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.

Written by brayden king

February 28, 2008 at 8:31 pm

11 Responses

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  1. But wasn’t the problem always that before you give things like intentionality (especially individual intentionality) and identity (especially personal identity) “explanatory leverage” you have to gain access to them. Personal identity can explain things like walzing only by begging the question: “He likes walzes.” Or does Luckmann now provide us with some independent means of discovering “the intention”, separate from the practice or action or event that we have already understood as such, i.e., already found meaningful. It was always the attribution of intentionality, the ascription of identity, the production of subject, what have you, that needed ‘splainin. Or what?



    February 28, 2008 at 9:44 pm

  2. waltzes



    February 28, 2008 at 9:45 pm

  3. I may be reading into Luckmann somewhat, but here is my interpretation. Identities and larger structures both emerge from social interaction. The former is the individual residue of social interaction and is partly based on the “available stock of social knowledge” while also reflecting the individual’s unique social position. The latter is the collective residue of social interaction, consisting of the collective memories, routines, and institutions that make up society. It’s perfectly conceivable that personal identities and social structures will be incompatible or incongruent, even though they emerge from the same social interactions. Thus, it is the mismatch of personal history and collective history that leads to opportunities for innovation. That’s my take….



    February 28, 2008 at 11:11 pm

  4. “…even though the emerge from the same social interactions…”

    My question is: do personal identities and social structures emerges frm the interactions *in the same way*? The related question is: do we have the same empirical access to their emergence?

    When we say that *social* structures “emerge from” *social* interactions, are we not committed also to saying, at least as a first approximation, that personal identities “emerge from” *personal* interactions (interpersonal actions?). If so, we have no prima facie explanatory leverage across the structure-agency divide.

    But if we say that personal identities are produced by repeated interactions guided by social structures (which makes perfect sense to me) then we are really just saying that personal identities are structured socially. Just like perceived realities (i.e., roughly speaking, knowledge). The hard line is: personal identities are social structures. But it would probably be more palatable to say that interactions have both a personal and a social aspect, that they have both identity and structure.

    It’s fine if we want shift the emphasis back to identity (though I would argue there are historical reasons for any such shift) but it’s not really an evolution of the “social construction of reality” argument.



    February 29, 2008 at 9:35 am

  5. There is a bit of an old man moment towards the end of the article though:

    It hardly needs to be stressed that the proportion of routinized ‘old’ knowledge and unproblematic experiences to ‘new’ knowledge and problematic experiences very much depends on the type of society involved. In archaic and traditional societies, the recipes for action that one has learned in the appropriate socialization processes tend to hold up for a lifetime. In modern societies, marked by a complex social distribution of knowledge and rapid social change, people encounter problematic situations that are not easily solved by old routines and require the acquisition of ‘new’ knowledge much more frequently than in traditional societies. In such societies, specialized knowledge increases enormously and is no longer accessible to everyone in its totality. In addition, how specialized knowledge is distributed, and where and when it is to be found, is no longer generally known.

    A striking feature of these societies is a certain opaqueness of social reality. While almost everyone is a specialist in something or other, it is difficult to orient oneself outside a narrow area of competence. The increase in specialized forms of knowledge leads to various commercialized forms in its transmission, e.g. in the form of popular literature. The rapid expansion of the Googles, Yahoos and Wikipedias shows that the electronic media are taking an increasingly larger share in the dissemination of knowledge, half-knowledge and bunk, largely uncontrolled for inaccuracy in capitalist and more or less democratic societies, and controlled for, or rather, against accuracy for narrow political and ideological purposes in autocratic regimes (288).

    What? No references to specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart or proclamations about being stuck in a meaningless structure until the last ton of fossilized carbon fuel is burnt?

    Hey wikipedia kid, with your google, i-pod thing: get off my lawn!

    In a more serious note, I thought the article was a great introduction/late statement of the social constructionist position by one of its leading exponents (great for a theory class!). I wouldn’t say that it goes as far as “solving” the agency/structure debate, well because I believe that that particular debate is not solvable in its own terms. However, by bringing identity back, Luckmann does what most people in American sociology have done already, which is to merge the “European” social (and socialized) constructionism of the Husserl/Schutz/Berger and Luckmann line with the individualist constructionism of the the Midwestern interactionists who belong in the Thomas/Cooley/Blumer line (what is usually referred to as “symbolic interactionism”). This brings “agency” into the rather static socialized constructionism that emerges from the Berger and Luckmann intervention in the very same way that Emirbayer and Mische (1998) draw on the American semiotic tradition of Pierce and Mead to conceptualize agency. So the recipe now becomes a little Europe (socialization, structure) and a little America (individualism, action) gives you a theory that nobody can complain about!



    February 29, 2008 at 1:09 pm

  6. I agree that nothing is resolved (but it’s a catchy headline right?), but I’m glad to see two luminaries taking on what I see is as an important question, each in their own way. I think for Luckmann’s argument to really stick, he needs a better psychological theory of identity. As he writes it now, identity is a social construction in a Goffmanian sense, but he doesn’t dig into the psychological mechanisms that account for the heterogeneity in identity that we observe in the real world. To do this he’d need to read some of massive collection of literature from psychology on identity and self. But if he were, perhaps he could avoid repeating the same mistakes others have made in trying to bring agency into a highly structuralist account.



    February 29, 2008 at 2:01 pm

  7. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t this solved decades ago by Bourdieu?



    March 2, 2008 at 8:24 am

  8. Olivier, as good old John McLaughlin would say: WROOONG!!! a) Bourdieu is not an “agency/structure” theorist in Giddens’ sense of the term, b) as I pointed out above the agency/structure debate is not solvable within its terms and c) you may call Bourdieu’s account a “solution” but only because he realizes (b) and stops framing the issue in terms of agency versus structure, but I don’t think that that would be recognized as a “solution” by most people.

    Issue 4: on a scale from one to ten, with one the most transcendentally mind numbing waste of time in the universe and ten being cosmic-scale intellectual fascination, is the agency/structure debate a waste of time or fascinating?




    March 2, 2008 at 1:24 pm

  9. Omar: The structure agency debate has been resolved by Chuck Norris – who is both structure AND agency. Case closed.


    Fabio Rojas

    March 2, 2008 at 4:22 pm

  10. As someone remarked to me once, the Agency/Structure debate in the 80s was like LSD in the 60s, in that it ruined a lot of good minds.



    March 2, 2008 at 4:26 pm

  11. Omar: It’s a perfect ten.



    March 2, 2008 at 4:53 pm

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