Structuration: A Bluffer’s Guide

While A-level students are usually well-versed in the difference between structural and action approaches, a lot less time, effort and teaching tends to given-over to alternative perspectives, such as Structuration. Which is a national disgrace bit disappointing.

To remedy this potential learning deficit I’ve put together this quick ‘n’ dirty guide to the main features of Structuration that will undoubtedly get you out of a tight spot in an exam.

Which, since you’re reading this, is not something entirely beyond the realms of probability.

Structure and action represent two sociological approaches to understanding the social world in the sense that each is interested in seeing and understanding human behaviour in different ways.

  • Structural sociology – which includes perspectives like functionalism, Marxism and feminism – is similar to looking at a society from a satellite in space; from this view you might see things like the shape of a society’s borders, its road and railway systems and so forth. You would, in other words, get a broad picture of that society – but what you wouldn’t see is people.

Anthony Giddens
  • Interactionism, in a similar way to perspectives like postmodernism and post-feminism, is like observing behaviour from a street corner; you get a close-up view of the hustle and bustle of people going about their daily lives, but you would have little or no sense of the “bigger picture”.

We could, however, argue concepts of structure and action are both important, in terms of understanding the relationship between society and the individual and in some ways complementary. Although we’re all individuals, our behavioural choices are influenced, limited and enhanced by the network of rules and responsibilities (social structures) that surround us. Just as we can’t conceive of society without individuals, it’s impossible to think about people without referring to the various ways our behaviour is structured.

Giddens (1984) Structuration theory argues structure and action are equally significant in terms of our ability to understand the relationship between the individual and society and the key to understanding this perspective, he argues, is the idea of practices (the things people do):

Structuration states that the basic domain of social science study is neither the experience of the individual nor the existence of any form of societal totality, but social practices. Through social activities people reproduce the actions that make these practices possible’

In other words, as people develop relationships, the rules they use to govern their respective behaviours are formalised (as norms, for example) into practices or routine ways of behaving towards each other. Once we start to think of the huge range of practices surrounding our lives we start to develop a sense of structure to the social world, which necessarily involves:

• Rules considered in terms of both the way our actions create behavioural rules and the idea that such rules become externalised (they seem to take on a life of their own, separate from our individual behaviours). In effect, therefore, although we may be involved in rule-making behaviour, such rules ‘reflect back’ on our behaviour in ways that suggest or demand conformity.

• Resources refers to concepts such as power and relates to how and why rules are created. Some rules, for example, are negotiated between individuals (your relationship with your friends, for example, is based on a series of unwritten and unspoken rules you’ve negotiated among yourselves), but others – such as laws governing things like the definition of murder – are, in some respects, non-negotiable; some rules are created by powerful groups and are simply imposed on people. Whatever your beliefs about a particular law, it applies to you whether you believe it does or not.

A couple of key criticisms of this perspective relate to:

• Power: One possible criticism of structuration is it doesn’t sufficiently take account of the way power in society is unequally distributed (for example, the rich have more power than the poor, men have more power than women). The practices of the powerful may become entrenched, in the sense they are beyond the ability of the powerless to change. In other words, the relatively powerless do not, through their everyday practices, ‘create society’; rather, it’s through everyday practice that people experience the power of ‘society’.

• Structure or action: A number of criticisms have been aimed at the claim we can easily combine these two very different ideas. Clegg (1989), for example, argues that although structuration theory talks about structure and action being equally significant, Giddens, in effect, considers human action as being considerably more significant. Similarly, Layder (1987) argues structuration gives very little attention to the concept of social structures as ‘determinants of action’. In other words, there is little sense that social structures (as opposed to human practices) can have very much effect on people’s behaviour.

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