Edited by John B. Davis, Alain Marciano and Jochen Runde
Chapter 18: Structure and Agency in Economic Analysis: The Case of Austrian Economics and the Material Embeddedness of Socio-economic Life
Paul A. Lewis Introduction The relationship between human agency and social structure is one of the most important, and highly contested, topics in social theory, raising fundamental issues about the nature of socio-economic reality and the manner in which socio-economic events of interest are best analysed. Within economics the structure–agency relationship is a major source of contention between orthodox and heterodox schools of thought. Heterodox economists have long challenged the orthodox model of man, criticising it both on the grounds that it excludes genuine human choice and also because its conception of people as atomistic beings whose attributes are given independently of their social context fails to do justice to the way in which economic activity is embedded in networks of social relations. However, if there is something approaching a consensus among heterodox economists on the shortcoming of homo economicus, there is far less agreement about the account of the relationship between structure and agency which is to take its place. Two of the suggested alternatives will be examined below. Although both are drawn from heterodox economics, they differ in their precise provenance within heterodox thought. The ﬁrst, which is discussed in Section II below, is taken from a school of substantive heterodox economic thought, namely Austrian economics. Members of the radical subjectivist wing of the Austrian school have recently extolled the virtues of portraying people as social beings, embedded within networks of shared meanings and interpretive traditions, on the grounds that doing so will facilitate a more profound...
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