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.


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