January, 2010

Structure, Agency, and Emergence in Socio-Economic Life

Hayekian Perspective and Bergerian Perspectives
  • Paul Lewis

    Visiting Scholar
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The relationship between social structure and human agency is one of the central problems of social science. At the heart of the problem lies a key question concerning the nature of the social world, namely: Does society amount to nothing more than an aggregation of individuals, or does the interaction of those individuals give rise to sui generis properties the existence of which implies that there is more to social life than people alone?

Two of the most prominent and long-standing conceptions of the relationship between social structure and human agency centre on attempts to reduce one to the other, with opposing sides focusing on completely individualistic accounts or accounts that make men puppets of their environments. Neither of these accounts is satisfactory, and the work of Peter Berger has been much dedicated to seeking the middle ground.  

This paper continues the search for the middle ground. The approach considered here is that provided by critical realism. Like Berger, proponents of critical realism are determined to avoid the reductionist extremes of voluntarism/individualism and determinism/collectivism, preferring instead to view social structure and human agency as ontologically distinct, but mutually related, elements of social life.  The paper then incorporates Hayekian views of emergence to answer some of the critiques raised against Berger's work.