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In Aitken and Valentine (2006, p. 342) structuralism is defined as:

“A theoretical approach to human geography which is characterized by a belief that in order to understand the surface patterns of human behavior it is necessary to understand the structures underlying them which produce or shape human actions.”

Structuralism assumes that there are social and cultural structures within society and that those shape individual acting, thinking and talking (Lippuner & Werlen, 2009, p. 2). So structuralism doesn’t focus on the individual motive and interpretation of things, but on material and symbolic structures which function as a mold for social praxis. Structures are a crucial part of the social world and are attributed with generative or causal power (Lippuner & Werlen, 2009, p. 4).

The structuration theory, who’s main proponents are the Britisch sociologist Anthony Giddens and the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, finds it’s origin in this approach, but differs from it in the sense that it wants to overcome the dichotomy of agency and structure (Lippuner & Werlen, 2009, p. 2). According to Giddens, structure does not exist at one moment: structure is a continuous flow, a process reproduced by actions. That's why he prefers 'structuration' in stead of 'structuralism'. Structuration theory views society not as existing independent of human activity but also not as a product of human activity. This ‘duality of structure’ is a central point in Gidden’s structuration theory. You could say: “structure is both medium and outcome of the reproduction of practices” (Dyck and Kearns, in Aitken and Valentine, 2006, p. 87). So in structuration theory, it is also important how structures come into being through a dynamic process (Bryant & Jary, 1991, p.7). Another difference is that from the view of structuration theory, structures don’t have power themselves; the main constitutive power is assigned to the agency of human individuals (Lippuner & Werlen, p. 4). Benno Werlen (2009, abstract) puts it as follows:

“[…] the relation of structure and social practice is dual, meaning that social practices refer to social structures and that social structures are the result of previously performed practices and social actions.”

Another structuralist-thinker is Jean Piaget. He explained his - more psychological - ideas about structuralism, through his theory of cognitive psychological development of children. He said that the process of gathering knowledge consists of different phases (or stages), and therefor structures. Each stage in the development of knowledge has its own characteristics and systems, but also knowledge itself consists of structures, according to Piaget.

Ideas of structuralism can be used in many fields. One of those fields is history. Structuralists believe that throughout history their have been many events that have shaped the history as we know it nowadays. These structural events result in a totalizing history, a history that counts for everyone. They don't make a distinction between diffent contexts. This distinction is typically for Post-structuralism.


To understand the bigger picture, it is needed to see the underlying patterns of human behaviour. So for example, to see why migration is happening, you must look at the underlying patterns, such as poverty, low chances of improvement and violence that influence the people. these factors trigger people to migrate.

Structuralism is an approach within geography which is characterised by the fact that the belief that to understand the surface patterns of human behaviour, it is necessary to have knowledge about the structures underlying them which produce or shape human actions. For example a certain region in the Netherlands wants, to attract new people to their region. Then they should first have an extensive research on the underlying patterns and motives of people to move a specific region. After that the region can take targeted steps in attracting those people towards their region, otherwise it is nearly impossible to attract several new people to their region. This example shows how important it is to have clear knowledge of the motives for human behaviour. Only if you have that knowledge, you will be able to influence human behaviour.


  • Aitken, S., Valentine, G. (2006). Approaches to Human Geography. Sage: London.
  • Bryant, C.G.A., Jary, D. (1991). Giddens’ theory of structuration: A critical appreciation. Routledge: London.
  • Lippuner, R., Werlen, B. (2009). Structuration theory. Elsevier.
  • Werlen, B. (2009). Structurationist geography. Elsevier.


  • Edited by Frank Simons
  • Page enhanced by Iris van der Wal - 16:43, October 19th 2012
  • Page enhanced by Robert Wursten

Edited by --MaikVanDeVeen 16:07, 31 December 2012 (CET)

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