The Paradox of Agency

A multi-description exploration of the Paradox of Agency in Complexity.

MJ 611/ 2021 


Structure and Agency – a complexity perspective in the era of the “New” materialisms 

Prof. David S. Byrne and Gill Callaghan

To understand agency from a complexity perspective it is essential to engage with the other term with which agency is linked: structure. So a complexity take on agency necessarily is also a complexity take on structure. You can’t have one without the other as the old song used to say in more conventional days of love and marriage. The terms in social theory exist necessarily at a level of abstraction and we need to address them in that way. However, abstraction is never enough – we need instantiation – concrete examples which demonstrate how things actually are in the world in which we live. Abstraction is a tool of philosophy and philosophers in the meta-physical tradition have certainly engaged with agency, although in doing so they have forgotten Locke’s insistence that philosophers are the under-labourers of science. Their job is to tidy up around the work of the craftspeople. Much of recent philosophical engagement has been poorly, if at all, informed by social theory and social reality. So what we are going to do here is to begin with a discussion of agency and structure from a complexity perspective at a level of abstraction, and in so doing say some rather rude (but accurate) things about meta-physicians’ take on them. Then we will turn to an instantiation, one derived from our own lived experience and the lived experience of our own families in the era of the Capitalocene. In the context of an emergent possible climate catastrophe – to say possible is very important because agency is what will make a difference here – the issue of how we move beyond a world based on the human use of stored carbon energy is the fundamental issue facing humanity on the only planet we have.

Dawe (1970) in a much cited paper argued that Sociology (and we might say related disciplines with Social in their name: Anthropology, History, Geography) could be divided into two schools of thought. There were those who interpret the word in terms of structures which create regularities and those who saw the social world as created by actions of people, whether as individuals or in some form of collectivity. The major social theorists have always taken the issue of the relationship between structure and agency as fundamental for understanding the social world and in a Chapter of our Book Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences: the state of the art (2014) we examined in detail the contributions of Bourdieu and Archer and the commentary on them by Elder-Vass to this debate and drew attention to the degree to which they are congruent with the complex realist frame of reference.  Complex Realism is the synthesis proposed by Reed and Harvey (1992) between the philosophical ontology of Bhaskar and the scientific ontology of complexity theory.

Bhaskar’s ontological programme asserts that reality is knowable but not in the direct form asserted by crude positivism – knowable in relation to the deep generative mechanisms of the real itself, the manifestations of the consequences of those mechanisms in contingent context at the level of the actual, and our scientific accounts of them at the level of the empirical. Note all these levels are real in the sense of possessing causal power, including our scientific descriptions at the level of the empirical because those descriptions themselves become real in their consequences and have a constitutive role in reality – now, we must recognize in the era of the Anthropo / Capitalocene, not only for social reality but for nature itself. The ontological programme of complexity theory is that reality is composed in very large part of complex open far from equilibrium systems and the relations among those systems.

For the reality of structure is evident, even if the metaphorical use of the word ‘structure’ presents an image of stasis when structures themselves are dynamic entities, albeit ones with a degree of relative permanence in terms of their causal powers for the determination of social action.  At the same time so is the power of human agency at whatever level from the individual to collectivities with varying degrees of formal organization. We would emphasize that agency is always something that happens, in the way Thompson (1963) (endorsed explicitly by Bourdieu) identified class as a happening and as one of us (Byrne 2019) has asserted class is lived through a life course. We emphasized the word determined because we want to attach a specific meaning to it. We do not mean determine in the sense of exact specification – if A then always B. Rather, following Williams’ (1980) analysis of the Marxist expression “Base determines superstructure” we agree that the second English meaning of determine is appropriate – that is the setting of limits specifically in relation to the bounding of possibility.  In complexity terms we can consider structures, whether at the level of the generative real as say with the nature over some nearly 300 years of capitalism, or more immediately as with the character of a legal system whose structure constrains the scope of action of organized labour, as setting the possibility space within which action can occur. So we follow Thompson (1978) in rejecting explicitly the strong structuralism of say Althusser where action is always determined pretty much absolutely. Likewise we reject post-modernist versions of post-structuralism in which agency is everything although noting that almost invariable that rejection occurs purely at the epistemological level of the construction of knowledge and has virtually nothing to say about the construction by human agents of reality itself.

