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Agency and Social Structure
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California State University, Dominguez Hills
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Created: September 12, 2000
Latest update:May 30, 2001
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Constitutive Criminology At Work
Agency, Structural Context, and Interdependence

Discussion Questions

Review and Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Part of Peacemaking Identity Series
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, June 2000. "Fair Use" encouraged.

Stuart Henry and Dragan Milovanovic describe their theory as postmodern because it takes into account that reality, such as we live it, is complex and interdependent. Although we make claims that we are rational, and although we genuinely believe ourselves to be rational, our agency is often severely limitied by the social structures and roles in which we find ourselves.

What do we mean by "agency?"

As I understand it, Henry and Milovanovic mean by agency the power to make a difference in our own lived reality. The power to make choices, and the responsibility for those choices that society generally holds us to. This means that if we choose, for example, to do something criminal, society holds us responsible for that crime.

This is similar to what Jean Paul Sartre had in mind when he spoke of the terrible anguish ("angoisse") of having no one to blame but ourselves for our choices. He made these claims in the wake of the Second World War, when the whole Western world was trying to understand the ethics of that war. Were soldiers to be held accountable for killing, when they had been given orders to kill? Were generals to be held so accountable? Is there some natural law beyond the law of humans, and, if so, how do we hold each other accountable to basic humanity?

Henry and Milovanovic are critical theorists now, half a century later. As such, they examine the parts of our system that harm people, and they express the need to transform that harm, to guide us to a world we can live in together. With this very different context, they are much less concerned to lay responsibility and guilt at someone's feet, and much more concerned with transforming that harm into a world based on mutual respect for all.

This approach is postmodern in its recognition that there are multiple perspectives, multiple voices, and that all must be respected. This is also the message Gordon Fellman brings us. Both Fellman and Henry and Milovanovic are suggesting ways in which to help us achieve this mutual respect for all.

What do we mean by "structural context"?

By structural context, Henry and Milovanovic are referring to the institutional expectations and roles that help to make us who we are. If we are a student in a local high school, we must be on time for morning classes, or suffer severe penalties, including suspension. The school holds us accountable for arriving on time, even if we are dependent on another for transportation, and even if we have no control over that other, who may, in fact, be overwhelmed by other duties. The structure forces us through its rules and regulations to conform.

This does provide uniformity. It assures the high school that students are on time. But, in the process, it harms some of the students and their families. To the extent that we are willing to consider the structural constraints (like no available public transportation, no available private transportation, and the extent to which one family member is forced to bear these constraints since others cannot, for whatever reasons) we recognize that the student has limited agency.

At the university this is often reflected in the availability of services for night students. Our institutions tend to operate on a nine to five schedule with little regard for the limited alternatives available to the student who must work.

The structural context for women in the sex trade is far more harmful and devastating. Because they are labeled as "bad women," who operate outside the law, they are not afforded even the traditional protections against violence. Some men choose to physically assault such women, just as some choose to physically assault their wives. The wife receives at least the support of the increasingly aware public in such assaults, but that is far less likely to be afforded to women in the sex trade. The public acceptance of violence in the sex trade limits the choices women have to protect themselves. And these women tend to incorporate reliance on their own efforts to protect themselves as inevitable aspects of their lived reality. If we, the public, did not tacitly accept that violence, it would not be inevitable. We could transform this arena of violence by our mutual refusal to accept it, which we have done to some extent, in the area of domestic violence outside the sex trade.

The Interdependence of Agency and Structural Context

Again, as I understand it, Henry and Milovanovic are suggesting that the agency for which we claim responsibility is in fact quite limited, limited by our structural context. We do have choices, and we do rationally choose amongst those alternatives available to us, but we are not accustomed to noticing the extent to which the limiting structures and our resultant choices are socially constructed.

Lisa Sanchez reports the narratives of young women working in the sex trade, in Chapter 3. She notes the ways in which these young women incorporate the violence of the streets, the dangers of robbery and rape, into their stories, and accept responsibility for protecting themselves. They treat the reality in which they live as a given, as something which simply is, natuarally, automatically. (I think it is Jonathan Lear in his writing on "knowingness" who clarifies this theoretically. Nag me for the citation.)

Henry and Milovanovic are asking us to examine the wicked little unstated assumptions that have led us to accept as a society this terrible victimization of whole groups of people, like these women working in the sex trade. Henry and Milovanovic are saying that to the extent that we accept these harmful violent conditions as inevitable, we ourselves contribute to the structural context which harms. We need to accept that our complicity adds to the harm. And we need to find ways to express effectively our need to stop inflicting that harm.

Discussion Questions

  1. What do we mean by "agency?"

    Click for relevant lecture notes on agency.

  2. What do we mean by "structural context"?

    Click for relevant lecture notes on structural context.

  3. What do we mean by "the interdependence of agency and structural context"?

    Click for relevant lecture notes on "the interdependence of agency and structural context."