Structuration Theory – A Summary

From a structurationist perspective, a social theory must explain both social reproduction (social order being reproduced over time by people continuing to act in ways inherited from the past) and social transformation (how social order is changed by people, intentionally or unintentionally, through their interactions.

Structuration theory seeks to overcome what it sees as the failings of earlier social theory, avoiding both its ‘objectivist’ and ‘subjectivist’ extremes by forging new terminology to describe how people both create and are created by social reproduction and transformation.

The very word structuration attempts to show that social structure and individual action are elements of one single process, the ‘constitution of society’ as Giddens (1984) puts it.

The two most important contemporary structuration theorists are Giddens and Bourdieu. What they both have in common is that they focus on social ‘practices’ rather than ‘actions’. Practices are everyday activities that are routinized, and social structure is just simply routinized practices, and the memories in people’s heads that allow them to keep doing those practices in those ways over time. (Reckwitz 2002).

Thus ‘social structure’ and ‘society’ are not ‘things’ outside of individuals and their practices, they are those practices.

The focus on practices draws from phenomenology the idea of ‘practical consciousness’, the idea that what most people do most of the time is semi-conscious. Practical consciousness, or practices are informed by a stock of taken-for-granted knowledge that makes-up and makes possible our everyday life-worlds. It is these practices which we generally do not reflect upon.

Bourdieu’s and Giddens’ structuration theories differ because they have been developed for different purposes.

Bourdieu, drawing mainly on Marx (especially), Weber and Durkheim, regarded his sociology as one aimed at revealing the nature and operation of forms of domination (which Bourdieu calls forms of ‘symbolic violence’), especially by the higher classes over the lower classes, and in his later life, Bourdieu was an outspoken intellectual, critical of neo-liberal policies.

In contrast, Giddens, drawing mainly on ethnomethodology, put his structuration theory at the service of the ‘third way’ politics associated with Bill Clinton and Tony Blaire which endeavoured to recast ‘soft left’ social democratic policies into an age of global capitalism. Structuration theory was also used by Giddens to diagnose contemporary social and cultural change, including transformations in self-identity and intimacy. (Giddens 1991).

Bourdieu tended to focus on the harms which symbolic violence did to the marginalised, while Giddens tended to focus on new opportunities for liberation which existed for all social classes.

Criticisms of these two are that Bourdieu ends up being too objectivist, Giddens, too subjectivist.

Sources

This post is a summary of chapter 10 from Inglis, D (2012) – A Invitation to Social Theory, Polity.

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