The Structuring of Agency

By | June 30, 2015

I have sought to make the case that for all that agency has causal power it is always structured. It is hardly a novel thesis. Over the past months, however, I have been asked two interesting questions. The first, posed by Mark Carrigan somewhere is cyberspace, is that surely my ‘greedy bastards hypothesis’ (GBH) in relation to socio-economic and pursuant health inequalities simplifies as well as ‘individualizes’ what is a complex social phenomenon? The second, put to me by Ian Greener after a paper I gave in Newcastle, is that maybe my characterization of vulnerable fractured reflexives both individualizes this same phenomenon and encourages (a) governmental attributions of personal responsibility and (b) the devising of politically expedient and ideology-based interventions to strengthen personal resilience and decision-making? They are decent questions deserving of responses.

Too much repetition is tedious so I will be succinct (lots more at The GBH claims that a loose but unholy alliance comprising a hard care of rentiers, CEOs and financiers (reflecting class structure) is able to pick-and-choose and annul policies advanced by the state’s power elite (reflecting command structure) to a far greater extent in post-1970s financial than in postwar welfare capitalism; and that these policies supply high-octane fuel to growing socio-economic and, further down the causal chain, health inequalities. The evidence of ‘greed’ on the part of these ‘bastards’ still strikes me as uncontroversial. BUT what matters sociologically, I have always stressed, is the longstanding and enduring structures of class and command that allow these eminent but eminently replaceable individuals to behave as they do and to make change tough to discuss let alone accomplish. Financial capitalism, in short, has delivered a new class/command dynamic that further privileges the wealthy-cum-powerful and subtracts from the health and longevity of poorer citizens (ok, consumers).

I drew subsequently on Maggie Archer’s theorization of types of ‘internal conversation’ or reflexivity to develop an ideal type of the greedy bastards of the GBH: I called them focused autonomous reflexives. The focused autonomous reflexives, I suggested: displayed an unremitting and uncompromising commitment to the accumulation of capital; a Nietzschian readiness for combat; a fundamentalist ideology; an absence of self-doubt; tunnel vision; and a gendered detachment from any day-to-day engagement with the lifeworld.

What about the vulnerable fractured reflexives? In another application and elaboration of Archer’s work I ventured the hypothesis that under financial capitalism a significant and growing proportion of the population have become unwittingly susceptible to threats to their health and longevity via fractured reflexivity. They have been structurally manipulated, above all by the autonomous focused reflexives, towards a form of ‘disconnected fatalism’. I defined disconnected fatalists as subsisting below society’s radar, as ‘making up the numbers’: these are people who exist without prospects or hope. I offered an ideal type of these ‘outsiders’ as: harangued by the lifeworld; ‘leaky ships without anchor’; swayed by the opinions of others; susceptible to fleeting or contingent events; lacking personal projects; alienated; and of low self-esteem and worth.

Mark’s and Ian’s queries are sharp. Are my focused autonomous reflexives really so hopelessly flawed, asked Mark? Surely, Ian asked, my characterization of vulnerable fractured reflexivity lends itself to ideological appropriation: after all, ‘research shows’ that it is within each and every individual’s capacity to confront and – with ‘moral guidance’, encouragement and direction (via the DWP) – vanquish any frailty.

I can see their points. Re-Mark, people are complex amalgams of social and other (biological and psychological) mechanisms, plus are suspect to contingency or happenstance and possess agentic power. Focused autonomous reflexives can dote on their grannies, be kind and loving friends, feed birds regularly and be pillars of their local communities.

Re-Ian, to cede the causal power of agency opens up the potential for remedial action. Admission of agency invites charges of personal responsibility for any falling short of norms sponsored by the government of the day. After all, not all of the poor and disadvantaged are vulnerable fractured reflexives.

I have a number of points by way of a response. These coalesce into a series of claims. First, I support Archer’s contention that we all of us have agency and the causal power that attends it. Second, it does not follow that we often exercise it in significant or decisive ways (in fact, we reproduce social structures far more smoothly and readily than we elaborate on them). Third, my characterizations of focused autonomous reflexives and vulnerable fractured reflexives are ideal types, and anybody familiar with Weber’s concept must recognize that ideal types allow for empirical variation (indeed, no members are required to fit exactly). Fourth, the GBs of the GBH do not exhaust the category of focused autonomous reflexivity any more than those who suffer more than their share of sickness or expire prematurely exhaust that of vulnerable fractured reflexivity. Fifth, and line with Weber’s intention, my ideal types – incorporating the dedicated meta-reflexives not mentioned here – are purposefully constructed to deepen or at least extend my neo-Marxist sociology of health inequalities.

The sixth claim warrants a bit more attention. Given that we are unambiguously social beings, it must be part of the sociological project to show both how and to what extent. What I have sought to do via Maggie Archer’s studies of reflexivity is suggest that people’s involuntary placement in society, experiences of primary and secondary socialization and engagement in process of reproduction and elaboration help make them (without determining) who they are. Unsurprisingly this is salient for our grasp of enduring and widening health inequalities. I identify (a) players (those actors who have, or have the potential to have, the most impact on health inequalities; and (b) non-players (those actors most passive and susceptible to truncated health. The players are the GBs of the GBH and those ‘resisters’ most likely to hold them to account (focused autonomous reflexives and dedicated meta-reflexives respectively). The non-players are to be found throughout Standing’s precariat but cluster especially amongst those most materially disadvantaged (vulnerable fractured reflexives).

So my emphasis remains on structure: agency is structured if not structurally determined. I have tried to show how this structuring of agency shapes us, nudges us and predisposes us to ways of being, seeing and acting. I could maybe have elucidated the argument in terms of Bourdieu’s notion of habitus. This strikes me as a decent input into a viable sociology of health inequalities. Does it lend itself to species of individualism? Probably. Does it pave the way for ideological appropriation? Maybe. Is it justified? Yes. We have agency, but it is structured!


Scambler,G (2012) Archer, morphogenesis and the role of agency in the sociology of health inequalities. In Ed Scambler,G: Contemporary Theorists for Medical Sociology. London; Routledge.

Scambler,G (2012) Resistance in unjust times: Archer, structured agency and the sociology of health inequalities. Sociology 47(1) 142-156.

Scambler,G (2013) Archer and ‘vulnerable fractured reflexivity’: a neglected social determinant of health? Social Theory and Health 11(3) 302-315.




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