Agency, Politics, and Structural Critiques

Discussing last week the potential motivations for Google and eBay’s alleged collusion, Megan McArdle writes:

…people often confuse the effect of something with its purpose. For example, the increasing premium on a college degree — and particularly on an elite college degree — has the effect of making it harder than ever for poor kids to overcome educational disadvantage. It’s no longer enough to be sharp and hard working; you also need to be academically gifted and adroit enough to negotiate our strange and demanding university system without help. That’s a very high hurdle. And you can make a good argument that the middle class is basically protecting itself by erecting that hurdle, which makes it hard to join them — and, therefore, harder for their kids to fall out of their comfortable class.

But you occasionally hear people…contend that the middle class has done this consciously and deliberately…This matters quite a bit, because structural critiques that assume intent may imply very different remedies than structural critiques that assume that our basically healthy instincts…may be producing very unhealthy results. Moreover, when you accuse someone of deliberately sabotaging the American dream, they’re apt to get a bit testy and stop listening to what you’re saying.

In this telling, ascertaining the presence or absence of intent is relevant because of its importance to policy formation, insofar as doing so will help inform the type of solution one recommends and the method by which the solution is pursued. Undoubtedly this is true. But the question of where and how you locate intent in a story like the one McArdle tells also gets at the much deeper sociological one of where and how you locate agency; in social structures, or in the individual? It’s hardly a new debate, and in the academic world sociology has to some degree moved beyond this unhelpful dualism. But politically we’re stuck and confused.

Structuralist critiques from the left tend to lack actors, except when they don’t. If you’re on food stamps you’ve got no agency, but if you’re the Koch brothers there’s nothing you don’t secretly control. Then on the right you’ve got the Thatcher-ite assessment:

There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

Which in a way seems more or less true, but also ignores the fact that the way in which you arrange those men and women (social structure) will play some kind of role in governing the outcomes of all of their individual responsibility-taking. Perhaps one day neuroscience will advance to the point that all of this becomes an empirical question; apply a few electrodes, ask the right questions, and we can measure how much our decision-making is sub-consciously influenced by structural factors. But until then it would be nice if, politically, we could recognize that agency lives in multiple places. That’s something that would really have some policy implications.