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structuration theory

  An approach to social theory developed by the British sociologist Anthony Giddens (b. 1938) that seeks to elucidate the intersections between knowledgeable and capable human agents and the wider social systems and structures in which they are implicated.

Giddens identified the central problem in modern social theory as a dualism between \'agency\' and \'structure\' that recurs across the whole field of the humanities and the social sciences (cf. Chouinard, 1997). He also proposed an explanation for the chronic failure to reconcile the two: the mistake, so he said, was to treat \'structure\' as establishing the parameters within which \'agency\' was able to exercise its independent discretion. Giddens argued that structure was instead implicated in every moment of action — that it was at once constraining and enabling — and that, conversely, structure was an \'absent\' order of differences, \'present\' only in the constituting moments of interaction through which it was itself reproduced or transformed. These ideas were formalized in a model of the duality — not dualism — of structure that depended upon three fundamental concepts:

Reflexivity: the production and reproduction of social life is a skilled accomplishment on the part of knowledgeable and capable human subjects (see human agency) rather than an autonomic response to any transhistorical \'logic\' or \'functional imperative\' (cf. functionalism).

Recursiveness: social life goes forward under conditions that are neither fully comprehended nor wholly intended by social actors but which nonetheless enter directly into the production and reproduction of the stream of social practices in which actors are involved: more technically, \'structure\' — which Giddens conceives as sets of rules and resources made available by structures of signification, domination and legitimation (see figure 1) — is both the medium and the outcome of the social practices constituting social systems.

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structuration 1: System and structure

Regionalization: the continuity of social life depends both on interactions between actors who are co-present in time and/or space and on relations that reach beyond the \'here and now\' to constitute interactions with others who are absent in time and/or space. These two dimensions — time-space routinization and time-space distanciation — entail the articulation of \'presences\' and \'absences\' through modes of regionalization that channel social life into and out of sites/locales/domains (see figure 2; see also time-geography).

{img src=show_image.php?name=bkhumgeofig72.gif }

structuration 2: Time-space relations

Giddens argued that these propositions made it possible to explicate the interconnection of routinized and repetitive conduct between actors or groups of actors with long-term, large-scale institutional development in a depth which is denied to both conventional social theory and historical materialism (see Giddens, 1979, 1981, 1984, 1985). Several human geographers agreed that Giddens\'s ideas had much to offer studies of historico-geographical change, but most of them were much more reserved than Giddens about distancing themselves from historical materialism (Gregory, 1982; Harris, 1991; Pred, 1990; Thrift, 1983). In any event, in his later writings Giddens was markedly less interested in fleshing out his arguments about the genealogy of class societies and capitalism with any empirical sophistication, than in using some of the basic ideas of structuration theory as what he preferred to call \'sensitizing devices\' that enabled him to offer a generalized, highly schematic argumentation-sketch of the constitution of late twentieth-century \'high modernity\' (see Giddens, 1990, 1991, 1994) (see also modernity). Of most interest to human geography have been Giddens\'s claims that, in the course of the twentieth century, and intensifying since the end of the Second World War:

(1) The proliferation and circulation of information and knowledge in late twentieth-century societies has not only sustained \'reflexivity\' but also heightened uncertainty in a process of reflexive modernization;(2) The generalized \'disembedding\' of spheres of social life through processes of time-space distanciation has dissolved many of the ties that once held the conditions of daily life in place (as localized condensations of social practices) and recombined them across much larger tracts of time-space to issue in the globalization of social life on a continuous and systematic basis.Structuration theory attracted considerable attention not only in human geography but in the social sciences more generally; but several criticisms of structuration theory in particular and Giddens\'s project in general made its status much less secure as the 1980s turned into the 1990s.

First, Giddens\'s advertisement of structuration theory as a critique of historical materialism was held to be suspect. While most of his critics conceded that his work was a serious engagement with Marx\'s writings, they objected to the \'almost complete absence of any serious examination of the theory or history of Marxism after Marx\' (Gane, 1983) and were often puzzled as to why his own account of social change, \'with its stress on changing modes of surplus-extraction\', should be regarded \'as in any sense critical of or an alternative to Marxism\' (Callinicos, 1985; Sayer, 1990). Indeed, Wright (1989) concludes that Giddens\'s propositions are \'largely compatible with most of the substantive claims of both classical and contemporary Marxism\'. Many human geographers were persuaded of the affinities between structuration theory and historical materialism, but for this precise reason some Marxist geographers (particularly those who were attracted to Marx\'s own work) could see no good grounds to change their theoretical vocabularies.

Secondly, Giddens was charged with eclecticism. It is impossible, so many critics argued, to bring together such radically discrepant theoretical traditions and rework them into some new synthesis. This charge might have lost some of its force in recent years, since there are probably few geographers who now situate their work under the sign of a single \'-ism\' or \'-ology\': but this does not mean that intellectual work can evade the responsibilities of discrimination and judgement. Indeed, Mestrovic (1998) insists that there are profound political and ethical dangers in Giddens\'s syncretic project, which, so he says, elevates ambivalence into virtue. Again, this is an argument familiar to human geographers who have had to negotiate a passage between essentialism and foundationalism on the one side and relativism on the other.

