Sociology 319

January 29-31, 2003


Structuration Theory – Anthony Giddens


The reading for this section is “Living in the World: dilemmas of the self,” from Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1991, pp. 187-201.   8 pages in handout.


1. Introduction


The last of the praxis theory perspectives of Chapter 3 is the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens.  Cohen argues that structuration theory attempts to explain the subject-object dualism as well as explain and integrate human agency with social structure.  For Giddens, human agency and social structure are not two separate concepts or constructs, but are two ways that social action can be studied and understood sociologically.  There is a duality of structures in society – on one side there are situated actors who undertake social action and interaction, and enter into knowledgeable activities in various situations.  At the same time, social systems and structures form the rules, resources, and social relationships that actors produce and reproduce through social interaction.  Structuration means studying the ways in which social systems are produced and reproduced in social interaction (see Giddens, Constitution, pp. 25-6).  Giddens defines structuration as “the structuring of social relations across time and space, in virtue of the duality of structure” (Constitution, p. 376). 


Cohen argues that Giddens provides a theoretical approach addressing the major topics of Chapter 3:  the division between (i) the conscious subject and social collectivities (the subject/object problem), and (ii) agency or praxis and collective forms of social life (the agency/structure problem).  In this chapter, Cohen discusses three of the issues addressed by Giddens:  (i) theory of action, (ii) systems and praxis, and (iii) the different levels of subjectivity.  In “Dilemmas of the Self,” Giddens examines four seemingly contradictory aspects of contemporary modern society that can produce pathological results, but which individuals can often resolve as they constructing self and identity.  Of the authors discussed in Chapter 3, Giddens appears to have the most sophisticated way of connecting a microsociological theory of social action with a macrosociological explanation of the systems and structures of society.


2. Anthony Giddens


Anthony Giddens (1938-   , English) may be the foremost contemporary sociological theorist, and would seem the most important British sociologist.  He has been a professor at the University of Cambridge since 1970 and is currently Director of the London School of Economics.  He is a cofounder of a publishing company, Polity Press, and has written thirty-four sociological books – some are textbooks and others develop sociological theory.  Capitalism and Modern Social Theory (1971) and The Class Structure of Advanced Societies (1981) are two useful books that summarize classical theory very well.  The Constitution of Society (1984) is a more theoretical book that presents and develops his structuration theory.  Modernity and Self-Identity deals more with theories of the self and microsociological issues in the contemporary world. 


Over the last decade, Giddens has been an advisor to the British Labour Party and is closely connected with Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister.  Giddens advocates a “third way” – between traditional forms of capitalism and socialism.  This is generally considered left-of-centre, an attempt to renew social democracy by looking for new relationships between the individual and community, fostering a concern for social justice and social inclusion, and creating an active civil society in which community and state act in partnership.  A summary is available at  While some question his political position, there is no doubt that Giddens has become a leading public intellectual who addresses topics of contemporary concern and who is listened to by non-sociologists.


Giddens is masterful at summarizing, integrating, and presenting earlier theoretical perspectives and arguments.  The handout from Modernity and Self-Identity (1991) contains concepts and ideas from Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Goffman, Simmel, Parsons, Garfinkel, and other sociologists.  In presenting his arguments, Giddens moves beyond earlier theorists and develops his own perspective.  He attempts to develop an all-encompassing theoretical approach without being as abstract and obscure as Parsons.  In his analysis, Giddens provides theoretical views on social action and interaction, history, systems and structures, and political sociology.  In each he attempts to solve sociological puzzles and problems, and integrate seemingly disparate theories and perspectives into an overall sociological theory. 


