The Structuration of Indifference

Approaching Complexity with Giddens and Bourdieu

“The triumph of evil requires a lot of good people, doing a bit of it, in a morally
disengaged way, with indifference to the human suffering they collectively cause.”

(Bandura 2002, 113)

In Giddens’ social theory, which in a more synthetic than eclectic gesture reconciles structure with agency in the concept of structuration, structure is both constraint and possibility — the tragedy of the absurd, as perhaps most dramatically laid out in the work of Camus (cf. 1942; 1955), lies thus only in the eye of the agent, who is both structured by and structuring the system he or she inhabits. In the following, I will however argue that the phenomenal field upon which structure is acting poses a tragic challenge notwithstanding. To that end, let us consider indifference a powerful intervention on the rational agent. In this scenario, indifference is both agentic choice and structured outcome. Bourdieu’s introduction of the ‘doxa’ heuristic is particularly helpful to understand how indifference is structured and itself structures the agent in turn. This goes beyond Bandura’s moral disengagement: Structure could in this way not only untie the agent from moral responsibility, but might even produce a deadlock of ethical exemption.

I contend that the diachronic complexation of structure has an accumulative effect on the production of indifference. As an example, consider the increasing multiplication of what one might call ‘mirrored’ social systems. Perhaps music, poetry, and literature are instances of such ‘parallel universes’, yet today we are faced with an ever more interactive design of such spaces. The manipulation of reality by fiction or even the abstract synchronies of photography and film have offered points of interference, but never assumed the incredible complexity and independence the creation of the internet has more recently given birth to. This latter invention has diversified information and communication, but also more broadly option, modality, and mediation. But there is more to it: the rise of complexity exerts some simulated power as it renders discourse imprecise, inexact. The recent debate around ‘fake facts’ in the social media is a great illustration of how decision-making of the agent becomes more and more difficult in light of a lack of oversight — due to, I argue, complexity.

Who is right, who is wrong, what should I do? Those questions suddenly turn into impenetrable conundra, and the social response is rendered more blunt, evened-out, and indifferent in turn. ‘Rational resignation’ would be the outcome of such an awkward state of constantly reiterated, habituated backtracking. This may, to come back to Bandura, ultimately downgrade the role of ethics in the self-declaration of agency. The subliminal suspension of the moral attitude then, consequently, gives way to seeking (merely rhetorical) refuge in reason: Inaction is justified by being proclaimed ‘reasonable’.

In order to approach this in itself, ironically, complex observation, I will first introduce Bourdieu’s idea of the ontological complicity of habitus and field as manifested in the concept of ‘doxa’. I will bring this in line with Giddens’ structuration theory, in order to then move on to theorising a complexity-indifference nexus as I intend to here. The goal is to explain, by applying Giddens’ and Bourdieu’s sets of conceptual tools, why agents at times choose not to do anything. This passivity, I argue, invites structure to take the upper hand and is thus fertile ground for disproportionate, deregulated power.

Social ontology and ‘doxa‘

In a widely discussed and often-cited conversation with French sociologist Wacquant, Bourdieu has pointed at the essence of his social theory in the following fashion:

“In order to capture the gist of social action, we must recognise the ontological complicity, as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty suggested, between the agent […] and the social world […]. Social reality exists, so to speak, twice, in things and in minds, in fields and in habitus, outside and inside of agents. And when habitus encounters a social world of which it is the product, it finds itself “as fish in water,” it does not feel the weight of the water and takes the world about itself for granted.”

(Bourdieu/Wacquant 1989, 43; emphasis in original)

It is precisely the recognition of this “ontological complicity” through which Bourdieu, in only minor deviation from Giddens, synthesises what is all too often dichotomised into positivist rational choice theorists and determinist Durkheimians: structure and agency find themselves in fluid encounter and dynamic interaction. This intersubjectivity ends up rendering structure, as also Giddens has it, both constraint and possibility. The intellectual compromise here is the argument that “structure has a ‘virtual existence’” (Giddens 1979, 63) that is not purely nominal — there are indeed “capabilities that the production of […] practices presupposes” (ibid.: 64), although this synchrony simultaneously necessitates the diachrony of time. Giddens thus preserves a certain positivist actuality, yet with important reservations.

