In sociology, agency is a term used to refer to a person’s capacity for free will, freedom of choice, and independent action.
Agency is contrasted to structure, where agency represents our ability to impose our will on the world and determine our own destiny, while social structure represents the many constraints placed on us by society.
For example, individuals may be able to exercise agency when making decisions about their identity, career choice, and choice to start a family. However, social structures such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, family, culture, and so on, may limit the opportunities that same individual has to exercise human agency in those very circumstnaces.
The key challenge in sociology is to understand the balance and interplay between these two forces. Those who believe in ultimate agency include the existentialists and some symbolic interactionists, while determinists hold that social structures constrain our agency to the point that free will is an illusion.
Agency in Sociology
A simple definition of agency within sociology is:
“Agency denotes individual capacity for free thought and action”(Bruce & Yearley, 2006)
It’s notable that Bruce and Yearley (2006), who provided the above quote, were compelled to define agency in contrast to structure. Their follow-up sentence reads:
“Strcuture denotes the constraints on individuals that result from the fact that repeated patterns of action, legitimated by ideologies, form the environment that shapes us and limits our actions.”(Bruce & Yearley, 2006)
And, Bruce and Yearley (2006) are not alone here (see also, as an example, Scott & Marshall, 2009). Agency is almost always defined in contrast to structure. Structure constrains agency.
Depending on your philosophical and theoretical perspective, you will likely place yourself somewhere along a spectrum from the absolute role of structure (we have no free will) to the absolute role of agency (we are ‘condemned to be free’, as Sartre famously said).
Most sociology students, however, will likely acknowledge that structure and agency both play a role in our lives.
1. Career Choice: An individual decides to pursue a career as a physician, despite coming from a family of musicians. This represents agency because it demonstrates the individual’s ability to make independent decisions about their career, regardless of family tradition or expectations. However, it’s rarely this simple. Where did this interest in being a musician come from? What structure was there that pulled them in that direction? I see myself in this dilemma: my parents were both teachers, and I, too, decided to become a teacher. While it felt like I was making a decision out of free will, surely, I was influenced in some way by observing my parents, their job roles, and their job satisfaction, when making my mind up – that all represents structure.
See More: Free Will Examples
2. Religious Beliefs: Many of us ending up being of the same religion a our parents. There are social structures designed to ensure this – Sunday School, our surrounding culture, and our family influence being obvious elements. But if a person chooses to convert to a different religion or become an atheist, even if they were raised in a religious household, this may be a reflection of agency. This act of choosing a personal belief system showcases the person’s agency to make significant life choices in spite of their surrounding social structures.
3. Education: A student elects to study abroad, choosing a different cultural and educational setting than what they’re accustomed to. The student demonstrates agency by actively making this choice, despite potential difficulties or challenges. The challenges may have included having to defer a semester, work through the bureaucracy, and save enough money to fund the trip. Nevertheless, their determination may be seen as a reflection of their agency that they can do whatever they put their mind to. But here’s a curveball from the determinists: perhaps there was something biological or innate about this person that pre-destined this desire to travel abroad?
4. Promotions: A woman knows that there’s a glass ceiling that seems to prevent women from reaching the top managerial level in her workplace. But she doesn’t care. She’s going to smash through the glass ceiling by networking, demonstrating competence, and advocating for her position. And if they don’t promote her, she’ll start her own competing business – nothing’s going to stop her!
5. Entrepreneurship: A person elects to veer from the traditional employment route to start their own business, undertaking the associated risks and potential rewards. This decision signifies agency, embodying their self-reliance, determination, and ingenuity. Still, the question begs itself: What societal structures influenced this choice? Perhaps the entrepreneurial spirit was fostered by a supportive community, inspirational role models, or a cultural emphasis on innovation and risk-taking. This hints at the complex interplay between individual agency and societal structures.
6. Recovery from Addiction: When an individual resolves to break free from the chains of substance abuse, seeking help and committing to a rehabilitation program, they demonstrate powerful agency. Their determination to regain control of their life is a testament to human will. But it’s also crucial to consider the structures at play: addiction often stems from societal issues like poverty, unemployment, or lack of mental health resources. Their recovery journey is not just a personal triumph, but also a commentary on the structures that influence addiction.
