specifying the agency problematic II: implications for cultural sociology

In a previous post, I suggested that a useful way of (re)specyfying the agency problematic, requires us to understand that most of the time, talk of agency has nothing to do with “freedom to act” but actually pertains to the freedom to conceptualize the world in a way that is indeterminate in relation to objective reality: that is, agency usually means freedom to think (about the world in a way that is not determined or unilaterally constrained).  I noted that an advantage of specifying the concept of agency in this way is that it allows us to understand a bunch of quirks in the history of social and cultural theory, in particular the Parsonian conflation of “voluntarism” with the Weberian problematic of “ideas” and the subsequent projection of essentially the same debate in anthropological theory to the “cultural autonomy (from biology and conditions).”  Here I would like to go into greater depth into the reasons why it is useful to think of the agency problematic in this way, with an emphasis on implications  for contemporary cultural sociology.

One objection that you might have is that thinking of agency as “freedom of conceptualization” seems like a counter-intuitive, overly-convoluted, obscure or simply unhelpful way of specifying and dis-aggregating what we mean by agency. If that’s what you think, I think you are wrong. This way of thinking about the agency problematic makes a bunch of sense.  First, as I mentioned before, it makes sense of the way that Parsons thought about it.  Why should we care about making sense of Parsons?  Because a lot of the debates that we are having today are still Parsonian debate in code, this helps us get clearer about what we are talking about. To crack the code, all that you need to do is change the words.  As we saw, for Parsons the battle was between “idealism” and “positivism”; change “idealism” to “culture” and change “positivism” to either “materialism” or “structure/structuralism” and you have the modern version of the debate.  That’s why when we set up  culture to structure, or agency to structure, culture to materiality, agency to social structure, or ideas to the objective world, in an oppositional contrast, the corresponding terms of these interlinked dichotomies match.  Second, this way of thinking about culture and agency accounts for why is it that there will always be a conflation between agency and the mental and why is it that theories that deny that the mental (or the cognitive) matter are ipso facto theories that “deny agency.”  Third, this way of thinking about it explains the curious contemporary fate of cultural sociology.  This is a field that has actually been built on the ruins of the original debate that was had at the level of individual agency.

Culture versus structure.- For instance, cultural sociologists sometimes get made fun of by “structuralists” (let’s say in the study of inequality) because what they are peddling (the mental) seems like fluff in comparison to non-negotiable realities, especially when it comes to the big stuff (large, structured inequalities). That’s why in the agency/structure debate cultural sociologists have to be on the side of (some) agency. The reason for this is that, as I noted before, the “group” version of the debate is no different from the individual version.  Culture is just socially patterned conceptualization (or shared ideas).  So if we can ascertain that the “mental” matters because different people can conceive of the same “objective” situation in different ways, then when we aggregate individual cognition into the group cognition that we usually refer to as culture, a similar set of inferences follows (see any book by Zerubavel).  This is also why in the “culture and poverty” debate there is conflation between culture/agency and judgments of responsibility.  In our folk (Western) model, if you had agency, then you are responsible.  When the cultural sociologist then brings “culture” into the study of poverty, he or she is ipso facto saying that the poor were somehow (at least partially) “responsible” for their plight. This creates the odd situation in which only the pure structuralist who removes all agency from the poor can claim that he or she is not blaming them for their condition.

The autonomy of culture(s).- In the anthropological version of the agency=freedom of conceptualization formulation, culture is not reducible to (group) biology (e.g. genetic heritage) in the same way that the individual mental process is not driven by biology, culture is not reducible to the (physical) environment or to ecology in the same way that the mental is not reducible to the environmental; finally culture is not reducible to some sort of “rational” calculus, because if the neo-classical presumption was true, there would not be “cultures” in the plural. Instead all cultures would have the same set of beliefs about the world, and cultural variation would simply be a function of variation in the objective features of the world (e.g. the situation of “same worlds different culture” would not arise).  Note that I have essentially described the program of “cultural anthropology” initiated by Boas and sustained by such people as Sapir, Whorf, Mead, Kroeber, etc. during the early and mid-twentieth centuries.  The inference that agency is the “freedom to think differently” is extended to the group level in the form of cultural relativism: culture is not determined by non-cultural forces, therefore groups have the freedom to think differently in forging distinct cultures.  The “autonomy” of culture (from whatever) is formally identical to the autonomy of cognition from conditions.  That’s why it is so easy to navigate without conceptual loss, from a position of “voluntarism” at the level of the individual to a position of “autonomism” at the level of cultural analysis (see Wikipedia entry for Alexander, Jeffrey). The reason for that  is because they are the same substantive position, and even the bogey-men that Parsons cursed as positivism re-appear in aggregate form: environmental determinism, biologism and neo-classical rationalism. That’s why cultural anthropology fought valiantly against all three.  The first two were vanquished pretty early on, but the battle of cultural anthropology against the rationalist conception of the actor continues to this day (this usually happens under the heading of the “cognitive unity of mankind” or the “multiple rationalities” debates in economic and cultural anthropology).

