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The Structure-Agency Debate and

its Historiographical Utility

Stuart McAnulla
University of Birmingham
The Utility of Structure, Agency and
Discourse as Analytical Concepts
In recent years a growing number of writers have highlighted the question of the relationship
between structure and agency. This paper aims to examine key problems in conceptualising this
relationship . In particular, it is argued that the existing literature pays insufficient attention to
discursive and ideational factors in explaining political change. I suggest that an adequate model
of social and political transformation requires an understanding of the temporal interplay between
structure, agency and discourse.
For it is part and parcel of daily experience to feel both free and enchained, capable of shaping
our own future and yet confronted by towering, seemingly impersonal constraints. Consequently in
facing up to the problem of structure and agency social theorists are not just addressing crucial
technical problems in the study of society, they are also confronting the most pressing social
problem of the human condition. 1

Over a number of years various prominent social scientists have suggested that the
Structure-Agency question is the most important theoretical issue within the human
sciences (Carlsnaes 1992; Giddens 1984; Archer 1995). This debate has been slower to
make an impact on political science than on some other social science disciplines. Yet
recently a number of political scientists have argued that structure-agency questions
should be recognised as central to the way we study politics (Hay 1995; Marsh 1995;
Bulpitt 1996).
The phrase structure-agency is commonly used by authors to denote a meta-theoretical
debate about social science explanation (Ritzer 1992). Structure and Agency are the
main terms used by modern writers, however it is worth pointing out that the same
debate, or very similar, has gone on for many decades (indeed arguably centuries) in the
form of a variety of dualisms which have varied according to the particular social science
discipline or the philosophical stance of particular authors. For example, within Marxism
the debate has tended to be couched in terms of voluntarism-determinism. Other
commonly used dualisms include Micro-Macro, Individualism-Collectivism,
Subjectivism-Objectivism and Holism-Individualism. Each of at least overlaps with the
dualism we understand today as structure and agency.
Three intellectual developments help explain why attention has increasingly been placed
on structure-agency issues. They also demonstrate why such issues ought to be at the
centre of political science explanation.
The post-war demise of positivism. Positivist based approaches and methods
have received sustained intellectual critique. Few now believe that there are
hard facts. This has highlighted the need to relate political action to social and

structural conditions. (Although of course a number of positivist rooted

approaches to studying politics have survived at a practical level long after they
are sustained by any plausible intellectual justification).
The continuing crisis of Marxism. Over a long period, arguably lasting
much of this century, Marxism has been transformed as a result of responding
to charges of determinism, economism and teleogism. This has led to various
attempts to relate the role of ideas, contingency and agency to social structures
in a non-deterministic way.
A response to the onslaught of postmodernism. Despite being a very
influential intellectual movement many have sought to reject a number of the
central ideas associated with postmodernism. For some its focus on notions of
contingency, anti-essentialim and text serve to eliminate a proper
consideration of the way in which material conditions structure social life.
Others point to postmodernisms downplaying of the individual actor, in the so
called death of the subject. Thus, there is a percieved need to assert both the
existence of structure and agency and their utility as analytical concepts in the
face of so many postmodern denials.
Even leaving aside such intellectual developments it can be argued that there is no
escape from issues of structure-agency. Hay (1995) argues:
Every time we construct, however tentatively, a notion of social, political or
economic causality we appeal, whether explicitly or (more likely) implicitly, to
ideas about structure and agency. 2
This article seeks to critique the contemporary literature on structure and agency with a
number of key issues in mind:
(i) The ontological and epistemological status of structure and agency;
(ii) The need to model the relationship between structure and agency, in
particular the pursuit of dialectical models;
(iii) How to account for the relationship between the ideat- ional and discursive
to structure-agency questions;
(iv) How we can explain political transformations over time through looking at
the interplay between of structure, agency and discourse.
Most contemporary work on structure and agency is motivated by the need to somehow
avoid falling into one of two theoretical camps; Structuralism or Intentionalism. Within
Structuralism structures are given primacy and agency is seen as an effect of structure
rather than a causal affect in its own right. Such Structuralist oriented positions explain
political change by examining the development and interaction of structures. Agency is
thus reduced to the status of an epiphenomenon. In contrast intentionalist or agency
centred accounts give explanatory primacy to agency. Intentionalist accounts, most
notably some forms of rational choice theory, argue that structures only exist as an effect
or aggregation of individual actions. As a result, they are accorded no independent
causal powers. The explanatory focus thus is on agency, with structure this time reduced
to the status of an epiphenomenon. The Structuralist-Intentionalist debate thus precludes
any attempt to attribute strong causal powers to structure and agency coterminously.

