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Human action and social structures. A Reformed theological critique of conflict theory and micro-interactionist theory

Nico Vorster
Published: 19 September 2022

Abstract: People’s understanding of the origins of social structures and their relatedness, or lack thereof, to human actions and divine providence has a bearing on the moral significance they attach to the rules of structures. Within sociology, both structural-conflict theory and micro-interactionist theory has provided theories on the interplay between human actions and structures. Although both strands attempt to ground their ideas in empirical evidence, philosophical-anthropological views on human nature, the human will and human freedom play a major role in constructing the theories. In this article it is argued that the two theories are based on philosophical premises that create moral difficulties. Conflict theory, emphasising structures as the cause of human behaviour, risks cultivating a revolutionary moral attitude towards social structures that may end up in endless cycles of nihilist conduct. In contrast, micro-interactionism’s social constructivist explanation of the relationship between human action and structures could lead to moral relativism and apathy. This article reflects on an alternative approach. At the core of both voluntarist and revolutionary moral attitudes towards structures lies the notion that morality has no grounding in a deeper reality – they are merely social constructions. The article argues that a Reformed-Christian theory that grounds moral responsibility in what Michael Welker calls an ‘anthropology of the spirit’ may provide an alternative that avoids the moral ambiguities created by structural-conflict theory and micro-interactionist theory. This approach resists voluntarism by grounding morality in God who is the origin of being and understanding moral conduct in terms of the encounter between the divine and human spirit. It counters anarchy by promoting a spirit of moral realism and constant social renewal that takes seriously the consistent threat of the desire for power. Contribution: The specific contribution of this article consists in it bringing Reformed theology and sociology into dialogue. It identifies blind spots in conflict and micro-interactionist theories on the relationship between human agency and social structures, especially when it comes to morality. It also indicates how both theories are guided mainly by presuppositions about human nature and the human will. In response, it is attempted to provide an alternative theological outlook on the question of the relationship between human agency and social structures, which grounds morality in an anthropology of the Spirit. Until now, no such attempt has been made.
Keywords: structures / sociology / Reformed / human nature / theological / theory / structural conflict / grounds moral / divine

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