The chapter considers readings of Karl Marx first as a theorist of structure and then as a theorist of agency. It demonstrates that neither approach can offer a coherent understanding of the social world or a consistent exposition of Marx's own position. The chapter examines the concepts of fetishism and alienation, to show their centrality to Marx's project and their relevance to the structure-agency 'debate'. The chapter also examines three key topics from capital namely: the commodity, work and primitive accumulation. It also demonstrates that they can be understood more coherently in the original than as the products of either social structure or individual action. The chapter discusses some ways in which Marx's theoretical framework might be useful as a corrective to contemporary sociological concerns. Commodity exchange is nothing new or unique to capitalist social organisation. In feudal societies things were exchanged and, more importantly, things were produced for exchange.
The structure/agency debate has been among the central issues in discussions of social theory. It has been widely assumed that the key theoretical task is to find a link between social structures and acting human beings to reconcile the macro with the micro, society and the individual. This book considers a general movement in which the collective concepts established by the early pioneers of modern sociological thought have been reconsidered in the light of both theoretical critique and empirical results. It argues that the contemporary sociological preoccupation with structure and agency has had disastrous effects on the understanding of Karl Marx's ideas. Through a critical evaluation of 'structuration theory' as a purported synthesis of 'structure and agency', the book also argues that the whole idea of a structure-and-agency 'problem' mythologises the fracture lines that do run through relatively recent sociological thought. Michel Foucault's ideas were used to both shore up existing positions in sociology and to instantiate (or solve) the 'new' structure-agency 'problem'. Foucault allowed sociologists to conduct 'business as usual' between the demise of structuralism and the contemporary consensus around Pierre Bourdieu-Anthony Giddens-Jurgen Habermas and the structure-agency dualisms. Habermas is one of the most prominent figures in contemporary social theory.
This chapter argues that 'seemingly insignificant everyday mundane interactions are constitutive for sociation, society and culture' and contrasted 'clearly visible social structures' with the 'experience' of 'sociated individuals'. Indeed, the apparent opposition between what has been called the 'objective reality of institutions' and the apparently subjective experience of individual human beings has given rise to a basic tension within sociological thought. Given the highly problematic nature of the concept of social structure, it is appropriate to consider why 'structural' explanations have exerted such a tenacious grip on sociological thought. The proper focus of sociological attention, to repeat, is the human world of everyday experience, a world which is neither 'macro' nor 'micro' and cannot be captured analytically by the dualism of 'structure' and 'agency'. The three perspectives most often described as microsociological, symbolic interactionism, phenomenology and ethnomethodology, does reveal certain important similarities.
The reception of Michel Foucault reveals something about sociological misrepresentation that is concealed in the use of other theorists in the structure-agency milieu. Foucault was misread, misrepresented or rhetorically rejected by many of the sociologists who claimed to be using his ideas. This chapter addresses how these responses allowed sociologists to solve their theoretical problems. It shows how a theorist from outside sociology came to be so important to so many sociological thinkers at a particular time. The chapter also shows that precisely the problems of adapting Foucault's work to a sociological problematic, as elaborated by Fox, were used to loosely support a vague theoretical status quo. Foucault allowed sociologists to conduct 'business as usual' between the demise of structuralism and the contemporary consensus around Pierre Bourdieu-Anthony Giddens-Jurgen Habermas and the structure-agency dualisms.