It seems like the word is used in several different senses in the following excerpt:

I think that’s why I like the work of Michel Foucault, because the subject’s always being constituted by external forces. Some people think that that’s overly deterministic, that it removes the agency of the individual. But I don’t really think it removes their agency. I think their actions constitute the structures that shape them. I don’t know if that really answers your question, but I always look at individual actions as constituted by larger social processes and I think that’s why in my work the global and the lo- cal are always together and they are not separate processes.

Is the following interpretation correct?

being constituted by = being shaped by

constitute the structures = create the structures

actions as constituted by = actions as shaped by

Also, I see the word used a lot in the sociological literature -- Does the word have a special meaning in sociology (or is it a ruse to appear intellectual)?

  • 4
    It would be appalling style to use such a word with different meanings twice in a paragraph, let alone three times. I think it's trashy pseudo-intellectual tripe anyway. And stylistically sloppy - the apostrophised subject’s is hopelessly out of sync with the primary register, for example. Jul 6, 2012 at 2:56
  • I do not think "The subject is always being constituted by external forces" is even a correct use of the term.
    – horatio
    Jul 6, 2012 at 21:34

5 Answers 5


I believe constitute is being used the same way both times:

: make up, form, compose


Constituted is normally used with of and not by. "Z is constituted of X and Y". I think it's generally best as an active verb without either preposition. "X and Y constitute Z" means "X and Y are set together to make Z".

The only use like that in the passage is "I think their actions constitute the structures that shape them." While that sentence is grammatically correct, I don't understand what it's saying; I'm not a sociologist.

The other occurrences do not conform to that use.

"The subject is always being constituted by external forces"? How is a subject made up of external forces? Does the writer mean constrained by, perhaps?

"I always look at individual actions as constituted by larger social processes"? Again, constituted doesn't seem the right word. How can larger processes make up individual actions?


I can see three possibilities here:

The word constitute is a technical term in sociology (or in Foucault; the context isn't clear). If so, you would need to consult a specialised glossary.

The writer isn't himself clear what constitute means, but liked it when he saw it. (Note that this is compatible with my first theory: it is also compatible with well-respected theorists having misused the word, and not having been picked up on it.)

The writer, or the person he quotes, really does think that an individual is formed by external forces, to the extent that a complete description of those external forces would be a complete description of the individual. Noting that this does not correspond to observed reality, he also posits that a person's actions form part (or possibly all) of such 'external forces'. The logic is flawed, and I think the two halves of the argument cancel each other out; but the language is just about acceptable. If this is right, I have no idea what the third use means, but in any case I would call that sentence 'merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative'.


"Constitute" almost always means "to make up" as in "the parts constitute, or make up, the whole." Your "constitution" is also your "make-up"—what you're made of, your moral fiber, etc. So from your excerpt:

  • being constituted by = being made up of
  • actions constitute the structures = actions make up the structures
  • actions as constituted by = actions as made up of

The parts together make up a whole; Ex: "It takes a minimum of eleven players to constitute a full team." "These six books constitute his entire life's writing output."

  • Please add some reference wherever possible.
    – NVZ
    Mar 21, 2016 at 16:42

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