The degree to which individual action is determined byexternal structures is disputed amongst sociologists, especially through theconcepts expressed by Ulrich Beck and Michel Foucault.
Through the progressivemodernisation of society; the traditional sources of control, under which widersocial structures fall; are losing influence to increased individualisation andthe growing autonomy which allows individuals to determine their own actions. Resultingin the relation between social structures and the individual to transform, asnow individuals can manipulate their own behaviour and external perceptions togain control- threatening social structures, as well as generating pressure forchange. However, the extent to this is dubious as it is argued the influence ofwider social structures remain behind individual’s decisions, and perceivedchange is an instinctive continuation of the past.
Traditionally, social behaviour and individual action wascontrolled by juridical sources; through the monarchy and public displays ofdiscipline e.g. executions (Foucault, 1977). However, it can now be argued that’the juridical conception of power relations no longer adequately describes theway in which power predominantly operates’ (Foucault, 1978:88-9). In relationto contemporary society; individual action, power and discipline now operatethrough control over the individual’s body. Control over individual’s behaviouris deemed to be strategic and necessary in political economy (Foucault, 1977). Insupport of this, power can now be influential ‘in the construction of the lives of individuals’ (Tadros, 1998:77)seen through the increased importance of population size and the government’scontrol over birth rate, the individual act of sex is now influenced by widersocial structures (Foucault, 1978).
However, although it is true thatdisciplinary power has come to the forefront in modern society, the extent towhich juridical power remains intertwined in sources of control isunderestimated (Boaventura de Sousa, 1995). Foucault also argues that despitethe context of society changing, it’s previous characteristics remain; as discoursesand wider structures did not develop throughout linear history but as aresponse to isolated occurrences such as the establishment of the class system (Foucault,1977). Therefore, despite methods of control and influence changing, theoutcome is the same. Yet, although the structure of society can be seen to havechanged dramatically, Foucault’s liberal theory argument seems to be ‘directedtowards an archaic vision of society’ therefore the expression of power can beseen to have reflected the significant structural change rather than justtransform on the surface. Likewise, the significance of this change is onlyminimal as it is agreed that the present is a reflects that of the past.
(Tadros, 1998:78).Similarly, this continuing period of modernisation hasbrought about the formation of a ‘world risk society’ established through thedevelopment of rational thought, as society develops and changes; disaster andthe accompanying risk will increase and become more complex (Beck, 2006). Correspondinglyto Foucault, reflected through social control methods such as discipline, riskhas become a main feature of modern society.
Beck (2006) states that riskdescribes the way in which individuals are ruled and exist in modern society. Tobe able to respond to the consequences of modernisation, risk is argued toprovide ‘a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities’ (Beck,1992:21), the process of modernisation is undermining traditional institutions,of which are ‘becoming part of the problem they were supposed to solve’ (Beck,2006:338). Also, contemporary society can be characterised by increasedrationality which is regarded as ironic as ‘the experience of the past,encourages anticipation of the wrong kind of risk, the one we believe we cancalculate and control’ (Beck, 2006:330). It can therefore be argued thatresponsibility is becoming increasingly individualised, Beck expresses theprocess of ‘disembedding without embedding’ in which the person becomesresponsible for their survival yet ‘is blind to dangers’, as the omnipotentpower of institutions is confining despite becoming increasing untrustworthy(Beck, 2006:336) consequently causing social action to now be controlled by theindividual. However, as emphasised, is dependent on external social conditions(Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995:7) as ability to respond to risk varies between classcharacteristics (Beck, 1992). Thenotion of risk is therefore seen as a way ‘in which we govern and are governed'(Adam, Beck and van Loon, 2000:2).
