Anthony Giddens 1984

Structuration Theory, Empirical Research and Social Critique

Source: The Constitution of Societgy, pp. 281-286.

A Reiteration of Basic Concepts

It might be useful at this point to recapitulate some of the basic ideas contained in the preceding chapters. I shall summarize these as a number of points; taken together, they represent the aspects of structuration theory which impinge most generally upon problems of empirical research in the social sciences.

(1) All human beings are knowledgeable agents. That is to say, all social actors know a great deal about the conditions and consequences of what they do in their day-to-day lives. Such knowledge is not wholly propositional in character, nor is it incidental to their activities. Knowledgeability embedded in practical consciousness exhibits an extraordinary complexity – a complexity that often remains completely unexplored in orthodox sociological approaches, especially those associated with objectivism. Actors are also ordinarily able discursively to describe what they do and their reasons for doing it. However, for the most part these faculties are geared to the flow of day-to-day conduct. The rationalization of conduct becomes the discursive offering of reasons only if individuals are asked by others why they acted as they did. Such questions are normally posed, of course, only if the activity concerned is in some way puzzling – if it appears either to flout convention or to depart from the habitual modes of conduct of a particular person.

(2) The knowledgeability of human actors is always bounded on the one hand by the unconscious and on the other by unacknowledged conditions/unintended consequences of action. Some of the most important tasks of social science are to be found in the investigation of these boundaries, the significance of unintended consequences for system reproduction and the ideological connotations which such boundaries have.

(3) The study of day-to-day life is integral to analysis of the reproduction of institutionalized practices. Day-to-day life is bound up with the repetitive character of reversible time with paths traced through time-space and associated with the constraining and enabling features of the body. However, day-to-day life should not be treated as the ‘foundation’ upon which the more ramified connections of social life are built. Rather, these more far-flung connections should be understood in terms of an interpretation of social and system integration.

(4) Routine, psychologically linked to the minimizing of unconscious sources of anxiety, is the predominant form of day-to-day social activity. Most daily practices are not directly motivated. Routinized practices are the prime expression of the duality of structure in respect of the continuity of social life. In the enactment of routines agents sustain a sense of ontological security.

(5) The study of context, or of the contextualities of interaction is inherent in the investigation of social reproduction ‘Context’ involves the following: (a) the time-space boundaries (usually having symbolic or physical markers) around interaction strips; (b) the co-presence of actors, making possible the visibility of a diversity of facial expressions, bodily gestures, linguistic and other media of communication, (c) awareness and use of these phenomena reflexively to influence or control the flow of interaction.

(6) Social identities, and the position-practice relations associated with them, are ‘markers’ in the virtual time-space of structure They are associated with normative rights, obligations and sanctions which, within specific collectivities, form roles The use of standardized markers, especially to do with the bodily attributes of age and gender, is fundamental in all societies, notwithstanding large cross-cultural variations which can be noted.

(7) No unitary meaning can be given to ‘constraint’ in social analysis. Constraints associated with the structural properties of social systems are only one type among several others characteristic of human social life.

(8) Among the structural properties of social systems, structural principles are particularly important, since they specify overall types of society. It is one of the main emphases of structuration theory that the degree of closure of societal totalities – and of social systems in general – is widely variable. There are degrees of ‘systemness’ in societal totalities, as in other less or more inclusive forms of social system. It is essential to avoid the assumption that what a ‘society’ is can be easily defined, a notion which comes from an era dominated by nation-states with clear-cut boundaries that usually conform in a very close way to the administrative purview of centralized governments. Even in nation-states, of course, there are a variety of social forms which cross-cut societal boundaries.

(9) The study of power cannot be regarded as a second-order consideration in the social sciences. Power cannot be tacked on, as it were, after the more basic concepts of social science have been formulated. There is no more elemental concept than that of power. However, this does not mean that the concept of power is more essential than any other, as is supposed in those versions of social science which have come under a Nietzschean influence. Power is one of several primary concepts of social science, all clustered around the relations of action and structure. Power is the means of getting things done and, as such, directly implied in human action. It is a mistake to treat power as inherently divisive, but there is no doubt that some of the most bitter conflicts in social life are accurately seen as ‘power struggles’. Such struggles can be regarded as to do with efforts to subdivide resources which yield modalities of control in social systems. By ‘control’ I mean the capability that some actors, groups or types of actors have of influencing the circumstances of action of others. In power struggles the dialectic of control always operates, although what use agents in subordinate positions can make of the resources open to them differs very substantially between different social contexts.

(10) There is no mechanism of social organization or social reproduction identified by social analysts which lay actors cannot also get to know about and actively incorporate into what they do. In very many instances the ‘findings’ of sociologists are such only to those not in the contexts of activity of the actors studied. Since actors do what they do for reasons, they are naturally likely to be disconcerted if told by sociological observers that what they do derives from factors that somehow act externally to them. Lay objections to such ‘findings’ may thus have a very sound basis. Reification is by no means purely characteristic of lay thought.

These points suggest a number of guidelines for the overall orientation of social research.

First, all social research has a necessarily cultural, ethnographic or ‘anthropological’ aspect to it. This is an expression of what I call the double hermeneutic which characterizes social science The sociologist has as a field of study phenomena which are already constituted as meaningful. The condition of ‘entry’ to this field is getting to know what actors already know, and have to know, to ‘go on’ in the daily activities of social life. The concepts that sociological observers invent are ‘second-order’ concepts in so far as they presume certain conceptual capabilities on the part of the actors to whose conduct they refer. But it is in the nature of social science that these can become ‘first-order’ concepts by being appropriated within social life itself. What is ‘hermeneutic’ about the double hermeneutic? The appropriateness of the term derives from the double process of translation or interpretation which is involved. Sociological descriptions have the task of mediating the frames of meaning within which actors orient their conduct. But such descriptions are interpretative categories which also demand an effort of translation in and out of the frames of meaning involved in sociological theories. Various considerations concerning social analysis are connected with this:

(1) Literary style is not irrelevant to the accuracy of social descriptions. This is more or less important according to how far a particular piece of social research is ethnographic – that is, is written with the aim of describing a given cultural milieu to others who are unfamiliar with it.

(2) The social scientist is a communicator, introducing frames of meaning associated with certain contexts of social life to those in others. Thus the social sciences draw upon the same sources of description (mutual knowledge) as novelists or others who write fictional accounts of social life. Goffman is able quite easily to intersperse fictional illustrations with descriptions taken from social science research because he seeks very often to ‘display’ the tacit forms of mutual knowledge whereby practical activities are ordered, rather than trying to chart the actual distribution of those activities.

(3) ‘Thick description’ will be called for in some types of research (especially that of a more ethnographic kind) but not in others. It is usually unnecessary where the activities studied have generalized characteristics familiar to those to whom the ‘findings’ are made available, and where the main concern of the research is with institutional analysis, in which actors are treated in large aggregates or as ‘typical’ in certain respects defined as such for the purposes of the study.

Second, it is important in social research to be sensitive to the complex skills which actors have in coordinating the contexts of their day-to-day behavior. In institutional analysis these skills may be more or less bracketed out, but it is essential to remember that such bracketing is wholly methodological. Those who take institutional analysis to comprise the field of sociology in toto mistake a methodological procedure for an ontological reality. Social life may very often be predictable in its course, as such authors are prone to emphasize. But its predictability is in many of its aspects ‘made to happen’ by social actors; it does not happen in spite of the reasons they have for their conduct. If the study of unintended consequences and unacknowledged conditions of action is a major part of social research, we should none the less stress that such consequences and conditions are always to be interpreted within the flow of intentional conduct. We have to include here the relation between reflexively monitored and unintended aspects of the reproduction of social systems, and the ‘longitudinal’ aspect of unintended consequence of contingent acts in historically significant circumstances of one kind or another.

Third, the social analyst must also be sensitive to the time space constitution of social life. In part this is a plea for a disciplinary coming together. Social scientists have normally been content to let historians be specialists in time and geographer, specialists in space, while they maintain their own distinctive disciplinary identity, which, if it is not an exclusive concern with structural constraint, is bound up with a conceptual focus upon ‘society’. Historians and geographers, for their part, have been willing enough to connive at this disciplinary dissection of social science. The practitioners of a discipline, apparently, do not feel secure unless they can point to a sharp conceptual delimitation between their concerns and those of others. Thus ‘history’ may be seen as about sequences of events set out chronologically in time or perhaps, even more ambiguously, about ‘the past’. Geography, many of its representatives like to claim, finds its distinctive character in the study of spatial forms. But if, as I have emphasized, time-space relations cannot be ‘pulled out’ of social analysis without undermining the whole enterprise, such disciplinary divisions actively inhibit the tackling of questions of social theory significant for the social sciences as a whole. Analyzing the time-space co-ordination of social activities means studying the contextual features of locales through which actors move in their daily paths and the regionalization of locales stretching away across time-space. As I have accentuated frequently, such analyze, is inherent in the explanation of time-space distanciation and hence in the examination of the heterogeneous and complex nature assumed by larger societal totalities and by intersocietal systems in general.