resolving the structure-agency debate
Essays by Dick Scott and Thomas Luckmann, based on talks given at the last EGOS conference in Vienna, appear in the new issue of Organization Studies. It’s not often you get two luminaries of this magnitude sharing issue space.
Both papers show a shift in the scholars’ thinking over the last several decades. Luckmann is best known for his classic The Social Construction of Reality, coauthored with Peter Berger. In that book, Berger and Luckmann argue that reality is constructed from ongoing patterns of typification and habitualization – i.e., chains of social interaction lead to routine ways of doing things and become infused with meaning. Reality gradually becomes reinforced, but through an unconscious process. Institutional theory is also based on the idea that institutions seep into daily life. Institutionalization of behavior is mostly a top-down process (see Scott’s three pillars). But in these essays Luckmann and Scott take agency much more seriously. Luckmann and Scott want to explore the role that intentionality plays in shaping institutions.
According to Luckmann we can’t avoid intentionality when trying to understand behavior. Intentionality gives meaning to actors’ behaviors. As social scientists, he thinks that we don’t have the luxury of studying objective forces that exist outside the realm of intentional behavior.
To be sure, the social sciences investigate a world of human affairs in which the laws of mass and energy, of gravitation, and even the laws of evolution and genetics, are valid. However, these laws do not explain what we want to know
about that world. When we see a person falling from the tenth floor we want to know whether it is murder, suicide or perhaps a desperate jump to escape a fire that is raging inside the building. These laws do determine the conditions under which a human world can emerge in the first place. To put it bluntly, no gravitation, no suicide, no murder. And, more to the point, no gravity, no waltzing. But there is no way to derive suicide, murder or waltzing from gravitation (280).
Individual action is intentional — and intentional activities are meaningful to those who engage in them. They are meaningful when they lead to results that they were intended to achieve, and they are meaningful in another, often painful sense, when the consequences of interaction differ from those that were originally anticipated. Action is intrinsically meaningful, no matter whether the bridges that were built to endure, endure, in fact, or collapse, whether the marriages that were meant to last, last or fail (281).
Luckmann implies that the source of intentionality in human behavior comes from personal identities – the unique selves that individuals imagine for themselves. Identity, he argues, is the “emerging system of behavioural control within an individual organism” (286). Identity (in a very Goffmanesque manner) emerges through ongoing processes of social interaction. It is from this interaction and mediated through identity that we are to understand the meaning of individuals’ actions. Thus, the importance of social interaction doesn’t disappear in his theorizing, but personal identity plays a much more central role in shaping behavior. As he explains in the paper, identity becomes a source of creativity when individuals confront new circumstances or are looking for novel solutions to life’s unexpected problems.
Scott takes a somewhat different approach. Rather than starting at the level of emergence, he stresses the role that larger organizational actors play in shaping reality and institutions. The actors that concern him, at least in this essay, are professions.
Professions are not the only, but are – I believe – the most influential, contemporary crafters of institutions. In assuming this role, they have displaced earlier claimants to wisdom and moral authority – prophets, sages, intellectuals — and currently exercise supremacy in today’s secularized and rationalized world (223).
Rather than seeing the professions as objects of contestation or locations of power struggles, as ealier scholars have done, Scott asserts that professions are actors in their own right. They are powerful institutional agents that propagate a particular worldview, enforce norms, and proliferate standards. As agents, they have their own interests and purposes that motivate action. But Scott also believes that professions are also institutional models that specify what other actors should do or pursue. In this way, they are able to relinquish their monopoly of authority and grant some autonomy and control to individual members of the profession.
There has been a gradual shift in institutional theory to make room for agency and intentional behavior. This essay is not a huge surprise for those of us who follow Dick Scott’s work. His latest revision of Institutions and Organizations is subtitled Ideas and Interests. But it’s clearly a change of tune from their earlier, most well-known work. I know less about Luckmann’s path, but I see Scott’s latest efforts as an attempt to deal with the contradictions within institutional theory, reconciling the top-heavy institutionalism of Meyer et al. with the agency-based and power approaches advocated by Fligstein and DiMaggio (1988). He’s trying to resolve the structure-agency problem that institutional theory presents.
Luckmann, who although foundational to sociology’s institutional theory, has not been heavily involved in its evolution. I’m not sure to what extent he even engages with institutional theorists. But it’s clear that he has been thinking about similar issues. I’m struck by his solution, and I find it very elegant. Rather than reinventing the wheel, he’s taking a concept that was always part of their phenomenological approach, identity, and giving it more explanatory leverage. Before Berger and Luckmann were much more concerned with how society gets into the identity. In this latest incarnation of his theory, Luckmann portrays identity as a source of creativity and randomness in the environment that possibly leads to novelty and change. And just as important, identity becomes an important interpretive dimension of human behavior. We can assert some knowledge about an individual’s motivations or interests inasmuch as we have some grasp of their personal identity.