Agency-Structure Relation in Social Sciences: Reflections on Policy Implementation

By Kipo, D. Daniel | Asian Social Science, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Agency-Structure Relation in Social Sciences: Reflections on Policy Implementation


Kipo, D. Daniel, Asian Social Science


Abstract

The paper discusses important and highly contested agency and structure issue in philosophy of social science. The agency-structure relation focuses on autonomy and control. It draws more insights from Giddens thinking. Also, the paper discusses agency-structure relation in policy implementation. Discussions start with conceptualizations of agents, agency, structure and power relations between agency-structure. The paper specifically highlights problematics in agency-structure and relates them to policy implementation.

Keywords: agency, structure, power, structuration, public policy, policy implementation

1. Introduction

Agency and structure are key building blocks in the social sciences from sociology to other disciplines. Although they lack precise definitions within sociological theory, they remain crucial as there is an enduring debate between the two concepts in social theory. Anthony Giddens conceptualizes agents as knowledgeable individual actors, with more willful power and perpetrators of action. Agents are active and creative persons who are engage in continual flow of action. Agents continually monitor their activities and expect other agents to do same-reflexive monitoring of individual activity and others (Giddens, 1984). Also, agents continually maintain 'theoretical understanding' of their activities-rationalization of action. Agents are competent beings capable of explaining what they do. Agents have intentions for doing something and they have reasons for doing so. In addition, Giddens opines that while competent agents can nearly always tell or report discursively about their intentions, reasons for acting the way they do, they cannot necessarily do so for their motives. The problematic with Giddens thinking is about agents motives, whether agents' day-to-day conduct is directly motivated by themselves or agents' motives are structurally determined.

There are consequences of agents' action, some consequences are known others are unknown (unintended consequences). Some consequences may affect agent 'doing' action or affect other individuals and or larger society. The consequences of what agents do, intentional (willful) and or unintentional lead to change of events. Such change of events would not have happened if actor(s) had behaved or acted differently. The issue is on what agents 'do' and consequences of what has been done-within agent's own control. For instance an agent at surgery theatre sees lights during the day; then the agent decides to put offthe light but ends up switching offwhole source of power to surgery theatre which affected surgical operations in the theatre. In this scenario, agent acted freely and intentionally in switching offlight in the theatre. But the agent's action (switching offlight) brought about 'unintended consequences'-that is disruption of surgical operations and the subsequent arrest and the prosecution of agent by state. This example shows that agents' are capable of acting independently in relation to structure, with single event and chain of consequences. On the other hand the state (structure) is able to constrain agents through rules, as illustrated in above scenario. But the conceptual problematic here is on separation of intentional acts/action from unintentional acts/action and the separation of unintentional doings from unintended consequences of doing.

It is important to note Giddens practical consciousness of social actor-as capacity of human subject in social action and social structure. In Giddens perspective action refers to human beings (agents) and the aggregate of action create and reproduce social structure in which action is embedded. Social structure in Giddens view is a product of action. Giddens thinking illustrates that the relationship between agents and structure is that of 'autonomy and control'. This means agents have the capacity to act freely and are capable of creating social structures which in tend control or put some limitations on agents. …

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