Time, space, local life, physical bodies, and material realities, in addition to social interaction, form a major part of his theoretical perspective.  While time and space have often been ignored in sociological theory, although with occasional offhand or incidental reference, they are central aspects to social life and Giddens incorporates into structuration.  In the handout, Giddens notes that “Everyone still continues to live a local life, and the constraints of the body ensure that all individuals, at every moment, are contextually situated in time and space” (lines 2-3).  Cohen does not pay much attention to the implications of this in Chapter 3, but these concepts are central in Chapter 15 of the text.  Giddens notes how time and space, or at least our concepts and understanding of these, as well as their material implications, have changed dramatically in recent years, and the relation of people to these in the contemporary social world differs from that of earlier societies.  Individuals today are more connected to geographically distant events and people and global and local issues and structures are more connected than in earlier periods.  In “Dilemmas of the self,” Giddens demonstrates some of the implications of this, not only for systems and structures but also for self and identity.  


3. Praxis


As Cohen argues, social action for Giddens is enacted conduct, social practices, local production of praxis, and reproduction of practices.  This includes material conditions, in which social actors interact, and the social and material environment that both enable and constrain social action.  He emphasizes space – proximity or distance and how these are mediated by technology and social structures – and time – continuity and discontinuity and the organization of activities across time.  While praxis is situated locally, since that is where actors are located, and where social interaction occurs, this action is connected to social life both locally and over broader geographic regions, potentially, globally.  These connections work in both directions – local conditions and situations are affected by ideas and structural features, and social praxis is the means that institutions and social structures are produced and reproduced.  While he generally adopts a praxis approach to social action, he differs from ethnomethodological, symbolic interactionist, and microsociological perspectives in connecting these social practices to systems and structures.


Giddens argues that practices are continued and enduring, so that social reproduction of familiar systems and structures occurs.  Social action and interaction as “tacitly enacted practices” become “institutions or routines” and “reproduce familiar forms of social life” (p. 94).  Giddens states:

The basic domain of study of the social sciences, according to the theory of structuration, is neither the experience of the individual actor, nor the existence of any form of social totality, but social practices ordered across space and time.  Human social activities, like some self-reproducing items in nature, are recursive.  That is to say, they are not brought into being by social actors but continually recreated by them via the very means whereby they express themselves as actors.  In and through their activities agents reproduce the conditions that make these activities possible.  (Constitution, p. 2).

This argument provides Giddens with a means of integrating human social action with the larger systems, structures, and institutions of which we are a part.  It is the continual repetition of social action and interaction in regular and habitual forms that constitute what sociologists consider as the larger social forms.  This structuration perspective differs from the external and coercive social facts of Durkheim in that structure is not outside social action, but exists only because of social action.  While a structuration perspective implies constraints on social action, it provides for flexibility in individual and group action and a means of explaining social change.    


Structuration means changes in practices as well as regularities and continuation in these.  Cohen argues that the approach of Giddens is similar to that of Dewey – an emphasis on enduring practices, routines, and habits, but possibilities for reflection and alteration on such practices, so that there is individual and social change.  If there is a disruption in what is taken for granted, either because of changes in external conditions, or thought and reflection on part of the actor, then there are possibilities for changes in these forms of action.  Where these are associated with more than a single actor, on a larger scale or broader basis, such changes can be connected to social change.


Giddens sometimes refers to these as “fateful moments, [that] require reflection and imagination in order to cope and change” (Cohen, p. 94).  Giddens argues that “fateful moments are times when events come together in such a way that an individual stands, as it were, at a crossroads in his existence; or where a person learns of information with fateful consequences” (Giddens, 1991, p. 113).  While one might hope for a better explanation than “fate,” humans may have little control over future events, or at least individuals may have little control.  Denzin’s “epiphanies” might be similar moments.  While there is a certain contingency associated with such events and moments, for an individual, there is also a history, set of experiences, abilities, and knowledge that can be used as a guide through such situations.  In “Dilemmas,” Giddens notes how individuals “react creatively and interpretatively to processes of commodification which impinge on their lives” (pp. 7-8), that is, these situations creating change are not just moments of blind fate and pure contingency.


