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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: November 5, 2000
Latest update: July 4, 2004

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Index of Topics on Site Agency and Structural Context
The following discussion occurred over email with each of us contributing another piece. The links will take you to the specific section of this file that is indicated:

On Thursday, November 2, Joanna Carillo wrote:

I found yesterday's lecture very interesting. I never thought of my parents as an agency or myself as the structural context. The scenario I picture is this:

I (structural context) always tried to get good grades in school and behave as best as possible so I wouldn't get into trouble with my parents (agency) who wouldn't do much but take away my privileges ( like watch t.v. or play outside), because their parents (social fact) didn't teach them (thank God) to hit their children.

Love and Peace,
Joanna R. Carrillo

On Friday, November 3, 2000, jeanne responded:

Joanna, this is a wonderful piece to work with. I'd give you a B for it as it stands. On the plus side, I'm pretty sure I have a face to go with the name. I know you. How fitting that you chose to explore agency and social structure between you and your parents! Good choice. Also on the plus side, you gave me details, according to which you are analyzing where agency and structural context fit into quotidian experience. Good practice, because now we can both refer to quotidian experiences and clear up any inaccuracies and misunderstandings. Your choice of analysis also guarantees that you are learning this at a level that is likely to stay with you and add to your practical knowledge.

For an A, we need some dialog to be sure that we understand each other fully. For example, I think we need to define each of the terms that you are applying to your quotidian experience. I didn't have that up yet, and most of you don't have Henry and Milovanovic. Some basic definitions of the terms ought to help. I just put it up today.


I think it's important to see that you and your parents are the principal focus in the situation you have described. But I wouldn't consider them agency and you structural context. Let's see what agency and structural context mean here.

"Agency" refers to the ability to make decisions with respect to what you do, with respect to controlling your own life.

"Structural context" refers to the institutions, culture, and social practice that constrain you to keep within certain normative roles.

All living creatures that are a part of this social grouping are constrained by the structural context within which the group lives. So both you and your parents are constrained by the same roles. Your parents are constrained in both their imaginary (the world of which they can conceive or imagine) and in their decision-making ability by the structural context. The roles they play as parents are shaped by socialization and must remain within normative bounds.

They can't decide that you should go to school from 11 to 4 instead of 9 to 3. Or that you should have all your classes on Tuesday and Thursday. Neither can you as a student make those choices. You may choose classes that are taught then, but you can't have the classes you need taught then, unless the university offers them then.

The system constrains you. It limits your choices by what it makes available. It also constrains you by socialization. For example, you are expected to be on time, study hard, be respectful, etc. It constrains your parents by socialization on what kinds of punishment or insistence on obedience are acceptable and which are not. And both you and your parents are constrained in your "agency" by the structural context. These constraints entail limits to your agency for both you and your parents.

Let's try re-interpreting with these definitions:

Both you and your parents are individuals who possess decision-making power in controlling your own lives (agency). Societal institutions like the family, the school, the workplace, the government (structural context) limit the decision-making power (agency) that both you and your parents have.

Your ability to make the decisions in your life (agency) is further limited by the extent to which your parents demand some things from you in exchange for their support as parents. This limitation will depend on what you and your parents negotiate between you to the extent that those decisions meet with the normative expectations of the structural context. That is, they may choose to not pay for your college education, especially if you have seven little brothers and sisters who must be fed. Actually, if they chose not to feed your seven little brothers and sisters, and instead give the money to you for college, the structural context would force them to feed the little brothers and sisters or remove them. There is always a delicate balance between agency and structural context.

I think the reason you saw your parents as "agency" is that when you were younger, they had more decision-making power than you did, and they still might, if you live at home. But as you reach maturity, you exercise more and more of your own decision-making power.

Let's see if I can put it into a graph:

Figure 1. Agency and Structural Context in Joanna's Family.

Figure 1 shows that both Joanna and her parents have agency, and that the agency is constrained by the normative expectations of the structural context. Figure 1 also shows by the orange overlap that Joanna and her family have shared agency which they are able to negotiate relatively free of structural constraints. For example, many families today still put most of their resources into the son's educataion on the grounds that their daughters will raise families. Some social groups are likely to frown on this more than others, but the U.S. is unlikely to impose rules and laws that limit the agency to apportion resources as the family sees fit.

Now let's try to clarify the supplementary details that Joanna has given us:

  1. "I always tried to get good grades in school and behave as best I could so I wouldn't get into trouble with my parents."

    "Agency" refers to power to make decisions. Joanna indicates here that she assumes responsibility for the decision to get good grades. That assumption of responsibility indicates that Joanna perceives hereself as having agency. She sees this as her choice.

    "Structural context" refers to limits to our decision-making power. Joanna says she made her decision to get good grades so she wouldn't get in trouble with her parents. Here, her parents' agency, their right to define her as "in trouble" says that they appear to Joanna to have greater agency in this situation than she did. But here parents aren't making up structurally violent rules to control a whole institution. So that Joanna gets to negotiate with them over getting "in trouble." This might be considered "shared agency."

    If Joanna simply decides not to go to school (at least before the legal age to leave school), then she will be "in trouble" with the school authorities, whose "rules" are not so readily negotiable.

  2. " . . . in trouble with my parents, who wouldn't do much but take away my privileges ( like watch t.v. or play outside)"

    Here Joanna is giving detail on the normative expectations of her structural context. In the world in which she and her parents live, children are not sent out to work in order to survive and gather food, children are not physically punished, children, in fact, have TV and play. These expectations are part of her lived reality.

  3. "because their parents (social fact) didn't teach them (thank God) to hit their children."

    Now let's look the definition of social fact: "ways of acting, thinking, and feeling that present the noteworthy property of existing outside the individual consciousness." (Emile Durkheim, in What Is A Social Fact?, in Faraganis, at p. 63.)

    The placement of the parentheses makes reading this difficult. Essentially, I think Joanna is saying that it is a social fact that parents don't hit their children in the lived reality of her parents, and that because it was their lived reality, that has been handed down, so that that is now her lived reality, too.

On Sunday, November 5, 2000, Michael Planck wrote:

Jeanne, your understanding of education is so clear. May I commend you on the ability to help Joanna and people like myself to expand the capacity for choice. Your motivation is to take advantage of Joanna's desire to be heard, and not to be a part of, as I understand it, the same structural context that Joanna is struggling with - dominant discourse. That is, the attempt on the part of structural context (culture, social practices) to constrain the individual to the extent of creating confusion within the imaginary (the world of which they or I can try to make sense).

Your graph to help Joanna to "visualize" her position within the area of agency and structural context helped me, too. Thanks, Michael

PS In our conversation, in your office on Thursday, you mentioned a site where I could locate sociologists that would help to clarify or expand my choice of professional direction. Who were they?

On Sunday, November 5, 2000, jeanne responded:

Michael, I'm glad the graph helped. I'm visual. It always helps me to put things in visual form. Some people are oral/aural. It helps them to talk these concepts through.

"A" for your comment because it shows that you were applying the concepts we've been discussing to the material as you review it. Notice please that the comment does not need to be long to show me that you have learned. It needs to give me detail on which I can base my own conclusions about your learning. In this case, Michael, you related the concept of "dominant discourse" to the structural context, indicating that you are trying to bridge the various paradigms in your mind. Notice also, that the many face-to-face discussions you have had with me permit us to understand each other more easily. Knowing you, and knowing what interests you, helps me to see latent as well as measureable learning.

I liked your allusion to struggling with the dominant discourse.

Agency and Dominant Discourse Struggling for the Imaginary

Oh, yes. The sites that might strengthen your imaginary:

Try these for starters: