Sociologists have spent two centuries on the issue of structure and agency. Yet they have gone no further than Marx’s true statement men make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing. One of the main issues in sociology has always centered around the debate of the effect of individualism and holism on human thought and endeavors. Agency refers to the capability of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. Structure refers to those factors such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs, etc. which seem to confine or regulate the possibilities that individuals have. The debate over whether social structures determine individual behavior or do individuals themselves play a role in defining their own destiny has lead to much befuddlement.
A strategic-relational approach as developed by Hay (2001) will be adopted in this paper to answer some of the questions raised by the relationship between structure and agency in opposition to much of the existing literature on this subject matter. This approach suggests that the distinction between structure and agency is strictly analytical. Over time it has been argued by many noted sociologists that structures exist before agents. however the view developed in this paper is that structures can only be said to exist by merit of their intermediation of human conduct — structures comprise both the medium and condition of human agency.
In essence, neither agents nor structures are real since neither has an existence in isolation from the other — their existence is relational and truly based on sound reasoning. Structure and agency are the flip sides of the same coin. Structure and agency, although analytically dissociable, are essentially entirely intertwined.
Agents are conceived as witting, reflexive and strategic. They act purposefully in an effort to realize their aims and preferences. However, they may also act intuitively or out of habit. Even so, when acting habitually they are assumed to be able to deliver their aims and their motivations explicitly. They are presumed to make all their decisions based on the immediate and long-term consequences of their actions, whether intuitively or more intentionally. Though actors are conceptualized as intentional and strategic, their preferences are not assumed to be fixated nor are their preferences solely based on the circumstances in which they find themselves. Different actors in similar physical settings and circumstances will opt for different interests and preferences, just as the same actors will review, revise and reform their perceived interests and preferences over time as the circumstances and situation change.
This may lead one to think that the context or circumstances in which the actors find themselves is irrelevant. However, this is far from the truth. The key to the tie-up between structure and agency within the strategic-relational approach is the construct of strategy. Actors, as noted above, have strategic intents. They are capable of formulating and modifying their ways and efforts to actualize their intentions.