Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

The agent-structure problem in international relations theory

  • Alexander E. Wendt (a1)

While neorealism and world-system theory both claim to be “structural” theories of international relations, they embody very different understandings of system structure and structural explanation. Neorealists conceptualize system structures in individualist terms as constraining the choices of preexisting state agents, whereas world-system theorists conceptualize system structures in structuralist terms as generating state agents themselves. These differences stem from what are, in some respects, fundamentally opposed solutions to the “agent-structure” or “micromacro” problem. This opposition, however, itself reflects a deeper failure of each theory to recognize the mutually constitutive nature of human agents and system structures—a failure which leads to deep-seated inadequacies in their respective explanations of state action. An alternative solution to the agent-structure problem, adapted from “structuration theory” in sociology, can overcome these inadequacies by avoiding both the reduction of system structures to state actors in neorealism and their reification in world-system theory. Structuration theory requires a philosophical basis in scientific realism, arguably the “new orthodoxy” in the philosophy of natural science, but as yet largely unrecognized by political scientists. The scientific realist/structuration approach generates an agenda for “structural-historical” research into the properties and dispositions of both state actors and the system structures in which they are embedded.

Hide All

1. There are a number of discussions of the meanings and uses of “structural theory” in neorealism and world-system theory, but as far as I know, none explicitly compares or differentiates the neorealist and world-system approaches to structure and structural analysis. On neorealism see, for example, Waltz Kenneth, Theory of International Politics (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1979), and Keohane Robert, “Theory of World Politics: Structural Realism and Beyond,” in Finifter Ada, ed., Political Science: The State of the Discipline (Washington, D.C.: APSA, 1983). The best critique of neorealism's conception of structure is Ashley's RichardThe Poverty of Neorealism,” International Organization 38 (Spring 1984), pp. 225–86. On world-system theory see Wallerstein Immanuel, “The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System: Concepts for Comparative Analysis,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 16 (09 1974), pp. 387415, and Chase-Dunn Christopher and Rubinson Richard, “Toward a Structural Perspective on the World-System,” Politics and Society 7 (no. 4, 1977), pp. 453–76. The critique of world-system theory that comes closest to my concerns in this article is probably Skocpol's ThedaWallerstein's World Capitalist System: A Theoretical and Historical Critique,” American Journal of Sociology 82 (03 1977), pp. 1075–90.

2. The term “structuration theory” is sometimes narrowly identified with the work of Giddens Anthony, who has articulated its basic problematic in his Central Problems in Social Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979) and The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1984). In On the Determination of Social Action in Space and Time,” Society and Space 1 (03 1983), pp. 2357, however, Nigel Thrift uses the term more broadly as a generic label for a group of social theories which share certain fundamental assumptions about the agent-structure relationship; this group includes, but is not limited to, Bourdieu Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), Bhaskar Roy, The Possibility of Naturalism (Brighton, U.K.: Harvester Press, 1979), and Layder Derek, Structure, Interaction, and Social Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981). Since my purpose in this paper is less to advance Giddens's ideas (indeed, I will rely more on Bhaskar than Giddens) than to demonstrate the relevance of the overall problematic for international relations theory, I shall follow Thrift's more inclusive use of the term.

3. Scientific realism (or simply “realism”) is not related to political realism or neorealism in international relations.

4. Whether or not scientific realism is the “new orthodoxy” in the philosophy of natural science is undoubtedly a contentious issue among realists and empiricists, but it has in any case made sufficient inroads that the Minnesota Center for the Philosophy of Science, long an important bastion of empiricism, held a year-long institute in 1985/86 which, among other things, focused explicitly on that question. American political scientists generally seem to be unaware of or uninterested in this debate and its potential implications for political science. To my knowledge, the only discussions of scientific realism in international relations are British: Maclean John, “Marxist Epistemology, Explanations of Change and the Study of International Relations,” in Buzan Barry and Jones R. J. Barry, eds., Change in the Study of International Relations: The Evaded Dimension (London: Frances Pinter, 1981), pp. 4667, and Little Richard, “The Systems Approach,” in Smith Steve, ed., International Relations: British and American Perspectives (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), pp. 7991.