Culture versus Rationality.- This explains an otherwise weird mystery: rational action theories (see e.g. Hedstrom, Goldthorpe) take ideas and beliefs seriously, but they seem oddly “a-cultural.” The reason why RAT has an a-cultural flavor, is because it has trouble accounting for structured variation in beliefs and ideas that is not traceable to objective conditions; by implication this also makes it a theory that denies agency.  Thus, you can believe that “ideal” stuff matters and still deny that “agency” (or the cultural) matters (that’s why Parsons understood neo-classical economics to be an incoherent mixture of idealism and positivism).  That’s also why rational-choice philosophers (like Elster) have to get into the belief formation problematic and in fact have been the only ones who have advanced the normative problematic of belief justification.  Finally, this is why people like Coleman simply don’t make any sense when they think that by bringing action, back-in they are in fact bringing agency. Insofar as they subscribe to a deterministic model of cognition (e.g. the constrained optimization calculus), then you can have all of the action in the world, without having an iota of agency.

The oddness of normativity in cognition.- It is astounding how much not a problem (or how bizarre) the notion that we can have a normative theory of the mental (essentially that we can pass judgment on ideas by looking at their causal history) is for cultural sociologists. Cultural sociology inherits the core irrationalism of German Idealism and Boasian anthropology. This is not a “bad” thing; it is just the thing: agency entails a loose-coupling between the world and beliefs about the world, and since the only way to get a “normative” theory of belief is to suggest an unacceptable strong coupling, cultural sociologists are happy to give up on this. In fact, I think that most cultural sociologists don’t even think that this normative question (vis a vis a belief: is it rational or not? is it justified or not?) makes any sense.  In this respect the rational action people and the cultural sociologist might as well from different planets. This is also one of the main ways in which we haven’t made much progress since Parsons.

Where do we stand?.- So we come full circle.  A lot of agency talk is really talk about the mental.  What we really mean by agency is really the capacity to conceptualize the world in different ways irrespective of objective reality and what other people mean by structure is really some sort of non-mental or non-cognitive thing that constrains your capacity to conceptualize the world in this or that way, so that in the limiting case a structuralist can predict what you think without looking into the black box that is your head. So you don’t have agency because you don’t have the freedom to impose your own construal on objective situations (or in the group sense, cultures are not autonomous because they are linked to non-cultural features of the world).

Does this mean that the world does not constrain conceptualization in any way?  The answer to this question is more complex, but I would say that the weight of the evidence points to no. So the unrestricted version of social constructionism goes out the window. The best work on comparative and typological linguistics, metaphor theory and cross-cultural studies of categorization overwhelmingly shows that there are objective constraints on conceptualization and cognition although these constraints show up at the level of structure and seldom at the level of content (except when it comes to the so-called basic level).  One hypothesis that can certainly be rejected is the unitary constraint hypothesis (e.g. naive reflection, “realist”, of truth-conditional theories of semantics).  There are very few features of the world that have a monolithic effect on conceptualization.  No domain (space, society, time, etc.) has been found that imposes a non-negotiable structure on our conceptualizations, although there are domains that leave less degrees of freedom than others.

But the job of “ranking” domains in this sense has only begun.  The more important point is that the obsession of cultural sociologists with simply making the case for social construction (and leaving the impression that they subscribe to the unrestricted—and ultimately irrationalist—account even though most don’t really) has resulted in a lack of attention to the “limits” of social construction.  Here limits should not be interpreted in terms of the traditional bogey-men (what about biology?) but instead in terms of the relation between agents and the world at a level that abstracts from this.  We know there have to be limits simply because we are embodied and embedded beings, and it is unlikely for instance that we can use conceptual resources that are not “grounded” in that fact. However, the relationship between embodiment, cognition and action is still something that makes cultural sociologists squirm a bit (because the body is kind of, well, biological), but it is clear that this is where these questions will be asked (and hopefully answered).

