Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories
Structuration theory of Anthony Giddens
Adams and Sydie, p. 33 and pp. 47-55.
“Living in the World: dilemmas of the self,” from Anthony Giddens. 1991. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and
Society in the Late Modern Age, Stanford,
The British social theorist Anthony Giddens has developed a theoretical structure that explains human agency (action) in the context of social structure and integrate action and structure. In this approach, termed structuration theory, Giddens argues that human agency and social structure are not two separate concepts or constructs, but these are together produced by social action and interaction. In sociological analysis, their separation may be a result of how sociologists examine and interpret social reality, with agency and structure being two ways that social action can be studied and understood sociologically. There is a duality of structures in society – on one side there are individuals as actors in particular situations, who enter into knowledgeable activities and participate in social action and interaction in these situations. At the same time, the social world is composed of social systems and structures – these are the rules, resources, and social relationships that actors produce and reproduce through social interaction. The study of structuration means examination and analysis of the ways in which social systems are produced and reproduced in social interaction (Giddens, 1984, pp. 25-6). Giddens defines structuration as “the structuring of social relations across time and space, in virtue of the duality of structure” (Giddens, 1984, p. 376).
In the assigned reading, “Dilemmas of the Self,” Giddens examines four seemingly contradictory aspects of contemporary modern society. Each of these dilemmas can lead to pathological results for an individual; at the same time, each dilemma opens new possibilities and opportunities for an individual, possibilities that can be creative and produce a better life. In the reading, Giddens appears to argue that individuals are generally able to resolve the dilemmas as they construct their self and their individual identity through social action and interaction. Of the authors examined so far this semester, 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. Even where he does not deal with all the micro-macro issues, and while his approach may not always provide a satisfactory or complete explanation, he openly addresses issues related to social action at the micro and macro level and attempts to integrate them.
2. Anthony Giddens
Anthony Giddens (1938- , English) is one of the major contemporary
sociological theorists. He was professor
During the last decade, Giddens has sometimes 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 a left-of-centre approach that is not Marxist, that is, it is 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 www.lse.ac.uk/Giddens/FAQs.htm. Regardless of differences over political postion, Giddens is a leading public intellectual who addresses topics of contemporary concern and is listened to by non-sociologists.
Giddens is masterful at summarizing, integrating, and presenting earlier theoretical perspectives and arguments. The handout “Dilemmas of the Self,” from Modernity and Self-Identity (1991) refers to and integrates concepts and analysis from Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Goffman, Simmel, Parsons, Goffman, 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, receiving no more than occasional offhand or incidental reference in the writing of other sociologists, they are central aspects to social life and Giddens incorporates into structuration. In the handout “Dilemmas of the Self,” 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). 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 illustrates implications of this, not only for systems and structures but also for self and identity.
3. Social action as praxis – structuration
In the study of individual social action and interaction, theorists have generally adopted two positions – action and praxis. The former emphasizes the subjective meaning of the action to the actor – Weber, Parsons, rational choice theory, and some symbolic interaction approaches emphasize this. The praxis approach emphasizes the enactment, performance, or production of social action – Goffman and Garfinkel exemplify this approach. For both sociological approaches, there are patterns of social action, institutions composed of these regular patterns (family, peer groups), and structures (class, patriarchy). The difference in emphasis relates to what the sociologist examines in developing an analysis of social action. (see Cohen, p. 74 for a fuller explanation).
Giddens adopts a praxis approach to social action, whereby social action is composed of enacted conduct (what people do in social action and interaction), social practices, local production of praxis, and reproduction of practices. This approaches includes an examination of the material conditions in which social actors interact (situations, context, place), 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 that are societal-wide or even global, and social praxis is the means that institutions and social structures are produced and reproduced. While Giddens generally adopts a praxis approach to social action, he differs from ethnomethodological, symbolic interactionist, and microsociological perspectives in more explicitly examining how social action and social practices are connected to ongoing and pervasive 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” (Cohen, 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 approach 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, where structures appear to have an ongoing existence that is separate from the individual and has a strong determining effect on individual action. For Giddens, structure is not outside social action, but exists only because of social action, and it is the repeated patterns of social action that constitute the structural reality. As with Durkheim’s structural determination of individual action, a structuration perspective implies that there are constraints on social action. But structuration allows for the possibility of flexibility, creativity, and change in individual and group action. At the institutional or societal level, a structuration approach provides a way of explaining social change (eg. through social movements and collective responses of large numbers of individuals).