Linking structure and agency: coins and change

The main aim of recent writing has been to try to incorporate considerations of structure
and agency into explanations of social change without falling into this tendency to give
explanatory primacy to one phenomena or the other. Giddens, for example, came to
reflect on this whole issue because of his frustration with the tendency of much social
science to locate itself on one either side, or the other of this basic dualism Therefore,
Giddens in the form of what he calls Structuration theory, has set out to try and
transcend the dualism of structure and agency. His basic argument is that, rather than
representing different phenomena, they are mutually dependent and internally related.
Structure only exists through agency and agents have rules and resources between them
which will facillitate or constrain their actions. These actions,can lead, in turn, to the
reconstitution of the structure, defined as rules and resources, which will, in turn, affect
future action. Thus, we have a close interelationship between structure and agency.
Giddens metaphor for this is that rather than being distinct phenomena structure and
agency are in fact two sides of the same coin . As such,we have a conception of the
mutual constitution of structure and agency. As Taylor (1993) argues, this conception is
the most distinctive feature of Structuration theory, yet a feature which serves crucially
to undermine the theory as a whole. 3
There are a number of criticisms of Giddens attempt to transcend the traditional dualism.
A principal criticism is that in his own work Giddens adopts agency centred analysis for
the main part, with separate structural or systems based analysis in other work.(See Hay
1995 for a critical discussion of Giddens structure/system distinction) Giddens justifies
this in terms of methodological bracketing. This is supported by the idea that while
structure and agency consitute the same coin they are opposite sides of the coin in the
sense that we can only ever see one side of the coin at a time.
The problem here I think is that this justification for methodological bracketing serves to
obscure the fact that structure and agency are in real senses independent of each other
and cannot, I would argue, be elided or conflated in the manner Giddens suggests. In
addition, Giddens insistence on the mutual constitution of structure and agency means
that he is unable, within his own work, to give any sense of the practical interaction or
dialectic between structure and agency.
A key criticism of Giddens which is made by writers such as Thrift, Stones (1991) and
Hay (1995) is that Giddens provides too restricted a notion of structure. Hay, for
instance, argues that Giddens uses sleight of hand in defining structure within narrow
terms. Certainly, I think there are problems with Giddens conceptualisation of structure,
for example in his book The Constitution of Society (1979) he argues that structure has
no existence independent of the knowledge that agents have about what they do in their
day to day activity.
This is a problematic statement because many people would argue that the powers and
tendencies of structures can exist independently of whether or not actors have an
awareness of them. Related to these points, Stones makes some general criticisms of the
structuration approach and argues that to be be useful in practical social research
Giddens position should be supplemented by what he calls strategic context analysis.
This approach requires is that when studying a particular area the researcher must look at
the overlying context ie specific conditions relating to a particular area of political
behaviour. In part, this involves looking at the structural boundaries to the context in
which action takes place. Yet, Stones argues that another crucial dimension to consider is

the hermenuetical context of social action. Interestingly, Stones illustrates this by

