Decolonize ALL The Things

The UNsettling reflections of a Decolonial Scientist in a Constant State of Rage

Structure & Agency In Contemporary Social Theory

January 31, 2017

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. Continue Reading

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