Structure vs. Structuration

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The concept of structure can, traditionally, be related to the so-called ‘structuralist’ way of thinking. This paradigm, which can be traced back to the workings of Durkheim and De Saussure (on structural linguistics), gained ground as “one of the most influential scientific approaches of the twentieth century” (Lippuner & Werlen, 2009, p. 2), thanks to both structural anthropology and Marxist structuralism. All the lines of thought that can be placed under the umbrella of ‘structuralism’ are concerned with the way in which certain underlying universal, independent and fixed structures shape and determine “individual acting, thinking and talking” (that is, human agency) (Lippuner & Werlen, 2009, p. 2). These stable and stabilizing structures, which can be defined as “superindividual distribution patterns and collective symbol systems” (Lippuner & Werlen, 2009, p. 2), can take all kinds of forms. They can be, for instance, social (think in the tradition of Jean Piaget about structures in knowledge), economical (think in the tradition of Karl Marx, about capitalism) or cultural.

‘Structuration’ is a notion that is at the centre of attention in the work of the British sociologist Anthony Giddens, who, with his structuration theory, tried to solve the classical dichotomy within social science between structure (determinism) and agency (voluntarism). He states that not the structural categories of societies or social life should be the focus of social science (as structuralists claim), but ‘acts of structuration’. That is, social research should pay attention to the way that human agency constitutes social structures, as well as to the way that these social structures also work as the means of this constitution (‘the duality of social structures’). From this point of view structures are not something ‘out there’, something given a priori, but they are, instead, the outcome of actions (see also the entry of structuralism) as well as the meaning for generating action (or social praxis) (Lippuner & Werlen, 2009, p. 3). Also, structures from this point of view, which consist out of rules and resources, are not capable of acting themselves, as they have no consciousness. Furthermore, it is important to note that from this perspective ‘structure’ is implicated in every moment of social interaction. ‘Structures’ are not only constraints but also the very conditions of social action and, conversely, structure is an ‘absent’ order of differences, ‘present’ only in the moments of social interaction through which it is itself reproduced or transformed” (Giddens, in Gregory, Johnston, Pratt, Watts & Whatmore 2009, p. 726).

The above implies that the concept of structure from a structuralist point of view refers to (a high degree of) determinism, by giving the way within which social structures determine human agency analytical priority, whereas the term of structuration leaves room for a higher degree of individual human agency, taking a middle ground position between individual voluntarism on the one hand, and structuralism on the other: “It (structuration theory) does not deny that super-individual social circumstances provide the frame for the actors’ individual actions. However, structuration theory also points out that social structures have to be continually produced and reproduced, that is, maintained in everyday practices” (Lippuner & Werlen, 2009, p. 3). It is, therefore, claimed by Giddens that social life is an ongoing process of structuration (Gregory, Johnston, Pratt, Watts & Whatmore 2009).


  • Gregory, D., Johnston, R., Pratt, G., Watts, M. & Whatmore, S. (2009). The Dictionary of Human Geography, 5th edition. London: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.
  • Lippuner, R. & Werlen, B. (2009) Structuration Theory. In: International Encyclopedia for Human Geography. Elsevier.



  • Page enhanced and added to Category 'Anthony Giddens' by Iris van der Wal - 18:03, October 19th 2012
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