Structure and agency

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Societal structures can be regarded as rules according to which societal fields (e.g. educational systems, labour markets), institutions, the distribution of and access to resources are organised. Structures do make differences, and result in social inequalities and hierarchies, inclusion and exclusion, e.g. according to gender and ethnicity, but also according to other lines of social differentiation, currently subsumed under diversity. In the words of Giddens structures are characterised by a “longue durée”, which does not mean that they are unchangeable. The duality of structure means that structures do only exist as long and in so far as they are produced and reproduced by (individual or collective) agency, which includes that there is always a potential for change. Anselm Strauss regards structures as “negotiated order”, a notion which points to the interactive aspect of structure and agency (Strauss, 1993). So, agency is to be understood as highly contextualized practice which is neither to be regarded as isolated ability to act nor as context-free with regard to (structural) contexts in which it is either facilitated or restrained. Moreover, it has to be seen in its temporal structure, in a varying interplay of past (habits and biographical experiences), present (every day challenges, pointing to the availability of resources and coping strategies) and future (prospective orientations and imagination of probable scenarios). Structural factors have their impact on each of these temporal dimensions, and so do the (changing) imageries of each biographical transition (e.g.: educational trajectories). This temporal structure of agency has been elaborated most profoundly by Emirbayer and Mische (1998) who conceptualize agency as “the temporally constructed engagement by actors of different structural environments - the temporal relational contexts of action – which, through the interplay of habit, imagination, and judgment, both reproduces and transforms those structures in interactive response to the problems posed by changing historical situation“(Emirbayer & Mische, 1998, p. 970).In GOETE the dialectic relationship between structure and agency is relevant for developing analytical and methodological tools for researching the shaping of educational trajectories.


Emirbayer, Mustafa & Mische, Ann (1998) What is Agency? American Journal of Sociology, vol. 103 (4), 962–1023.

Giddens, Anthony (1984) The Constitution of Society. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Strauss, Anselm (1993) Continual Permutations of Action. New York: W. de Gruyter.

Walther, Andreas, Stauber, Barbara & Pohl, Axel (2009) UP2YOUTH – Youth – Actor of Social Change. Final report.

(Barbara Stauber)