The Constitution of Society, Outline of the Theory of Structuration by Anthony Giddens

Giddens, Anthony (1984). The Constitution of Society, Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.
by Emily Ball Cicchini

It is always reassuring to find ideas in a great mind’s work that are generally consistent with concepts that you’ve already adopted. Such is the case with me and Anthony Giddens’ theory of structuration.

With the addition of a little background research on the book and the author, it becomes clear that this self-made intellectual and liberal advocate of the common man’s ideas have quite a wide scope which cross many social and humanistic disciplines (he has written over 40 books!). It’s quite possible that I’ve encountered them before in other forms and readings. And if not, it is reassuring that his trains of thought are not so far off the tracks of my own, particularly in regard to the reluctance to wholly embrace evolution as a model for the process of human social organizing. (Perhaps I hadn’t gone as far off the deep end in my review of Weick, 1979 as I had first imagined.)

The Constitution of Society is a very rich book of big thoughts. The most central and compelling of these concepts resonates with the age-old philosophical problem of free choice vs. determinism; to which he proposes more refined uses of the notions of agency and structure. He advocates for the re-inclusion of individual motivation and intention in sociological examinations (contrasted with objective functionalism) and defines structure as the social relations that create organization; as opposed to systems which may, or may not, be social. In doing so, he answers the time old question of are individuals knowing agents, or is the social system constraining their action, with a dualistic view: It’s both.

Moreover, it’s not just a static relationship between the two: it’s dynamic and recursive, a “dialectic of control.” The individual is positioned within a certain time and place, but can also effect social change, although the outcomes may not be entirely predictable. The social system changes the human, but the human also changes the social system.

Giddens references Freud and tries to redefine the id/ego/superego trinity as reflexive, discursive, and practical consciousness; although he admits that they don’t map directly onto psychoanalytic thought (p 41). He manages to pull out some value from Freud by releasing him from the stereotypical family dramas so often associated with his work, so that these forces can be seen on a more global social level; the basic needs of social relationships done almost automatically, or reflexively, the practical gets us through day to day life, and the discursive allows us to reflect and project into the future about what might be.

Giddens also spends lots of time with Goffman, valuing the day-to-day interpersonal reactions that can create trust through repetition, ritual, and “tact.” On page 85, he begins to allude to the impact of digital technology, although the book is a little early for the first large public wave of internet adoption:

“But in contemporary societies individuals are positioned within a widening range of zones, in home, workplace, neighbourhood, city, nation-state and a worldwide system, all displaying features of system integration which increasingly relates the minor details of daily life to social phenomena of massive time-space extension.” (p.85)

And shortly after, he defines his work in the context of positioning in perhaps the clearest terms anywhere in the book:

‘The concern of structuration theory is with ‘order’ as the transcending of time and space in human social relationships…(p.87)”

While he is using this phrase to set up discussion about the importance of routines in bridging the time-space, it really belies his bias about the role of structuration in society: it is to help maintain order, and to possibly to move towards increasing order. At the very least, we should be able to sustain a sense of stability and security from the process of structuration, in a “late modern” world that is still adjusting to much technological, economic, political and environmental change. His view of the purpose of organizing, unlike Weick in 1979, is decidedly more optimistic, and not merely functional, as if “organizations happen” is enough. It is not enough that we organize; Giddens seems to want for sociologists, and really, humanists, to help lead the way to a new way of relating with each other that respects both the large and small, the personal and the political, the micro and the macro. And with his deep references to case studies in education and the financial system with a lens towards their inequities, he seems to want for social change that reforms the global imbalance of wealth and power.

Like Weick, he is a scholar struggling to find rational grounding in an academic world dominated by quantitative and empirical methods. He boldly claims that there is no difference between sociology, history, and geography; just a matter of shifting focus on the people, time, and place (p 356). Indeed, he writes his theory as if it were prose, really wringing out the meaning out of every line of inquiry, believing that “literary style matters.”

He holds that social scientists are communicators who share frames of meaning across cultural contexts through their work by utilizing “the same sources of description (mutual knowledge) as novelists or others who write fictional accounts of social life.” (p 285)

Apparently, later in life, Giddens became more involved with political science, serving as an advisor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Libya’s former and now diseased leader Muammar al-Gaddafi.1,2 It must have been an incredible experience, to have had direct interaction with such diametrically opposed world leaders.

He also has much else to write about. Giddens writes (Modernity and Self-Identity: 1991, p 54) that:

“A person’s identity is not to be found in behaviour, nor – important though this is – in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going. The individual’s biography, if she is to maintain regular interaction with others in the day-to-day world, cannot be wholly fictive. It must continually integrate events which occur in the external world, and sort them into the ongoing ‘story’ about the self.”

One wonders what might have happened had he turned his considerable powers towards creative writing; or if, in his drawer, he might have a novel or autobiography sitting around himself.