5. The agent-structure problem has, in various guises, recently emerged as something of a cottage industry throughout the social sciences. For a sampling of this work: in geography, see Gregory Derek, “Human Agency and Human Geography,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 6 (no. 1, 1981), pp. 118, and Gregory Derek and Urry John, eds., Social Relations and Spatial Structures (London: MacMillan, 1985); in sociology, in addition to the work of Giddens and Bhaskar already cited, see Dawe Alan, “Theories of Social Action,” in Bottomore Tom and Nisbet Robert, eds., A History of Sociological Analysis (London: Heinemann, 1979), and Knorr-Cetina Karin and Cicourel Aaron, eds., Advances in Social Theory: Toward an Integration of Micro and Macro-Sociologies (London: Routledge & Regan Paul, 1981); in social history, see Abrams Philip, Historical Sociology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), and Lloyd Christopher, Explanation in Social History (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986); in the philosophy of social science, see O'Neill John, ed., Modes of Individualism and Collectivism (New York: St. Martins, 1973), and Ruben David-Hillel, The Metaphysics of the Social World (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985); in Marxist theory, see Thompson's Edward polemic in The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978) against the structural Marxism of Louis Althusser, and the commentaries on this debate by Anderson Perry, Arguments within English Marxism (London: Verso, 1980), and Mouzelis Nicos, “Reductionism in Marxist Theory,” Telos 45 (Fall 1980), pp. 173–85; and in international relations, see Waltz, Theory of International Politics, and Rosenau James, “Before Cooperation: Hegemons, Regimes, and Habit-Driven Actors in World Politics,” International Organization 40 (Autumn 1986), pp. 849–94.

6. Recent theoretical work has conceptualized the state both as an agent and as a structure; see, for example, Benjamin Roger and Duvall Raymond, “The Capitalist State in Context,” in Benjamin Roger and Elkin Stephen, eds., The Democratic State (Lawrence, Kans.: University of Kansas Press, 1985), pp. 1957. For purposes of this paper, I assume with neorealists that the state is an agent, a move which can be justified in part because the organizing principles of the state system constitute states as individual choice-making units which are responsible for their actions. My subsequent arguments about the way in which system structures constitute states as agents should not, however, be seen as excluding a conception of the state as a structure of political authority in which governmental agents are in turn embedded.

7. Waltz, Theory of International Politics, p. 18.

8. Gilpin Robert, War and Change in World Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); Ashley Richard, “Three Modes of Economism,” International Studies Quarterly 27 (12 1983), pp. 463–96; Keohane Robert, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984); Snidal Duncan, “The Game Theory of International Politics,” World Politics 38 (10 1985), pp. 2557.

9. Ashley thoroughly critiques the individualist (and empiricist) foundations of the neorealist conception of international system structure in his “Poverty of Neorealism,” especially pp. 238–42. It is important to keep in mind, however, that in Theory of International Politics, Waltz starts out with three defining features of political structures: 1) the principle according to which they are organized, 2) the differentiation of units and their functions, and 3) the distribution of capabilities across units. This definition can be used to support a generative approach to structural theorizing, as John Ruggie shows in his Durkheimian reconstruction of Waltz in “Continuity and Transformation in the World Polity: Toward a Neorealist Synthesis,” World Politics 35 (01 1983), pp. 261–85. Despite this promising beginning, however, Waltz and other neorealists argue that the first two features of this definition don't apply to international political structures, leaving us in practice with an individualist conception of structure as the distribution of capabilities. For an argument that links this result to a lingering neorealist commitment to positivism, see Little, “The Systems Approach.”

10. de Mesquita Bruce Bueno, The War Trap (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981); Snidal, “The Game Theory of International Politics.” Despite important differences between the two versions over the conceptualization of choice situations in international relations, both are based on an individualist definition of the structure of the international system as the distribution of capabilities.

