Giddens Structuration Theory

Agents and structures are not two independent phenomena, a dualism, but rather a duality.

One of our MGMT 590 assignments was to summarize a classic article or book for the class. For my classic I chose Anthony Giddens’ (1984) The Constitution of Society. The book brings together in one place an approach to social science – structuration theory (ST) – which Giddens had begun developing in earlier works.  In one sentence structuration theory’s thesis is that: Structure is both the medium and outcome of action.

Theoretically, structuration theory’s focus is on understanding human agency and social institutions, i.e., the social world (p. xvii).  For Giddens, doing so coherently requires that the dualism between objectivism and subjectivism “be reconceptualized as a duality – the duality of structure” (p. xxi; see also Cohen, 2000).  The result is not “interpretive sociology,” not “structural sociology” (p. xxi), and not “methodological individualism” (p. xxvii).

The rules and resources drawn upon in the production and reproduction of social action are at the same time the means of system reproduction… The constitution of agents and structures are not two independently given sets of phenomena, a dualism, but represent a duality” (pp. 19, 25).

Methodologically, social practices are the locus of this duality; they are “at the root of the constitution of both subject and social object” (p. xxii). For structuration theory, practices are the central unit of analysis (Cohen, 2000: 95, 96), and they are always situated in time and space (p. xxii, xxiv).  For Giddens, one implication of putting time and space at the heart of structuration theory is a need to rethink arbitrary divisions between sociology, history and geography (p. xxi).  In sum, structuration theory privileges neither the individual nor the collective, “but social practices ordered across space and time” (p. 2).

Empirically, studying structuration “means studying the modes in which such systems… are produced and reproduced” as a result of the activities of situated actors (p. 25).  Structuration theory can guide such research by drawing attention to (1) “the routinized intersection of practices which are the ‘transformation points’ in structural relations;” and (2) “the modes in which institutionalized practices connect social with system integration” (p. xxxi).

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Citation: Giddens, A. 1984. The Constitution of Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


One of this week’s MGMT 590 Colloquium readings is Stinchcombe’s (1986/1966) essay about researchers getting “hung-up” during the course of the research process.

Stinchcombe’s core argument is that scholarly research is an identity project (pp. 274, 276, 278). As a result research struggles (i.e., “getting hung-up and other assorted illness” ) are really identity struggles (p. 278). For Stinchcombe the ultimate solution to this research-as-identity tension is an identity shift, from a self-absorbed perspective, to one which embraces “ultimate values” (pp. 276, 281). 

In the essay Stinchcombe conceives of researchers as producers of new knowledge, a process he describes as choosing an objective for oneself, and then motivating oneself by that objective alone. He sees these research decisions as “perfectly free choices” (p. 272). This freedom of choice produces an “identity problem,” as these choices are a reflection on the kind of person a researcher intends to be (p. 272).

Some specific examples of research struggles as identity struggles include:

  • “Publication shyness or refusal to finish is clearly related to the problem of putting one’s identity on the block” (p. 274).
  • Dissertations are particularly susceptible to such pitfalls because “graduate students are more often interested in their work for what it tells them about themselves… than for what it tells them about the world” (p. 276).
  • More than intellectual identities are at stake.  “Ethnic, national, and sex identities usually become involved in the choice of research topics,” often limiting “the vision of scholars” (p. 278).
  • The resulting identity “distortions” can even bring research to a complete stop when one’s identity “demands a kind of work which the environment will not accept” (p. 279).

Later in the essay Stinchcombe returns to the voluntaristic theme, “Many of us chose a research career because we wanted to choose our own intellectual identities, and would quit if we could not” (p. 279). He argues that the resulting credo of “academic freedom” implicates “sacred values,” invasions of which are vigorously resisted (p. 279-280). Here he finds another tension: the academic freedom scholars crave is simultaneously the source of the academic ambiguity they dread. The two are recursively linked. 

Stinchcombe also introduces, though leaves underdeveloped, “the relatively new role of the research entrepreneur,” defined as one who can keep research moving through the web of social-intellectual relations in which research projects are embedded (p. 276). These research entrepreneurs are managers “of promises and commitments, of emphasizing the different aspects of the product for different faculty and foundation clients” (p. 277).

Finally, while noting there are “various games one can play with oneself to alleviate some of the distress,” ultimately “the only solution to the problem… is to shift one’s basis of self-respect to ultimate values,” such as as scientific advancement, social justice, and artistic excellence (p. 281). 

In sum, Stinchcombe sees research-as-identity, a tension he proposes researchers may best resolve by finding their identity in ultimate values. 

Two comments:

  • While Stinchcombe takes a highly voluntaristic view of researchers, I wonder if it is accurate to conceive of researchers as free to choose their research questions. What if such choices are subject to institutional constraints, historical path dependencies, and social dynamics related to one’s habitus, field and capital (ala Bourdieu)? Even if such “choices” are more deterministic than suggested by Stinchcombe does that invalidate his argument about research-as-identity? How might we reconcile a more deterministic view with the proposition of research-as-identity?
  • What are the implications of research-as-identity for the very possibility of science? If research agendas are really about identity, what truth can researchers possibly hope to discover, other than truth about themselves? Might inconsistent findings between researchers signify competing identities rather than true scientific inconsistencies? What if research findings are really just an identity discourse, one which tells us more about the epistemology of the researcher than the ontology of the world?

Citation: Stinchcombe, A. L. 1986/1966. “On getting hung-up and other assorted illnesses,” in Stratification and organization: 271-281. New York: Cambridge University Press.