In this piece we want to engage with discussions of agency which go beyond the conventional view that it is a capacity of human agents – in line with the Abrahamic religions emphasis on Timshel – thou mayest – as the basis of the unique free will of human beings – the central theme of Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952).  These are generally described as the “New” (because we want to say ‘really, new?’) materialisms in various forms from Actor Network Theory (ANT)  through Object Oriented Ontology (OOO -  Harman who coined this term asserts that this is not a materialism but we disagree). They assert the agentic power of all entities in reality, for ANT in relation to the construction of scientific knowledge and for OOO as Harman (2018) asserts as a ‘New Theory of Everything’.  

Coole and Frost (2010) identify the new materialism as a response to and rejection of the dominance of dominant radically constructivist discourses which have predominated in the post-structuralist period of cultural studies and the chaos turn in science. For them chaos is about inherent indeterminacy and stands as description of the character of complex, open, far from equilibrium systems. Here they are reproducing the all too common misunderstanding of the nature of chaos and confusing chaos and complexity. Chaos is an issue of measurement. Systems are not inherently indeterminant. They are deterministic if we can measure precisely enough. It is the inability to do this which generates chaos in our models of them and chaos is about dynamism in the possibility space which derives from this lack of specification.  Complex systems are not chaotic systems. Rather they are relatively stable over long periods and we can certainly retroductively – looking back through their history – explore causality in them. This provides us with some guidance for action towards shaping their futures when we are dealing with the social and its interface with the natural. This is THE MOST IMPORTANT methodological assertion in a context of impending climate crisis.

Coole and Frost specify three themes of the new materialism (2010 6-7):

  1. First there is an ontological turn which resonates with current developments in the natural sciences in relation to Chaos theory post-classical physics. The key element in this ontology is that :’ … it conceives of matter itself as lively or as exhibiting agency.’ (2010 7)
  2. Second, there is an engagement with a set of biopolitical and bioethical issues which we might consider as about assigning a different status to all non-human nature.
  3. There is a turn back to an engagement with the realities of political economy which bluntly was almost entirely lacking in radical constructivism.

It is the first turn which matters most for us. We will come back to engagement with the realities of political economy, noting firmly that in many domains of social science and general scientific practice it never went away, not least in relation to inequality on all scales. We might say, and do say, so what else is new? Historical materialism in particular which had an interesting inter-relationship with the phenomenological materialism of Sartre, De Beauvoir, and we might argue Merleau-Ponty and even Camus, certainly never went away but US philosophers have not read this kind of stuff although historians have.

What does it mean to say that everything has agency? Actor Network Theory asserts the agentic character of instruments – actants – in the creation of forms of scientific knowledge with varying statuses attached to that knowledge. So for Law (2004) we can do no more than treat it in terms of the kind of extreme conventionalism which characterized sophisticated positivism. Desrosières (1998), working in an ANT tradition does something different in his treatment of the status of the statistics produced by states as part of their operations. He seems to accord them the same relativist conventional status as Law in terms of their isomorphism with reality as it is but asserts (quite correctly) that they are real in their consequences and play a far from trivial part in the construction of social reality going forward. Others take this further and although Harman denies that what he calls Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) is actually materialist at all and asserts that the agentic power of objects is in some ways not the most important thing about them, his work can be read as assigning agentic power to all objects in the real.

Do non-human actors act to create the world? At one far from trivial level if we define action as something which has consequences for the nature of reality, then of course they do. Stars which explode as supernova change reality. Asteroids which collide with the Earth can and have changed reality. The explosions of the Deccan shield volcanoes changed reality, just as the possible explosion of Yellowstone might in the hopefully not near future. Another Storegga slide with consequent huge Tsunami would change reality and there is a real threat of this from the Canary Islands. At our present levels of technology there is very little human agents could do in relation to any of these events as processes. Our technologies impose limits on our possibility space of action. At the same time our technologies, particularly the use of mineralized stored carbon in the form of coal, oil and gas, has had profound consequences for us as a species. Let us take the case of coal, as authors who come from one of the oldest worked coalfields in the world which was a pioneer zone of industrial capitalism and whose family members have worked in the production, marine transport and distribution of coal across four generations. Does coal have agentic power? Mining and using it was the technological basis of steam power in engines and in electricity generation. Coal had agency by making steam power possible both for direct production and for transport – the Great Northern Coalfield of NE England was the birthplace of the railway.  But it required an interaction with human agency involving all of the owners of mineral rights, capitalist entrepreneurs (these two roles were often conflated), technological innovators, coal miners, railway workers, seamen, coal merchants, coalmen to get coal to surface and get it available for use. A whole social and cultural system, which was very much a complex emergent system, was made possible by the interweaving of coal and human agency. Without the human agency the coal would have stayed in the ground, the industrial revolution would not have happened, and the socio-cultural-economic-political system shaped industrial social orders would not have existed. Without human agency there would be no dramatic increase in global carbon dioxide and no threat of potential system transforming climate catastrophe.

