Agency, Structure, Determination, Teleology

The OU Glossary entry for “agency” consists of a couple of sentences, but it opens up a can of worms for me, one that i think is latent in the social sciences. It brings up four interrelated terms – agency, structure, determination, teleology – that bring one to trouble the basic assumptions of the different social scientific approaches.

I quote the glossary entry in full:

“Agency is action guided by intentionality or ‘the conduct of action under the sway of intentional states’ (Bruner, 1990, p. 9). Intentional action implies an aim and so the concept of agency exists in a relation of tension with the concept of determinism.

Whereas determinism refers to efficient causation from the past, agency implies some form of teleology or aim towards a future. Social scientists therefore often distinguish between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’, the latter concept allowing that human beings may not simply be determined by their sociocultural context, but may also creatively shape it to some degree.”

My foremost concern is the – at once convenient and devastating – split, or dualism, that appears to be latent in the distinction between structure and agency, or between determinism and teleology. It probably comes back to an ancient question of how to reconcile necessity and freedom, and it may well be that physics, or philosophy, has figured it out and i just don’t know about it. Nontheless, for me it’s still a slippy problem, and i’ll try to outline it below. I’ll try to stick closely to how this relates to the module material.


When we try to explain what determines our actions, beliefs and self-concepts – what role do we give to ‘structures’ and what role do we give to ‘agency’? Is agency the opposite of determinism (as indicated above), or is it possible to understand it as a kind of self-determination?

The glossary contrasts agency to determinism, in such a way that we get:

vs. agency-teleology
 (efficient causation)
 (aim towards the future).

Why do we have this distinction? Is it true that all ‘natural sciences’ such as physics conceives of the cosmos as governed by structures through which events are always the present effect of past and present causal chains? And is it true that all ‘social sciences’ resort to a conceptual exception, which they call ‘agency’, in order to grant humanity (or an individual, or ?) the (limited) capacity to transcend efficient causation by structures, and instead determine itself, perhaps freely, in relation to the future, or a (freely determined) final cause.

What are the grounds for the exception we call agency? And is it perhaps better to either dispense with ‘agency’, or to grant agency to non-humans? Can anything in the universe determine its own actions, or is everything just playing out from start to finish? These are the questions one asks at an early age, but i’ve been ignorant enough not to have established the answer so far.


Literature Search

  1. Start with the known
    What resources have already been recommended to you?
    e.g. your text books and module website have reference lists that you can follow up
    e.g. OU offer independent study suggestions
  2. Choosing your search terms
    Key Terms, Alternative Terms, Related Terms
    e.g. Culture, Context, Cross-cultural comparison
    e.g. Mind, Cognition, Attribution, Imagination
    e.g. Mediation, Interaction, Vygotsky
  3. Where to search
    Library Databases
    e.g. Web of Science
    – can search by topic, author, good citation searches
    e.g. PsycINFO
    – exhaustive in psychology
  4. Do it
    Use different combinations of search terms in relevant databases. As you search, narrow it down, by looking at particular authors, journals, or more specific keywords.
  5. Use PROMPT

Kant’s categories, or “pure concepts of the understanding”

Kant’s held we can discover categories of the human understanding, the basis for any possible cognition of phenomena. These categories are not intrinsic sub-divisions of reality itself, but those governing “our” conceptual schema:

  • Quality
    • Reality
    • Negation
    • Limitation
  • Relation
    • Inherence and Subsistence (substance and accident)
    • Causality and Dependence (cause and effect)
    • Community (reciprocity)
  • Modality
    • Possibility
    • Existence
    • Necessity

The categories are presented as forming a single exhaustive list, with the four classes of categories imposing four different forms of unity on the object known (Paton 1936, 295–9).

Although these are categories of the understanding, they nonetheless retain a certain sort of ontological import, as it is a priori that they apply universally to all objects of possible cognition (A79/B105).


The 1898 Cambridge Antropological Expedition to the Torres Straits

Led by A.C. Haddon, with William McDougall, and C.S. Myers.
Prime/early example of a cross-cultural approach

The research (a) refuted Herbert Spencers hypothesis of “primitive superiority” in basic psychophysical and psychological functions as opposed to “higher functions” (b) wasn’t much difference between the “primitive” and “civilised”.

The project failed to obviate biases, assumptions, and experimental hurdles, with the result that much of the data was inconclusive.

Supposedly, the write-ups were exemplified humility, and largely avoided the pressure to draw conclusions, except to suggest prevailing assumptions were not in evidence.


How can social psychology contribute to discussions about cultural diversity?

From what you have learned so far in Block 2 and in the module in general, how do you think social psychology might be able to contribute to contemporary discussions about cultural diversity?

The term ‘cultural diversity’ assumes that there is something called culture, and that there can be multiple cultures at once, which are somehow in proximity to each other.

First then, i want to ask what a single “culture” is. The difficulty is that culture is quite a vague term, meaning different things depending on the discipline, or setting, in which it is invoked.

We saw earlier that for social psychology, culture can be understood as:

“[a] more or less systematically related set of constructions that people share as members of an enduring, communicatively interacting social group.”
(Fiske, 1996)

And furthermore as:

“what people learn and use by virtue of participating in a social system and what links people together so as to constitute that social system.”
(Fiske, 1996)

In the first sense then, it is a systematic “set of constructions” produced by people communicating together over a significant duration of time. In a second sense “culture” also describes whatever it is that links these people together in a social system.

Importantly, both theses senses imply a coherency, or systematicity that enables a constellation of people, and the identities, values, actions, customs, tools, objects, and symbols, which forms the content of their interaction, to be understood as a unified thing – a single culture.

