacques and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. 1998. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books.

——- 1982. Interaction ritual. Essays on face to face behavior. New York: Pantheon.

Mead, George H. 1970. Mind, Self, and Society. From the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Rawls, Anne W. 1987. “The Interaction Order Sui Generis. Goffman’s Contribution to Social Theory” Sociological Theory. 5:136.

Rabinow, Paul. 1984. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1994. “Althusser’s Theory of Ideology” Pp. 44–72. In Althusser: A critical reader. edited by G. Elliott. Oxford: Blackwell.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1986. Course in General Linguistics. New York: Open Court.

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