Economics, Culture and Social Theory

Economics, Culture and Social Theory

New Horizons in Institutional and Evolutionary Economics series

William A. Jackson

Economics, Culture and Social Theory examines how culture has been neglected in economic theorising and considers how economics could benefit by incorporating ideas from social and cultural theory.

Chapter 9: Agency and Structure

William A. Jackson

Subjects: economics and finance, institutional economics


Culture, defined as a process, betokens how people are cultivated within society: they are human agents who decide their own actions, but their capabilities are honed by the social context and would not take the same form elsewhere. Human agency depends on its institutional surroundings and cannot be fully understood in isolation. Cultural thought has cherished human creativity, while regarding it as being at least partly a product of culture and society. In a process of culture, human agency is entwined with social structures. Once social sciences had begun to develop, culture was redefined as a state rather than a process and the connections between agency and structure were obscured. The new economic and social theories modelled human agency and social structure as separate entities and often favoured one over the other. Neoclassical economics went down the individualistic road and constructed its theory around the rational agent; social theory in the Durkheim tradition went down the structural road and adopted social structure as its core concept. The separation brought dualism, which divided agency from structure, and reductionism, which cast explanations wholly in terms of one or the other. Although orthodox social science has been dualistic and reductionist, agency–structure interaction has increasingly been remarked and discussed. Since the 1960s and the revival of cultural thought, social theorists have searched for non-dualistic social theory that allows agency and structure to be mutually dependent. The search is by no means straightforward, as reductionism can easily resurface, but efforts are being made to...

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