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Posted on November 1st, 2016

The Geography of My Mind – Chickens and Eggs

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In considering culture, social structure and agency, and where solidarity resides within these concepts, the question may be very relevant, but perhaps needs to be expanded a little further. In this classic philosophical query, there are some other factors that need to be included as well. Assuming that we do not know which came first, we still have to acknowledge that the chicken and the egg have to reside in some sort of environment, and that environment has to be conducive to one producing the other (ultimately). And even without knowing who produced whom initially, we have to accept that a conscious action took place in the creation of the chicken or the egg (even if it was strictly biologically driven). And finally, when the chicken either hatches or remains just being a chicken (whichever came first), they will act in their daily lives as chickens act (however that is). They will be a chicken, and they will go through the daily process of “chickening.”

So what would be the culture, structure and agency of a chicken (or the egg)? Swidler (1986) said that culture is “publicly available symbolic forms through which people experience and express meaning” (p. 273). So without getting too far out there, the culture of the chicken involves the total life-world of the chicken. Much as Mannheim (2012) said that the solidarity of a human culture is built on everything that has been achieved within that culture to date, the chicken’s culture is composed of where they live, eat, exercise and interact with one another. Being a simple creature, they are born with instincts that exist solely to ensure their survival and procreation. If Durkheim’s theory of solidarity is structural, what then would be the structure for the chicken? Following Sewell’s (1992) definition that structure builds some other aspect of social existence, such as gender structuring employment opportunities, or class structuring politics, we would need to consider the chicken’s environment. Is the chicken (or the egg) on a farm? If so, then the structure that imposes on its culture is that of farm-life, and the will of the farmer. Is that farmer a part of a mega-conglomerate corporate farm system that stifles chicken autonomy by cooping them up in 8×10 boxes stacked on top of one another? Or is that farmer a holistic, nurturing figure who allows the chicken free roam and the ability to enjoy its life as much as possible (as long as it is still productive)? Or perhaps this chicken has gone off the farm somehow and is now susceptible to the structure imposed by Mother Nature. There is no longer shelter and lodging, and the perils of potentially becoming prey in the wild become the new structure that shapes the chicken’s life-world.

And finally, the chicken’s agency. Sewell (1992) saw agency as “profoundly collective;” it entails an ability to coordinate actions with or against others (p. 21). If we are to follow Sewell’s logic that agency is overwhelmingly social, then agency’s place is dependent on the role of culture and structure. And because different structural systems can greatly affect one’s culture (free roam, 8×10 box, the “wild”), perhaps we can state that structure influences culture which in turn influences agency.

Transitioning from chickens to humans: Can this really be so? Does our agency really lack any autonomy? Are we really a product of our environment? Earlier in his essay Sewell (1992) stated that, “To be an agent means to be capable of exerting some degree of control over the social relations in which one is enmeshed, which in turn implies the ability to transform those social relations to some degree” (p. 20). It is through our efforts as individual agents collaborating in collective agency that we build the structures that govern us and create the cultures that define or express our unique characteristics.

Swidler (1986) further advances this thread by having stated that, a “culture is not a unified system that pushes action in a consistent direction. Rather, it is more like a “tool kit” or repertoire from which actors select differing pieces for constructing lines of action” (p. 277). These “tool-kits” allow us to exercise our autonomy, and to make conscious decisions for action that result in the betterment (or detriment) of our own lives. So our agency has been reaffirmed through this statement. Because we as a people are a cumulative product of our shared histories, over time we have established systems of governance or structure guided by individual action that, for better or worse, are meant to aid in maintaining autonomy for either the few or the many. In the case where these systems are for the people and allow them to have greater control over their life choices, our agency is perhaps more readily visible. In the instances where our autonomy has been restricted by a patriarchal governing structure, our agency might come to being through the interaction with our fellows to reconstruct the system of power. Individual agency becomes collective agency for the purpose of challenging and changing structure.

And in the event that that collective agency is triumphant in its overthrow of corrupt power structures, as we have seen so many times throughout history, the culture changes with it as well. As Swidler (1986) stated, “If culture influences action through end values, people in changing circumstances should hold on to their preferred ends while altering the strategies for changing them” (p. 277). The culture of obedience begets the culture of revolution. Agency built structure and developed culture, so agency can tear down existing structures to build new, more relevant structural systems. Culture is a process of accumulation of practice, product and ritual, and a change in direction through structural transformation and agent action can further change or expand the cultural systems as well.

Sharon Hays (1994) stated that structures are indeed created by human interaction, but once in play may operate subconsciously. I took this statement to mean that we, as “pawns” in this structure, can become complacent with our established structural systems. Much as our culture contains rituals, our subservience to structures can be said to be born of habit. The status quo, however potentially oppressive, is blindly accepted. Our agency reinforces these structures by inaction. Paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, the man who sacrifices liberty for security deserves neither and will lose both.

In a modern example we can consider the Patriot Act. Another enactment of our government structure supposedly done for our benefit and security, the Act allows excessive violation of our constitutionally granted rights for the supposed good of the collective. Much as Hays felt, our allowance of this Act to pass is further complacency of our structural system to take its liberty in taking ours. Through the expansion of this structurally enacted law, we as a people have lost a little more of our ability to act as autonomous agents. Privileges granted for government and taken away from its citizens, it also in effect changes our national culture. As stated earlier, structure influences culture which influences agency. However, for the people to decide to not stand for this governmental imposition (amongst others), they can act in solidarity and decide to pool their agency and take a stand against the government structure to change their position in actually looking out for the people, not doubting them. Collective agency (solidarity) influences culture, which in turn influences structure.

So was the chicken or the egg question relevant here? While in the beginning we can safely state that agency led to the establishment of culture and structure during the great timeline of history (after all, someone had to provide the spark), as time has gone by the three parts have become interlinked to either support one another or influence one another. But what can be said is that solidarity is a vital component in the maintenance of agency, culture, and structure, and perhaps the single most important driving force in changing policy and perspective.

Marco Esquandoles
Navel Gazer

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