In summary, Giddens’s approach to social action is that of praxis, regular patterns of enacted conduct by active actors who interact with each other in situations in habitual, reflexive, reflective, and more conscious ways.


4. Systems and Structures


Systems and structures are closely related concepts in the theory of structuration, but Giddens distinguishes them.  In his model, systems appear to be more dynamic than structures, with the latter being relatively fixed and forming a framework for the social activity that proceeds in systems.  Analogies might be heating or cooling systems or city transit systems – both require a material structure and a transit system requires humans as workers and procedures – but they each have a dynamic character, change, flow, and a certain regularity.  A city or metropolitan area as a whole can be regarded as a system in having a life, entities that move in it, and social relationships among those in it, with both equilibrium and change occurring.  A city also has a structure, something fixed and established (physical structures and procedures), and one that allows the system to operate. 


For Giddens, systems are “patterns of relations in groupings of all kinds, from small, intimate groups, to social networks, to large organizations” (p. 94).  That is, it is the patterns of enacted conduct, the repeated forms of social action and interaction, or the “enduring cycles of reproduced relations” (p. 94) that form social systems.  These could be systems such as families, peer groups, communities, or cities, either at a face-to-face level or existing via networks over space and time.  While a social system may not have the completeness or closure of a biological or ecological system, “system reproduction generally proceeds via enduring cycles of reproduced relations in which recurrent practices constitute links and nodes” (Cohen, p. 94).


Goffman’s interaction order of face-to-face encounters, is one form of a local system.  The networks associated with print or electronic communication, or occasional person-to-person meetings associated with conventions or conferences, are examples of systems that have become more common with the development and expansion of communication and transportation.  Goffman makes some reference to these as “mediated” forms of encounters, but does not pay much attention to these, concentrating instead on “face” in personal encounters.  In any case, it is the patterns of relationships and repeated forms of interaction themselves that form the systems for Giddens.


For Giddens, structure is more specific and detailed, referring to structured practices.  Rules and resources are the two primary features of structures such as market exchange, class structures, political organizations and processes, and educational institutions.


·        Procedural rules – how the practice is performed.  Ethnomethodology analyzes these.  Give and take of encounters, language rules, walking in a crowd.

·        Moral rules – appropriate forms of enactment of social action.  Laws, what is permissible and what is not.   Not ultimate values, but appropriate ways of carrying out social action and interaction.  Durkheim emphasized the importance of these.

·        Material resources – allocation of resources among activities and members of society.  Means of production, commodities, income, consumer and capital goods.  Marxian analysis demonstrates the inequalities associated with allocation. 

·        Resources of authority.  Formal organizations, how time and space are organized, production and reproduction, social mobility, legitimacy and authority.  Weber analyzed the latter issues in the context of power and its exercise


Structures such as all have these aspects to them.  These structures are formed by structured practices – that is, they do not just exist in and of themselves and they cannot exist without enacted conduct.  While we may abstract from these practices and refer to these as structures that frame and affect society, Giddens is interested in how they are reproduced.  It is enacted human conduct in the form of structured practices that maintains and reproduces these structures.  But if these enacted forms of conduct change, either because individuals make conscious decisions to change, because of fateful moments, or through less conscious forms of adjustment, adaptation, and practice, then this can produce structural change.  Social movements, collective action, or parallel changes by many individuals could have this result.  Giddens notes that there are sometimes “critical suspensions of routine and occasions on which actors mobilize their efforts and focus their thoughts on responses to problesm which will diminish their anxiety, and ultimately bring about social change” (Cohen, p. 97).


Cohen notes that “structured practices are primary units of analysis,” perhaps the parallel of the unit act in the Parsonian theory of social action.  In terms of structuration theory as a whole, structures and systems are reminiscent of Parsons in that they provide an all-encompassing theoretical framework that can be used to analyze various aspects of social organization and social change.  One major difference though is that Giddens makes unequal distribution of resources and power more central to his analysis than does Parsons.  Giddens’s structures and systems also appear to be more dynamic and less closed, so that they can accommodate many different forms of power and social change. 


