Asa M. Larsson wrote: “The whole structure-agency debate that still carries on in various forms owes a lot to Marxism as well.” I do not see that connection, specifically, but I am open to being educated on the subject. Rather, more broadly I see those anthropological theorists advocating agency, of whom I was one, as arising out of a reaction against positivism, structural-functionalism and the mechanicalism of Durkheim and his followers. I can see how it could also have arisen as a reaction to the mechanical nature of some of Marx’s theories, which, to my mind, ranged from brilliant to silly.
In my study of the rise of political domination in the early Neolithic, and its evolution through the ages, I have come to the conclusion that agency and structure go hand-in-hand.
Agency has to be exercised on the world as it is. In the world of Paleolithic non-storing band life that world was devoid of ongoing institutions or any political economy, such as that which developed after the Neolithic Revolution. Aggressive people exercise their agency to become prominent – a top hunter; or one who knew how to find food in Nature’s larder better than other – but there was no officialdom, no hint of the institutions we refer to as the political economy.
Once a storable-stealable-surplus was developed and men began to construct a political economy the world changed and those exercising their agency could achieve more than mere generation-bound prestige – they could now go after power, prestige and property. They could use their agency to find ways to control people’s labor and siphon wealth from them through the institutions of the political economy. Agency resulted in structure and continued to operate on it.
I believe that early go-getting men exercised agency to fabricate new ways of thinking about society, as well as the structural framework to support their rise to power. Over the ages structural rules proliferated, what we can call officialdom. It became part of reality, of the new world as it was. But since officialdom, like all human social constructions, had contradictions and had to adjust to unanticipated events, politicos and prominent individuals in society continued to exercise their agency to manipulate the rule structures and institutions (the political economy) to their benefit.
Of course, this continues today. In Washington DC, for example, members of Congress are not staying in office as they had done in the past; but rather the tendency is for them to enter officialdom just long enough to learn how to operate in that dizzying world and then to leave officialdom to operate as lobbyists and consultants on the fringes of officialdom, where the real money is. Many go into what is called the Military Industrial Complex or the State-Management System where they exercise their agency and newly-acquired political acumen to ensure that the government purchase high-end weapon-systems. The tweaking of structure by agency continues.