18 Structuration Theory


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The theory of structuration is a social theory of the creation and reproduction of social systems that is based in the analysis of both social structures and agency, without giving primacy to either. Structuration proposes that structures (i.e., norms, rules, roles) interaction with agency (i.e., free will) to reproduce in groups, teams, and organizations.

Duality of structure

Structure refers generally to “rules and resources” and more specifically to “the structuring properties allowing the ‘binding’ of time-space in social systems”. These properties make it possible for similar social practices to exist across time and space and that lend them “systemic” form. Agents—groups or individuals—draw upon these structures to perform social actions through embedded memory, called mental models. Mental models are the vehicle through which guide everyday social action.

However, structure and agency are mutually influential. Structure is the result of these social practices. Thus, Giddens (1979) conceives of the duality of structure as being:

…the essential recursiveness of social life, as constituted in social practices: structure is both medium and outcome of reproduction of practices. Structure enters simultaneously into the constitution of the agent and social practices, and ‘exists’ in the generating moments of this constitution. (p. 5).

Giddens uses “the duality of structure” (i.e. material/ideational, micro/macro) to emphasize structure’s nature as both medium and outcome. Structures exist both internally within agents as mental models that are the product of socialization and externally as the manifestation of social actions. Similarly, social structures contain agents and/or are the product of past actions of agents. Giddens (1984) holds this duality, alongside “structure” and “system,” in addition to the concept of recursiveness, as the core of structuration theory.

Cycle of structuration

The duality of structure is essentially a feedback–feedforward process whereby agents and structures mutually enact social systems, and social systems in turn become part of that duality. Structuration thus recognizes a social cycle. In examining social systems, structuration theory examines structure, modality, and interaction. The structural modality (discussed below) of a structural system is the means by which structures are translated into actions.


Interaction is the agent’s activity within the social system, space, and time. “It can be understood as the fitful yet routinized occurrence of encounters, fading away in time and space, yet constantly reconstituted within different areas of time-space” (Giddens, 1984, p. 86). Rules and norms can affect interaction. Frames are “clusters of rules which help to constitute and regulate activities, defining them as activities of a certain sort and as subject to a given range of sanctions” (Giddens, 1984, p. 87). Frames are necessary for agents to feel “ontological security, the trust that everyday actions have some degree of predictability. Whenever individuals interact in a specific context they address—without any difficulty and in many cases without conscious acknowledgement—the question: “What is going on here?” Framing is the practice by which agents make sense of what they are doing.


Structuration theory is centrally concerned with order as “the transcending of time and space in human social relationships” (Giddens, 1984, p. 87). Institutionalized action and routinization are foundational in the establishment of social order and the reproduction of social systems. Routine persists in society, even during social and political revolutions, where daily life is greatly deformed, “as Bettelheim demonstrates so well, routines, including those of an obnoxious sort, are re-established” (Giddens, 1984, p. 87). Routine interactions become institutionalized features of social systems via tradition, custom and/or habit, but this is no easy societal task and it “is a major error to suppose that these phenomena need no explanation.


When I utter a sentence I draw upon various syntactical rules (sedimented in my practical consciousness of the language) in order to do so. These structural features of the language are the medium whereby I generate the utterance. But in producing a syntactically correct utterance I simultaneously contribute to the reproduction of the language as a whole. …The relation between moment and totality for social theory… [involves] a dialectic of presence and absence which ties the most minor or trivial forms of social action to structural properties of the overall society, and to the coalescence of institutions over long stretches of historical time. (Giddens, 1984, p. 24)

Thus, even the smallest social actions contribute to the alteration or reproduction of social systems. Social stability and order is not permanent; agents always possess a dialectic of control  which allows them to break away from normative actions. Depending on the social factors present, agents may cause shifts in social structure.

The cycle of structuration is not a defined sequence; it is rarely a direct succession of causal events. Structures and agents are both internal and external to each other, mingling, interrupting, and continually changing each other as feedbacks and feedforwards occur. Giddens (1984) stated, “The degree of “systemness” is very variable. …I take it to be one of the main features of structuration theory that the extension and ‘closure’ of societies across space and time is regarded as problematic” (Giddens, 1984, p. 165). 

Structure and society

Structures are the “rules and resources” embedded in agents’ mental models. Agents call upon their mental models on which they are “knowledgeable” to perform social actions. “Knowledgeability” refers to what agents know about what they do, and why they do it. Giddens divides these reproducing mental models into three types:

  • Domination (power): Giddens also uses “resources” to refer to this type. “Authoritative resources” allow agents to control persons, whereas “allocative resources” allow agents to control material objects.
  • Signification (meaning): Giddens suggests that meaning is inferred through structures. Agents use existing experience to infer meaning. For example, Zanin and Piercy (2019) show that mental illness meaning comes from contextualized experience.
  • Legitimation (norms): Giddens sometimes uses “rules” to refer to either signification or legitimation. An agent draws upon these stocks of knowledge via memory to inform him or herself about the external context, conditions, and potential results of an action.

When an agent uses structures for social interactions, they are called modalities. Modalities emerge the forms of facility (domination), interpretive scheme/communication (signification) and norms/sanctions (legitimation).

Thus, he distinguishes between overall “structures-within-knowledgeability” and the more limited and task-specific “modalities” on which these agents subsequently draw when they interact.