Thirdly, Giddens was supposed to have retained the very dualism he sought to transcend. According to Archer (1990), structuration theory \'oscillates between the two divergent images it bestrides, between (a) the hyperactivity of agency, whose corollary is the innate volatility of society, and (b) the rigid coherence of structural properties associated with the essential recursiveness of social life\'. In fact Giddens has consistently advocated a methodological bracketing that allows for either the analysis of strategic conduct or the analysis of institutions. Insofar as this manoeuvre merely transposes the dualism between \'agency\' and \'structure\' from a theoretical to a methodological level, it is perhaps scarcely surprising that there should have been so few empirical exemplifications of structuration theory inside or outside human geography (Gregson, 1989).

Fourthly, Giddens\'s conceptions of both \'agency\' and \'structure\' have been attacked: the former for collapsing agency into action, for tying agency too closely to everyday conduct understood as \'doing\' (Dallmayr, 1982), and the latter for collapsing structure into rules and resources, and thereby driving the notion of structure back into the concrete and \'depriving it of autonomous [objective] properties which govern conduct quite independently of the creative and constituting capacities of actors\' (Layder, 1981). Certainly many human geographers have become highly sceptical of the account of human agency offered by structuration theory: its emphasis on \'rational action\' leaves no conceptual space for passion and desire, considerations that have animated human geography\'s contemporary interest in subjectivity and processes of subject formation; and much of this developing work has been informed by a post-structuralism with which Giddens has little sympathy. Indeed, Thrift (1996, pp. 54-5) has argued that most of the lacunae in structuration theory can be traced back to Giddens\'s limited encounter with post-structuralism. He suggests that this includes its anaemic version of \'structure\': \'Giddens over-emphasizes action as individual and never fully considers the ghost of networked others that continually informs that action\' (cf. actor-network theory).

Fifthly, and closely connected to the foregoing, Giddens is seen to have an unusually weak understanding of culture. Critics have argued that not only does this contract the generalized contours of structuration theory but it also impoverishes Giddens\'s understanding of modernity, \'postmodernity\' and the politics of postmodernism (Gregory, 1994, pp. 123-4; Thrift, 1996, p. 55; Mestrovic, 1998, pp. 25, 221). And it is perhaps the absence of culture — more than anything else — that accounts for the coincidence between the eclipse of Giddens\'s star in human geography in the 1990s and the rise of a critical cultural geography to a new prominence within the discipline. (DG)

References Archer, M. 1990: Human agency and social structure: a critique of Giddens. In J. Clark, C. Modgil and S. Modgil, eds, Anthony Giddens: consensus and controversy. Brighton: Falmer Press, 73-84. Callinicos, A. 1985: Anthony Giddens: a contemporary critique. Theory and Society 14: 133-66. Chouinard, V. 1997: Structure and agency: contested concepts in human geography. Canadian Geographer 41: 363-77. Dallmayr, F. 1982: The theory of structuration: a critique. In A. Giddens, Profiles and critiques in social theory. London: Macmillan, 18-25. Gane, M. 1983: Anthony Giddens and the crisis of social theory. Economy and Society 12: 368-98. Giddens, A. 1979: Central problems in social theory. London: Macmillan. Giddens, A. 1981: A contemporary critique of historical materialism, vol. 1: Power, property and the state. London: Macmillan. Giddens, A. 1984: The constitution of society. Cambridge: Polity Press. Giddens, A. 1985: A contemporary critique of historical materialism, vol. 2: The nation-state and violence. Cambridge: Polity Press. Giddens, A. 1990: The consequences of modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Giddens, A. 1991: Modernity and self-identity. Cambridge: Polity Press. Giddens, 1994: Beyond Left and Right: the future of radical politics. Cambridge: Polity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Gregory, D. 1982: Regional transformation and industrial revolution. London: Macmillan; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Gregory, D. 1989: Presences and absences: time-space relations and structuration theory. In D. Held and J.B. Thompson, eds, Social theory of the modern societies: Anthony Giddens and his critics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 185-214. Gregory, D. 1994: Geographical imaginations. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. Gregson, N. 1989: On the (ir)relevance of structuration theory to empirical research. In D. Held and J.B. Thompson, eds, Social theory of the modern societies: Anthony Giddens and his critics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 235-48. Harris, R.C. 1991: Power, modernity and historical geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 81: 671-83. Layder, D. 1981: Structure, interaction and social theory. London: Routledge. Mestrovic, S. 1998: Anthony Giddens: the last modernist. London and New York: Routledge. Pred, A. 1990: Making histories and constructing human geographies. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Sayer, D. 1990: Reinventing the wheel: Anthony Giddens, Karl Marx and social change. In J. Clark, C. Modgil, and S. Modgil, eds, Anthony Giddens: consensus and controversy. Brighton: Falmer, 235-50. Thrift, N. 1983: On the determination of social action in space and time. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 1: 23-57. Thrift, N.J. 1996: Spatial formations. London: Sage. Wright, E.O. 1989: Models of historical trajectory: an assessment of Giddens\'s critique of Marxism. In D. Held and J.B. Thompson, eds, Social theory of the modern societies: Anthony Giddens and his critics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 77-102.

Suggested Reading Bryant, C.G.A. and Jary, D. 1991: Giddens\' theory of structuration: a critical appreciation. London: Routledge, chs 4-5. Giddens (1984). Gregory (1994), 109-24. Thrift (1996), 53-61.



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