looking at the recent changes within society in Patriarchal structures. He asks why it is
that feminist advance within the Conservative party was so limited at a time when
women successfully challenged and reformed structural barriers to womens public
participation elsewhere in society. Stones argues that no analysis of this issue would be
useful without a study of the particular context of female participation within
Conservative party circles. So, Stones points to the discursive environment within which
female Conservative party members act; in particular, the terms in which female and
male roles were discursively distinguished. The language and ideas within this context
made the notion of women as candidates or leaders considerably more problematic
within the Conservative Party than within other discursive settings of society. 4
The approach Stones adopts here borrows very much from discourse analytical
methodology. Of course, discourse analysis is a quite distinctive approach to studying
poltical phenomena. Stones does not really acknowledge his borrowing of these methods
which is unfortunate as it means he declines to examine to what extent the concepts and
ontologies deployed in discourse theory are compatible with the philosophical
groundings of the structure-agency debate. However, I think Stones illuminates a
significant deficit in Giddens basic position. Indeed, this criticism may be extrapolated
from, and aimed at, the more general literature on structure and agency.
An alternative attempt to overcome the dualism of structure and agency is found in the
strategic relational approach initially introduced by Bob Jessop but also developed by
Colin Hay. This approach also argues for a dialectical understanding of the relationship
between structure and agency. The authors attempt to conceive of structure and agency
within a critical realist epistemology. The emphasis in this position is on the notion that
layers of structure act to condition agency and define the range of strategies which might
be deployed by agents in the attempt to realise their intentions.
One useful way to compare this position with that of Giddens is to return to the analogy
of the coin . Hay argues that, structure and agency, rather than being conceptualised as
two sides of the same coin, should be thought of as two metals which contribute to the
alloy from which the coin is moulded. (Hay 1995) Hays analogy is an improvement
because it does not directly conflate the two as Giddens approach does. However, Hay
develops the point to argue that, as with the alloy of a coin, we cannot actually see either
metal, or structure or agency but only their fusion.Hay counterposes this view to Giddens
notion that it is only possible to see one side of the coin , structure or agency, at a time. I
think Hays approach is problematic in two senses. Firstly, we need to remember that the
object of the exercise is to explain social change; that is to attribute causation, and this I
think is what Giddens recognises in his analogy. Hay is right to say that in practical life
we will always see the product of structure and agency. However, if we are to try to
explain events I think Giddens is right that we can only see one side of the coin at a time;
this results from our own perceptual limitations when we trying to interpret phenomena .
As structure and agency are in many senses incommensurable phenomena (that is, they
exert different types of properties and powers) I think that analytical dualism is perhaps
inevitable. (In this sense the notion of an alloy isnt particuarly useful as the very process
of interpreting and understanding a given situation leads us to separate out different
elements of social reality.)
This is in fact what Hay and Jessop do in putting forward the strategic relational

approach. The key idea here is that action only takes place within a pre-existing
structured context which is strategically selective, that is, it favours certain strategies
over others. Thus, again the structures both enable and constrain. Actors are reflexive,
and formulate strategies on the basis of partial knowledge of the structures. The
strategies which individuals or groups adopt will yield effects; some of these may be
intended but there will nearly always also be unintended consequences. This model has a
number of strengths, not least because it goes much further towards conceptualising the
interplay of structure and agency without reducing one to the other or eliding the two
together. It can also be usefully operationalised despite being still somewhat
underdeveloped. In particular, there is the outstanding issue of how the actors have
knowledge, or rather partial knowledge, of the structural context. Actors refection on
particular conditions will crucially depend on their understanding , construction and
interpretation of a given context. Thus, if we are going properly to consider the strategic
context of action we need not only a review of the relevant structural conditioning but
also a review of the particular discursive context. As it stands, the strategic- relational
approach, at least as handled by Jessop, appears ambigious on the question of ideation. It
makes no consistent attempt theoretically to seperate the material and the ideational and
consequently can say little about their inter-relationship.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, work which overtly studies the role of the
ideational or discursive tends to be found within more specialist theoretical literatures.
Thus, in order to relate such work to the structure-agency question, we need to engage
with that literature, at least initially, on its own terms.