11. See Latsis Spiro, “Situational Determinism in Economics,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 23 (08 1972), pp. 207–45, and the reply by Machlup Fritz, “Situational Determinism in Economics,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 25 (09 1974), pp. 271–84.

12. Examples of such an approach in international relations might include Allision Graham, Essence of Decision (Boston: Little Brown, 1971) and Steinbrunner John, The Cybernetic Theory of Decision (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974).

13. This is probably the most persistently cited problem in the individualist program of reducing all social scientific explanations to the properties of individuals or their interactions. See, for example, Mandelbaum Maurice, “Societal Facts,” British Journal of Sociology 6 (1955); Lukes Steven, “Methodological Individualism Reconsidered,” British Journal of Sociology 19 (06 1968), pp. 119–29; Kincaid Harold, “Reduction, Explanation, and Individualism,” Philosophy of Science 53 (12 1986), pp. 492513.

14. “Reflections on Theory of International Politics: A Response to My Critics,” in Keohane Robert, ed., Neorealism and Its Critics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 340.

15. The debate over the validity of theories built on the assumption that the social world operates “as if” certain things were true is a long one, so my saying that such reasoning is “untenable” is, of course, contentious. The terms of the debate were first defined by Friedman's Milton “The Methodology of Positive Economics,” in his Essays in Positive Economics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1953), a piece which initiated a lively debate with Paul Samuelson and others in the pages of the American Economic Review in the early 1960s. For a particularly cogent argument that “as if” reasoning is inconsistent even with the logical empiricist conception of scientific explanation that informed Friedman's seminal contribution, see Moe Terry, “On the Scientific Status of Rational Models,” American Journal of Political Science 23 (02 1979), pp. 215–43.

16. As far as I know, no neo-Marxist has used game-theoretic language to characterize international economic relations between the advanced industrialized countries. But clearly, because of their very different theoretical understanding of the state, neo-Marxist scholars are much less likely than neorealists to see those relations in mercantilist, and therefore politically fragile, terms; see, for example, Murray Robin, “The Internationalization of Capital and the Nation-State,” New Left Review 67 (0506 1971), pp. 84109, and Willoughby John, “The Changing Role of Protection in the World Economy,” Cambridge Journal of Economics 6 (06 1982), pp. 195211. The issue in this article, of course, is not which view is actually correct, but rather how to develop an approach to the agent-structure problem which ensures at least the possibility of determining which is correct, that is, of developing a theory of states in international economic structures.

17. Maynard Douglas and Wilson Thomas, “On the Reification of Social Structure,” in McNall Scott and Howe Gary, eds., Current Perspectives in Social Theory, vol. 1 (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1980), p. 287.

18. The structural Marxist approach to the agent-structure problem is discussed in Althusser Louis and Balibar Etienne, Reading Capital (London: New Left Books, 1970), pp. 180–81, and in Smith Steven, Reading Althusser (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), pp. 192200. It should be noted, however, that despite the similarities between world-system theory and structural Marxism with respect to their understandings of the agent-structure relationship, they differ in important ways on other issues, such as the conceptualization of the capitalist mode of production. See, for example, Howe Gary and Sica Alan, “Political Economy, Imperialism, and the Problem of World-System Theory,” in McNall and Howe, Current Perspectives in Social Theory, pp. 235–86.

19. Smith, Reading Althusser, p. 177.

20. They disagree, however, about the exact meaning of this term, that is, about whether totalities are “expressive” or “structured.” On these differences, see Burawoy Michael, “Contemporary Currents in Marxist Theory,” in McNall Scott, ed., Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology (New York: St. Martins, 1979), pp. 1639, and Kaye Harvey, “Totality: Its Application to Historical and Social Analysis by Wallerstein and Genovese,” Historical Reflections 6 (Winter 1979), pp. 405–19.

