Beyond Sociology: Structure, Agency, and Strategy Among Tenants in India

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A theoretical orientation toward 'strategies' is proposed in this paper. This theoretical approach suggests that we study both the context for immediate decision-making and the broader context in which reflection and deliberation occur. Whilst these are very broad concerns, the paper itself is based on fieldwork about land rental relationships in rural South India. The paper introduces strategies as a solution to the theorists' dilemma of choice vs. constraints. We treat tenants (as both households and as individual agents) in their structural contexts whilst respecting the complexity and co-mutuality of their agency. The strategies that people use involve an orientation to current and future events, including possible events which are imagined or which could happen. Both structural relationships and concrete past incidents act as reference points for decisions made today in a given relationship. The strategies of tenants include being pliable vis-à-vis landlords but some tenants make this conditional upon landlords' proper behaviour. Agents negotiate and enforce proper behaviour and, thus, both create and change the system of norms that exists. In Macintyre's terms (1985), the virtues intrinsic to the socio-economic practices are continually being re-worked. The theory of strategies reframes 'virtue' in dynamic structure-and-agency terms. Agents are not simply individuals. The debate about rational choice vs. holism can be augmented by looking at agency supra-individualistically. The strategy of a household is an emergent property of the household as an agent. It includes detailed first-order strategies along with more reflective second-order strategies which reconcile goals in the education, migration, household work, and marriage domains. The paper is, thus, interdisciplinary and contributes to sociology, while pluralistically drawing upon other disciplines.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)366-390
Number of pages25
JournalAsian Journal of Social Science
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2009


  • Pluralism
  • India
  • Sociology of social structures
  • Rural labour


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