The postmodern turn: much ado about discourse

Most work on discourse theory is written from the epistemological stance associated
with postmodernism. Certainly, discourse analysis has its roots in this relatively recent
social science tradition. In particular, discourse analysis can be seen as strongly
derivative of the practice of deconstruction. As a starting point, it is worth considering
what the postmodernist view of the structure-agency debate might be. As far as Im
aware, no-one has specifically addressed this question. However, I think the postmodernist, or post-structuralist view on such matters is clear.
For the poststructuralist, the structure-agency debate can be seen as a classic example
of all that he or she thinks has been wrong with most Western philosophy . The poststructuralist sees traditional Western philosophy as being built around a whole range of
dualisms, or what some call binary oppositions. These dualisms or binary oppositions
form the basis of epistemological and metaphysical terminology; they work by
classifying and organising objects events and relations of the world, establishing a
conceptual order. Structure and agency then are just one example of binary opposition to
place alongside other philosophical dualisms such as mind-body, essence-appearance,
prescence-abscence, concious-unconcious etc. Binary oppositions operate in using a pair
of contrasted terms each of which depends on the other for its meaning. As such, they are
governed by the either/or distinction.
At this point, I think it is worth saying that, whatever one thinks of the post-structuralist
position more generally, this analysis is useful in explaining why it is that we have had a
history in social science of a division into two mutually hostile camps. People have often
had the expectation of providing, or the ambition to provide, ultimate explanation, to try
to expose the origins of particular phenomena. This has frequently been done through

the use of the binary opposition of structure and agency, or of some variation of this.
The binary opposition works in explanation through the priveliging of one side of the
opposition. It makes one side a positive term through subordinating the other term by
showing that it is deficient, corrupt or merely derivative of the first term. Of course, it is
always possible to overturn a binary opposition by giving priority to the other term and
systematically suppressing or excluding the first. It is this procedure of priveliging one
side of such an opposition, making it the centre of explanation, that has, in the poststructuralist view, dominated social science thinking and led it down a blind alley of
trying to establish ultimate origins, essences or foundations of social reality. The poststructuralist urges us not to go down this road but rather to accept the idea that we cannot
establish decidable categories and, as such, to embrace notions such as undecidablity or
Discourse analysis may be seen as an attempt to establish broad methods for social
analysis, predicated upon an acceptance of the idea of anti- essentialism and
indeterminacy. In its broadest sense discourse tends to mean anything written said or
communicated using signs. The term is probably most associated with Foucault who
argued that in any era discourses operate with dominant ideas which claim to constitute
knowledge and define power relations in society. Perhaps more immediately influential
however, at least within British political science, is the work of Laclau & Mouffe;
particuarly in their 1985 book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. They build upon the
anti-essentialist notion that there is never any absolute fixing of meaning; rather the task
is to study how social practices and ideas come to acquire meaning. It is through
discourse that people understand their positions in life and shape society and political
activity. Thus, the notion of discourse embraces much more than merely language,
linguistics or mental representation. Discourse, as used by Laclau & Mouffe, denotes a
dissolution of the distinction between the realm of ideas and the world of real objects
and practical activity. All objects and practices are seen as discursive; they only accquire
meaning through their articulation in particular discourse. Thus, identity and meaning are
seen as inescapably relational entities; we are only able to explain and understand a
political process if we can describe the discourse within which it is occuring. Arguably,
even notions such as humanity, fundamental to the foundations of much social science,
are seen as merely historically contingent concepts. Foucault, for example, speculated
that Man is an invention of a comparatively recent date no more than a figure drawn
in the sand at the oceans edge, soon to be erased by the incoming tide. 5