Structuration means changes in practices as well as regularities and continuation in these. The approach of Giddens is similar to that of the American pragmatist John Dewey. Dewey argued that society was characterized by enduring practices, routines, and habits, but within these there were always possibilities for individual reflection and alteration of 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. (Cohen, pp. 83-85).
Giddens sometimes refers to these periods of reflection 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. (Later in the semester we will discuss Denzin’s “epiphanies” – these might be similar moments). While there is a certain contingency or uncertainty 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. While these fateful moments may be stressful and tension-filled, so that some individuals have difficulty coping with them, in “Dilemmas of the Self,” Giddens notes how individuals can “react creatively and interpretatively to processes of commodification which impinge on their lives” (pp. 7-8). That is, these situations and fateful moments have the possibility of creating a change in the direction an individual considers it best to proceed; they are not just moments of blind fate and contingency, or situations where structures, norms, and systems dictate the direction of social action (as seems to be the argument in much of the writing of Parsons and some critical theorists).
In summary, Giddens’s approach to social action is that of praxis – regular patterns of enacted conduct by active individuals who, as social actors, interact other social actors in situations involving diverse influences that include habit and patterns but also reflection and conscious decision-making. Adams and Sydie (pp. 48-49) sum up structuration by pointing to three emphases of Giddens:
· Human agency, where the social actor is a rational actor who has the ability to make decisions.
· Reflexivity. This involves a self-consciousness on the part of the individual and an ability to monitor the ongoing flow of social life and, at least sometimes, take one’s understanding of this flow of social life into account when considering appropriate action and deciding on a course of action.
· Structure. These are the patterns in the social world that affect individuals and are composed of rules, resources, and agency. (see next section).
4. Systems and structures – structuration
Giddens uses the closely related concepts of systems and structures in his theory of structuration. Systems are “patterns of relations in groupings of all kinds, from small, intimate groups, to social networks, to large organizations” (p. 94) whereas structures are specific practices surrounding how social actors deal with rules and resources. Systems include social and cultural systems (similar to those of Parsons) and structures include class structures, educational institutions, etc.
In Giddens’s model, systems appear to be more dynamic than structures, with the latter being relatively fixed and forming a framework for the social activity that occurs 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 each has a dynamic character of change and flow, as well as some regularity and possibly an equilibrium. 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 tendencies toward an equilibrium state and also changes to deal with adaptation to environment and achieving new or different ends. 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.” That is, it is the patterns of enacted conduct, the repeated forms of social action and interaction, or the “enduring cycles of reproduced relations” 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” (references from Cohen, p. 94).
Goffman’s interaction order of face-to-face encounters, can be considered as one form of a local system. Networks that people establish through 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 new and inexpensive forms 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. It is the patterns of relationships and repeated forms of interaction themselves that form the systems.
For Giddens, structure is more specific and detailed than system, 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. Give and take of encounters, language rules, walking in a crowd. Goffman (face, roles, role distance) and ethnomethodologists analyze these.
· Moral rules – appropriate forms of enactment of social action. Laws, what is permissible and what is not. These do not refer ultimate values (eg. spiritual or sacred values), but refer to appropriate ways of carrying out social action and interaction. Durkheim and Parsons emphasized the importance of these – norms, mores, customs, laws.
· 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. Wright included these resources as assets in his explanation of contradictory class locations.
Each structure has the above aspects, involving different combinations of rules and resources. 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).
Summary of structuration. For Giddens, “structured practices are primary units of analysis,” perhaps the parallel of the unit act in the Parsonian theory of social action (Cohen). 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 between the two is that Giddens makes unequal distribution of resources and power a central feature of his analysis, whereas Parsons pays little attention to this. Giddens’s structures and systems also appear to be more dynamic and less closed than those of Parsons, so that they can accommodate many different forms of power and social change.
One way to think of these systems and structures is as a means of bridging the structure-agency gap, focusing on systems and structures as patterns of enacted conduct. While we may consider systems and structures as external to the individual, imposing constraints on the individuals, and existing apart from the individual, if social action and interaction were to end, social structures would no longer exist. In order to think like Giddens, consider structures as structured practices. 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. Modernity (notes from Adams and Sydie, p. 49)
The main focus of the writing of Giddens is on the current period of late modernity. He refers to the current as a continuation of the modern, rather than as post-modern or post-structuralist or post-industrial. At the same time, he identifies some important changes that characterize the current period – global influences and connections that have created a more interdependent world and developments in communication and technology that alter our perceptions of, and the influence of, time and space.
