Recently I read Emer O’Toole’s Girls will be Girls and one aspect of the book that made me think was the concept of structure and agency.
Understanding structure and agency are a good way of appreciating how people make choices and navigate the society in which they live. Individuals are said to have agency and structure refers to the society or culture in which they operate.
What makes structure and agency so interesting is that there is a conflict in how much power structure has in a person’s ability to make decisions.
As Emer O’Toole argues, ‘the first thing to know about structure and agency debate is that it is always political. If you believe evangelically in agency that – that the individual is entirely free to choose whatever she [sic] wants to do –then you’re unlikely to see the social factors that influence a person’s action…On the other hand, if you believe devoutly in structure – that an individual’s actions are always the product her [sic] social situations – you can fail to recognise and honour people’s achievements’.
I had obviously been vaguely been aware of it as a concept but it wasn’t until I read Girls will be Girls that I understood it better. As with every new concept I discover, I go around analysing everything around me through the prism of structure and agency.
So when I started reading Freedom Fallacy – The limits of Liberal Feminism, I couldn’t help but think about structure and agency. This is quite dense collection of essays that questions the notion that gender equality has been achieved and women are solely reasonable to connect with the opportunities. As Miranda Kiraly and Meagan Tyler argue, ‘This collection aims to challenge the limits of key liberal feminist concepts and to critique the idea that it is possible to find freedom simply by exercising ‘choice’ in a world in which women, as a class, are still not considered to be of fully human worth to men’.
Put simply, society’s structure prevents women to have an equal choice as they are not considered to have comparable worth to men.
Structure vs. agency in a critique of Naomi Wolf ‘The Beauty Myth’
Most feminists have heard of this seminal work and while I won’t go into the details I will note that Wolf argued that women are expected to adhere to strict rules in regards to their appearance. These rules disempower women rather than liberate them. She argues that the structure is the problem and it is up to women to use their agency to challenge this myth.
In her essay, Natalie Jovanovski takes the view that ‘when it comes to providing solutions and potential ways forward, Wolf’s work, disappointingly, falls back on a kind of unhelpful, individualism that verges on blaming women for their own situation…. It also represents a missed opportunity, as it ignores the possibility of collective action, agitating for women’s liberation, and an end to the patriarchy, as ways forward for helping women to develop healthier relationships with their bodies’.
It show how complex the relationship between structure and agency. In many ways culture is pervasive and doesn’t provide individuals with many authentic choices.
What Wolf’s book does as well as those of other writers is that they acknowledge the limited agency of individuals but fail often unite them to challenge the structure in order to increase their own agency. It is often easier to acknowledge a problem than to create a new path.
Do Mail Order Brides have a choice?
In the Freedom Fallacy, Kaye Quek writes a very interesting essay that looks at how agency Mail Order Brides possess.
We have all hard about Mail Order Brides and there is a debate regarding how much choice these ladies have in deciding to move to another country to marry an unknown man. Is it something that they genuinely want or are they making the decision for other reasons?
Kaye Quek argues that ‘far from being based on equal partnership or reciprocity of care, the Mail Order Bride Industry promotes and facilitates a particular kind of marriage that is characterised by sexual, racial and class inequalities between the men and women it involves’.
Some people argue that they are in complete control and the choice to enter into such an arrangement is done so with their eyes wide open and their complete consent.
However, Quek doesn’t agree with that attitude and believes that ‘far from being based on an equal partnership or reciprocity of care, the Mail Order Bride industry promotes and facilitates a particular kind of marriage that is characterised by sexual, racial and class inequalities between the men and women’.
I can see her point, since these marriages are organised by companies that operate on a basis that men pay to be linked up with a lady (that they have chosen often from a website, catalogue or speed dating event) who lives in a developing country.
Coming from a position of economic hardship and to be almost purchased, it is easy to see how such a marriage that could be what Quek considers unequal and which ‘seeks to advance the interests of men while actively minimising women’s ability to exercise agency and resistance’. I
Why read this book?
I will always find structure and agency riveting and this book continued to fuel my interest.