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Does Structure or Personal Agency Direct the Progress of Human Culture and Society?

Updated on November 12, 2011

The Debate on Structure and Agency in Anthropology

It seems paradoxical, the internal polarization of anthropology. Why do practitioners of the study of human behavior, who dabble in the various shades of gray that comprise culture and society, so often commit themselves to only the black or white of an issue: humanism or science, materialism or functionalism, interpretation or observation? The complexity of culture cannot be reduced adequately enough to adhere to any singular theoretical orientation. Consider the argument between structure and agency; theorists, such as Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim, argue for the pivotal importance of structure as the ultimate determinant of individual behavior and belief, while others, including E.E. Evans-Pritchard as well as Max Gluckman, defend the capacity of human agency in directing the progress of culture and society. The emphasis on comparative studies and the need to generalize the human condition seem to have overwhelmed any notions on the diversity of human existence, which, when considered, will provide some instances in which society does, in fact, supersede the individual, and others wherein agency supplants the abilities of structure. Yet, it simply cannot be assumed that change will be born of the same source time and time again, and that one of these dichotomized elements may function without the unapparent influence of the other.

Marx's Argument

Marx, as an avid social theorist, attempted to observe this debatable relationship between structure and agency through the notion of interest. He posited that individuals, driven by personal ambitions, force modifications upon the same social structure that initially serves as the foundation upon which their self-motivated actions are built.[1] While both agency and structure are active catalysts of change, Marx concludes, the individual would not be pre-disposed to altering his social fabric if it were not for the material basis upon which life was founded. Fundamentally, the nature of a society’s infrastructure, or mode of economic production, is determinative in shaping a society’s political, domestic, and spiritual institutions, which then, in turn, molds the ideals and beliefs of a possible agent.


[1] Chew, Sing C. Structure, Culture, and Hisotry. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. 52.

Durkheim's Support

While Marx acknowledged the presence of the individual in the wider schema of society, Durkheim demeans any role of importance that an independent agent may serve. Structures and institutions, he maintains, are reflective solely of human needs, thereby devoid of human ideal and belief. Durkheim further refutes even the simple ability of an individual to formulate his own thoughts; the creation of any cultural elements, such as pragmatic and normative rules, is merely the consequence of a conscience collective. Structure, then, has priority over all else in human existence, and the individual cannot be gleamed outside of the institutions of a society.

Gluckman's Response

Gluckman provides a stark contrast to Durkheim’s belief in the unifying principles of society. He argues instead for the idea that any semblance of structural cohesion is achieved only through the self-motivated interests of individual agents who are driven by competitive needs. The subsequent institutions that then arise out of the midst of this incessant conflict will be constructed with the foremost purpose of diffusing a society’s discord, posits Gluckman. Admittedly, the relationship between institution and agency is acknowledged, yet the ultimate superimposing presence of the structure remains indispensible to the functioning of society.

Evans-Pritchard's Support

The role of the individual as a purposeful agent is promoted by Evans-Pritchard even further.  As a humanist, he conceded that culture and structure could simply not be explained sufficiently enough without the consideration of the acts of individual persons. While institutions   often exerted a strong influence on individual beliefs and actions, in many instances they are incapable of fully constraining the potential of an agent from influencing and modifying his social situation. The previously dichotomized realms of structure and human agency were then, according to Evans-Pritchard, in a tedious, yet intangible, relationship that furthered culture and society

The Co-Dependent Existence of Structure and Agency

            How then, in a discipline that is defined by its dedication to holism, can there be such a critique on the interaction of an agent and the structure in which he functions?  There are no established universals on what roles these dichotomized entities should serve, and there perhaps may never be, due mainly to the objectification of society as a whole. Furthermore, since structures are not super-organic entities capable of evolving of their own volition, it is not plausible to suppose that these institutions lie in a realm separate of the individual.  The relationship between these entities is one of co-dependence, in which –dependent on societal circumstances- either element may serve as the source of advancing civilization. 

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