Agency and structuredness

There has been a long history in social theory of discussion of how to relate social structure and human agency (Dawe 1976; Giddens 1981; Sewell 1992; Vogt 1960; see Taylor 1996 for bibliography in context of interpretation of science).  Concepts introduced in Unruly Complexity provide the basis of a framework for moving beyond the structure-agency dualism.

In brief:  Envisage agents operating within intersecting processes (IPs) that are interlinked in the production of any outcome and in their own on-going transformation.  Let these IPs be teased out into three sets of three IPs: the Personal, which connect the IPs of cogitation, body, and unconscious; the Local, which connect discursive themes, materials at hand, and local rules; and the Social, which connect Discourse, Materiality, and Rules.  Agents heterogeneously construct a variety of projects at any time.  In doing so, they imaginatively mobilize discursive themes, materials at hand, and local rules.  Their cogitation involves some thematic framework that simplifies their actual and possible heterogeneous construction as it is constrained and facilitated by their unconscious and body.  The Local IPs evolve as an outcome of what different agents are able to do in response to each other is doing.  The Social IPs evolve as the linkage of many Local IPs, and are, in turn, drawn on or invoked through discursive themes by interacting agents in Local IPs (see reflection on vibrating agency in Taylor 2005, 198-9).

Such a framework makes conceptual room for a view of distributed agency in relation to social structuredness.  There is no reduction to macro- or structural determination.  Nor is the focus on transactions among concentrated individual agents.  Even if agents tried to stay focused on following some principle of morality or rationality, or sought to optimize some metric, such as their profit, they could not avoid contributing to many projects, given the intersections among Personal, Local and Social IPs.  The view of human nature implied by the framework is similar to that of Dervin (1999) in which agents try to bridge “gaps” opened up by the inherent incompleteness or unboundedness of reality and by their movement in time-space.  Contingency is unavoidable, even necessary, in psychological development and construction (Hendriks-Jansen 1996; Urwin 1984).

The framework also resists the subordination of the material to the mental or discursive that is effected, for example, by sociologist of knowledge Barnes, when he equates social order to “shared knowledge and aligned understandings” that confer “a generalized capacity for action upon those individuals who carry and constitute it” (Barnes 1988, 32, 57), or by social epistemologist Fuller, when he analyzes the rhetoric of promoting “public understanding of science” and calls for experimentation in widening public participation in debates over scientific claims (e.g., Fuller 2000).  (Markus 1986 provides a general analysis of the difficulties that philosophers and social theorists have reconciling the paradigms of “language and production”.)  Of course, my framework specifies nothing about the particulars of any situation or how different agents should engage within those particularities, leaving most of the work still to be done.

In social studies of science it has become popular to invoke non-human agency, a move initiated by Latour and Callon when they used the semiotic label actants for human, other living beings, and non-living things alike in their descriptions of how scientists secure support for their theories (Callon 1985; Latour 1988; 1999).  The playfulness of the resulting anthropomorphic accounts seems to animate the discussion of the non-human resources, but in practice Latour’s and Callon’s accounts reduce agency to a lowest common denominator, namely, resistance to the agency of others.  Human purposes, motivations, imagination, and action do not enter the analysis, except that humans have to attempt to overcome resistance.  Taylor (1993) interprets this move as follows: If scientific agents are viewed as acting with a minimal psychology—almost without mental representations—then this ensures that inborn dispositions, cognitive constraints, individual creativity, and so on, cannot determine action and belief.  This absence preempts the analyses of others who invoke the internal cognizing mind to resist the social construction of science.  It also leaves no place for interests or other external influence to reside inside the scientist’s head, and thus counters earlier analyses in social studies of science that allowed social context or social forces to determine scientists’ beliefs or actions.  In short, invoking non-human agency can be interpreted as promoting a particular view about social causality and the character of human agency in the production and reproduction of social structuredness. (See Downey and Dumit 1997 for alternative perspectives on non-human agency, which begin from observing anthropologically the routine practices in which people—not only interpreters in social studies of science—treat technologies and other things as agents.)

Extracted from Taylor, P.J. (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press).


Barnes, B. (1988). The Nature of Power. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Callon, M. (1985). “Some elements of a sociology of translation: Domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay,” in J. Law (Eds.), Power, Action, Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge? London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 196-233.

Dawe, A. (1978) ‘Theories of Social Action’, pp. 362–417 in Bottomore, T. and R. Nisbet (Eds.). A History of Sociological Analysis. New York: Basic Books.

Dervin, B. (1999). “Chaos, order, and sense-making: A proposed theory for information design,” in R. Jacobson (Ed.), Information Design.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 35-57.

Downey, G. and J. Dumit (Eds.) (1997). Cyborgs and Citadels: Anthropological Interventions in Emerging Sciences and Technologies. Sante Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Fuller, S. (2000). Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Giddens, A. (1981). “Agency, institution, and time-space analysis,” in K. Knorr-Cetina and A. Cicourel (Eds.), Advances in Social Theory and Methodology.  Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 161-174.

Hendriks-Jansen, H. (1996). Catching Ourselves in the Act. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Latour, B. (1988). “Mixing humans and non-humans together: The sociology of a door-closer.” Social Problems 35(3): 298-310.

—— (1999). Pandora’s Hope:  Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Markus, G. (1986). Language and Production. Dordrecht: D. Reidel.

Sewell, W. H. (1992). “A theory of structure: Duality, agency and transformation.” American Journal of Sociology 98: 1-29.

Taylor (1993). “What’s (not) in the mind of scientific agents? Implicit psychological models and social theory in the social studies of science.”  Paper presented to Society for Social Studies of Science, West Lafayette, Indiana. (viewed 1/8/01).

—— (1996). “Science and Social Theory (theme: structure and agency): Syllabus for STS662, Cornell University, Spring semester.” (viewed 12/20/00).

Urwin, C. (1984). “Power relations and the emergence of language,” in J. Henriques, W. Holloway, C. Urwin, C. Venn and V. Walkerdine (Eds.), Changing The Subject: Psychology, Social regulation and Subjectivity.  London: Methuen, 264-322.

Vogt, E. Z. (1960). “On the concepts of structure and process in cultural anthropology.” American Anthropology 62: 18-33.


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