Sociology

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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.

Conor Gearty

Human rights law in the United Kingdom has largely accommodated the security-oriented changes, and the effect of this has been to render them seemingly compliant with rather than inherently hostile to human rights principles. A kind of militant humanitarianism had grown up during the late 1990s, which argued for a more robust strategy of intervention to secure human rights goals in faraway lands. An eye for an eye has never been the counter-terrorist's motto in the Middle East, more like 10,000 eyes for every eye. But the invasion, and the siege of Beirut that followed, were not terrorism; they were counter-terrorism, 'acts of peace', regardless of the terror that actually happened on the ground. The 'war on terror' has done serious damage to the integrity of human rights, turning our subject into a kind of moral mask behind which lurk cruelty and oppression.

in ‘War on terror’
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Some notes on ‘terror’
Chris Miller

'Terror' is a diffuse notion that takes no account of local particularities and 'war on terror' is a contradiction in terms. The body of doctrine and law under which terrorism is generally thought to fall is the law of war, which is twofold. Who, then, are the terrorists? The terrorists from whom everyone has most to fear are states. 'Inflicting violence on the innocent for political ends' is something that can be done most effectively with the arsenal of the state. The Israeli connections with ethnic cleansing and terrorism are made clear in its choice of leadership. Who then are the non-state terrorists? In the context of the 'War on Terror', they are the Islamist suicide bombers. There is some danger that the 'human rights culture', that fragile post-World War II achievement, will, in the wake of the 'War on Terror', be entirely discredited as the rhetoric of Western imperialism.

in ‘War on terror’
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The opposition of structure and agency
Peter J. Martin and Alex Dennis

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.

in Human agents and social structures
Khaled Abou El Fadl

This chapter focuses on the interface and tensions between the human rights tradition and the Islamic tradition, particularly Islamic law. A human rights commitment is an intellectual conviction given reality by protecting and serving the well-being, dignity and autonomy of human beings, simply because they are human. Islamophobia is a necessary adjunct to a foreign policy of social and cultural engineering. The George W. Bush administration and its neo-con ideologues believe that Islam needs social engineering to save Muslims from themselves. The policies of the Bush era are similar to Colonialism's in two other respects: exceptionalism and protectoratism. Exclusivists re-engineer the classical legal tradition in response to the onslaught of Colonialism and the ideological aggression of the proponents of human rights. They construct Islamic law such that it becomes a symbol of opposition to Western interventionism.

in ‘War on terror’
Allison Cavanagh and Alex Dennis

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.

in Human agents and social structures
Peter J. Martin

This chapter 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. Max Weber wishes to separate the sociological from other perspectives, and thus to establish its distinctiveness as a rigorous mode of analysis. It may be useful, for example for legal reasons, to treat collectivities such as 'states, associations, business corporations and foundations' as if they were individual persons. The chapter argues that the quest for 'sociological knowledge', the collective concepts which were developed in the early phase of modern sociological thought have been found to be theoretically and empirically problematic. It discusses some of the 'collective concepts' central to the conventional sociological discourse is a reformulation of these in terms of general processes of symbolic representation and of enactment.

in Human agents and social structures
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From the model of reality to the reality of the model
Richard Jenkins

This chapter shows how Pierre Bourdieu claimed to have transcended the 'ruinous opposition' between objectivism and subjectivism. Bourdieu argued that objectivism had no option but to attribute causal powers to abstract reifications, or to use vague or nebulous concepts to explain away social reality rather than explain it. Misrecognition looks suspiciously like 'false knowledge' and, once again, underlines Bourdieu's emphasis on objective rather than subjective knowledge. The final background current in Bourdieu's theory is structuralism. The chapter suggests that objectivism, determinism and structuralism may be mutually entailed in each other, particularly in the French context. Looking at Bourdieu's intellectual biography it may be defensible to suggest that, in his case, structuralism was the cornerstone. Subjectivism, on the other hand, is a matter of attending to the unreflexive individual experience of self, others and the environment, the 'apprehension of the world as self-evident, "taken for granted".

in Human agents and social structures
Is structuration a solution?
Wes Sharrock

This chapter argues that the whole idea of a structure-and-agency 'problem' mythologises the fracture lines that do run through relatively recent sociological thought. The structure-and-agency 'problem' is contrived by a powerful structure 'lobby' in sociology that takes its own baseline suppositions as self-evident. The chapter shows that symbolic interactionists and ethnomethodologists may legitimately resist the idea that 'structuration' in any way improves on their conceptions. It reviews the issues of the organisation of action, the distinctiveness of Giddens' concept of structure, the role of unintended consequences, and of 'knowledgeability'. Dissatisfaction with theorising's remoteness from the world of action is hardly unique to symbolic interactionists and ethnomethodologists, but it is shared by them. 'Reproducing existing structures' is treated as much the same as reproducing the existing order of institutions, and it is assumed that attention to action alone cannot comprehend how the existing social order is maintained and transformed.

in Human agents and social structures
Elleke Boehmer
in ‘War on terror’