The theory of structuration by Anthony Giddens is one of the most influential perspectives of the late twentieth century in the communication discipline. Its main argument is that communication in social systems is not simply a matter of individual action or social structure but a joint product of both these moments: social action, including communication, is an outcome of structuration, or the production and reproduction of structure in social interaction. Giddens’s theory (see Giddens 1984 for the most comprehensive statement) embeds this core phenomenon within a wide-ranging, integrative, institutional framework that encompasses many concepts of interest to scholars of human communication, including agency, identity, power, and modernity.
Main Arguments And Concepts
The signature contribution of structuration deals with the classic disagreement in social theory between perspectives that privilege action and those that privilege structure. Some positions assign primacy to the individual and his or her perceptions, experiences, and actions. For example, phenomenology takes the intuitive experience of the individual as its starting point, building from there to explain more aggregate features of the social world. Other perspectives take social structure as their starting point. Functionalism, for instance, holds that social institutions exist to serve social needs, like the need to live in an orderly society. Thus action- and structure-based explanations form a “dualism” in traditional social theory, always beginning at one of the points and moving to explain the other. Giddens’s innovation is to argue that action and structure in fact form a “duality”: they are part of a mutually constitutive system in which social structure is produced and reproduced in social interaction, with social structures constituting rules and resources that social actors use to accomplish interaction. Language illustrates of this process: interacting with others, we draw on language and its rules of use to make ourselves understood; however, these structures are not an absolute constraint. We can use words in novel ways or invent new ones, and bend the rules of grammar to suit our purposes, creating new rules and resources that are in play during future social interactions. To account for social phenomena as they change over time we must consider both existing structure and individual action.
This is not to say that all structures are equally fluid. Some structures are “chronically” reproduced, becoming sedimented over time, resulting in institutions. These structures are not impervious to change, but are resistant because of other structures that depend upon them and favor their reproduction. Giddens defines the three main institutional dimensions of structure as signification, domination, and legitimation, which correspond to phenomena of communication, power, and sanction in the domain of social interaction. Three modalities of interpretive schemes, facilities, and norms are responsible for the translation of phenomena from one domain to the other.
The dynamics of structure leads to two more key concepts: “agency” and the associated concept of “power.” The production and reproduction of structure in interaction is the work of human agents who have the ability to “act otherwise” (i.e., in ways other than those dictated by structure), because they have power. Though their power varies, all agents – except in unusual cases like torture – have some power, and this is what potentiates change in structuration.
However, their power is partly constrained in the stratification model of the agent. At base, agents are motivated to act on a number of conscious and unconscious grounds. Agents make sense of these motivations through the rationalization of action, relating their rationalizations to the consequences of what they do through a reflexive monitoring process. Yet the limitations of consciousness and cognition make this process imperfect, creating the possibility of unintended consequences of action that cannot be explained by agents’ rationalizations and associated motivations. This in turn creates the possibility of unacknowledged conditions of action. Together these phenomena explain how structures that nobody wants or intends can be created and perpetuated through the actions of powerful agents.
Modernity And Identity
Two other structuration concepts are especially relevant to theory and research in communication. Many social theorists believe that we live in a postmodern period of history, but Giddens regards this idea as questionable and argues instead (Giddens 1991) that we are in a period of “high modernity” (some believe “hypermodernity” may be a more apt label). The processes of modernity have not been surpassed or transcended; rather, they have reached their zenith and verge on spinning out of control.
Chief among the processes of high modernity is time-space distanciation. Whereas in premodern times social interaction was always firmly anchored in particular times and places, modernization has progressively and relentlessly ripped it from these moorings. Written language allows events at one time and place to influence events in the future and perhaps in different locations. As this and other innovations accumulated, social relations became progressively disembedded from the here and now. Given recent trends toward globalization, distanciation has progressed to such a degree that our lives are radically coupled to events that happen far from us in time and space, making the world seem increasingly incomprehensible, erratic, and unmanageable.