Can there be agency without will? Volcanoes, asteroids, stars, rockslides do not have will.  This is not an arcane question for University philosophers in the revived meta-physics of 21st Century thinking. Agency for us is not something that happens anyhow. It is property of humans who act within the interface of the social and natural world in relation now to both. That said we have to note that not all human actions are the product of conscious and purposeful will. Bourdieu’s crucial concept of habitus is framed on the basis that much of what people do is not informed by conscious will but rather is the product of internalized and routinized acceptance of patterns of action, up to and including acceptance of the character of social orders themselves, as what is without reflection on them. At the same time Bourdieu did note that when there is a radical shift in the underlying basis of a social order what has operated on the basis of habitus is challenged and conceptions of the world are shaken and disrupted. The way deindustrialization, to a considerable degree a product of political decisions in the aftermath of the failed great 1984 strike by UK coal miners, has transformed the economic base and social relations across the Great Northern Coalfield where it is now appropriate to say: “Coal WAS our life” provides an apposite example of precisely this. A long running stable system is now in all respects in a state of flux illustrated inter alia by the way these historically socialist areas voted in the Brexit referendum and have swung away from the Labour Party which dominated political culture for the best part of a hundred years. The point is not that all human action is informed by will but that it has the potential to be informed by reflection and will and that in times of crisis, literally a state of system which cannot endure as is and must change, then will predominates.

One of us has just written a book on Inequality in a context of climate crisis after COVID (forthcoming 2021) which deals exactly with the intersection of the social problem of inequality – identified by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) as the major threat to the political legitimacy of contemporary capitalism and the forthcoming likelihood of a climate catastrophe, drawing on the impact of systems of governance across High and High Middle Income countries globally in response to the COVID pandemic. COVID is a highly infectious, not particularly deadly, viral infection which has had an impact on societies which have undergone the health transformation – the main period of death is old age and the main causes are degenerative diseases rather than infections – in which governments have acquired a far greater political responsibility for preventing people dying than was the case before the late 20thCentury. Has the virus agency? It has an impact on human bodies in interaction with the immune response capacity of those bodies but to assign agency to it seems to us to go too far. Sure it has causal powers but it has not will. What is agentic is the way governance has had to respond to the impact of the disease. The key issues facing human societies today are precisely increasing relative inequality and potential climate catastrophe. What will happen to systems which under the impact of both of these will have to undergo transformative/qualitative/phase shift change will be a matter of human agency enacted through politics and governance. We can only hope for the best!


Byrne, D.S. and Callaghan, G. (2014) Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences: the state of the art London: Routledge

Byrne, D.S. (2019) Class After Industry London: Palgrave Macmillan

Coole, D. and Frost, S.(2010) New Materialisms Durham NC: Duke University Press

Dawe, A. (1970) ‘The Two Sociologies’ British Journal of Sociology 21 207-18

Desrosières, A.(1998) The Politics of Large Numbers Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press

Harman, G.(2018) Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything London: Penguin Random House

Law, J. (2004) After Method London: Routledge

Morin, E. (2008) On Complexity Cresskill NJ: Hampton Press

Reed, M. and Harvey, D.L. (1992) 'The New Science and the Old: Complexity and Realism in the Social Sciences' Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 22 :356-79

Steinbeck, J. (1952) East of Eden New York: Viking

Thompson, E.P.(1963) The Making of the English Working Class London: Gollancz

Thompson, E.P. (1978) The Poverty of Theory London: Merlin

Williams, R. (1980) “Base and superstructure in Marxist cultural theory.” In Problems in

Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays, pp. 31–49. London: Verso and NLB


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