21. My generative reading of world-system theory's conceptualization of structure is characteristic only of the “qualitative” (and at this point, apparently the minority) school of world-system theorists represented, for example, by Wallerstein and Terence Hopkins. Actually, the recent debate between qualitative and quantitative world-system theorists is an interesting example of a quite explicit tension within a single research community between scientific realist and empiricist conceptions of the ontology and methodology of structural analysis. On this debate see, for example, Little Richard, “The Systems Approach,” in Smith Steve, ed., International Relations, British and American Perspectives (Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1985), pp. 7191, and Taylor Peter, “The Poverty of International Comparisons: Some Methodological Lessons from World-Systems Analysis” (Department of Geography, University of Newcastleupon-Tyne, 1985).

22. Useful discussions of this distinction include Oilman Bertell, Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 2640, and Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism, pp. 5355.

23. This tendency is one of the most persistently cited criticisms of at least the early work in world-system theory. See, for example, Duplessis Robert, “From Demesne to World-System: A Critical Review of the Literature on the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism,” Radical History Review 3 (Fall 1976), pp. 341, and Skocpol, “Wallerstein's World Capitalist System.”

24. Chase-Dunn Christopher and Sokolovsky Joan, “Interstate Systems, World-Empires and the Capitalist World-Economy: A Response to Thompson,” International Studies Quarterly 27 (09 1983), pp. 357–67.

25. Chase-Dunn Christopher, “Socialist States in the Capitalist World-Economy,” in his Socialist States in the World-System (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1982), pp. 2156.

26. Layder Derek, “Problems in Accounting for the Individual in Marxist-Rationalist Theoretical Discourse,” British Journal of Sociology 30 (06 1979), p. 150.

27. Durkheim Emile makes exactly this point in The Rules of Sociological Method (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1938), p. 90, when he says that “to show how a fact is useful is not to explain how it originated or why it is what it is. The uses which it serves presuppose the specific properties characterizing it, but do not create them. The need we have of things cannot give them existence, nor can it confer their specific nature upon them. It is to causes of another sort that they owe their existence.”

28. See, for example, Wallerstein, The Modern World-System I (New York: Academic Press, 1974), especially chap. 1.

29. Brenner, “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism,” New Left Review 104 (0708 1977), pp. 2592.

30. See, for example, Resnick Stephen and Wolff Richard, “The Theory of Transitional Conjunctures and the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism,” Review of Radical Political Economics 11 (Fall 1979), pp. 322, and the response in the same issue by Gintis Herbert, “On the Theory of Transitional Conjunctures,” pp. 2331.

31. See, for example, Wallerstein I., The Politics of the World-Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 112–46.

32. State, Power, Socialism (London: Verso, 1978); see also Jessop Bob, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy (New York: St. Martins, 1985).

33. This kind of dismissal is an old individualist move; see, for example, May Brodbeck's juxtaposition of methodological individualism with “metaphysical” holism in her “Methodological Individualisms: Definition and Reduction,” in O'Neill, Modes of Individualism and Collectivism, pp. 289–90. More recently, “analytical Marxists” have resurrected this argument to motivate a reconstruction of Marxist theory on “micro-foundations”; see Elster Jon, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 38. In this latter context, it is perhaps worth noting that a number of social scientific realists have argued that Marxist theory is best understood in realist, rather than empiricist, terms and therefore does not need to be reconstructed on microfoundations to be “scientific”; see Keat Russell and Urry John, Social Theory as Science (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), pp. 96118, and Farr James, “Marx's Laws,” Political Studies 34 (06 1986), pp. 202–22.

34. The terms “empiricist” and “scientific realist” are the labels the participants in this debate, most of whom are philosophers of natural science, use to describe themselves. Some of the important contributions and overviews are Putnam Hilary, Mathematics, Matter, and Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975); van Fraassen Bas, The Scientific Image (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980); Hacking Ian, Representing and Intervening (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Boyd Richard, “On the Current Status of the Issue of Scientific Realism,” Erkenntnis 19 (05 1983), pp. 4590; Aronson Jerrold, A Realist Philosophy of Science (New York: St. Martins, 1984); Leplin Jarrett, ed., Scientific Realism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); Salmon Wesley, Scientific Explanation and the Causal Structure of the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984); and Churchland Paul and Hooker Clifford, eds., Images of Science: Essays on Realism and Empiricism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1985).