The duality of structures means that structures enter “simultaneously into the constitution of the agent and social practices, and ‘exists’ in the generating moments of this constitution” (Giddens, 1979, p. 5). “Structures exist paradigmatically, as an absent set of differences, temporally “present” only in their instantiation, in the constituting moments of social systems (Giddens, 1979, p. 64).

Agents and society

According to Giddens, agency is human action.  Agency is critical to both the reproduction and the transformation of society. Another way to explain this concept is by what Giddens (1991) calls the reflexive monitoring of actions. Reflexive monitoring refers to agents’ ability to monitor their actions and those actions’ settings and contexts. Monitoring is an essential characteristic of agency. Agents subsequently rationalize, or evaluate, the success of those efforts. All humans engage in this process, and expect the same from others. Through action, agents produce structures; through reflexive monitoring and rationalization, they transform them. To act, agents must be motivated, knowledgeable, and able to rationalize the action; further, agents must reflexively monitor the action.

Agents, while bounded in structure, draw upon their knowledge of that structural context when they act. However, actions are constrained by agents’ inherent capabilities and their understandings of available actions and external limitations. Practical consciousness and discursive consciousness inform these abilities. Practical consciousness is the knowledgeability that an agent brings to the tasks required by everyday life, which is so integrated as to be hardly noticed. Reflexive monitoring occurs at the level of practical consciousness (Ilmonen, 2001). Discursive consciousness is the ability to verbally express knowledge. Alongside practical and discursive consciousness, Giddens (1984) recognizes actors as having reflexive, contextual knowledge, and that habitual, widespread use of knowledgeability makes structures become institutionalized.

Agents rationalize, and in doing so, link the agent and the agent’s knowledgeability. As agents, people coordinate ongoing projects, goals, and contexts while performing actions. This coordination is called reflexive monitoring, and is connected to ethnomethodology’s emphasis on agents’ intrinsic sense of accountability. According to Giddens (1984)reflexivity is comprised discursive consciousness (i.e., that which is said) and practical consciousness (i.e., the activity, or what is done). Kaspersen (2000) explained Giddens conceptualization of monitoring as what occurs as a result of routinized activity.

The factors that can enable or constrain an agent, as well as how an agent uses structures, are known as capability constraints include age, cognitive/physical limits on performing multiple tasks at once and the physical impossibility of being in multiple places at once, available time and the relationship between movement in space and movement in time.

Location offers are a particular type of capability constraint. Examples include:

  • Locale
  • Regionalization: political or geographical zones, or rooms in a building
  • Presence: Do other actors participate in the action? (see co-presence); and more specifically
  • Physical presence: Are other actors physically nearby?

Agents are always able to engage in a dialectic of control, able to “intervene in the world or to refrain from such intervention, with the effect of influencing a specific process or state of affairs” (Giddens, 1979, p. 14). In essence, agents experience inherent and contrasting amounts of autonomy and dependence; agents can always either act or not (Stones, 2005). 


The existence of multiple structures implies that the knowledgeable agents whose actions produce systems are capable of applying different schemas to contexts with differing resources, contrary to the conception of a universal habitus (learned dispositions, skills and ways of acting). Sewell (1992) argues “Societies are based on practices that derived from many distinct structures, which exist at different levels, operate in different modalities, and are themselves based on widely varying types and quantities of resources. …It is never true that all of them are homologous” (p. 16).

Originally from Pierre Bourdieu, transposable schemas can be “applied to a wide and not fully predictable range of cases outside the context in which they were initially learned.” That capacity “is inherent in the knowledge of cultural schemas that characterizes all minimally competent members of society” (Sewell, 1992, p. 17). Agents may modify schemas even though their use does not predictably accumulate resources. For example, the effect of a joke is never quite certain, but a comedian may alter it based on the amount of laughter it garners regardless of this variability. Agents may interpret a particular resource according to different schemas. E.g., a commander could attribute his wealth to military prowess, while others could see it as a blessing from the gods or a coincidental initial advantage. Structures often overlap, confusing interpretation (e.g., the structure of capitalist society includes production from both private property and worker solidarity).


This theory was adapted and augmented by researchers interested in the relationship between technology and social structures, such as information technology in organizations. DeSanctis and Poole (1994) proposed an “adaptive structuration theory” with respect to the emergence and use of group decision support systems. In particular, they chose Giddens’ notion of modalities to consider how technology is used with respect to its “spirit”. Appropriations are the immediate, visible actions that reveal deeper structuration processes and are enacted with “moves”. Appropriations may be faithful or unfaithful, be instrumental and be used with various attitudes.

Group communication

Poole, Seibold, and McPhee (1996) wrote that group structuration theory, provides “a theory of group interaction commensurate with the complexities of the phenomenon” (p. 116). The theory attempts to integrate macrosocial theories and individuals or small groups, as well as how to avoid the binary categorization of either stable or emergent groups.

Waldeck et al. (2002) concluded that the theory needs to better predict outcomes, rather than merely explaining them. Decision rules support decision-making, which produces a communication pattern that can be directly observable. Thus, groups which develop stable routines for decision making (e.g., “What could go wrong?” “What else should we consider?” “What are the pros and cons?”) tend to come to better decisions. The interplay of group member agency and structures which seek the best solutions facilitates strong group structuration and better decision outcomes.


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Structuration Theory Copyright © 2021 by Cameron W. Piercy, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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