Written by Omar

March 5, 2012 at 10:50 pm

5 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Thanks Omar for this really intelligent post.

    I’ve become increasingly frustrated by the structure-agency debate, and I think your post helps me to understand the source of my frustration. The structure-agency debate seems to be used by various theoretical camps to justify their particular view of the social being. Rational choice scholars conceive of agency as an incentive/cost problem. Weberian scholars, at least of a certain type, think of agency as a matter of interest. Identity scholars think that identity construction is the source of agency. Cultural sociologists portray agency as the construction of meaning.

    What your post says to me is that none of these theories can or should ignore the constraints imposed on agency in their own model. How people construct meaning, the kinds of tools that people have at their disposal to create identities, the cognitive constraints on rationality, etc. represent constraints on agency. Nothing is unconstrained.

    I think people know this inherently and very few scholar would seriously argue for a theory of unconstrained agency. So why the debate? I think it’s just a tool that scholars use to elevate their particular theoretical view and to win emotional points with their peers. Few people, Elster and Omar aside, actually engage the problem seriously enough to poke holes in their own arguments.


    brayden king

    March 6, 2012 at 3:53 pm

  2. brayden king asks, “So why the debate?”

    My take is, the debate is indeed over if the debate is agency or structure. Multidimensionality has won. But now, the question is how to operationally define the fact of “constrained agency,” so that the multidimensionality can be studied, data can be gathered, analysis provided, cases explained. To my knowledge, Bourdieu’s habitus and Alexander’s “strong” cultural sociology are the two most advanced statements on how to study the problem brayden king raises in his comment (within academic sociology).



    March 6, 2012 at 5:10 pm

  3. The majority of this post has me nodding in agreement and sighing mournfully at its necessity. Perhaps because I come to the same conclusions (by an admittedly less sophisticated path), I’m left wishing we could turn that powerful brain of yours toward a (more) worthwhile objective.

    Putting aside my exaggerated, self-congratulatory head movements, there’s one part of this that feels a bit undercooked and it’s at the end. How is “a body” like “bodies?” That is, you argue, “We know there have to be limits simply because we are embodied and embedded beings,” but I am not sure if being embodied and being embedded are commensurate in any way, including the particular way you mean (producing limits on our agency). Maybe our body limitations are a prior constraint on our social limits, but they don’t seem equivalent. That is, our cognitive capacity–something like IQ–and our neurological chemistry and wiring condition our ways of thinking before we ever meet other people, and the effect of social life on our cognitive capacity is quite modest in most cases…so there’s a relationship of some kind, but how should we think about that w/r/t agency?


    Jenn Lena

    March 6, 2012 at 10:01 pm

  4. Brayden: I think you are right about the symmbolic function of the various position-takings, but at the theoretical level the various debates are not symmetric. From the agency as “freedom of meaning making” neither the rationalist nor the interest theoretic actor have agency. If what you do or think is a function of the incentive structure, and that incentive structure imposes itself as a non-negotiable reality, then you might be an actor, but you don’t have agency; if what you do is driven by interests, and these interests are exogenous or are not subject to cultural and cognitive constitution, then you don’t have agency. In general, the closer you are to “ideas” and the farther away you are from conditions/materiality/brute-factness/objectivity, then the more agency you have. So that’s why the meaning-makers beat up on the rationalists and the interests theorists.

    Jenn: you are right about the last part. What I meant there is that conceptualization is not an inherently unconstrained process, because we need to you use “grounded” capacities to conceptualize. So a lot of the cross-cultural universals that you find in conceptualization tend to have such a grounding, such as the well-documented use of “heat” metaphors to conceptualize the emotion of anger for instance. The most obvious explanation comes from the fact that there is an experential correlation between the emotion and certain bodily states that motivate the connection in a non-arbitrary way. Here the body is a constraint (no culture uses “cold” metaphors for anger), but (without sounding to Giddensian) it is also the medium that allow us to conceptualize a realm that would not otherwise be understandable.



    March 7, 2012 at 1:44 am

  5. […] forever (+/- 1 day) about agency and structure, mechanisms, and all that. Omar’s recent posts on the problem of agency are particularly excellent (both for his summary and new suggestions). At […]


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: