Theory of structuration

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The Theory of Structuration, proposed by Anthony Giddens (1984) in The Constitution of Society, is an attempt to reconcile theoretical dichotomies of social systems such as agency/structure, subjective/objective, and macro/micro perspectives, which consider individuals as either acted upon (as elements within a structural context) or as autonomous agents. 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.

This is referred to as the duality of structure, so as to avoid extremes of structural or agent determinism. For example, Giddens writes: "Human history is created by intentional activities but is not an intended project" (p. 27). For Giddens, structures are rules and resources (sets of transformation relations) organized as properties of social systems. The theory employs a recursive notion of actions constrained and enabled by structures which are produced and reproduced by that action. Consequently, this theory has been adopted by those with structuralist inclinations, but who wish to situate such structures in human practice rather than rectify them as an ideal type or material property. (This is different, for example, from Actor-network theory which grants technical artifacts an autonomy.) Additionally, the theory of structuration distinguishes between discursive and practical knowledge, recognizes actors as knowledgeable and reflexive, their knowledge as 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.

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.

Signification
produces meaning through organized webs of language (semantic codes, interpretive schemes and discursive practices).
Legitimation
produces a moral order via naturalization in societal norms, values and standards.
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, why is 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 to?).
  • the intersection of structures: they interact (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).

Technology

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 1992:128). Appropriations may be faithful or unfaithful, be used instrumentally, and be used with various attitudes (1992:129).

Orlikowski (1992) borrows Giddens' structuration theory and applies his 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, 1992, 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.

References

  • Giddens, Anthony: The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration, University of California Press; Reprint edition (January 1, 1986) ISBN 0520057287
  • Desanctis, G. and Poole, M. S. (1990). Understanding the use of group decision support systems: the theory of adaptive structuration. In J. Fulk, C. S., editor, Organizations and Communication Technology, pages 173-193. Sage, Newbury Park, CA.
  • Orlikowski, W. J. (1992). The duality of technology: rethinking the concept of technology in organizations. Organization Science, 3(3):398-427. Earlier versionat at the URI http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/2300
  • Desanctis, G. and Poole, M. S. (1994). Capturing the complexity in advanced technology use: adaptive structuration theory. Organization Science, 5(2):121-147.
  • Orlikowski, W. J. (2000). Using technology and constituting structures: a practice lens for studying technology in organizations. Organization Science, 11(4):404-428.
  • Sewell, W. F. (1992). A theory of structure: duality, agency, and transformation. The American Journal of Sociology, 98(1):1-29.

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