In a sense then, Laclau & Mouffe can claim to have transcended or outflanked traditional
notions of structure and agency through the use of the overarching category of discourse.
Structure in this framework exists only tendentially; a product of a relatively successful
discursive articulation which leaves meaning partially fixed or sedimented for a certain
period of time. There is no agency as traditionally understood as identities are based on
social antagonisms which are decentred. Antagonisms are unavoidable precisely because
identities can never be entirely fixed and it is these antagonisms which are the basis of
politics. For Laclau & Mouffe society and the state are impossible as they can never
be self-closed or self-identical; every social identity is constituted through a difference
from which it can never fully distance itself. Society or the state only exist in the
sense of a partial totalization, achieved through hegemonic discourse which establishes
its frontiers by constructing a chain of equivalences which distiguishes that outside the
hegemonic formation as its other.
The Laclau & Mouffe approach is very useful in that it enables us to study political
processes with a clear focus upon the logics of language, ideas, meanings and their
transformations. Because of the emphasis on undecidability and the role of contingency,
discourse analysis becomes a useful tool in explaining political change. For example I
think people can appreciate the use of discursive strategy during the Thatcher
Governments and their attempts to gain hegemony around the articulation of concepts
like choice,individualism, the market, the consumer etc. Of particular theoretical
use is the notion of identity as being constituted through excluding or marginalising
others. The Thatcher Governments contrasted the consumer with the bureaucrat,
promoted the market throught the delegitimation of the state, the individual was
given priority against the other of the collective. I would argue that one of the reasons
that the Conservative party was so successful in the 1980s was through the use of binary
oppositions, or what Derrida calls the play of opposites. Therefore, it is clear that a
discourse based analysis can be very productive, at least in interrogating aspects of
political phenomena.
The key question however is to what extent we are willing to accept the epistemological
stance adopted by advocates of such an approach. Despite Howarths argument (1996), I
think the approach of Laclau & Mouffe is inescapably relativist. Howarth argues the
approach may be understood as realist because the authors seem to accept, as a realist
would, a real world external to thought. The problem is that, within their own
framework, such a principle has little theoretical significance as they are unable to say
anything about that which which exists outside thought. Objects cannot be understood in
any way other than through their discursive articulation; unless they are discursively
articulated then one simply cannot say anything about them. Discourse analysis
difficulties here are derive largely from a criticism which can be levelled at poststructuralism more generally. It is possible, for example, to go along with the poststructuralists basic epistemological scepticism; to argue that claims to knowledge
always involve arbitrariness and contingency and that there is no priveleged
epistemlogical site from which knowledge can be constructed. However, we need not
agree with Laclau & Mouffe that discursive articulation is the primary consideration at
an ontological level. They may be seen as guilty of collapsing their ontology into their
epistemological position by ruling out the possibility that we can inquire about objects
which are not directly accessible to knowledge. Jessop, for example, argues that, if the
only properties which entities have are the product of discursive practice, then you
would surely be able discursively to turn base metal into gold, or else convince those

laughing at the emperors new clothes that he really was wearing them.(Jessop 1990)
Similarly then, we should not let an acknowledgement of the importance of the
discursive presentation of social phenomena lead us to conclude that the same
phenomena do not have properties, powers and liabilities which can have a powerful
influence on social life in non-discursive roles.
If we accept that social entities do have properties or causal powers independent of
discursive articulation then notions of structure and agency become useful again.
Structures for example,can exist as more than merely sedimented discourses; they may
exert powerful influence without their existence neccessarily being discursively
acknowleged by actors. Actors and agents exist as more than mere nodal points of
decentred discourses; they have their own emergent causal powers.
Therefore, I would argue that we need to resist Laclau & Mouffes initial step of
dissolving the distinction between the ideational and the material, since, in the end, it
produces a form of conflationary theorising just as flawed as that of the intentionalist or
structuralist. In the case of discourse anaysis the material is ultimately the poor relation
of the ideational. Rather, we need to acknowledge the stratified nature of social reality
and that structure, agency, and discourse constitute different levels of this reality; the
task now is to conduct analysis of each of the three broad levels and, most importantly,
to theorise the interaction between these three levels.

