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A concept devised by, and central to, the sociological theory developed by the British social theorist Anthony Giddens. Structuration theory is a social ontology, defining what sorts of things exist in the world, rather than setting out laws of development or suggesting clear hypotheses about what actually happens. It tells us what we are looking at when we study society rather than how a particular society actually works. Giddens criticizes and rejects theories such as functionalism and evolutionary theory, which he regards as closed systems, insisting that social phenomena and events are always contingent and open-ended. He attempts to transcend the traditional division in sociology between action and structure by focusing on ‘social practices’ which, he argues, produce and are produced by structures. Structures, for Giddens, are not something external to social actors but are rules and resources produced and reproduced by actors in their practices. He also emphasizes the importance of time and space for social theory and social analysis: his historical sociology then explores the different ways in which societies bind these together.

There is no obvious single statement of structuration theory. Giddens began his project with a revision of the classical thinkers in sociology (Capitalism and Modern Social Theory, 1971), and this led in turn to the major formulations of structuration (Central Problems in Social Theory, 1979, and The Constitution of Society, 1984), although these have been developed further in a major enterprise in historical sociology (A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, 1981; The Nation-State and Violence, 1985; and The Consequences of Modernity, 1990). There is now a considerable secondary literature (see, for example, I. J. Cohen, Structuration Theory, 1989). Several fairly scathing critiques—which, among other things, accuse Giddens of ‘reinventing the wheel’ where sociological theories of action, structure, and change are concerned, and structuration theory in particular of obscurantism and empirical emptiness (drawing a parallel with the theoretical work of Talcott Parsons)—will be found in Jon Clark et al. (eds.), Anthony Giddens: Consensus and Controversy (1990). A comprehensive review of Giddens's work can be found in Steven Loyal 's Anthony Giddens (2003). A highly sophisticated approach to structuration—in the form of structural ‘morphogenesis’—has been taken by Margaret Archer in Realist Social Theory (1995). See also giddens.

Subjects: Sociology.

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