While Giddens does not deny that tradition is still an important influence in modern life, he considers modernity to represent a qualitative change from earlier periods. Much along the same lines as argued by critical and world-system theorists, he argues that the modern era is characterized by continuous change, the expansion of capitalism, and the development of industrialism or “machine technology to control and transform nature” (Adams and Sydie, p. 49). The traditional social setting involved religion, community, and family as dominant forces guiding individuals and group action and interaction in local settings. While these traditional features still carry influence, their dominance has been displaced by new systems and structures related to capitalism, industrialism, and communication.
While Giddens draws on the insights of world-system and critical theorists, he adopts a more optimistic point of view about our period of late modernity. At one level the new structures and systems act as constraints on human action, or at least individuals and groups must alter ideas and actions to deal with the new social realities. At the same time, it is through enacted social practices that these systems and structures are reproduced. This creates the possibility of change, as human action and interaction alter these ongoing practices – while some aspects of system and structure are reproduced in unaltered form, others change as new social practices emerge. In examining modernity in this setting, Giddens argues that social structures and systems can also be considered to constitute opportunities within which individuals and groups can exercise greater freedom and flexibility than in traditional settings.
Giddens identifies four aspects of modern society that differ from earlier, traditional forms of social organization (Adams and Sydie, pp. 49-50).
6. Acting subject and the self
Giddens’s approach to the acting subject is less like Weber and Parsons, and more like Dewey, Mead, or Goffman (Cohen, pp. 96-97). Adams and Sydie (pp. 50-51) identify his approach as being similar to that of Mead in that the self is reflexive. This means that the actor builds a self by incorporating societal influences but does not do this in a passive manner. The actor is thoughtful and reflects on how to best respond to symbols. Adams and Sydie (p. 51) point out that the approach of Giddens differs somewhat from this in that an individual creates a self or identity by being both object and agent, and is concerned with self-actualization. While this may be a difficult process for individuals, there are three aspects of consciousness that are related to this.
· Practical consciousness. This refers to the way the routine and habit occur – a “tacit awareness” (Cohen, p. 96) of these routine forms of conduct along with a regular and continued set of practices of which an actor may not be fully conscious. These include the enacted conduct noted by ethnomethodologists.
· 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.” As these practices are repeated, this means social reproduction of these, and such routine tends to eliminate “anxiety-producing anomie” (Cohen, p. 97).
· Discursive consciousness. This is the active, considered consciousness, similar to that described by 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.” 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). Being able to use trust is an important feature of this. This may be at the local level, with trust in family, friends, or associates, or trust in institutions and structures that have been found to be reliable.
In terms of socialization and the development of the self from childhood, there is a primordial need for familiarity, practical mastery of surroundings, and a sense of security. This is obtained from development of familiar routines, which accommodate the child to his or her surroundings and meet his or her needs. This also is a means by which reproduction of the social order occurs, since the social order is the set of practices and procedures that are ongoing and continued. To the extent that these meet the needs of the child, the child develops trust in these routines; where the routines and needs are not met, this may produce anxiety. Where security is disturbed in this way, this may produce anxiety and fear, but it is partly through these that the child learns to deal with these problems. As individuals develop a practical mastery of surrounding, through habit and routine and through discursive consciousness, they develop a self-identity.
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.
7. 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, in contrast to tradition and traditional 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). In traditional societies, “a sense of self is maintained largely through the stability of the social positions of individuals in the community. Where tradition lapses, and lifestyle choice prevails, the self isn’t exempt. Self-identity has to be created and recreated on a more active basis than before” (Giddens, 2000, p. 65). While this 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).
· Security of one’s being 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.
Notes on the four dilemmas in “Dilemmas of the Self”:
· 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 or immobilization.
· 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’s overall judgment about late modernity seems relatively positive, in much the same manner as Durkheim. That is, there are divisive and abnormal effects in modernity, but there are also integrative forces that provide possibilities for individual self development and social integration. As compared with Durkheim’s emphasis on the division of labour as a means of accomplishing this, Giddens relies more on the possibilities for development of the self. At the same time, he notes the powerful effects of commoditization and the resulting economic inequalities that can emerge. While a solution to these is not contained in this reading, he points towards forms of social democratic political and social solutions for these problems.
Cohen, Ira J. 2000.
“Theories of Action and Praxis,” in Bryan S. Turner, The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, Blackwell Publishers,
Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society:
Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Berkeley,
Giddens, Anthony, 1991. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California
Giddens, Anthony, 2000.
Giddens, Anthony. 2006. Interview in New Political Quarterly. Available at http://www.digitalnpq.org/articles/global/33/11-09-2005/anthony_giddens