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In its early form structuration theory was developed by the British sociologist Anthony Giddens in a series of publications in the 1970s and early 1980s as he attempted to define a distinctive approach to the study of social relations. Structuration has since been further refined, strengthened and reinvigorated in the course of debate, critique, counter-critique, and through the lessons of diverse empirical applications.
Giddens wanted the term ”structuration” to signal an approach that subverted more static notions of social ”structure” and gave due weight to the dynamic qualities of agency. He presented social life in terms of parallel and intersecting sequences in which agents – who are both constrained and enabled by their particular social conditions (structures) containing varying contents and combinations of power relations, norms and meanings -draw on their structural context in producing actions that collectively combine to produce the shape of subsequent structures, and so on. Agents draw on this context through, for example, their understanding of it, through the skills and dispositions they have derived from it, and through the power resources it provides. Social life is thus said to be characterized by a ”duality of structure” whereby agents draw on structures (as the medium of action) to produce actions that then change or maintain structures (the outcome of action). The attention given to the temporal sequencing of such ”situated action” is coupled with an equal concern with spatial conditions and dynamics. The inclusion of both structures and agency within structuration meant that Giddens was able to fashion a path between the deterministic tendencies of Marxism and Positivism, on the one hand, and the overly voluntaristic, free-floating approaches of interpretive sociologies such as ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism, on the other. Many have noted the similarities between Giddens’s approach here and that of the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu.
Structuration’s emphasis on process and agency means that the very concept of ”structure” must be re-conceptualized in terms of the situated praxis of agents acting in conditions of power, norms and meanings. The very existence of social structures relies on their continuing to be ”put to work” by the agents within them; a living institutional structure such as a library only continues to exist in a meaningful form as long as people continue to run it and use it as a library. This, in turn, requires that these people must share an internalized, phenomenological, understanding of what a library is and of how to ”do” things such as cataloging, searching, lending, borrowing, reserving, and so on. These understandings are stored within stocks of mutual knowledge embodied within agents, and existing as part of wider sets of beliefs and views of the world containing all sorts of formative cultural, social, and religious influences. Methodologically structuration insists that it is necessary to hermeneutically interpret and understand these actors’ worldviews or ”frames of meaning” in order to be truly able to grasp what they do and why they do it.
Giddens’s invaluable formulations were ultimately limited by their preoccupation with more abstract and generalizing philosophical issues (ontology-in-general) at the expense of concerns with forging links between this level and more in-situ, empirical, issues (ontology-in-situ). Subsequent contributors to the tradition, such as Nicos Mouzelis, Margaret Archer and Ira J. Cohen, have taken on this difficult terrain with tangible effect. Rob Stones has synthesized recent advances under the label of Strong Structuration Theory, elaborating a fourfold cycle in which one can now distinguish between: (1) structures external to a given actor, which act as her conditions of action, both constraining and enabling in various ways; (2) the actor’s internalized, phenomenologically inflected sense of the external structures. These ”internal structures,” in turn, can be divided into the perception of external structures in the immediate context (conjuncturally-specific internal structures), and those enduring and transposable dispositions, capacities and discourses that have been acquired from past contexts (borrowing from Bourdieu these can be seen as internal structures as habitus); (3) active agency, including such things as degrees of critical reflection, creativity and improvisation employed when actors draw upon internal structures in producing practical action; and (4) the consequences of action on outcomes. There have been corresponding empirically sensitive refinements in working through the epistemological and methodological implications of structuration’s basic concepts, and in elaborating on the nature of the relational meso-level terrain within which agents-in-focus act and interact.
- Cohen, I. J. (1989) Structuration Theory: Anthony Giddens and the Constitution of Social Life. Macmillan, London.
- Giddens, A. (1984) The Constitution ofSociety. Polity Press, Cambridge.
- Stones, R. (2005) Structuration Theory. Palgrave Macmillan, London.