Structure and Agency

Week 9

Weber, Durkheim, Giddens – Structure and Agency


We’ll begin with a quick review of a key concept in sociology: the relationship between structure and agency.  Anthony Giddens has described this most effectively. Simply, structure consists of the institutions and social arrangements that influence our behaviour, and agency consists of the free will that we exercise as individuals in our choices over courses of action.  You can see how these two phenomena are inseparable and interactive in practice.


Putnam’s subject, social capital, engages both structure and agency: the network of social relationships that form, based on individual choices about engagement and interaction, which in turn are shaped by the network of relationships within which they are embedded in society. You can see how it is a circular process, open to both vicious and virtuous circles, reinforcing either engagement or withdrawal.


You are familiar with the concept of vicious and virtuous circles affecting political and economic institutions from Acemoglu and Robinson (chapters 4, 11, and 12), and affecting civic institutions from Putnam (especially chapters 8 and 18). These are institutions within a state. We’ll come back to this in week 10, linking social capital to social cohesion and the damage done by protracted conflicts.


Polanyi makes the point, writing well before the current era of acknowledged “globalization,” that states are inevitably tied to the international economy and society through exchange markets, and that international market fluctuations have domestic consequences.  Bobbitt describes the emergence of constitutional orders governing the relations between states.  In effect, one way of thinking about the macro-historical patterns that we examined in parts II (economic) and III (political) is that we have been considering the agency of individual actors – governments, corporations, states – operating in an international system, which provides structural constraints.  At the international level, structure and agency operate not just for states, but for all the actors (including non-state actors like terrorist groups or corporations or NGOs or international organizations) with which the international system is populated.


Although our next two weeks are concerned primarily with social interactions within the state, particularly bridging and bonding processes that affect economic and political change and development, we also want to think forward to the final section of the course in which we try to integrate political, economic, and social perspectives on development and change in comparative perspective. The concepts of structure and agency are helpful for this. States try to achieve autonomy and pursue economic development, but may be constrained by structures like international markets, for example (recall Raul Prebisch and dépendencia, or see Irma Adelman’s comments about dependency theorists in Meier and Stiglitz, pp. 105-106). But these constraints are not absolute or mono-dimensional, and we’re trying to understand what can be done within the limits of policy at community, state, and international levels to encourage useful development and change (not always growth!).


Carlsnaes (1992) applies the agency-structure problem to foreign policy studies, and proposes a meta-theoretical framework for undertaking foreign policy analysis. In plain language, I take this framework to mean that international actors like heads of state or ISIS leaders (“interpretive, purposive actors”) respond to, but also shape the international system (a “structural domain” which both constrains and enables). For example, European heads of state work through their national foreign ministries, but also have recourse to the relatively new European External Action Service, a new structure which didn’t exist when Carlsnaes was writing. The world wide web, social media, and on-line recruitment are similarly both constraints and enablers for ISIS and its allies and opponents. So you can see that the concept of structure and agency can be applied at every level from the community organizations described by Putnam to the actors and structures in the international system, which in turn have an impact on local agents and structures from Baghdad to Brampton.


Finally, Woolcock (1998) draws a succinct link between social capital and economic development, which is directly relevant to the problem of setting up virtuous cycles of inclusive institutions.  If you don’t get the relevance of social capital to economic development, then this is a good place to start, and we will build on this next week.

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand bridging and bonding social capital within a state
  2. Understand how structure (or structuration) and agency are related to bridging and bonding capital within a state
  3. Describe trends in social engagement in the US since the 1970s and the principal causes for these trends, identified by Putnam.
  4. Analyze the connections between Putnam’s analysis within a state, and the international economic and political constraints on a state explored in parts II and III.

Required Reading

  • Debra Marshall, Agency and Structure – basic concepts in sociology. This 2.5 minute clip is a good introduction to the basic concepts of structure and agency, but be aware that they are also used in more nuanced ways, particularly by Anthony Giddens. See Sharon Hays in optional reading.
  • Read Putnam, Chapter 1
  • Skim Putnam, Chapters 3 to 9, with particular attention to the conclusions of each chapter.
  • Skim Putnam Chapters 10-14, exploring the range of possible explanations
  • Read Putnam Chapter 15 – summary of evidence.

Optional Reading

Carlsnaes, W. (1992). The agency-structure problem in foreign policy analysisInternational Studies Quarterly, 245-270. See above.


Anthony Giddens, “Understanding Society – sociological perspective” In this 45 minute video, sociologist Anthony Giddens argues that the history of human society can be explained by the evolution in the organization of time and space and its consequences for power and violence. Writing and notation are the critical step in moving towards the invention of history and the storage of knowledge as well as commodities. This generates the power to stretch across time and space. Civilizations could embed themselves in time and stretch across space. This was also the trigger to organize for violence. Armies need coordination and discipline, as well as support from a society, and this transforms society and history. Structural organizations, or reorganizations of time and space underlie all the other changes that civilization has undergone. Printing is essential for the modern state. The nation state is a crucible of power and violence, made possible by printing and mass literacy, superseding small educated elites. War, taxes, industry, mass markets all depend on literacy. Modernity really began 24 May 1824 with Morse code transmitted electronically, the message “what hath God wrought” – the origin of electronic communications. This made mass warfare possible, transformed the nature of violence and global society. As he begins to discuss personal disclosure, and the impact of the internet he has moved onto the question of agency (at about 28 minutes). After 32 minutes, he is into climate change, and the remainder is less useful for our purposes.


Hays, S. (1994). Structure and agency and the sticky problem of culture. Sociological theory12, 57-57. Marshall’s simple distinction (presented above) becomes more difficult to sustain when we apply concepts of structure and agency to complex collective entities like communities, cultures, states, and the international system.


King, A. (2012). The structure of social theory (Vol. 39). Routledge.  The link is to an extract dating from 2005, in which King provides useful descriptions of the work of Weber, Durkheim, and Giddens.  Although he is a critic of Giddens’ description of the interaction of structure and agency in some contexts, I think he is largely on board with the interpretation of interaction, which Giddens described as early as 1983.


Woolcock, M. (1998). Social capital and economic development: Toward a theoretical synthesis and policy frameworkTheory and society27(2), 151-208.  Although this is an optional reading assignment, if you don’t get the connection between Putnam’s work on social capital and the problem of economic development, this is an excellent place to start, because it references Putnam directly and links trust to the differences between Madras and Singapore – and we’ll build on this next week when we link Colletta and Cullen to development and change.


Answer the self-assessment questions online. You should be beginning work on the integrated review this week, and you should be prepared to outline your tentative threads of interaction by next week  – i.e. how to you see the three works intersecting to contribute to ideas of development and change in comparative perspective?

Self-Assessment Questions

  1. What are bridging and bonding social capital?
  2. What are structure and agency, and how are they related to bridging and bonding capital?
  3. What are the trends in social engagement in the US, and what are the major causes identified by Putnam?
  4. Thinking about states other than the US, what strains do you think that international political and economic pressures put on bridging and bonding capital, based on your reading of Polanyi and Bobbitt?


In our online discussion, we’ll begin with a clarification of the concepts of structure and agency for individuals, groups, and actors in the international system. Then we’ll consider the implications of concepts of bridging and bonding capital for economic development and social change.