7. Philanthropy: The decision of a wealthy individual to donate a large portion of their wealth to charity demonstrates agency, reflecting their values and the choice to use their wealth for societal good. But this act of philanthropy may also be influenced by social structures. Was their generosity fostered by societal expectations, a culture of giving, or perhaps even tax incentives? Again, we see the dynamic interaction between personal agency and societal structures.
8. Education Advocacy: When a parent challenges a hesitant school district to secure special education services for their child, they are demonstrating agency. They stand up to the system to ensure their child gets the resources they need, exercising their rights and responsibilities as a parent. However, it’s important to consider the structures that necessitated this advocacy. The lack of readily available resources speaks to larger systemic issues in education and powerful social structures.
9. Environmental Lifestyle Choices: A person’s decision to reduce their carbon footprint, recycle regularly, and minimize waste showcases their agency, reflecting their commitment to environmental sustainability. However, we must also consider the societal structures that influence this choice. The widespread awareness of climate change, environmental education, and societal norms surrounding sustainability might have prompted this individual’s eco-friendly behaviors.
10. Voting: When a citizen steps into the voting booth and casts their ballot for their preferred candidate, they’re exercising agency. Their decision to engage in their country’s political process, to have a say in who represents them, exemplifies the concept of agency. However, it’s also crucial to consider the societal structures that influence their voting decision. Did the media, societal norms, their social circle, or even their upbringing sway their political leanings? The act of voting may seem like a simple checkbox exercise, but it’s deeply embedded in a larger sociopolitical structure.
11. Migration: Choosing to uproot one’s life and immigrate to a new country in pursuit of better opportunities is a strong demonstration of agency. This decision, often made in the face of enormous challenges and uncertainty, illustrates an individual’s resolve to shape their life trajectory. Yet, the decision to migrate doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s also a reflection of the larger economic and political structures at play. Perhaps a lack of opportunities, conflict, or persecution in their homeland forced them to seek refuge elsewhere. This decision to migrate, thus, becomes a poignant commentary on the structures that drive such movement.
12. Marriage: The decision to marry for love, in defiance of societal expectations, family pressures, or financial considerations, represents agency. It’s a personal commitment to share one’s life with another based on emotional connection rather than societal norms. However, the concept of marrying for love is also a product of social structures. Cultural and societal shifts over time have increasingly emphasized love as the basis for marriage, highlighting how our most personal decisions are intertwined with larger societal trends.
13. Gender Identity: When a person, assigned a binary gender at birth, identifies as non-binary and decides to use they/them pronouns, it’s a powerful assertion of agency. They’re determining their identity and asserting their rights to be recognized as they wish. Yet, it’s crucial to consider the societal structures that may have influenced this decision. The emergence of a more inclusive discourse around gender identity, increased visibility and acceptance of non-binary individuals, and supportive communities play a pivotal role in making such decisions possible.
14. Giving up Social Media: A decision by a teenager to limit their use of social media, despite its prevalence among peers, showcases agency. The choice to manage their digital footprint and mental health in a digitally saturated world is a testament to their self-control and self-awareness. Yet, we must also consider the social structures that contribute to this decision. Growing awareness about the negative impacts of excessive social media use, coupled with societal discourse on digital well-being, might have shaped this individual’s decision.
15. Ethical Consumerism: When an individual decides to only purchase products from companies that uphold ethical labor practices, they’re exercising their agency. This conscious consumer behavior reflects their values and their commitment to enact change through their purchasing power. But it’s also essential to note the larger societal structures that drive ethical consumerism. Growing societal consciousness about workers’ rights, fair trade movements, and companies’ ethical responsibilities may have influenced this individual’s consumer choices.
16. Adult Learning: The decision by an adult to return to school to continue their education and improve their job prospects showcases agency. They’re defying the traditional trajectory of education to expand their knowledge and enhance their skills. However, one must also consider the societal structures that influence this decision. The increasing value placed on lifelong learning, advancements in online education, and changing job market demands likely play a role in motivating adults to pursue further education.
The agency-structure problem, also known as the structure-agency debate or the micro-macro debate, is one of the core issues in sociology.
It deals with the balance between human free will (agency) and societal constraints (structure) in shaping human behavior and social outcomes.
