Beyond Structure and Agency: Critical Hermeneutics in the Study of Religion and Gender

Contemporary social theorists can be seen as divided into two camps which foster two distinct approaches to society (King 2004). Both are dualistic in nature, i.e. social reality is understood as a combination of structure and agency. Whether structure is defined as a set of rules, or as objective institutions, society is always explained as the interaction between structure and agency. However, this social ontology is untenable: structure is nothing more than social relations based on shared understandings and to assume its epiphenomenal status is to commit an error because 'in every case, structure can be reduced to social relations' (King 2004: 84).

According to Krais (2006), the reason why Bourdieu's writings on gender have been misconstrued is that they are understood in the context of a very particular theory of socialisation and social roles. If social roles are seen as imposed externally and simply acted out, they become normative restrictions, leaving no room for reflexivity and agency (Krais 2006: 125). When an individual takes on a role, she becomes involved in a set of structural conditions, not just 'other people's subjective expectations' (Archer 2000: 468). Thus, the act of marriage implies compliance to legal rules, which agents are aware of, yet their awareness does not create those rules. The legal system pre-exists the individuals who decide to marry, thus it is autonomous and independent of them. However, one could argue that for those individuals to marry, everyone else needs to be in agreement on what marriage entails! Marriage as a legal institution might have been created in the past, yet it does not make it autonomous of social actors in the present. Catholics may well be aware of the difficulties of obtaining an annulment and thus be forced to make a choice between remaining a legitimate member of the church or re-marrying, but the reason why it is so is not some superior and autonomous force. It is purely other people who have a common understanding of the laws within the Catholic Church. Those laws have been created, reproduced and modified through human interaction. Thus, whilst they might be autonomous with respect to one particular agent, they can be reduced to series of interactions between groups of individuals. Similarly, an Orthodox Jewish woman can choose to divorce her husband but in the eyes of the Jewish law, if her husband does not agree to the divorce, she is still legally married to him.[1] A Catholic nun's symbolic marriage to Jesus may be regarded as ludicrous by unsympathetic lay observers because they do not share the understanding of its validity. However, it makes perfect sense to her fellow sisters. Similarly, a Buddhist nun's renunciation of marriage may be equated with social failure because of the collective understanding of what it means to be a woman in Taiwanese society (see Crane 2004).

It is a 'solipsistic error' to reduce the explanation of the social structure to the commonsensical perspective of a single individual, i.e. the individual experience (King 1999: 217). Undeniably, individual experience matters. Nevertheless, it is only through interaction with other people that we learn how to meet those social expectations and this is the vital condition for the individual to develop his or her self. Humans draw on available stocks of knowledge in order to make sense of their own (religious and gendered) experience. If we view the individual as facing external, autonomous reality instead of social context which is nothing more than 'interacting networks of individuals' (King 1999: 219), we end up with the notion of society and the (single) individual, not society and a plurality of individuals. One person's action is only made meaningful through their interactions with other members of the group. To render action meaningful, an individual must assign it a meaning by referring to the collectively shared understandings, not their individual perspective.[2] The danger of prioritising habitus over practice and positing it as autonomous of social relations is that it leads to excusing social inequalities like poverty by presenting them as objective, therefore nobody's responsibility (King 1999: 222). Similarly, if we argue that an individual faces God and his choices in every stage of their life, we can easily slip into assuming a fatalistic account of agency that very much resembles Bourdieu's 'love of destiny'. Things are so and not otherwise because the habitus is so and not otherwise and there is nothing we can do about it except embrace it and make the most of it. This is not to deny the existence of 'background conditions which cannot be reduced to their micro dimensions' (King 1999: 223). We may invalid in the eyes of the Jewish law (Glicksman 2006: 300-302) well use the term 'structure' to describe these conditions but only if by structure we mean the interactions of a variety of people in different historical times and locations, and not a god-like metaphysical entity which hovers above individuals 'or is more than the sum of all individuals and their interactions' (King 1999: 223). This understanding of structure, as exhibited in the concept of habitus, is beneficial for the study of religion and gender because it allows us to see both as embedded in mutually sustained social relations and understandings of particular social groups. Such an interpretive approach to social reality makes it possible to understand God as a relational concept, contained within society, rather than beyond it. This does not entail ignoring people's beliefs in abstract powers but it does point to a sociologically valid account of the divine. As belief is central to the study of religious groups and individuals, it cannot be dismissed, but the emphasis should be on how the divine is drawn upon by individuals in the context of their groups, communities and in relation to non-religious fields.

  • [1] The state of limbo referred to as 'agunah' - a 'chained woman'. If an 'agunah' remarries and has children, they are not considered legitimate and the marriage regarded as
  • [2] Opponents of this view would argue that interpretive sociologists commit the 'epistemic fallacy' - confusing the knowledge of reality with the way reality is (see Archer 2000: 469). The interpretive tradition is solipsistic in its account of the social world because it somehow grants individuals permission to make whatever they wish of social reality as long as their understanding can be somehow coordinated with that of other people. Nonetheless, such a critique fails to acknowledge the fact that this common understanding constitutes the constraint the interpretive theory points to and that it is produced during interaction, not coordinated prior to it. The world is not disallowed any role as a regulator of the assertions that can be made about it, however the major constraint and regulator of what can and cannot be asserted about the world is the social context, which is the sum of interactions between individuals (King 1999: 220).
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