A central debate within politics is the relationship between agency and structure – does structure prevail over agency? Does agency take precedence over structure? Or does structure and agency exist in a complex interplay where agents and structural factors influence each other interdependently? This is a question without a ‘solution’ as such, but there is increasing common ground/opinion that agency and structure are interrelated. Such an important viewpoint on the nature of political and social life influences political perspectives and policies.
Agency and ideas are in my view, context influenced, but also influence the social, political and economic structures they are themselves intertwined with. Consider the Eurozone crisis; the structure of the Euro, the neoliberal conditions upon Eurozone members meaning that their debt and deficit have to be within certain limitations; this all places certain structural limitations upon the strategies and opportunities certain countries have within the structure. Take Greece, despite the ongoing political protests against such neoliberal moves by the Eurozone and the IMF, they continue to implement the same damaging policies because of the limitations the wider structure places upon them. However, there is room for agency by actors; ideas around what policies to utilise in such instances are partly formed through interpretation by agents in relation to current structural relations.In other words, the hegemonic political economy of capitalism (context/structure) influences the agency and ideas many people advance and interpret.
Another useful example is the response to the riots. For the Tories, and many of the public, this was an isolated case of active agents that had no relation to the structure we find ourselves within. Utilising biological and essentialist arguments, the rioters were ‘barbaric’ ‘creatures’, with David Cameron arguing they were pure criminals and that those advancing arguments of social injustice and poverty etc. as ways to explain such an event are only trying to excuse responsibility. For me, whilst the actions of the riots are not political tactics that I would advocate – people acted as they did, by and large, because they were acting in relation to the structural, political arrangement. Most of the areas that the riots took place in have experienced years of poverty, racism and structural inequality. We have a society that even the Telegraph recognised is plagued with values where those at the top, including MPs, steal through more indirect ways and get away with the odd week in prison, where someone who takes a drink of water from a shop is banged up for months.
It is important to move beyond simplistic views of agency and structure, such as people being ‘naturally’ evil (so an ignorance of structure) or that globalisation means we have to give the rich lenient policies as they will fly away (an over simplification of structure, and an ignorance to how ideas themselves are constructed within a certain context – so a neoliberal capitalist arrangement). The relationship between structure and agency, by no means a simple task of understanding and analysing, is something political analysts need to maintain working upon and within so that ideas and views regarding the relationship help illuminate political policies and dissections of events that can often fall prey to simplistic and damaging assessments and consequential policies.
Jane Watkinson is a sociology graduate and currently undertaking an MA in politics. A member of the Green Party, but with anarcho-communist leanings, Jane keeps a blog at Jane’s Political Ramblings that advances left wing, feminist and social justice principles. Jane is also a director for the progressive social enterprise, SilenceBreakers. You can find Jane on Twitter @JaneWatkinson