Structure vs. agency is one of the oldest debate in the field of sociology. But this is not only a problem for sociologists with an interest in societies, organization theorists with an interest in organizations, too, have been debating the same problem.
Structure and agency are thought as the basic relationship of any society and organization. Structure refers to the way different positions are organized (or structured); agency refers to the people who enact such positions. Scholars debate on how exactly the two are interrelated.
Archer (1996) summarizes that there are three vantage points to this. First, that structure is what’s matter and it determines what an agent can do in a given structure. Second, that agency is what’s matter and structure is no more than a social construction—only exists in between people’s head and it has no real form. Third, that structure and agency are ‘instantiated’ at the same time (Anthony Giddens is the main proponent of this idea). That is, when an agent enacts a practice he or she is enacting a structure as well.
Okay, each point of view above departs from a different view of ontology (nature of reality). In a very rough dichotomy, an objectivist will resort to structure and a subjectivist to agency. But there is another way to explain the relationship between structure and agency that takes the two equally important without reducing them as one over another or that one is the same thing as another. And that way is by an analogy of drums.
I went home this afternoon while listening to one of my favorite drummers, Akira Jimbo. Now when he plays the drums, he plays so within a pre-determined tempo. The tempo, say 4/4 at 120 beat per minute, is the fundamental structure. But this tempo does not determine how Akira will play the drums. He could start by a very simple beat, or he could make an intro by a complex drum roll. He could make a pause in the middle, or he could make improvisation on every beat. The tempo does restrict him to play within such limit. He cannot abruptly change his percussion hitting activity to 3/4 at 80 bpm, or to disobey the tempo and hit the percussions erratically without making the listener confused. In such case, structure does impose a limit. But it also enables an agent. Because the tempo is set at such and such, Akira can do such and such (he has the potential to do it, though it is up to him to exercise it or not).
Agency plays role in the dynamic within a structure. Akira is unique since he plays differently than other drummers although they may play at the same tempo. The techniques that he demonstrates, his experience, his reflex, and his style, are all contributing to the ‘melody’ of each of his track. In such case agency is where the process happens. And within this process, it retains the potential to transform structure. Akira can make a transition from 4/4 to 3/4 in which the listener can follow. He may introduce a cue to signify change of flow. Or he can abide to the structure and make the track he is playing interesting by infusing an elaborate climax.
So, to conclude, structure and agency do not occur simultaneously. Yes, when we listen to Akira’s drumming both are present. But actually the tempo is set first before he plays. Structure is real but its presence doesn’t determine any practice. It imposes limits and potentials that can only be realized through agency. Agency is where the dynamics happen. Agents explore different ways to perform within a structure, including ways to transform it.
We cannot know whether a piece of music is enjoyable without experiencing how the very basic tempo of the music blends together with the instruments that envelop it.
Archer, M. S. (1996). Culture and agency: The place of culture in social theory. New York: Cambridge University Press.