35. Neorealists might be seen as scientific realists to the extent that they believe that state interests or utilities are real but unobservable mechanisms which generate state behavior, while world-system theorists would be realists to the extent that they believe that the structure of the world-system is a real but unobservable entity which generates agents.

36. The most explicit recent discussion of the philosophy of science underlying neorealism of which I am aware is the symposium around de Mesquita's Bruce BuenoToward a Scientific Understanding of International Conflict: A Personal View,” International Studies Quarterly 29 (06 1985), pp. 121–36. Bueno de Mesquita's emphasis on deductive analysis and logical proof, rather than the identification of potentially unobservable causal mechanisms, as the foundation of scientific explanation displays a clearly empiricist epistemological orientation. The explicit statements on philosophy of science by at least the quantitative school of world-system theorists show a similar reliance on empiricist arguments; see, for example, Chase-Dunn Christopher, “The Kernel of the Capitalist World-Economy: Three Approaches,” in Thompson, ed., Contending Approaches, pp. 5578.

37. The best recent defense of instrumentalism and empiricism more generally is van Fraassen, The Scientific Image.

38. Abduction is also known as “retroduction.” Useful discussions of abduction are found in Hanson Norwood, “Retroduction and the Logic of Scientific Discovery,” in Krimerman Leonard, ed., The Nature and Scope of Social Science (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1969), pp. 7383, and Boyd, “On the Current Status of Scientific Realism,” especially pp. 7289. An unusually detailed and explicit illustration of abductive reasoning in the social sciences (and thus supporting my earlier suggestion that some social scientists are practicing scientific realists) is found in Ostrom's ElinorAn Agenda for the Study of Institutions,” Public Choice 48 (no. 1, 1986), p. 19.

39. Aronson, A Realist Philosophy of Science, p. 261.

40. Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism, p. 16.

41. Hacking, Representing and Intervening; Cook Thomas and Campbell Donald, “The Causal Assumptions of Quasi-Experimental Practice,” Synthese 68 (07 1986), especially pp. 169–72.

42. Wylie Alison, “Arguments for Scientific Realism: The Ascending Spiral,“ American Philosophical Quarterly 23 (07 1986), pp. 287–97.

43. Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism, p. 22. Hellman Geoffrey, “Realist Principles,” Philosophy of Science 50 (06 1983), especially pp. 231–32.

44. See, for example, Putnam, Matter, Mathematics, and Method; Boyd, “On the Current Status of the Issue of Scientific Realism”; Schlagel Richard, “A Reasonable Reply to Hume's Skepticism,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 35 (12 1984), pp. 359–74.

45. See McMullin Ernan, “Two Ideals of Explanation in Natural Science,” in French Peter et al. , eds., Causation and Causal Theories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. 205–20, and the three-way debate between Kitcher Philip, van Fraassen Bas, and Salmon Wesley in “Approaches to Explanation,” The Journal of Philosophy 82 (11 1985), pp. 632–54.

46. Harre Rom and Madden Edward, Causal Powers (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1975); Salmon, Scientific Explanation; Schlagel, “Hume's Skepticism.”

47. Hence behavioral social scientists' emphasis on quantitative analysis to discover law-like regularities, rather than qualitative analysis and theory to identify causal mechanisms. On the empiricist model, we cannot have science without (relatively) “constant” conjunctions. For a useful more or less realist critique of this model of causation as it relates to social science, see Hausman Daniel, “Are There Causal Relations among Dependent Variables?Philosophy of Science 50 (03 1983), pp. 5881.

48. Some realist accounts of causation, and particularly the account of Harre and Madden, have been accused of implying an Aristotelian “essentialism”—the explanation of observable phenomena in terms of occult and impenetrable “essences”; see, for example, Miller David, “Back to Aristotle,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 23 (02 1972), pp. 6978, and Wilson Fred, “Harre and Madden on Analyzing Dispositional Concepts,” Philosophy of Science 52 (12 1985), pp. 591607. Other realists, however, emphasize that this objection can be vitiated by explaining causal powers in terms of the physical properties and social relations which underlie them; Schlagel, “Hume's Skepticism.”

