A Question of Agency: Individuals vs. Collectivities


Interesting discussion of the agency of individuals and collectivities at Normblog and Stumbling and Mumbling.

[Hat tip to Norman Geras]

Social Facts and Individual Acts

Chris and I continue to agree with one another on just about everything at issue, while still managing to disagree about something (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). It’s now down to a single word, and that word is ‘basic’. Chris says (in 5): ‘the individual is the basic unit of analysis’. But I say (in 4): ‘it’s a two-way street’. As between individual motivation and action, on the one hand, and social structure and constraint, on the other, there is no ‘basic’. Explanation in the human sciences can’t do without either; they are always co-present.

When Chris warns, at the end of his latest post (5), against seeing collectivities as agents, he’s right. Only individuals do things. But that’s because doing, in that meaning, i.e. acting, is what (only) individuals do. Only social structures and institutions, however, can constrain in the way that (only) they do – limiting a person’s choices, for example, between certain roles accommodated within the society or the economy in question. Only cultures, speaking loosely, put certain languages and certain ideas beyond the reach of the individual even before s/he can start to think or choose, narrowing the linguistic and intellectual space via what they (the cultures) contain and what they don’t.

There is no more and less basic with regard to social facts and individual acts, or in explanation of the human world. There is just conjoint, reciprocal, influence.


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