Abstract systems constitute the primary disembedding mechanisms of modernity, and Giddens distinguishes two types. Written language is a system of symbolic tokens (money is another example). Expert systems comprise complex assemblages that are based on expert technical knowledge. Examples include legal systems, governments, universities, and even the international air travel system. Whereas we engage symbolic tokens directly, our dealings with expert systems are mediated by access points, human agents – like lawyers, representatives, professors, and pilots – who represent, help us understand, and provide entrée to expert systems.
These features of modernity connect to identity through the concept of ontological security. This security-in-being is a natural consequence of interaction in circumstances of co-presence, instilled in us as children by close relationships with caregivers. As social relations move away from these circumstances through the operation of disembedding mechanisms, trust in others and in the systems with which we interact becomes increasingly relevant to our sense of ontological security. This sense of security allows us to develop a sense of self-identity, meaning “the self as reflexively understood by the person in terms of her or his biography” (Giddens 1991, 53).
Because of its radical decoupling of social relations from contexts of interaction, high modernity constitutes a grave source of risk. It forces us to deal with a world that we cannot completely understand, often once removed through the access points of abstract systems. This unpredictable and unreliable social world diminishes our bases for trust and creates threats to our ontological security, which in turn disrupt our sense of selfidentity. High modernity, therefore, creates conditions wherein self-identity is subject to constant reflection, reinterpretation, and change. Identity is radically socially constructed, and this makes the communicative processes that govern the construction process extremely important to understand.
Structuration In Communication Theory And Research
While there has been some debate about whether structuration is an ontology or a fullblown meta-theoretical perspective, in practice it has been most often applied to communication problems of the middle range as a general pattern for theory building. As a grand theory of society, it has most traction in the more collectively oriented sub-fields of organizational, small group, and mass communication, though there are some examples of its use in interpersonal communication.
Structuration theory finds its greatest application in organizational communication (see Poole & McPhee 2005 for a complete review), and is most commonly used to help explain the development of communication structures in organizations. Structural-functional accounts of organizations came under heavy criticism with the rise of social-constructionist perspectives in the early 1980s. Structuration theory is something of a midpoint between these perspectives because it emphasizes the duality of structure and the role of active agents but at the same time allows for reproduction of structure and even institutional sedimentation.
Structuration has been used to explain structures like vertical communication chains in organizations. Studies have shown that organizational hierarchy is produced and reproduced in these chains, giving a somewhat different picture of the hierarchy at different levels of the hierarchy, but still providing a unifying structure overall. Structuration has been used to explain communication networks as structures in the domain of social relations. Empirical tests have shown, for example, that informal hierarchies are produced and reproduced by organizational activity systems even when no formal hierarchies are specified. The theory has been applied as well to the development of concrete, formal structures such as family leave policies.
Structuration has also been applied to organizational identification, reframing the distinction between identity and identification and explaining how communication differentially reproduces identity across different organizational contexts and situations. Scott et al. (1998) introduce this idea by arguing that identity functions as a set of rules and resources that agents use for acts of communicative identification with organizations in concrete settings of interaction. Outside a formal organizational setting, structuration has been used to explain the identity of particular social groups.
Another topic in organizational communication where structuration has seen significant application is organizational climate. Against the traditional view of climate as a characteristic or property of an organization, a structuration approach conceives of it as a set of rules and resources that members use to construct communication about the organization (Poole & McPhee 1983). Structuration theory has been applied, both theoretically and empirically, to the related concept of organizational culture, and was used in an extensive study to help explain the development of interorganizational structures (Browning & Shetler 2000).
Structuration theory has also had a significant impact on the study of small group communication (see Seyfarth 2000 for a complete review). A major research program by Poole and DeSanctis (DeSanctis & Poole 1994) developed the concept of adaptive structuration theory (AST) to explain how groups use information technologies in task-related activity. Studying group decision support systems (GDSS), they employ structuration concepts at the micro-level by tracking how members produce and appropriate features of the GDSS in their interaction, and at the macro-level by studying the course of whole decisions or series of decisions through multiple sequences of decision-making phases.
Structuration has been employed to explain how communication serves as a resource in group interaction. Earlier works used it to theorize the impact of communication on group decision-making in general. Later empirical papers studied the use of arguments as resources in group interaction and values as resources in negotiations.
