To what extent do different positions in structure versus agency debate affect our understanding of cosmetic surgery?

This essay centres on the structure versus agency debate and the extent to which different positions in this debate affect our understanding of cosmetic surgery. Structure refers to external factors which are beyond an individual’s control and how these factors have a determining effect on the individual’s actions and behaviour. In contrast, agency refers to the “characteristics of the individual which serve to construct the world around them. ” In other words, as O’Byrne neatly puts it “do we make the world, or does it make us?

” (O’Byrne 2011, 205). This essay will look at structure and agency in depth in conjunction with the extent to which cosmetic surgery is a personal choice or whether social practices make it an obligation. When focusing on the structure versus agency debate, there are three distinct positions in this debate that need to be considered: ‘structure’, ‘agency’ and ‘structuration’. Durkheim suggests that although we may believe that we are acting in a certain way on our own accords, in reality the choice has already been made for us (Jones 2003, 32).

Herein lies the core argument of the structure side of the debate. Despite individuals actively choosing to behave in a certain way, these behaviours are as a result of structures in society, and have been imposed upon the individual, therefore making it an act of conformity to society rather than an act of individual thought or behaviour. He goes onto develop this by stating society achieves social order through a process called ‘social solidarity’, “whereby different individuals learn collectively held standards or rules of behaviour. ” (Jones 2003, 33).

Durkheim calls these rules of behaviour ‘social facts’. ‘Social facts’ is described by Durkheim (and cited by Fulcher and Scott) as ways of thinking, acting and behaving in society (Fulcher and Scott 2011, 32). The collective ways of thinking, acting and behaving is considered as a ‘social fact’ as everyone is educated from early on in life through institutions such as the family and education systems on how to behave, and thus these behaviours constitute norms and values in society. These patterns of behaviours are continually repeated in society and stabilised over time.

Therefore, when an individual carries out these behaviours it is no longer an act of human agency, but a mere subconscious act that meets society’s expectations. For instance, a mother or father will learn how to behave as there are certain expectations that follow from the role of being a parent. Likewise, a person will usually refrain from harming another because of the laws in place which punishes such behaviour. In this way, through positive and negative reinforcements ‘social facts’ become ‘social’ and embedded into society and are sustained over time.

The second position is an opposing concept referred to as ‘agency’. Weber puts forth the view that knowledge cannot exist independent of thought, but rather individuals create knowledge in society (Fulcher and Scott 2011, 38). The central focus of Weber’s argument is on the action of individuals. Weber believes that social action is essential in sculpting the world as we know it (Jones 2003, 82). In contrast to Durkheim, “Weber does not see social structures as external to or independent of individuals. ” (Fulcher and Scott 2011, 38).

Instead he takes on the perspective that individuals express their free will and act in certain ways because they choose to. A third position is voiced by Giddens who cogently expresses his perspective on the structure versus agency debate as an argument which is interdependent and he labels this as ‘Structuration’. He looks at structure and agency as a duality and believes that “social structures are constituted by human agency, and yet at the same time are the very medium of this constitution. ” (Miles 2001, 10). In simplistic terms, social action comprises structure and in the same sense structure comprises of social action.

The heart of Giddens argument here is individuals are free to express their agency in their day to day lives, even though their choices are confined within these structures. In contemporary society cosmetic surgery has become a widely spoken topic as it has become increasingly popular in recent years. Evidence comes from Davis (1995) and is cited by Gimlin (2000, 78) that cosmetic surgery has reaped in three hundred million dollars every year. Taking a particular focus on the structure side of the debate, the increase in cosmetic surgery can be looked upon as a result of different structures in place in society.

A few of the structures are media which includes celebrity influence and evolution in contemporary society. Upon analysing media it is evident that it plays a significant role in structure. Cosmetic surgery is constantly promoted and amplified in this medium, with ‘glossy’ magazines highlighting models and conveying images of ideal body types. There are also TV programmes such as Channel 4 – 10 Years Younger and The Only Way is Essex who heavily endorse the use of cosmetic surgery procedures to “redesign women” (Elliott 2008, 51).

These programmes normalise cosmetic surgery and portray it as something that is a ‘necessity’. When looking at cosmetic surgery through the structure of media, it can be seen as distorting the thinking of individuals which could perhaps be seen as less of a personal choice as it is conveyed as something that is necessary. Furthermore, celebrities such as Pamela Anderson have publically stated that their success has been due to cosmetic surgery. In an interview she states “My implants are definitely one of my biggest assets.

They increase my femininity and make me more noticeable. ’ (Cited in Elliott 2008, 55). This statement draws attention to her use of ‘femininity’ as a reasoning for cosmetic surgery. This shows that her breast implants have not only helped her land a role in the massive hit TV programme ‘Baywatch’ but is also a way to do her gender role successfully. Again, this positively reinforces the use of cosmetic surgery suggesting success is linked to enhanced appearance and cosmetic surgery is the way to gain success, forcing individuals towards the direction of cosmetic surgery.

On the contrary, taking the agency side of the debate, it shows that cosmetic surgery is actually a personal choice. Giddens would argue here that although there are all these structures in place in promoting cosmetic surgery, it is still yet a personal choice. The media is seen as a structure which exerts force upon the individual to undertake such cosmetic procedures; however the individual will ultimately decide whether or not to undertake such surgery which is an expression of agency.

An interesting approach to take would be an evolutionary perspective which will look at evolutionary in contemporary society as a ‘structure’ which promotes cosmetic surgery. Evolutionary psychology claims men are attracted to youthful women. In a study conducted by Buss (1989) and cited by Delton (2006, 263) it was found that in 37 samples studied from 33 countries, in all 37 samples males preferred a mate who is 2 and a half years younger and rated good looks highly.

As what is considered to be good looking is in line with what makes a person young, again this is as evolutionary theory would predict. In this perspective, cosmetic surgery can be looked upon as a pathway to youth in which individuals compete for mates. Although, it is an outdated perspective it is supported by evidence by Karen Rowing a patient of cosmetic surgery and she states, “Everybody where I live wants to look good – even people aged 21, 22 are having treatment… everybody wants to compete against one another” (bbc. co. uk/news/health).

This shows that the evolutionary perspective is still relevant to current society and acts as a structure to promote cosmetic surgery to make women look younger and in turn compete for mates. This again portrays cosmetic surgery as a necessity in society and leaves little role for agency. In conclusion I believe that, although it may be the individual’s choice to undergo cosmetic surgery it is the influences of media that may encourage individuals to take this decision in the first place. However, taking this decision is ultimately their own choice but if such structures such as the media were not in place, then this choice would not exist.

Therefore showing structure and agency are interdependent on each other as Giddens pointed out. The heavy influences of media and bombardment of the ideal body image exert an enormous social force towards cosmetic surgery that it questions the degree to which it actually is a personal choice. Thus, the decision to modify one’s body through cosmetic surgery can be viewed as something that is a personal choice, nonetheless it can also be seen as a product of structure via the culture that an individual lives in.

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