This post is a summary and brief discussion of Roger Sibeon’s Agency, Structure, and Social Chance as Cross-Disciplinary Concepts. The agency-structure debate is a longstanding debate in social sciences. In fact, it can be linked to the mind-reality or subject-object debates and thus, traced back to centuries ago. Sibeon’s article provides a summary of the debate and adds social chance as a third explanatory element.
Sibeon defines agency as the capacity of actors to act upon situations. An actor is ‘a locus of decision and action where the action is in some sense a consequence of the actor’s decisions’ . Actors can be individuals or social (organisational or supra-individuals).
There are entities that do not have causal powers, cannot act upon their made decisions, and thus cannot be considered as actors. These entities include ‘society, the state, social movements, and taxonomic collectivities such as social classes, men, black people, white people, women, and so on’.
Sibeon defines structure as ‘the relatively enduring though not immutable circumstances within which actors operate’. Social structures are conditions of action. As Robert Cox points out structures are constraints on actions and not actors . They can influence, constrain, or enable social agents.
Social structures are not historically predetermined, and they do not have single cause (e.g. capitalism, patriarchy, etc.). They are often ‘fluid, shifting conditions’. However, their fluidity and immutability vary significantly. Bieler and Morton  divide social structure into three groups with respect to their embeddedness within the social reality and thus, their resistance to change. At the micro-level, structures can change through daily activities. At the macro-level, structures are strongly resilient and can survive for centuries, e.g. feudalism or capitalism. The meso-level structures are more resistant to change that micro-structures, but they cannot endure as long as macrostructures. They usually last for up to decades and include stages of world order, as defined by Robert Cox.
An important, though controversial, contribution of Sibeon to the agency-structure debate is the introduction of chance into the relationship. He defines two main types of social chance:
1) Fortuity: The accidental, coincidental, and fortuitous conjunction of ‘discrete events and/or of discrete sequences of action, social patterns or trends’.
2) Unforeseen consequences of action: The unforeseen outcomes of intersubjective conditions and the interactions between actors, whether individual or organisational; and the unforeseen aggregate outcomes of non-intersubjective conditions.
While Sibeon does not rule out linkages between chance and structure, he emphasises that social chance should not be mistaken with ‘a hidden or disguised reflection of an underlying, determinate social structure’ or ‘ignorance of, or incomplete knowledge of, complex structural causation’.
I find two issues with including social chance in the agency-structure debate. First, it is difficult to distinguish chance from an incomplete knowledge of the social system or a deeper social structure. Second, social chance can only enter the analysis retrospectively, i.e., agents cannot include social chance in their calculations for action prior to the action. A defining feature of chance is its unforeseeablility.
- Sibeon, R., Agency, Structure, and Social Chance as Cross-Disciplinary Concepts. Politics, 1999. 19(3): p. 139-144.
- Hindess, B., Actors and social relations, in Sociological Theory in Transition, M.L. Wardell and S.P. Turner, Editors. 1986, Allen and Unwin: London.
- Cox, R.W., Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory. Millennium, 1981. 10(2): p. 126-155.
- Bieler, A. and A.D. Morton, The Gordian Knot of Agency—Structure in International Relations: A Neo-Gramscian Perspective. European Journal of International Relations, 2001. 7(1): p. 5-35.
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