Sociology 319

February 3, 2000

Structuration Theory


1. Introduction

The last of the action theory perspectives of Chapter 4 is structuration theory – the theory developed by Anthony Giddens to explain and integrate agency and structure. For Giddens, human agency and social structure are not two separate concepts or constructs, but are two ways of considering social action. There is a duality of structures so that on one side it is composed of situated actors who undertake social action and interaction, and their knowledgable activities in various situations. At the same time, it is also the rules, resources, and social relationships that are produced and reproduced in social interaction. Structuration means studying the ways in which social systems are produced and reproduced in social interacton. (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).

For Cohen, Giddens attempts to provide an overall theoretical approach which deals with two of the major issues addressed in Chapter 4: (i) the division between the conscious subject and social collectivities, 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. The handout from Giddens examines a number of different issues, four aspects of society that are seemingly contradictory and are "dilemmas of the self" but which may also be resolvable as different aspects of contemporary society.


2. Anthony Giddens

Anthony Giddens is one of the foremost contemporary sociological theorists. Born in 1938 in Britain, he is the most important British sociologist. He has been a professor at Cambridge since 1970, is a cofounder of a publishing company, and is an advisor to the British Labour Party. He has written numerous books, some textbooks and others develop his 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.

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, and other sociologists. In presenting his arguments, Giddens moves beyond earlier theorists and develops his own perspective. He attempts to be all-encompassing, providing theoretical views on social action and interaction, historical analysis, systems and structures, and political sociology. In each of these he attempts to solve some of the sociological puzzles and problems, and integrates the seemingly disparate theories and perspectives into an overall sociological theory.

Giddens makes time and space two major aspects of his theoretical perspective. While often ignored in earlier theories, although with occasional offhand or incidental reference to these, time and space are central aspects to social life. 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" (line 2-3). Cohen does not pay much attention to the implications of this in Chapter 4, but these concepts are central in Chapter 13 of the text (specifically, pp. 381-4). 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.


3. Praxis

Cohen (p. 131) notes that social action for Giddens is enacted conduct, social practices, local production of praxis, and reproduction of practices. At the same time, Giddens differs from the ethnomethodologists in emphasizing the material conditions and the social and material environment that both enable and constrain social action. In particular, 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. In taking this approach, Giddens adopts some of the theoretical perspective of Goffman.

At the same time, and perhaps reminiscent of Simmel, Giddens also notes how practices are continued or enduring, and how they are reproduced. As a result, social action and interaction as "tacitly enacted practices" become "institutions or routines" and "reproduce familiar forms of social life" (p. 131). Giddens makes this point as follows:

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 fairly regular and habitual forms that constitute what may appear to be the larger social forms. In particular, the structuration perspective can be distinguished from the external and coercive social facts of Durkheim. Structure is not outside social action, but exists only because of social action.

Cohen comments on similarities to the approach of Dewey – an emphasis on enduring practices, routines, and habits. 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.

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

These are closely related concepts in the theory of structuration, but Giddens distinguishes them. Systems are "patterns of relations in groupings of all kinds, from small, intimate groups, to social networks, to large organizations" (p. 131). 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. 131) that form social systems. These could be systems such as families, peer groups, communities, or cities, either at the face-to-face level or existing via networks over space and time. Goffman’s interaction order of face-to-face encounters, is one form of 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 somewhat more specific and detailed and refers to practices which are structured along certain lines. These are:

Structures such as market exchange, class structures, political organizations and processes, and educational institutions 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 these structures, and refer to them as large-scale structures that affect us, Giddens forces us to consider 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, or through less conscious forms of adjustment, adaptation, and practice, then this can result in structural change as well. Social movements, collective action, or parallel changes by many individuals could have this result.

In some ways, these 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 – that is a means of always 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.


5. Subjectivity

Cohen notes that Giddens approach to the acting subject is less like Weber and Parsons, and more like Dewey and perhaps, Mead and Goffman. For Giddens, "actors are not inherently predisposed to sustained reasoning or existential reflection on the meaning of their conduct from moment to moment in everyday life" (p. 134). 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" (pp. 134-5). As a result of these considerations, Giddens does not downplay subjective consciousness as a source of meaning and action, but recognizes the importance of the praxis approach in terms of explaining large parts of human social action and interaction.


6. Dilemmas of the Self

See handout.


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


Last edited on February 3, 2000

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