With social action ultimately beingincreasingly determined by the individual however remaining under the influenceof wider social structures.Alternatively, instead of being influenced by wider socialstructures and processes; Erving Goffman argues that individual behaviour isbased on previously gained information and wider social knowledge such asstereotypes, ‘information about the individual helps to define the situation'(Goffman, 1990:13). Therefore, in dispute with Foucault and Beck, social actionis based minimally on past interaction and increasingly on inference, ratherthan the influence of wider social structures. An individual’s level of controlis achieved through perceived levels of status and the ability to define andmanipulate a situation; therefore, society is organised based on a micro scaleof interaction rather than in a broader sense (Goffman, 1990). However, it isalso argued that such inference and an individual’s presence is based on theirposition in society, a person who holds ‘certain social characteristics has amoral right to expect that others will value and treat him in an appropriateway’ (Goffman, 1990:24). Individual action therefore is a mechanism in whichcontrol and status can be attained, with conscious decisions about behaviour manipulatingexternal expressions, presenting the individual with autonomy from widerforces. Alternatively, Hall also agrees that behaviour is based on previouslyderived information, however, he argues that individuals do not have completeautonomy over such information. Communicative behaviour can be argued to becontrolled by wider social structures such as media institutions.
Therefore, individualbehaviour, such as obedience to social order, can be manipulated by the distributionof messages; ‘the institution-societal relations of production must pass underthe discursive language for its product to be ‘realized” (Hall, 1980:93). Asthe media is an increasingly key feature of modern society (alongsideindividualisation), this source of control is regarded as providing an illusionof autonomy, due to it being reliant on the interpretation of the individual todetermine its ideological value (Hall, 1980). Thus, in agreement with Foucault,Hall regards that action remains to be controlled by wider social structures, yetsources of this control are now implemented by subtle mechanisms.
Equally, in dispute with Beck and Foucault, Pierre Bourdieuargues the concept of habitus in which ‘actors act strategically andpractically rather than as conformists to cultural norms or externalconstraints’ (Swartz, 2002:625). Bourdieu directly disputes objectivist viewsand similarly argues that individuals have autonomy from external socialconditions, with the behaviour of an individual being dependent on previousexperiences and interaction (Swartz,2002). Expanding on this, it can be arguedthat behaviour is influenced by habit as it is individual behaviour is influencednot through instinct but through attainment at different stages of life(Burkitt, 1991). The idea of habitus reflects the continuation of the role ofsocialisation, which was initially performed by wider social structures,however emphasises that society is reliant on actions of individuals. Relativeto Beck, he argues that action is based on anticipated consequences, with theresult varying amongst class opportunities, ability to respond to suchconsequences (such as risk) requires ‘forms of capital’ (Swartz, 2002:655),which outlines the level of what is ‘possible, impossible and probable forindividuals’ (Swartz, 2002:375). Furthermore, the notion of habitus is derivedfrom wider social processes such as internalisation that are influenced bysocial structures and despite being attached to the individual provideguidelines for social order (Swartz, 2002). On the other hand, in support of Halland Goffman, the perception of autonomy over social action is also supported byBourdieu, with alternate behaviour being nothing more than a deviation from theindividual’s assigned collective. (Bourdieu, 1990).
Finally, the creation of habitscan be seen that in response to late modernity individuals are forced to producetheir own biographies due to the absence of traditional norms and the prevalenceof continuous change, (Beck, Giddens and Lash, 2007).In conclusion, the extent to which wider social structures determineindividual action remains a complex issue; however, the way in which control overindividuals have transformed parallel to the modernisation of society itself andtherefore has arguably increased. Methods of discipline as presented by Foucaultexpress the transition from direct forms of control to indirect individualised disciplinaryprocesses, in which social control enforces self-regulatory behaviour through lawsand policies based on population information, notably through control over thebody.
Risk on the other hand, expressed by Beck, refers to a macro approach inwhich changing global context now influences individual action. The prevalenceof increasing risk and anticipation of events link to the changes in discipline;globalisation and the breakdown of boundaries has resulted in the developmentof broader methods of control, such as the media as presented by Hall. Therefore,the extent to which individual action is determined by wider social structures remainsdespite seeming insignificant; as the social structures which previously determinedsuch control have been altered, from direct justice systems to wider communicativesources. Providing the illusion of increased individualisation whilst socialaction remains to be determined by wider social structures, arguably even moreintensely than before, as the sources of control are now endorsed on a global scale.