Sociology text books often use the “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” conundrum to socialise students about the structure versus agency debate. That is, do societies shape individual choices, or do individuals have power and influence over the way in which societies are organised?
John Macionis and Ken Plummer talk about this as a classic question that relates to the way we see history: as the outcome of human action. How does the education system work? We need to understand not just the laws that make education mandatory, but also the legislators who provided the legal framework for how teachers are accredited, for the topics and texts that make up the curriculum, how exams are then tallied across the state, and thus impact on the educational, economic and health outcomes of every young person. This is the ‘chicken before the egg’ argument. You can’t have an educational system (or society) without individuals making decisions that determine the outcomes and mobility of others.
At the same time, the ‘egg before the chicken’ – or structural approach – focus on the ways in which individuals are born into social groups, with limited opportunities to move beyond those pre-determined by their social system. Poverty and disadvantage are intergenerational and difficult to escape, no matter how hard individuals work. Habits and routines that we take for granted (social reality or ‘our view of the world’) are shaped by the families, communities, racial groups and nations that we are born into.
One way to bring these two chicken and egg perspectives together is to recognise the impact of structure and agency together. Structure and agency are:
‘always two sides of the same coin… people engage in social actions that create social structures and it is through these social actions that the structures themselves are produced, maintained and eventually changed over time.’
Professor Anthony Giddens’ work on structuration theorises this further, through exploaring the function of language. Languages have rules (a set structure), but people write, speak and act differently. Thus, our everyday actions can and do shape social structures.
This fun video attempts to explain the evolutionary answer to the chicken/egg question. Enjoy!