AGENCY, STRUCTURE AND SOCIAL CRISIS: EXPLORING SOCIAL RELATIONS IN TWO FOREST-BASED COMMUNITIES IN RURAL BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA

W. Crosby, Rural Economy, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada

Abstract

To what degree an individual has agency to respond during crisis and the degree social structures influence their course of action are important questions when examining social relations during uncertain times. This paper explores theoretical approaches to the agency-structure framework to examine constraining/enabling factors influencing individuals’ response (i.e., individual vs. collective action) to social crisis. The framework questions the degree social structures and/or agency shape human behaviour, and speaks to central dilemmas in sociology pertaining to the degree human action is voluntary or determined. How independent each concept is or how much interplay exists between them has shaped a long tradition in social theory. For earlier theorists, the relationship is characterized in terms of ontologically fixed poles such as those emphasizing structure (e.g., Durkheim & Parsons) and those giving analytical priority to agency (e.g., Weber & Mead). Much of the work today is advancing attempts at synthesizing and accounting for the varying degrees of interplay between the two concepts (e.g., Anthony Giddens’ Structuration & Margaret Archer’s Morphogenetic Approach). The morphogenetic approach is of interest as it provides analytical means to examine the interplay over time and space whereby none of the ‘parts’ (i.e., structure & agency) are conflated into either component. Analytical attention is instead given to the conditional and generative mechanisms operating between agency and structure.

This paper draws on my doctoral research that examines individuals’ response to a social crisis characterized by a threat of community decline/collapse in two forest-based communities in rural British Columbia, Canada. The cause of the current local crisis is often attributed to the recent economic recession and is experienced by individuals in terms of mill closures and job loss in communities economically dependent on the forest industry. This situation translates into individuals facing lost livelihoods and an uncertain forest economy, which pose a threat to community sustainability as industry undergoes transition and individuals face the possibility of uprooting in search of employment elsewhere. How to theoretically account for both agency and structure to understand the degree each constrain/enable response during this crisis offers useful insight into the nature of social relations during uncertain times.

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