Ryan, Phil. 2000. Structure, agency, and the Nicaraguan revolution. Theory and Society 29, no. 2 (April): 187-213.

Santiago, Chile, July 20, 1979. Somoza has fled Nicaragua and the Sandinistas have entered Managua. Chileans living through the sixth year of the Pinochet dictatorship are discreetly celebrating. At noon, my friends and I listen to an editorial on Radio Católica: “The fall of Somoza is a message for tyrants everywhere, especially the tyrants of Latin America. However strong they may feel at the moment, their time will come.” Suddenly the radio goes dead. After a few minutes, the same announcer returns to the air: “We are sorry for the interruption. Because this is an important editorial, I will begin it again.” And he does. In the evening, we celebrate with pisco and pastries. After gorging ourselves for a few hours, Jorge jokes: “I hope Pinochet doesn’t get overthrown for a few days yet, ’cause my stomach couldn’t take another party like this tomorrow.”

Pinochet did not fall the next day, nor the day after. The open season on tyrants proclaimed by our radio announcer never materialized, and the Americas have known no revolution since the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) took power in 1979. The rarity of revolution, in a world of so much poverty, so much oppression, and so many revolutionary movements, gives the lie to the most commonsensical explanations of revolution. For scholars seeking to explain both the rarity of revolution and the conditions that favor its occurrence, Theda Skocpol’s claims regarding the relative importance of structure and agency have been an important point of reference.

This paper will argue that a satisfying structural account must be distinguished from an account that simply focuses on structures: paradoxically, a sound structural account must pay close attention to actors. Consideration of specific accounts of the Nicaraguan revolution will support this claim. The paper will also suggest the plausibility of the obverse argument: “agential” accounts of revolution must attend closely to structures…