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structure and agency

Structure can mean different things but is often associated with the way society is organised and the cultural and material resources which reinforce this organisation. For example, for the Marxist a capitalist society is structured around private ownership of capital with property rights supported by hard power, systems of law enforcement, and cultural hegemony through the mass media. For the liberal, a democratic society is structured around rights of the individual, an active public sphere and reinforced by cultural values of tolerance.

Two things here. First, the word structure appears constraining. We could talk about how society is shaped, patterned or woven into patterns and perhaps this would suggest something more malleable than structure. We should be careful when we are talking about structures that we are not suggesting rigidity unless that is what we want to convey.

The second thing to note is that structures cover both cultural and material resources. Social theory has, perhaps for obvious reasons, been more concerned with the cultural than material structures (though see Marx). However there are obvious material limitations as to what is possible in a society, which flow from its level of development.

A key issue in trying to understand structure is the relationship of the individual to social structure. For some social theorists, the broad or holistic generalisations we can make about society are what really matter (see Durkheim). Individual behaviour was a matter for psychology, rather than social theory. However a legacy of this focus on the social is that we might slip into a misleading idea of structure and forget that structures are created and maintained by all of us. For example, to say that social class affects life chances is commonplace and true. But class is not an abstract thing. Class captures objective or at least measurable variables such as occupational rewards and access to wealth but at some level we create cultural expectations around class every day of our lives, as for example when we speak about people being posh, being chavs, when we make choices about eating and drinking and where to go on holiday. It would be ludicrous to say that we can behave as though structures do not exist but equally ludicrous to say that, in advanced liberal democratic society in particular, we do not have some autonomy. We need some way to capture a relationship between agency and structure.

In fact this relationship has been addressed in very many different ways as you can see throughout the resource. Historically a great deal of interest was focused on Marx, Weber and the rise of capitalism, a debate which remerged in discussion of post WW2 development (see, for example, the debate over amoral familism). By the turn of last century there was a general view that structure was being over emphasised in social research and agency relatively neglected. Bourdieu’s idea of habitus and field generated a great deal of enthusiasm as did Foucault’s work on discourse. A further contribution to the debate made by Giddens (e.g. Giddens, 1984 and see also Sewell's (1992) comments).

Giddens's key idea was to recognise the dual nature of structures in society. In other words structures shape what we do, but we also constitute those structures; agency and structure are reinforcing. By acknowledging their dual nature we can see structures not as the enemy of agency but in some way its friend. He notes, drawing on the social linguistic work of Garfinkel amongst others, that predictability is really important to people and in our interactions with others we seek to establish order and routines. It might be that structures give direction to a social life which, in turn, open up possibilities of transforming that social life.

Giddens tended to see structures are defined by their rules and resources. Rules deal with both the sanctioning of conduct but also, as in social constructivist literature, the ‘constitution of meaning’. Resources are both human and non-human and taken together constituted power.

A social psychology view

If you want to get away from a social theorist view of structure then there are alternative perspectives. For example social psychology tends to take the individual as a starting point and work outwards. Bronfenbrenner, (1979) described an ecological environment which takes in the micro, meso and macro levels. The micro covers the activities, roles experienced by the person, for example a child in a nursery setting. A mesosytem involves looking at ways in which these micro interactions interconnect (for example interaction between a teacher, a school leader, a parent). A macro system looks at policy but also at discourse about practices (for example how schools are funded and managed but also at dominant discourse about schooling). Bronfenbrenner conceives of the levels as constituting a web of interaction which help us understand both the individual and the wider context. In practice his framework is used quite mechanically by some of its adherents.

Valsiner offers a three zones model which has not been so widely taken up as Broffenbrenmer's but nonetheless conveys a sense of ecological system. Put briefly the framework sees activity as taking place within three zones:

The Zone of Free Movement (ZFM), the Zone of Promoted Action (ZPA), and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZFM defines possibilities: ‘what is available to the person acting in a particular environment at a given time'. The ZPA defines what is being promoted. The ZPD, borrowed from Vygotsky, defines the set of possible next states in the person's developing relationship with his or her environment. For more go to the case study.

Finally, social psychology is above all influenced by Vygotsky. Vygotsky (1930, 1978) was primarily interested in language and not just how it was used to express ideas but how it mediates thought in the first place. Vygotsky argued that language operated at two levels. First an interpersonal level in which we acquire concepts and, second, at an intrapersonal level in which we can use what we have learn in new and creative ways. Language is social before it becomes intrapersonal. This leaves a great deal open but is a helpful metaphor in considering the relationship of personal agency to the social world we inhabit.


Giddens (1984) The Constitution of Society, Polity Press: Cambridge.

Sewell, H. (1992) A theory of structure: Duality, agency, and transformation, American Journal of Sociology, 98, 1, 1-29.

Valsiner, J. (1997) Culture and the Development of Children’s Actions: A theory of human development. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Vygotsky, L. (1930) The Instrumental Method in Psychology, [online] Lev Vygotsky Archive

Vygotskty, L. S., & Cole, M. (1978) Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.