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The agent-structure problem in international relations theory

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  • Wendt, Alexander E.

Abstract

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.

Suggested Citation

  • Wendt, Alexander E., 1987. "The agent-structure problem in international relations theory," International Organization, Cambridge University Press, vol. 41(3), pages 335-370, July.
  • Handle: RePEc:cup:intorg:v:41:y:1987:i:03:p:335-370_02
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    2. Florent Frasson-Quenoz & Aldo Olano Alor & Erli Margarita Marín-Aranguren & Francisco Daniel Trejos-Mateus & Martha Isabel Gómez Lee & Gisela da Silva Guevara & Martha Ardila & Javier Garay & Pío Garc, 2018. "Teorías sobre las relaciones internacionales. Perspectivas y lecturas desde América latina," Books, Universidad Externado de Colombia, Facultad de Finanzas, Gobierno y Relaciones Internacionales, number 128, december.
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    7. Brown Dana L & Vetterlein Antje & Roemer-Mahler Anne, 2010. "Theorizing Transnational Corporations as Social Actors: An Analysis of Corporate Motivations," Business and Politics, De Gruyter, vol. 12(1), pages 1-39, April.
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    9. Aura Parmentier Cajaiba & Giovany Cajaiba Santana, 2014. "Routines and Networks: Strengthening a Missed Link," GREDEG Working Papers 2014-41, Groupe de REcherche en Droit, Economie, Gestion (GREDEG CNRS), Université Côte d'Azur, France.
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    12. Oran Young, 2001. "The Behavioral Effects of Environmental Regimes: Collective-Action vs. Social-Practice Models," International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, Springer, vol. 1(1), pages 9-29, January.
    13. Roxana Bobulescu, 2011. "Critical Realism versus Social Constructivism in International Relations," The Journal of Philosophical Economics, Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies, The Journal of Philosophical Economics, vol. 4(2), pages 37-64, May.
    14. Remi Maier-Rigaud, 2008. "International Organizations as Corporate Actors: Agency and Emergence in Theories of International Relations," Discussion Paper Series of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods 2008_07, Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods.
    15. Cajaiba-Santana, Giovany, 2014. "Social innovation: Moving the field forward. A conceptual framework," Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Elsevier, vol. 82(C), pages 42-51.
    16. Kilfoyle, Eksa & Richardson, Alan J., 2011. "Agency and structure in budgeting: Thesis, antithesis and synthesis," CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES ON ACCOUNTING, Elsevier, vol. 22(2), pages 183-199.
    17. Gergana Noutcheva, 2016. "Societal Empowerment and Europeanization: Revisiting the EU's Impact on Democratization," Journal of Common Market Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 54(3), pages 691-708, May.

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