Giddens posits that the intentionality of a given agent within the structure was a reflexive monitoring of conduct, accountability of human action being the outcome. Causality being a mere linguistic abstraction, this intentionality does not require conscious goals — something Giddens illustrates with “the distinction between meaning or intending to do something, and doing something ‘purposefully’” (ibid.: 56).

Yet how do we explain the absence of intent, or more precisely, the intention not to act? Bourdieu offers the notion of ‘doxa’. Defined as the collusion of orthodox and heterodox assumptions, this concept is essential to Bourdieu’s understanding of power. Power flows through the field (structure) in terms of what its agents take for granted — the possible suspension of the critical spirit, in other words, may mediate false belief. Importantly, however, ‘doxa’ is distinct from ideology. In a departure from Marxist thought, Bourdieu explains that while ideology, imagined as something explicit, presupposes “a conscious agent who is the scholar, the learned person, and the others who don’t have access to consciousness”, ‘doxa’ instead points at how “we accept many things without knowing them” (Eagleton/Bourdieu 1992, 113). This description already implies an almost subversive side to the possibility of ‘doxa’ — a potentially aggressive passivity, or the problem of inaction.

I suggest that complexity plays a fundamental role here in that it adds to the temporal metamorphosis of structure as a structuring entity itself. I define complexity as “the state of having many parts and being difficult to understand or find an answer to” (Cambridge Dictionary 2016). Complexity can thus render structure more encompassing on the one hand (as an extending force), but also less accessible on the other (as a resource-consuming force). The latter function, importantly, is not identical with constraint: Rather, it increases the costs (in terms of cultural capital) of gaining access to an accurate understanding of structure. This (again, not necessarily conscious) understanding consists of clarity about the features, functions, and possibilities of the social system an agent finds itself in.

Introducing complexity into social theory gives rise to the question of how to specify its origins. I argue that a number of phenomena we can observe in what public debate has coined the ‘information age’ play into the exacerbation, or deepening, of complexity — I already mentioned the internet as one symptomatic expression of this development. This increase in complexity could in fact have turned into an exponential growth; it acts upon a multiplicity of structure ‘surrogates’ (or mirror structures, virtual/parallel realities) and, by means of interaction with the user/agent, goes on to multiply itself and even to have a structuring effect upon that very user/agent. My claim would certainly require empirical substantiation, a more comprehensive endeavour which would exceed the scope of the paper at hand; still, I will make an attempt to further clarify this hypothesis in the following.

The complexity-indifference nexus

In the 1990s the natural and social sciences have proclaimed that their common ground lie in the incorporation of complexity as an underlying concept to both academic fields (Law/Urry 2004, 400). In a way, this inverted the context of inquiry from ‘mechanical humanity’ to ‘creative nature’. Complexity rests on three pillars: “that there is no necessary proportionality between ‘causes’ and ‘effects’; that the individual and statistical levels of analysis are not equivalent; and that system effects do not result from the simple addition of individual components” (ibid.: 401).

If we keep Giddens’ structuration theory and Bourdieu’s notion of habitus in mind here, we can quite easily inform both those concepts with insights from complexity theory: Complexity introduces non-linearity. If Giddens conflated time and space by embracing both synchrony and diachrony alike, complexity adds volatile non-causality to the scheme. Giddens already takes an important step in that direction already, to say the very least, as he explains the occurrence of unintended consequences of action. Complexity theory then superimposes itself as the field to which such non-intentionality belongs — and precisely herein we can recognise a framework suitable to grounding the phenomenon of inaction.

Now one question remains unanswered: how does the suspension of intentionality, or the intention to suspend (as expressed through inaction) bring about indifference? I assume that if, as Bandura has pointed out extensively, morality can be disengaged, so can the overall propensity to be socially engaged. It proves helpful to reconsider Bourdieu’s “ontological complicity” of agent and structure, which I have discussed above; in other words, once agentic inaction assumes a collective dimension, the social system turns passive too. This, in turn, moulds the action repertoire of the structure, which is still under the influence of complexity. Together, they now increase the costs of agency — the justificatory response to which is indifference. In order to uphold a sense of agency, and in order to leave the ‘doxa’ intact, every agent is compelled to subscribe to the dominant discourse (this being mutually maintained by said inaction).