49. Keat Russell and Urry John, Social Theory as Science (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), p. 31.

50. Perhaps the most difficult problems in making this translation concern the role of human motivations and self-understandings in social scientific explanations, and the ambiguity of the notion of causal “mechanisms” in social life. For a sample of the recent debate among scientific realists on the limits of naturalism in the social sciences, see Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism, and Keat and Urry, Social Theory as Science, especially the postscript.

51. Cohen Ira makes this particular distinction in “The Status of Structuration Theory: A Reply to McLennan,” Theory, Culture, and Society 3 (no. 1, 1986), pp. 123–34. Nigel Thrift makes a similar point, arguing that structuration theory is more meta-theory than theory in Bear and Mouse or Bear and Tree? Anthony Giddens' Reconstitution of Social Theory,” Sociology 19 (11 1985), pp. 609–23.

52. Thrift, “On the Determination of Social Action in Space and Time,” p. 30.

53. Adapted from ibid., pp. 28–32.

54. Ibid., p. 30.

55. This synthesis requires the development of mediating concepts that can link structure and agency in concrete situations, and as such is probably the key source of disagreement among structuration theorists. But whether this linkage is established through a “positionpractice system” (Bhaskar), a “habitus” (Bourdieu), or a “system-institution” nexus (Giddens), they all serve the same theoretical function in concrete research, namely, binding agents and structures into mutually implicating ontological and explanatory roles.

56. This point is more than a ritual admonition for social scientists to be sensitive to the historical and geographical context of their subjects: substantive “social theories must be about the time-space constitution of social structures right from the start.” (Thrift, “On the Determination of Social Action,” p. 31, italics in original.)

57. In his Profiles and Critiques in Social Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), Giddens indicates (p.14) that he also accepts a realist conception of science, but his realism is generally less explicit and thus more attenuated than Bhaskar's. A more important reason for relying on Bhaskar rather than Giddens, however, is the latter's weaker conception of social structure as rules and resources rather than as a set of real but unobservable internal relations, a conception which is arguably ultimately voluntarist in its implications; see for example, Callinicos Alex, “Anthony Giddens: A Contemporary Critique,” Theory and Society 14 (03 1985), pp. 133–66.

58. See, for example, Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism, especially pp. 4756; Manicas Peter, “The Concept of Social Structure,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 10 (07 1980), pp. 6582; Keat and Urry, Social Theory as Science, p. 121; Sayer Andrew, Method in Social Science: A Realist Approach (London: Hutchinson, 1984), pp. 8087.

59. Keat and Urry, Social Theory as Science, postscript.

60. An open system is one in which invariant constant conjunctions do not obtain. Although the complexity and open-endedness of open systems limit the possibilities for decisive tests of social scientific claims (see Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism, pp. 164–65), this problem afflicts not only those theories which refer to unobservable entities. For an interesting and explicitly realist argument about how open systems might, in some cases, be studied in a way that would permit relatively controlled tests, see Cook and Campbell, “Quasi-Experimental Practice.”

61. On the definition of structure in mathematics see, for example, Barbut Marc, “On the Meaning of the Word ‘Structure’ in Mathematics,” in Lane M., ed., Structuralism: A Reader (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), Resnick Michael, “Mathematics as a Science of Patterns: Ontology and Reference,” Nous 15 (11 1981), pp. 529–50, and Shapiro Stewart, “Mathematics and Reality,” Philosophy of Science 50 (12 1983), pp. 523–48. Modern physics, in turn, is based on group theory (the mathematical theory of binary systems), which is explicitly combinatorial and possibilistic in its view of structure. I should probably note, however, that although I emphasize this similarity in social and natural scientific conceptions of structure, I am not saying that social science should be social physics. I am only trying to justify a certain kind of thinking and explanation in social science by pointing out that it pervades the natural sciences as well.

62. Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism, pp. 4849; on the differences between natural and social structures, see also Giddens, Studies in Social and Political Theory (London: Hutchinson, 1977), pp. 118–19.

63. Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism, pp. 4849.

64. Adapted from Giddens, The Constitution of Society, pp. 56.

65. Structuration theorists have yet to tackle in a sustained way the nature and role of interests in social scientific explanations. Although some of the more materialistically inclined structuration theorists might reject the explanatory use of interests altogether, I am inclined to think that their agent-structure framework presupposes at least an implicit distinction between “subjective” and “real” interests. The best overview of the various conceptualizations of “interest,” and of the difficulties in explaining interests, is probably still Connolly's William “Interests in Politics,” in his book, The Terms of Political Discourse (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), pp. 4584.

66. For a discussion of the balance of power that is consistent in its substance, if not in its philosophical rationale, with the interpretation I suggest, see Ashley, “The Poverty of Neorealism,” pp. 276–79.

67. Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory, p. 69.

68. Bhaskar Roy, “Emergence, Explanation, and Emancipation,” in Secord Paul, ed., Explaining Human Behavior (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1982), p. 286.

69. The most extensive use of an explicitly structurationist perspective in empirical research is probably Pred Allan, Place, Practice, and Structure (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1986). In his Explanation in Social History, however, argues Lloyd (p. 306) that the work of a number of prestructuration theorists has a distinctly structurationist “structure,” including, for example, the works of Moore Barrington, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), and Touraine Alain, The Self-Production of Society (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1977), and Abrams, Historical Sociology.

70. Sayer, Method in Social Science; Sylvan and Glassner, A Rationalist Methodology.

71. The implications of the epistemological distinctions between different kinds of questions are brought out systematically in Garfinkel Alan, Forms of Explanation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), especially pp. 2148. Despite its explicitly anti-realist ontological perspective, van Fraassen's The Scientific Image is also quite good on the logic or “pragmatics” of different types of explanations.

72. An excellent introduction to some of the formal methods that could be used in generative structural analyses is found in chaps. 5 and 6 of Sylvan and Glassner, A Rationalist Methodology.

73. In Method in Social Science, Sayer argues (p. 217) that a failure to recognize these limitations of structural analysis is responsible for the deterministic, or what he calls “pseudoconcrete,” quality of much Marxist research.

74. Sayer, Method in Social Science, p. 216.

75. By my use of the term “historical” to describe this form of explanation, I do not mean to suggest that this is the explanatory mode historians always use, or that the research practice of historians is necessarily astructural or atheoretical. On the contrary, it seems to me that just as good social science is historical, good history is structural and theoretical. I am only trying to argue that “historical” and “structural” explanations are epistemologically distinct but interdependent forms of inquiry, regardless of who uses them.

76. The term “structural-historical” is from Cardoso Fernando and Faletto Enzo, Dependency and Development in Latin America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), pp. ixxiv, while “dialectical” is from Sylvan and Glassner, A Rationalist Methodology, pp. 154–59; both terms parallel the relationship between “abstract” and “concrete” research in Sayer's Method in Social Science. Although he does not use either of these terms, Peter Manicas provides a good illustration of the logic and implications of this form of inquiry in his critique of Skocpol's Theda State and Social Revolutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); see his review in History and Theory 20 (no. 2, 1981), pp. 204–18.

77. Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory, pp. 8081. This notion of “bracketing” is a focal point of some of the major critiques of structuration theory; see, for example, Archer Margaret, “Morphogenesis versus Structuration: On Combining Structure and Action,” British Journal of Sociology 33 (12 1982), pp. 455–83, and Gregson Nicky, “On Duality and Dualism: The Case of Structuration Theory and Time Geography,” Progress in Human Geography 10 (06 1986), pp. 184205.