Despite decades of debate, there is still no clear consensus on how best to solve or mediate this problem (Ritzer, 2011).
A central question within the debate is how micro-processes (like individual interactions) can create and change macro-structures (like social institutions), and vice versa.
This question has been addressed through various theoretical frameworks, such as Bourdieu’s theory of practice, Giddens’s structuration theory, and Archer’s morphogenetic approach. We can generally summarize the frameworks into three perspectives, outlined below (Carter, & Fuller, 2016).
1. Holist Perspective (Structure)
The holist perspective tends to focus on how social structures limit agency – even to the extent that our agency is an illusion.
According to this perspective, we tend to be significantly shaped by social structures and systems. If we were to reflect on our lives, we can often trace our attitudes, behaviors, and actions to the internalization of certain norms or beliefs that happened over long periods of socialization, rather than active decision-making.
Functionalism, for example, tends to see people as having their pre-determined place within social institutions (the family, school, workplace, etc.) and emphasizes the importance of acting our role in order to maintain social order.
Conflict theory, on the other hand, explores how marginalized groups – such as the poor – tend to have less agency than dominant social groups, compounding their disadvantage. This gives them limited options for escaping a social structure designed to keep them at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
Here, individual agency is minimized, and conformity is maximized.
Case Study: The Influence of Mass Media
Some scholars, like Noam Chomsky, tend to argue that mass media has a strong influence on society by spreading propaganda that affects the Overton window and, generally, limits what is and is not allowed to be said and thought. The strong influence of mass media in the 1990s, for example, ‘manufactured consent’ for US wars of aggression.
2. Individualist Perspective (Agency)
The individualist perspective takes the position that we tend to have a high degree of agency, despite the presence of broader social structures.
From this perspective, each individual is seen as having the capacity to act independently and to make their own free choices, free from societal constraints.
These theoretical perspectives emphasize that individuals actively interpret their surrounds, rather than being duped by media or other people in power into making decisions.
Based upon our active interpretations, we make decisions that make sense to us – we think through our options, and make rational decisions. We’re not just mindless fools!
Such a perspective leads us to assert that outcomes of social actions and even broader social structures can be affected by individuals and groups (Buckingham, 2013).
Case Study: Postmodern Readings of Media
Postmodernists don’t think we’re duped into believing things by mass media. Rather, they believe that we watch mass media critically – we take from it what we want, impose our own perspectives, and use it only insomuch as it is useful to us. They demonstrate how a young girl might watch a Disney film (which constructs a certain view of femininity) but what she takes from it is the cool dragons or action storylines, not the idea that she should be a passive compliant princess. She has agency to develop her own thoughts.
3. Dialectical Perspective
This perspective attempts to synthesize both structure and agency. It argues that social life cannot be fully explained by either agency or structure alone but that both must be accounted for.
Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory and Pierre Bourdieu’s practice theory are prime examples of this dialectical perspective, aiming to reconcile the agency-structure divide.
Giddens suggests that while individuals are constrained by societal structures, they also have the agency to modify these structures.
Bourdieu, on the other hand, introduces the concept of habitus, arguing that social practices result from the relationship between structure (field) and agency (habitus) (Jones, 2019).
Agency refers to the idea that we have free will and can impose our will on the world, allowing us to make change and make decisions independent of others. However, it is constrained by social structures such as social ideas about gender, race, and social class, as well as pressure from parents and financial pressures, which may mean you feel like some things are out of your control and your destiny is pre-determined.
Brennen, B. S. (2017). Qualitative Research Methods for Media Studies. New York: Routledge.
Bruce, S., & Yearley, S. (2006). The Sage dictionary of sociology. London: Sage.
Buckingham, J. (2013). Open Education: International Perspectives in Higher Education. New York: Open Book Publishers.
Carter, B., & Fuller, C. (2016). Symbolic Interactionism. New York: Sociopedia.
Jones, P. (2019). Introducing Social Theory. Sydney: Polity Press.
Macionis, J., & Plummer, K. (2012). Sociology: A Global Introduction. London: Pearson Education Limited.
Mouzelis, N. (2012). Back to Sociological Theory: The Construction of Social Orders. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Ritzer, G. (2011). Sociological Theory. London: McGraw-Hill.
Scott, J., & Marshall, G.. (2009). A dictionary of sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]