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The agent-structure problem in international relations theory


  • Wendt, Alexander E.


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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