78. Krasner Stephen, “Are Bureaucracies Important?Foreign Policy 7 (Summer 1972), pp. 159–79; Art Robert, “Bureaucratic Politics and American Foreign Policy: A Critique,” Policy Sciences 4 (12 1973), pp. 467–90.

79. This multiplicity of structures implies a rejection of what might be called structural monism, that is, the view that there is only one set of underlying organizing principles, such as those of the economy, that can be explicated in generative terms and therefore constitutive of agents. This anti-monism is consistent with the critique of structural Marxism developed by post-Althusserians like Hindess Barry and Hirst Paul in Mode of Production and Social Formation (London: MacMillan, 1977), and Laclau Ernesto and Mouffe Chantal in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso, 1982). But their discourse-theoretic solution to the problem of structural monism in many ways fundamentally opposes my suggestion that we build theories of multiple social structures on the basis of scientific realism.

80. Prominent examples of neo-Marxist state theory include Holloway John and Picciotto Sol, eds., State and Capital: A Marxist Debate (London: Edward Arnold, 1978); Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism; and Therborn Goran, What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules? (London: New Left Books, 1978). Weberian critiques include Skocpol Theda, “Political Response to Capitalist Crisis: Neo-Marxist Theories of the State and the Case of the New Deal,” Politics and Society 10 (no. 2, 1981), pp. 155201, and Mann Michael, “The Autonomous Power of the State,” European Journal of Sociology 25 (no. 2, 1984), pp. 185213.

81. Examples of the “productionist” critique of world-system theory include Brenner, ”The Origins of Capitalist Development,” and Howe and Sica, “Political Economy, Imperialism, and the Problem of World-System Theory.” The alternative conceptualization of the structure of the capitalist world economy (in terms of a global mode of production) has been most fully developed by the “internationalization of capital” school of Marxist political economy; see Palloix Christian, “The Self-Expansion of Capital on a World Scale,” Review of Radical Political Economics 9 (Summer 1977), pp. 128.

82. Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism; Mouzelis Nicos, Politics in the Semi-Periphery (New York: St. Martins, 1986); Bowles Samuel and Gintis Herbert, Democracy and Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1986).

83. Andrews Bruce, “Social Rules and the State as a Social Actor,” World Politics 27 (07 1975), pp. 521–40; Cox Robert, “Gramsci, Hegemony, and International Relations: An Essay in Method,” Millenium 12 (Summer 1983), pp. 162–75; Ruggie, “Continuity and Transformation”; Ashley, “The Poverty of Neo-Realism,” and “Social Will and International Anarchy: Beyond the Domestic Analogy in the Study of Global Collaboration,” in Hayward Alker and Ashley, Anarchy, Power, Community: Understanding International Cooperation (forthcoming). Despite the potential usefulness of this research to the structurationist problematic, however, some of these scholars would probably reject association with that theory, especially insofar as it is grounded in realist philosophy of science.

84. Foster-Carter Aidan, “The Modes of Production Controversy,” New Left Review 107 (0102 1978), pp. 4777; Wolpe Harold, ed., The Articulation of Modes of Production (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980).

85. Singer J.D., “The Levels of Analysis Problem in International Relations,” in Knorr Klaus and Verba Sidney, eds., The International System: Theoretical Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), pp. 7792.

86. Taylor Michael, Anarchy and Cooperation (New York: Wiley, 1976); Axelrod Robert, The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984); March James and Olsen Johan, “The New Institutionalism: Organizational Factors in Political Life,” American Political Science Review 78 (09 1984), pp. 734–48.

87. Fay Brian, Social Theory and Political Practice (London: Allen & Unwin, 1975).

88. Bhaskar Roy, “Scientific Explanation and Human Emancipation,” Radical Philosophy 26 (1980), pp. 1626; Dandeker Christopher, “Theory and Practice in Sociology: The Critical Imperatives of Realism,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 13 (07 1983), pp. 195210.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Organization
  • ISSN: 0020-8183
  • EISSN: 1531-5088
  • URL: /core/journals/international-organization
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 4
Total number of PDF views: 989 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 6256 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.