Critical realism and the morphogenetic approach

In my view Margaret Archers work on structure and agency offers the most developed,
and most convincing, position within the literature to date. (Archer 1995) To a large
extent this seeks to build upon the philosophcal work of Roy Bhaskar who is well known
for promoting the position known as trancendental or critical realism. Archer seeks to
use Bhaskars Transformational Model of Social Action to build an understanding of
the interplay between structure and agency. She is critical of Giddens conflationary
approach and is insistent that a realist approach must be committed to understanding
social reality as ontologically stratified. Thus, we need an analytical distinction between
structure and agency. In her view, they are irreducible to one another and are seperable
by definition because of the properties and powers which are unique to each, and
because their emergence from one another justifies their differentiation. In particular
crucially, structure and agency work across different tracts of the time dimension; they
are temporally seperable. Thus, the model incorporates time as a theoretical variable in
its own right, rather than merely as a medium through which events take place.
Structure, it is argued, neccessarily predates agency, and elaborations of structure
necessarily post-date these actions. Archer argues:
structures, as emergent entities are not only irreducible to people they pre-exist
them, and people are not puppets of structures because they have their own
emergent properties which mean they either reproduce or transform social
structures rather than create them.
The task then is to look at how we can mark the process of interplay between structure
and agency, whilst holding to the need for analytical dualism. Archer proposes a basic
model of social acttion which she calls the morphogenetic cycle. This is a three part
cycle of change over time consisting of:

Figure 1
A Three Part Cycle of Change
Structural Conditioning (T1)
Social Interaction (T2)
Structural Elaboration (T3)
structural conditioning = systematic properties or aggregate consequences of past
actions which shape social situations and endow people with interests. Action will
always be pre-dated by forms of social conditioning;
social interaction = interaction in which agents whilst socially conditioned also express
their own irreducible emergent powers relating to intentionality, rationality personal
psychology, conciousness or unconciousness. These powers mean that, whilst agents are
socially conditioned they are never determined;
structural elaboration = elaboration which modifies structural properties in part in line
with the intention of actors but in large part in the form of unintended consequences
emerging from conflict and concession between different groups. Agency then does not
not create structure, but only transforms (or reproduces) it in any generation.
T3 of any cycle marks the beginning of another similar cycle with social interaction now
conditioned by a modified structural context. However, Archer points out that the stage
T3 may very well not be one of structural elaboration but, rather, social reproduction;
since, as we know, many social contexts are characterised more by stability than change.

Perhaps the key strength of Archers morphogenetic model as against Structuration

theory, or the even strategic relational approach, is the clearly defined and critical role it
gives to the ideational aspects of social life. This is done through placing culture
alongside structure and agency as a key meta-theoretical concept.
Taylor argues that the word culture is used for a hopeless variety of things. 7 Indeed
Archer herself argues that the concept has displayed the weakest analytical development
of any key concept in social theory.
As such, because of the deep ambiguity around the use of the term culture that I believe
that it is more helpful to discuss the ideational in terms of discourse (though this term
has of course its own definitional problems outlined above). However, Archers own
discussion of culture is extremely helpful in both reviewing and theoretically defining
the role of the ideational in social theory.
Archer argues that the relationship between culture and agency is similar to that between
structure and agency. Yet, while the former relationship may be analytically similar to
the latter they are ontologically different relationships. To conflate culture and structure
would be to conflate the material with the ideational. Thus, culture and structure should
be conceived as relatively autonomous. Existing theories of the role of the cultural tend,
Archer argues to conflate culture and agency in manners similar to the way in which the
structralist or intentionalist reductively conflate structure and agency.
For example, some Neo-Marxists have espoused the dominant-ideology thesis. In this
view cultural systems are the manipulated product of ruling class actors who have both

