Sociology, Voluntaristic vs. Structuralist Research Paper

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Voluntaristic sociology emphasizes the importance of free will, or agency, in social settings. Structuralist sociology emphasizes the importance of social settings in shaping and constraining free will. Tension between the two emphases has bedeviled and inspired sociology and related disciplines since the nineteenth century. Among the first to wrestle with this tension was Auguste Comte, who coined the term sociology in the 1830s. Human action is determined by the laws of society, in Comte’s structuralist view, but understanding these laws will allow sociologists to help modify human action. Comte recognized the possible contradiction and discussed it in lecture 48 of his Social Physics ([1839] 1975, p. 132): if free will is able to make modifications, “what can [they] consist of, since nothing can alter either the laws of harmony or the laws of succession?” Comte’s solution reflects his structuralist emphasis: free will can affect only the intensity of the operation of societal laws, not the laws themselves. Comte gives examples of powerful monarchs who had only a meager impact on the lives of their subjects.

Later scholars expanded the scope of voluntarism beyond monarchs and sociologists to encompass all of humanity. The most extreme statement of voluntarism within the sociological mainstream came from Herbert Blumer, who invented the term symbolic interactionism in 1937. Human behavior, Blumer insisted, is a creative act that cannot be reduced to structural causes: “even though it may well be a well-established and repetitive form of social action, each instance has to be formed anew” (1969, p. 17). This formulation implies that people may choose not to behave as expected. Indeed, while symbolic interactionism generally focuses on conformity, Blumer also helped to establish the field of collective behavior, which focuses on deviance. In these writings Blumer argued that voluntaristic deviance, if it comes to be widely accepted, is the main mechanism through which societies evolve.

By the end of the twentieth century, voluntarism had, in one sense, conquered the field. It was considered improperly derogatory to imply that any person’s choices are determined by social context. Even explicitly structuralist theories were increasingly concerned to accommodate free will to some degree, often through the use of the concept of opportunities. At the same time, the goal of most sociological explanation remained structuralist, focusing on contextual factors that predict individual outcomes. The radical voluntarism of symbolic interaction-ism and collective behavior analysis was not widely adopted and, indeed, came to be criticized for ignoring the persistent structures of inequality that characterize social life. In short, sociology was equally committed to voluntarism and structuralism. This paradox generated a variety of attempts to view structure and agency as mutually constitutive.

On one hand were efforts at combination. An influential version of this approach was Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (1966), which argued that the two moments of institution—creation and institution—maintenance are analytically distinct even if they may in practice coincide. The creation of institutions involves the active working of human agency while maintenance involves the socialization of future generations to view the institutions created by their predecessors as legitimate and permanent. A contrasting approach is exemplified by Anthony Giddens’s The Constitution of Society (1984), which argues that structure and agency should not be considered as distinct from one another but, rather, as two parts of the same process, which he labeled structuration. People produce and reproduce the rules of social life in ways that are patterned by the rules of social life.

On the other hand were efforts to privilege structuralism over voluntarism and vice versa while maintaining both. A sophisticated version of the former balance comes from the works of Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu argued that human agency is a variable product of social structure mediated by the bodily comportment and criteria of judgment that Bourdieu called habitus. Habitus structures individual preferences and actions and is itself structured by training within particular social contexts. Claims of agency—whether among academic observers or the people being observed—are in this view the result of structural processes. Alternatively, voluntarism may subsume structuralism, as in Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought (2000). Collins argued that the powerless are frequently canny observers of the workings of society and active agents of resistance. Ongoing subordination is the product of other people’s continuous efforts to dominate, and even the powerless participate in this “matrix of domination” when they work to protect their privilege, meager as it may be (Collins 2000, pp. 227-229, 273-277). The implication is that structuralist claims—whether among observers or the observed—are voluntaristic acts of domination that obscure the radical potential of voluntaristic transformation.

These approaches are usually cited as a way of signaling intellectual affiliation and are only beginning to be juxtaposed and compared. It remains unclear what standards one might use to evaluate voluntarism and structuralism.


  1. Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Doubleday.
  2. Blumer, Herbert. 1969. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  3. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  4. Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
  5. Comte, Auguste. [1839] 1975. Physique sociale: Cours de philosophie positive, leçons 46 à 60 [Social physics: Course on positive philosophy, lessons 46–60]. Paris: Hermann.
  6. Emirbayer, Mustafa, and Ann Mische. 1998. What Is Agency? American Journal of Sociology 103 (4): 962–1023.
  7. Fuchs, Stephan. 2001. Beyond Agency. Sociological Theory 19 (1): 24–40.
  8. Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  9. Martin, John Levi. 2003. What Is Field Theory? American Journal of Sociology 109 (1): 1–49.

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