The value of Giddens’s systems and structures is to provide a means of bridging the structure-agency gap, focusing on systems and structures as patterns of enacted conduct.  At some level we may consider these as existing apart from the individual, but if social action and interaction were to end, it is clear that social structures would no longer exist.  In order to think like Giddens, consider structures as structured practices, thus provideing a means of connecting praxis and structure.  That is, praxis does not exist apart from structure, and structure is enduring patterns of action guided by rules and resources.  The social relationships that occur within these are the systems of structuration theory.


5. Acting subject


Cohen notes that Giddens’s approach to the acting subject is less like Weber and Parsons, and more like Dewey and perhaps, Mead and Goffman. 


·        Discursive consciousness.  This is the active, considered consciousness of Weber and Parsons.  For Giddens, “actors are not inherently engaged in existential reflection on the meaning of their conduct from moment to moment in everyday life” (p. 97).  Rather, “discursive consciousness” emerges at critical times – expected or unexpected.  In these circumstances, “actors mobilize their efforts and focus their thoughts on responses to problems which will diminish their anxiety, and ultimately bring about social change” (Cohen, p. 97).   From these considerations, Giddens is not downplaying subjective consciousness as a source of meaning and action, rather he recognizes the importance of both consciousness and a praxis approach in terms of explaining large parts of human social action and interaction. 


·        Practical consciousness.  This refers to the way the routine and habit occur – a “tacit awareness” (p. 96) of these routine forms of conduct, but a regular and continued set of practices of which an actor may not be fully conscious.  These include the enacted conduct noted by ethnomethodology. 


·        Unconscious activity.  Giddens argues that from infancy there is a “primordial, unconscious need for feelings of familiarity and practical mastery of the stable features of the social world” (Cohen, p. 97).  As these practices are repeated, this means social reproduction of these, and such routine tends to eliminate “anxiety-producing anomie” (Cohen, p. 97)  Seems like Garfinkel said much the same.


Power and resources – p. 96.


6. Dilemmas of the self


In this reading, Giddens sets out four dilemmas of the self in modern society.  Among the issues to note are the following.


·        Modern, global society.  Connection between local and global.  The global may threaten the local but the global also provides a means of selecting, appropriating, and ordering issues for the individual.  That is, the global provides resources.  Giddens does not look on the global as necessarily good or bad, but as existing and individuals must learn how to deal with it.


·        Self.  The modern leads to individualism and the project of the self (p. 6).  While it creates tensions and difficulties for the self, the modern, global world also provides information, flexibility, and options for the individual.   As a result, Giddens does not consider these so much as difficulties for the self but as dilemmas that the self has to understand and master (p. 1, near bottom). 


·        Ontological security as one over-riding aim – establish a protective cocoon, but one that is not too protective.  Risk, trust, uncertainty, fate – all figure in equation.


·        Accomplished, regular actions, routine – like ethnomethodology.


·        Dilemmas are like the pattern variables of Parsons – polar opposite ideal types associated with traditional and modern. 


·        Positive and negative aspects of dilemmas, with a polar opposite set of pathological results possible in each.  But Giddens appears to be arguing that most selves develop a degree of normality, or at least an ability to exist within this framework.


Four dilemmas:


·        Unification and fragmentation.  While modernization results in dispersal, individualism, and fragmentation, there are also integrative mechanisms.  Giddens appears to discuss the unifying aspects more as integrative than standardizing.  Rather than considering the effect as primarily creating multiple or fragmented selves, Giddens notes how individuals have an ability to deal with different situations and contexts – like Simmel.  That is, Giddens’s “cosmopolitan person” may be similar to Simmel’s “metropolitan man.”  Dangers include become a rigid traditionalist (some fundamentalist religious persons) or becoming an “evaporated self” (no self-identity but merely a mimic of fashions and trends).  Note that Giddens solution is that of Mead:  “The individual only feels psychologically secure in his self-identity in so far as others recognise his behaviour as appropriate or reasonable.” (p. 3).