Structuration theory has had a lesser impact on two other areas of the discipline. There are several examples in mass communication and public relations, often mirroring applications in organizational and small group communication. For example, some studies explain the structure of news organizations. Others explain the appropriation of technology by news organizations, and the development of public media policy. Still others use it as a framework for case analysis in mass media and public relations. Finally, structuration has made small inroads into interpersonal communication research. In this context it is used as a framework for explaining the impact of family structures on interpersonal relationships.
Critiques And Future Directions
For a more comprehensive review of critiques of structuration theory, see Held and Thompson (1989). Poole and McPhee (2005) and Seyfarth (2000) also provide more detailed analysis of arguments for and against structuration in organizational and group communication, respectively. Two more common classes of critique are briefly reviewed here.
One argument says structuration does not facilitate empirical work: it is a good basis for “think pieces” but not much of a guide to empirical research. This critique was common when structuration was first introduced to the discipline and may have been more justified then. Yet it is still heard today even though it is surely no longer valid. Theoretical pieces have been regularly matched by empirical studies investigating their claims. The research discussed above, dealing with organizational structures, identification, group appropriation of technologies, and studies of media cases, are all examples.
A second critique is that structuration either overemphasizes action or overemphasizes structure, giving an imbalanced view of structure. Some critical theorists argue that Giddens privileges action, underemphasizing the constraints presented by structure and overestimating the power of individuals to overcome their influence. This leads to positions that, according to these critics, are too politically moderate and not focused enough on emancipation. Others with more postmodern or neo-systems sensibilities argue that structuration theory overprivileges structure and institutional constraints, producing explanations that undertheorize the role of agents in producing new structures and potentiating social change.
To the extent to which these criticisms are valid, they result more from the proclivities of communication researchers who have deployed structuration than from the unavailability of resources in the theory itself. Giddens is a bona fide critical theorist. His books published prior to The constitution of society show that his perspective is more than adequately equipped for pursuing a critical agenda. At the same time he maintains that agents (to a greater or lesser extent, based on circumstances) have the power to act in ways other than that dictated by structure, and that even deeply sedimented structures are changeable through the accumulation of small actions, the influence of unintended consequences of action, and so on, casting doubt on the criticism that structuration is too conservative.
Looking to the future, two predictions seem prudent. First, with respect to sub-fields in communication, structuration theory will remain an attractive perspective for those working in organizational, small group, and mass communication because of its broad and inclusive position on structure, and its detailed explanations relating individual action to collective structure. Its applicability to the family context portends greater use of the perspective in interpersonal communication too. Surprisingly, it has not seen significant application to date in the area of intercultural communication. Given the strengths of structuration theory in explaining collective social structures and identity, intercultural communication represents a fertile area for future applications.
Second, with the partial exception of some of the identity studies described above, Giddens’s perspective on modernity has not been fully embraced in communication theory and research. Yet the subject of globalization is becoming an increasingly important topic in the discipline, and Giddens’s perspective provides a wealth of resources for explaining its effects and the important role of communication processes in producing them. Communication and information technology is also an important disembedding mechanism, and the field’s growing interest in that topic is also likely to raise the stock of structuration in coming years.
- Browning, L. D., & Shetler, J. C. (2000). Sematech: Saving the U.S. semiconductor industry. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.
- DeSanctis, G., & Poole, M. S. (1994). Capturing the complexity in advanced technology use: Adaptive structuration theory. Organization Science, 5, 121–147.
- Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Held, D., & Thompson, J. B. (1989). Social theory of modern societies: Anthony Giddens and his critics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Poole, M. S., & McPhee, R. D. (1983). A structurational analysis of organizational climate. In L. Putnam & M. Pacanowsky (eds.), Communication and organizations: An interpretive approach. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 195–220.
- Poole, M. S., & McPhee, R. D. (2005). Structuration theory. In S. May & D. Mumby (eds.), Engaging organizational communication: Theory and research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 171–196.
- Scott, C. R., Corman, S. R., & Cheney, G. (1998). Development of a structurational model of identification in the organization. Communication Theory, 8, 298–336.
- Seyfarth, B. (2000). Structuration theory in small group communication: A review and agenda for future research. Communication Yearbook, 23, 341–379.