the power and coherence of ideas to penetrate and shape the ideas of society as a whole.
Such a view serves to reduce the production of dominant cultures to the class-based
agency of certain groups.(Similar in a sense to intentionalism) Conversly, other writers
(for example, Levi-Strauss) point to the way in which Cultures have an internal systemic
unity; they work according to a code. In order to communicate, actors must use the
code and, thus, can make no contribution to altering the code itself (similar then to
structuralism). Thus Archer argues:
the status of culture ossilates between that of a supremely independent
variable, the superordinate power in the opposite extreme where it
is reduced to mere epiphenomenon (charged only with providing an ideational
representation of structure). 8
Such sins of conflation may be avoided, it is argued, if one conceives of the dialectical
interaction between culture and agency over time, mirroring the relationship between
structure and agency. Thus, Archer proposes a similar morphogenetic sequence:
Figure 2
An Alternative Three Part Cycle of Change
Cultural Conditioning (T1)
Socio-cultural Interaction (T2)
Cultural Interaction (T3)
As such, the outstanding question becomes: can we move from a consideration of the
two respective dialectics of structure-agency and culture-agency towards a unified
theoretical model which also looks at the interaction of structural and cultural factors.
Archer argues that this occurs at T2 in each basic morphogenetic sequence. In the phase
of social interaction agents face the conditioning influences of both structure and culture.
Unfortunately, Archers basic morphogenetic model does not effectively capture the
inter-relationship of the structural and the ideational. Whilst the basic morphogenetic
cycle accords importance to the temporal relationship of structure (or culture) and
agency, it does not account for the temporal relationship of the structural and the
ideational. In order to establish theoretical unity we require a basic model which maps
the relationship of all three key strata both temporally and quantitatively. Crucially, this
involves looking at how the structural and ideational interpenetrate.

Modelling social and political transformation

Building upon Archers original model in view of the above points I believe we can
conceive of a macro-morphogenetic model as in Figure 3 on the next page.
Once again we begin the cycle by considering the structural conditioning of social
action. Beginning the analytical cycle at this point, emphasises that political action
always takes place within a material objectivity. I would argue that discursive
conditioning of action should be thought of as post-dating structural conditioning since
actors must somehow construe or interpret material circumstances. Their knowledge or
construction of the structural context will be mediated through a discursive heritage. Yet,
discursive conditions endow actors not only with a certain (most likely limited)
understanding of their structural conditions, but are also crucial in their own right. This

reflects the existence of what Giddens calls the double hermeneutic; people have ideas
about the world, and those ideas are also part of that world. Thus, I believe it is important
to assert unambigously that the ideational is part of the real.
Figure 3
A Combined Three Part Cycle of Change
Structural Conditioning (T1)
Discursive Shaping (T2)
Social Interaction (T3)
Discursive Reshaping (T4)
Structural Elaboration (T5)
We can conceive of discourse as, in a sense, the move in between structure and agency.
Social interaction will (in the circumstance of political transformation) initially
transform firstly the discursive context,as actors discursively articulate proposed changes
in particular social conditions. Subsequently, the structural context will be altered in both
intended and unintended ways as a consequence of social interaction.
In any particular cycle it is important to remember that contexts may be reproduced
rather than transformed. Within this model it is also quite possible that, while social
interaction may transform the discursive context, the structural context may, in fact, be
reproduced according to the particular success and failures of the strategies adopted by

In conclusion then, I would argue that explanation in political science has suffered
through a variety of errors of ontological and explanatory conflation. Whilst
structuralism and intentionalism have long been declared guilty in this respect, we should
perhaps also consider the central conflation of Giddens and the idealist reductionism of
Laclau & Mouffe as being equally culpable in this respect. The traditional dualism of
structure and agency should however be displaced, not through the post-structuralist
challenge as such, but through a recognition of the need to assert the relative
independence of structure, agency and discourse as distinct levels of stratified social
reality. In particular, this involves clearly establishing that the ideational is both
relatively autonomous from both structure and agency, and causally effacious in its own
right. Through an investigation of the interplay of these three social strata over time, we
may avoid frequently repeated errors in our explanations of political change.

M.S.Archer, Culture and Agency: the place of culture in social theory (1988),
Cambridge University Press, revised edition 1996.
M.S.Archer, Realist Social Theory: The Morphgenetic Approach, Cambridge University
Press, 1995.
R.Bhaskar, Reclaiming Reality, Verso, 1989.

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of Elizabeth II, in I.Hampster-Monk & J.Stanyer (eds), Contemporary Political Studies
1996, volume II, Political Studies Association, 1996.
W.Carlsnaes, The Agency-Structure problem in Foreign Policy Analysis, International
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