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Anthony Giddens:
The theory of structuration


Giddens's theory of structuration notes that social life is more than random individual acts, but is not merely determined by social forces. To put it another way, it's not merely a mass of 'micro'-level activity - but on the other hand, you can't study it by only looking for 'macro'-level explanations. Instead, Giddens suggests, human agency and social structure are in a relationship with each other, and it is the repetition of the acts of individual agents which reproduces the structure. This means that there is a social structure - traditions, institutions, moral codes, and established ways of doing things; but it also means that these can be changed when people start to ignore them, replace them, or reproduce them differently.

In the book Conversations with Anthony Giddens (Giddens and Pierson, 1998), we find Giddens untroubled by his critics' efforts to find problems in the detail of how this might actually work. His 'oh, you're making it very complicated, but it's perfectly simple' attitude might frustrate some, but you can't really argue with it, because the whole idea of structuration is perfectly straightforward and, like many Giddens arguments, eminently sensible.

Social order and social reproduction

But if individuals find it difficult to act in any way that they fancy, what is the nature of those invisible social forces which provide resistance? Giddens finds an answer by drawing an analogy with language: although language only exists in those instances where we speak or write it, people react strongly against others who disregard its rules and conventions. In a similar way, the 'rules' of social order may only be 'in our heads' - they are not usually written down, and often have no formal force to back them up - but nevertheless, people can be shocked when seemingly minor social expectations are not adhered to. Harold Garfinkel's sociological studies in the 1960s showed that when people responded in unexpected ways to everyday questions or situations, other actors could react quite angrily to this breach of the collective understanding of 'normal behaviour' (see Garfinkel 1984 [first published 1967]).

In the case of gender this form of social reproduction is particularly clear. [...]

So people's everyday actions reinforce and reproduce a set of expectations - and it is this set of other people's expectations which make up the 'social forces' and 'social structures' that sociologists talk about. As Giddens puts it, 'Society only has form, and that form only has effects on people, in so far as structure is produced and reproduced in what people do' (Giddens & Pierson, 1998: 77).

Next on Giddens: Modernity, post-modernity and the post-traditional.
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This is only an edited and simplified version of material which will appear in this book.

Please don't use this text without this credit.

© David Gauntlett 2002.