Bridging Structure and Agency: Processes of Institutional Change

32 Pages Posted: 26 Aug 2006

See all articles by W. Dolfsma

W. Dolfsma

University of Groningen School of Economics and Business

Rudi Verburg

Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR)

Date Written: November 1, 2005


The tension between (social) order and change, or, alternatively formulated, between structure and agency, has a long history in the social sciences (e.g. Verburg 1991). The discussion has substantial philosophical overtones. In this article we recount the history of the discussion. We both acknowledge the more recent admonition that the agent may have been given short shrift in previous eras (Davis 2003), but at the same time argue that one should not negate the reality of social structure or institutions (Hodgson 1999, 2004). In this article we argue, however, that these recent contributions, from the fields of economics, sociology, political science and management, do not provide a much needed account of how the tension between structure and agency may be resolved conceptually. Accounts seem to emphasize either structure or agency, and fail to capture their interrelationships. We submit that that the process of institutionalization does resolve the tension conceptually, focusing on the role of the agent in reproducing institutional setting, but also in instigating institutional change. We provide a theoretical account of the conditions under which institutions change, and the likely direction of such change. In doing so we emphasize the relation between socio-cultural values subscribed to in a society or community and institutional settings and practices (Dolfsma 2004). As institutions should be conceptualized to have both structural as well as ‘cultural’ aspects (Neale 1987), in many but not all cases irrevocably related, agents can re-interpret or re-define a given institutional structure in the light of a differing perspective, giving rise to tensions felt and possilbly setting in motion a process of institutional change.

Keywords: Agency, Institutional change, Process, Structure, Tensions, Institutions

Suggested Citation

Dolfsma, Wilfred and Verburg, Rudi, Bridging Structure and Agency: Processes of Institutional Change (November 1, 2005). ERIM Report Series Reference No. ERS-2005-064-ORG, Available at SSRN:

Wilfred Dolfsma (Contact Author)

University of Groningen School of Economics and Business ( email )

P.O. Box 800
9700 AH Groningen, Groningen 9700 AV

Rudi Verburg

Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) ( email )

Burgemeester Oudlaan 50
3000 DR Rotterdam, Zuid-Holland 3062PA

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