However, the answer of what this systematicity is, varies considerbaly. It could be a mode of production – such as capitalism, a nation-state and it’s mode of governance, or an ecosystem. It could simply be defined as a living fiction, a set of symbols and cultural interactions. One important distinction, is between a culture and a society – are these different? The next is between “culture” and “nature”, and yet again between “culture” and “reality”.

This last one – culture/reality – is drawn out above. Is a culture an “imagined community”, in the sense that it is an aggregate or hegemonic self-representation of a group’s subjective “world” – a world construct? Or is a culture a system of objective dynamics, that regardless of, and including it’s self narrative, combines to produce certain subjectivities, ideas, rituals, values etc.


From the above, it is apparent that social psychology might have something to bear on these questions. What is a culture? How is culture “constructed” as a concept, depending on the different social psychological methods, objects, orientations?

Social psychology tends to study the “reciprocal influence of the individual and [their] social context” (Hewstone and Manstead, 1996). It seems to me the word “culture” describe (often in aesthetic terms) a coherent body of these reciprocal influences. Social psychology uses empirical methods to study the relation between individual and social, with particular attention to “psychological” phenomena, for example – attitudes, beliefs, ideas, identity, behaviours. It seeks to theorise how these phenomena are produced by relationships between one individual and another, groups, and/or their environments.  Thus social psychology can bring these insights to bear on our understanding of a culture. If there is such a thing as cultural diversity, then these social psychological theories can be used to ascertian what defines their distinction, and in what ways they are similar.

Fiske, A. P. (1996). Culture. In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Psychology [Online], Blackwell Publishing. Available at the OU Library online.


Harroway, situated knowledge

Situated Knowledge

“research and knowledge production are embedded within their historical and social contexts. The theoretical frameworks researchers use and the questions they ask, how they define the phenomena or topics they investigate, and what research methods they choose, will all relate directly to the historical time and place in which they live, work and conduct their research, whether or not the relations are acknowledged.”

(Course Book 1, p. 76)

The concept of “situated knowledge” is developed by Donna Harroway, in a 1988 essay, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”.

“Feminist objectivity means quite simply situated knowledges.”

“I would like to insist on the embodied nature of all vision and so reclaim the sen­sory system that has been used to signify a leap out of the marked body and into a conquering gaze from nowhere.”

In this essay Harroway asserts a feminist, embodied, situated, objectivity, against the disembodied objectivity that lays claim to the view “from nowhere”.

This disembodied objectivity is exemplified in The National Geographic, in frontier-imagery, of both space – in which photographic style images of far-away planets are assembled out of “digitalized signal” data, and of “infetisimal… T cells and invading viruses” – in which photographic style images of microscopic entities are assembled through “lasers” and “electron microscopes”. Harroway says the ideology behind these images presupposes an “infinite vision” that is “innocent”, manufacuturing vision as an immediate, neutral, and all-seeing, access to the world .


“The eyes have been used to signify a perverse capacity- honed to perfection in the history of science tied to militarism, capi­talism, colonialism, and male supremacy-to distance the know­ing subject from everybody and everything in the interests of unfettered power. The instruments of visualization in multina­tionalist, postmodernist culture have compounded these meanings of disembodiment”

Instead we need to “learn [see, practice science] in our bodies, endowed with primate color and stereoscopic vision”, and “name where we are and are not”, in “dimensions of mental and physical space we hardly know how to name”.

Importantly, whilst knowledge, or vision, needs to be resituated in the human-primate body, and we need to dispense with the dominant culture’s “instruments of vizualization”, this doesn’t preclude feminists from developing their own “technological mediations”.

To summarise:

“[O]bjectivity turns out to be about particular and specific embodiment and definitely not about the false vision promising transcendence of all limits and responsibility.”

This theorisation of situated knowledge has a moral implication. It implies that knowledge is situated in practice, that objectivity is achieved through good acts – acts that intend to learn – and that as feminists, we are obliged to further, and responsible for,  this situated knowledge-making.

“The moral is simple: only partial perspective promises objec­tive vision. All Western cultural narratives about objectivity are allegories of the ideologies governing the relations of what we call mind and body, distance and responsibility. Feminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge, not about trans­cendence and splitting of subject and object. It allows us to become answerable for what we learn how to see.”

Harroway’s summary:

Situated knowledges are about communities, not about isolated individuals. The only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular. The science question in femi­nism is about objectivity as positioned rationality. Its images are not the products of escape and transcendence of limits (the view from above) but the joining of partial views and halting voices into a collective subject position that promises a vision of the means of ongoing finite embodiment, of living within limits and contradic­tions- of views from somewhere.

Speculative links to functionalism, or pragmatism:

At the risk of naive conflation, it seems that this situated knowledge is similar to that implied by James/Pierce/Dewey’s pragmatist ethos. Against the dualistic correspondance between knowledge and the world, we have a naturalistic view from within, a knowledge made out of, in, and through the world.

Anti-humanism, anti-prometheanism

Harroway says the world is not there is the reosurce of humans, the relation is not human (agent) – world (object). Instead, the world should be seen as an agent, acting back on the human.

“Situated knowledges require that the object of knowledge be pictured as an actor and agent, not as a screen or a ground or a resource, never finally as slave to the master that closes off the dialectic in his unique agency and his authorship of “objective” knowledge.”


“Femi­nist objectivity makes room for surprises and ironies at the heart of all knowledge production; we are not in charge of the world. We just live here and try to strike up noninnocent conversations by means of our prosthetic devices, including our visualization technologies. No wonder science fiction has been such a rich writing practice in recent feminist theory”