This subscription bears severe implications for the distribution of power, as now the agent feels in power once he or she simply reifies that very power. The symbolism of the social system becomes the semantic skill set of the agent, or “a means of conceptualising […] disappointments and humiliations” which offers the agent “to acquiesce in the humiliation of others — the social production of indifference” (Herzfeld 1993, 13).

Implications of structured indifference

The above considerations hint at how even a theoretical synthesis, as Giddens and Bourdieu have carried it out (through structuration or practice theory, respectively), does not escape a fundamental tragic potential. This can work very explicitly through mechanisms of direct suspension of the ethical, as in Bandura’s moral disengagement theory, but it can also assume more subtle shapes. One such shape would be inaction and its potential companion, indifference. Consider the following two illustrations for more clarity.

For one, a complexity-indifference nexus might be active in the spread of populist inaccuracies on social media platforms. Here, the social media (the internet) itself, as a ‘parallel structure’ obtains complexity: The overwhelming flood of information and stimulation, merely ‘a click away’, inevitably challenges the agent. His or her interaction with that virtual structure will however not decrease in quantity, but rather assume a different quality. It may produce ‘rational resignation’, or indifference to content as a reaction to excessive demand. This can be expressed in terms of inaction as non-resistance. More purposive individuals such as political actors who pursue a populist strategy will find fertile ground in this environment, as this inaction can quickly translate into docility, submission, or susceptibility to seduction.

A second example is the impact of the ‘war on terror’ on our social systems. This is a phenomenon that occurs on a discursive level, but finds an almost equivalent expression militarily as well. I contend here that the war on terror is a construct that is (consciously or unconsciously) engineered in such an opaque and blurry (or: complex) fashion that it imposes itself upon agents as something that is extremely resource-costly to critically engage with. Terrorism is envisioned as an omnipresent, omnipotent security threat with an either invisible or all too visible enemy the collectivity of agents is facing. Through ‘doxa’, this discourse is taken for granted and not questioned, the result being inaction (non-modification of that discourse) and indifference (to its violent implications). This is also how it is possible that a highly publicised and fiercely debated incident such as the ‘Abu Ghraib’ disclosures in 2003 is a scandal, an exception, while the Disposition Matrix (also known as ‘kill list’), developed by the Obama administration of the United States in 2010 as a CIA intelligence tool for UAV (drone) operations, has gone widely unnoticed.

The examples given here show perhaps less subtle ways of interference than the complexity-indifference nexus might usually involve. Moreover, both of them focus on the absence of resistance rather than that of intentionality more generally, which helps to elucidate the principle, yet poses a limitation. After all, I have attempted to underline the utility of complexity theory to structuration as understood by Giddens and Bourdieu. Moreover, I intended to theorise the impact of indifference as produced by complexity on the rational agent and agentic self-perception. Ultimately, I propose to modify the statement by Bandura initially quoted here to the extent that indifference to human suffering does not have to follow “a bit of” evil action, it can also precede or perhaps even substitute or become such wrongdoing. Indifference, after all, is a close relative to complicity.


Bandura, A. (2002). Selective moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency. Journal of Moral Education, 31(2), 101-119.

Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L. J. (1992). An invitation to reflexive sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Callinicos, A. (1999). Social theory put to the test of politics: Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens. New Left Review, 236, 77-102.

Cambridge Dictionary (2016). Complexity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved November 23, 2016, from

Camus, A. (1942). L’Étranger. Paris: Gallimard.

Camus, A. (1955). Le Mythe de Sisyphe. Paris: Gallimard.

Eagleton, T., & Bourdieu, P. (1992). Doxa and common life. New Left Review, 191, 111.

Giddens, A. (1979). Central problems in social theory: Action, structure, and contradiction in social analysis (Vol. 241). California: University of California Press.

Herzfeld, M. (1993). The social production of indifference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hobsbawm, E. (2007). Bourdieu: Critical sociology and social history. Sociological Research Online, 12(4).

Law, J., & Urry, J. (2004). Enacting the social. Economy and Society, 33(3), 390-410.

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