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Individualists about structure, it would seem, must be voluntarists about agency, while it is often believed that those who attribute causal significance to social structure must be determinists about agency. Furthermore, just as there is a tension between explaining social phenomena in terms of social forces or individual ones, there is also a similar tension between explaining individual behaviour in terms of individual agency or forces at a still lower level.

Some thinkers — biological reductionists — have started to argue that human action is really a product of the neural networks in our brains, for example, or of our generic make-up, thus introducing an entirely different dimension to the explanation of social behaviour that sometimes seeks to render both individualist and structural approaches redundant.

Causal Power of Social Structures

These disagreements over the role of social structure are nothing less than a battle for the heart and soul of sociology; and indeed of the social sciences more generally, since just the same issues arise in any discipline that seeks to examine what happens in the social world. The social sciences look completely different through structuralist and individualist spectacles. Are they to be concerned with explaining social phenomena purely in terms of the contributions of individuals, or are there characteristically social forces that affect social phenomena?

Many contemporary authors, however, reject the implication that structure and agency represent a binary choice: that either social behaviour is determined by structural forces or it is determined by the free choices of human individuals.


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Indeed, if we look more closely, it is striking that many apparently structuralist thinkers have been unable or unwilling in practice to dispense with agency and apparently individualist thinkers have been unable or unwilling in practice to dispense with structure. In another famous quote from Marx, for example, he tells us that men make their own history, but they do not make it just us they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past Marx ]: Here the circumstances represent the structural influences on action; yet Marx is at pains to point out that within these constraints, people do indeed make their own history.

Indeed, as a communist activist, he was actively involved in inciting them to do so.


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  • Though he is often accused of determinism, it seems that for Marx both structure and agency matter. The most characteristic move in recent work on structure and agency has been to recognise that there are good reasons for these apparent ambiguities: they arise because we cannot successfully theorise the [end of page 3] social world without recognizing and reconciling the roles of both structure and agency.

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    Broadly speaking, there have been two alternative ways of reconciling the two: structurationist and post-structurationist theories Parker The debate between the two schools turns primarily then, on questions of social ontology: the study of what sorts of things exist in the social world and how they relate to each other [middle of page 4].

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    The causal power of social structures : emergence, structure and agency. Responsibility Dave Elder-Vass. Physical description xii, p.

    Online Available online. Cambridge Core Full view.

    Politics in Europe and Beyond

    Green Library. E63 Unknown. More options.

    Social Ontology (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

    Find it at other libraries via WorldCat Limited preview. Bibliography Includes bibliographical references p. Contents 1.

    Introduction-- 2. Emergence-- 3.

    Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation

    Cause-- 4. Social ontology and social structure-- 5. Agency-- 6. Normative institutions-- 7.