Structuration theory  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The theory of structuration, proposed by Anthony Giddens (1984) in The Constitution of Society (mentioned also in Central Problems of Social Theory, 1979), is an attempt to reconcile theoretical dichotomies of social systems such as agency/structure, subjective/objective, and micro/macro perspectives. The approach does not focus on the individual actor or societal totality "but social practices ordered across space and time" (p. 2). Its proponents adopt this balanced position, attempting to treat influences of structure (which inherently includes culture) and agency equally. See structure and agency.

Simply put, the theory of structuration holds that all human action is performed within the context of a pre-existing social structure which is governed by a set of norms and/or laws which are distinct from those of other social structures. Therefore, all human action is at least partly predetermined based on the varying contextual rules under which it occurs.


Basic assumptions

  • Social life is not the sum of all micro-level activity (e.g. dyads), but social activity cannot be completely explained from a macro perspective.
  • The repetition of the acts of individual agents reproduce the structure.
  • Social structures are neither inviolable nor permanent.
  • The social structures constrain the actions of individual agents.
  • Thus structure and action constrain with each other in an evolving way.

The duality of structure

Structuration theory aims to avoid extremes of structural or agent determinism. The balancing of agency and structure is referred to as the duality of structure: social structures make social action possible, and at the same time that social action creates those very structures.

For Giddens, structures are rules and resources (sets of transformation relations) organized as properties of social systems. Rules are patterns people may follow in social life. Resources relate to what is created by human action; they are not given by nature (explained further below). The theory employs a recursive notion of actions constrained and enabled by structures which are produced and reproduced by those actions. Consequently, this theory has been adopted by those with structuralist inclinations, but who wish to situate such structures in human practice rather than reify them as an ideal type or material property. (This is different, for example, from actor-network theory which grants a certain autonomy to technical artifacts.) Additionally, the theory of structuration distinguishes between discursive and practical knowledge, recognizes actors as having knowledge is reflexive and situated, and that habitual use becomes institutionalized.

A social system can be understood by its structure, modality, and interaction. Structure is constituted by rules and resources governing and available to agents. (Authoritative resources control persons, whereas allocative resources control material objects.) The modality of a structural system is the means by which structures are translated into action. Interaction is the activity instantiated by the agent acting within the social system. There has been some attempt by various theorists to link structuration theory to systems theory (with its emphasis on recursive loops) or the complexity theory of organizational structure (which emphasizes the adaptabililty that simple structures provide). Thus social systems have patterns of social relation that exist over time; the changing nature of space and time will thus determine the interaction of social relations and therefore structure. 19th century Britain - (time)- had a geographically defined space and there were certain rules set out by the time and space, therefore this affects the action thus determining structure and the structure is upheld insofar as it is reproduced in actionTemplate:Vague. Hitherto social structures or 'models of society' were taken to be beyond the realm of human control—the positivistic approach; the other social theory would be that of action creating society—the interpretivist approach. The duality of structure would argue that, in the most basic assumption, that they are one and the same—different sides to the coin of a similar problem of order.

Agency, as Giddens calls it, is human action. To be human is to be an agent, although not all agents are human beings. Agents' knowledge of their society informs their action, which reproduce social structures, which in turn enforce and maintain the dynamics of action. Giddens defines 'ontological security' as the trust people have in social structure; everyday actions have some degree of predictability, thus ensuring social stability. This is not always true, though, as the possession of agency allows one to break away from normative actions, and depending on the sum of social factors at work, they may instigate shifts in the social structure. The dynamic between agency and structure makes such generative action possible.

Thus agency can lead to both the reproduction and the transformation of society. Another way to explain this concept is by, what Giddens calls, the "reflexive monitoring of actions"Template:Fact. Reflexive monitoring looks at the ability to look at actions to judge their effectiveness in achieving their objectives: if agents can reproduce structure through action, they can also transform itTemplate:Vague.

Types of structures

Giddens identifies three types of structures in social systems, those of signification, legitimation, and domination. These are analytical distinctions, rather than distinct ideal types, that mobilize and reinforce one another.

  • Domination: produces (and is an exercise of) power, originating from the control of resources.

To understand how they work together, consider how the signification of a concept (e.g., the use of the word "patriot" in political speech) borrows from and contributes to legitimization (e.g., nationalistic norms) and coordinates forms of domination (e.g., a police state), from which it in turn gains further force.


Sewell (1992) provides a useful summary of the theory as well as taking on one of its underspecified aspects: the question "Why are structural changes possible?" He argues changes arises from (p. 16-19):

  • "The multiplicity of structures—societies are based on practices that derived from many distinct structures, which exist at different levels, operate in different modalities, and are themselves based on widely varying types and quantities of resources."
  • the transposability of rules: they can be "applied to a wide and not fully predictable range of cases outside the context in which they were initially learned."
  • the unpredictability of resource accumulation (e.g. investment, military tactics, or a comedian's repertoire).
  • the polysemy of resources (e.g., to what should success in resource accumulation be attributed?).
  • the intersection of structures (e.g. in the structure of capitalist society there are both the modes of production based on private property and profit, as well as the mode of labor organization based on worker solidarity).


This theory has been adapted and augmented by researchers interested in the relationship between technology and social structures (see Theories of technology), such as information technology in organizations. DeSanctis and Poole (1990) borrow from Giddens in order to propose an "adaptive structuration theory" with respect to the emergence and use of group decision support systems. In particular, they use Giddens' notion of "modalities of structuration," how social structures are appropriated into concrete situations, to consider how technology is used with respect to its "spirit." Appropriations are the immediate visible actions that evidence deeper structuration processes and are enacted with moves (DeSanctis and Poole 1994:128). Appropriations may be faithful or unfaithful, be used instrumentally, and be used with various attitudes (1994:129).

Orlikowski (1992) borrows Giddens' structuration theory and applies her critique of the duality of structure to technology: "The duality of technology identifies prior views of technology - as either objective force or as socially constructed product - as a false dichotomy" (p. 406). She compares this to previous models (the technological imperative, strategic choice, and technology as a trigger) and considers the importance of meaning, power, norms, and interpretive flexibility within the theory of structuration. Orlikowski (2000) revisits the theory of structuration so as to replace the notion of embedded properties (DeSanctis and Poole 1990, 1994, Orlikowski 1992) for enactment (use). The 'practice lens' permits one to examine how people, as they interact with a technology in their ongoing practices, enact structures which shape their emergent and situated use of that technology. While Orlikowski's work has been focused on multinationals and corporates, it is equally applicable to the technology cultures which have emerged in smaller community-based organizations, and can be further adapted through the lens of sensitivity to gendered differences in approaches to the governance of technology (Stillman, 2006).

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