Social Policy and Society

Articles

Understanding the exercise of agency within structural inequality: the case of personal debt

Michael Ortona1

a1 Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick E-mail: Michael.Orton@warwick.ac.uk

Abstract

This article contributes to debates about agency (meaning the behaviour of individuals) and structure, by drawing on empirical research into personal debt. Consideration of debt allows for debate about agency and structure beyond the narrow confines of welfare, and for the examination of agency in relation to citizens at different points in the broader socio-economic structure, not solely poor people. Based on the research findings, themselves grounded in interviewees' experience, the question of why two people in the same material circumstances will have different experiences becomes reframed as why two people whose exercise of agency is the same, face very different outcomes? It is argued that while the research supports a ‘both-and’ rather than ‘either-or’ approach to understanding agency and structure, a ‘both-and’ approach still does not fully capture the experience of interviewees. The key point is that the exercise of agency is overlaid onto structural inequality, and it is understanding the exercise of ‘agency within structure’ that is critical.