·        Powerlessness and appropriation.  Modern society can create alienation, anomie, rationalization and an iron cage, or mass society.  But Giddens notes that individuals in traditional societies were powerless as well, found it difficult to challenge tradition, and had limited resources and communication to affect change.  While globalization and the modern create risk and uncertainty, with seemingly little control, they also produce the possibility of construction of self through appropriation and mastery over life circumstances.  Giddens uses the same example that Simmel does, that of money.  Trust and regularity is required, but money also creates new capacities, aims, projects, and aspirations.  Cohen notes how even the seemingly powerless can often exercise some degree of control over their lives.  Pathological forms include engulfment (complete loss of control) or omnipotence (a fantasy).


·        Authority and uncertainty.  Uncertainty existed in traditional societies and, as Durkheim argues, religion may have initially emerged as an attempt to explain uncertain and unknowable cosmic forces.  Also, single authorities tended to dominate – religion, community, kinship.  These were often very diffuse in their effects (as Parsons argued) and left the individual little room for manoeuvre.  Modern society is charaterized by a pluralism of authority, with specialization and fragmentation of expertise.  It may be difficult to negotiate one’s way through this but routine, lifestyle, and trust can help create some form of protective cocoon.  This allows for greater flexibility than in traditional societies, but can be associated with pathologies of dogmatic authoritarianism (George W. Bush) or immobilization (some social democratic governments). 


·        Personalized and commoditized.  As they become autonomous and powerful, markets generally attack and destroy traditional social relations, including family and self.  While markets expand the scope for individual initiative and decision-making, they also bend these in a particular direction.  Giddens mentions the self as consumer, lifestyle as commodity, self-activity as a consumer package, and reshaping daily life in line with market directions.  But he also argues there are limits to this – markets are both standardizing and fragmenting, and individuals develop means to limit their effects.  As a result, the commodity is not all-triumphant.  Pathologies though are narcissism (self-love and egoism) or excessive individualism, whereby the integrative aspects of modernity are not effective.


Giddens overall judgment appears positive in much the same manner as Durkheim – that is, there are divisive and abnormal effects in modernity, but there are also integrative forces.  Giddens relies more on the development of the self, rather than the division of labour of Durkheim.  At the same time, he notes the powerful effects of commoditization and the economic inequalities that can emerge.  While a solution to these is not contained in this reading, he generally relies on some form of social democratic political and social solution to these problems.




1. Explain what it means to say that “tacitly enacted practices” (one-third of the way down p. 94) are social institutions.  Provide examples.


2. Near the bottom of p. 95, Cohen notes that the practices of the traffic officer cannot be fully understood by observing the traffic officer.  Explain what Cohen means by this and why this is important to Giddens’s explanation of social structure.  Is this a criticism of ethnomethodology?


3. Near the beginning of “Dilemmas of the Self” Giddens notes that every person “imposes his [or her] own order on this diversity” of phenomena.  From your own experience, how do you do this?  What does this illustrate about pre-established habits, avoidance of dissonance, and conscious thought?


4. What might be some differences between Giddens’s “cosmopolitan person” (Dilemmas, p. 2) and Simmel’s metropolitan man?


5. What is the “evaporated self” on pp. 2-3?  Does this differ from Goffman’s self?


6. Provide examples other than the use of money of how “the vesting of trust can also generate new capacities” (p. 4).


7. On p. 7, Giddens argues that commodification can result in “a reshaping of the conditions of day-to-day life.”  How can this be?  Provide some examples that might illustrate this process.





Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Berkeley, University of California Press

Giddens, Anthony, 1991.  Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Stanford, Stanford University Press  


Last edited January 31, 2003


Return to Sociology 319