Social theories are important when considering how change happens – or does not happen – in complex societal settings. As part of their studies, first year students in the Leadership for Change Master’s Programme are writing short memos on various social theories. We are publishing some of the memos here, on the LFC blog. This set of memos deals with structuration theory.
Structuration Theory: The Bigger Picture
A simplified explanation of Gidden’s structuration theory (ST) is that taking a one-dimensional approach to try understanding and explaining social phenomena is not sufficient, instead the ‘duality of structure’ needs consideration. Professor Pami Aalto highlighted in his lecture that many theories are based on either an actor-centric or structure-centric approach. However, structuration theory “acts as a bridge between the two”. Therefore, it can be deduced that ST takes into consideration the actors, structures, as well as the interests and interactions of individuals.
Scientists always seek to understand social phenomena interpreting why certain events occurred in the first place, the impact they had at the time, as well as the future implications. Both Prof Aalto’s lecture as well as Lukas Hermville’s article elaborated on the use of ‘framing’; the idea that events can be better understand by splitting them into a sort of structure or field of meaning (ibid., 238).
Take the Fukushima catastrophe case as an example. In this case, the frame is energy security; the actors involved included Japan, Germany, the U.K, governments, and policy makers; the structural dimension is that of resources and institutions; and the structural impact would be the balance between security or energy, security of demand, and public opinion. Framing this complex situation allows for meaning making to begin, before narratives and interests enter the picture.
In Hermville’s article, the Fukushima catastrophe is used to demonstrate the different narratives in Japan, the U.K. and Germany derived from the same event (or social-technical transition) (ibid., 241). Thus, suggesting that there can be varying narratives and perspectives on the same set of events, which can lead to conflicting meaning derived from the same narrative (ibid., 238). In this sense, where an actor-centric and structure-centric approach simplifies an event, structuration theory complicates matters as it calls for a broader understanding of the event.
In the article, Hermwille (2016, p. 240) used the idea of structuration theory and proposes the “structuration cycle”. He introduces three levels of structure; domination (rules and laws), legitimation (accepted understandings), signification (narratives that assign meanings), and shows their connection with the agency. The structuration cycle demonstrates how individual’s understandings and actions are shaped; as well as how the narrative acts as a connecting device between the structures and agency. He goes on to suggest that narratives play a key role in the structuration cycle as intermediators between internal and external structures (ibid, p. 239). Another key feature of structuration theory that is discussed in the article is transformation. Hermwille contends that transformation does not occur in a step-by-step process, but instead is a multidimensional process or a “co-evolution” that takes place in different levels which allows for change to occur (ibid., p. 238). He furthered that the interaction between the levels and the agent causes evolution of ideas, transitions, and allows for different interpretations of social landscape (ibid., p.240). Thus, advocating that social phenomena should be analysed as they are; complex, multi-level, and interconnected events that involve multiple actors, agents and narratives.
Though structuration theory is new to me, from my perspective it could be used to gain a better understanding about leadership. Several themes in critical leadership studies (CLS) came to mind, first of which was space. The study of spatial leadership is a relatively recent stream of research in critical leadership studies, suggesting that leadership emerges differently based on ‘space’ (Ropo, De Paoli, Salovaara, & Sauer, 2015) and that humans attach ‘symbolic meaning’ to material places (Ropo, Sauer, & Salovaara, 2013, p. 379).
In this situation, the structuration cycle can be used to gain an insight into the levels of structure that effect the understanding of leadership and leadership in practice. For example, applying the structuration cycle to this case would look as follows; domination (leadership and organizational rules); legitimation (accepted understandings); and signification (leadership and organizational discourse); these levels could be studied to understand how leadership emerges through the agents, and consequently produces the ‘leadership narrative’ within an organization.
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Structuration perspective on changing consumer food preferences
Consumers, at least in the Nordic context, have started to pay attention to their food consumption choices. For example, recyclable/ non-packaged products as well as buying meat and dairy alternatives has become the norm, or even trendy. Oat milks and soy-’meats’ are not just for devoted vegans but products found in anybody’s shopping cart.
In the beginning the market was entered by initiator companies such as Oatly providing oat-based dairy alternatives, but the real boom and normalization was driven by consumers. Now even the most traditional meat and dairy product producers such as the Finnish Atria and Valio have jumped on the bandwagon and brought their own alternatives to the market.
How and why did the change in consumption preferences occur?
The theory of structuration helps us understand the changing consumption changes. Structuration theory, as originally formulated by Anthony Giddens, studies the underlying principles between actors and structures and the duality and interplay of these two. Individual actors – aka agents – construct and reconstruct existing structures – aka the social arrangements – in society by acting and socializing with each other (Pullman & Dillard 2010).
In analyzing consumer tastes, the structure would then be the existing offerings and the agents the consumers. All consumption choices carry symbols and we all interpret and adopt them to build our own identities (Algesheimer & Gurau, 2008). This is no different with groceries. What symbols, then, do meat and dairy alternatives carry? First, there is the nature-friendliness aspect. These products are more CO2-friendly and they do not benefit off of living things. There is also the aspect of being trendy or ‘open’ to a variety of foods or the health argument of avoiding red meat for example.
Whatever the initial motivation for choosing the product might have been, socialization of individual actors has really created the boom. When people are socialized in similar conditions and have similar cultural understandings, they form sort of ‘social collectives’ that structure consumption patterns (Algesheimer & Gurau, 2008). The situation can happen vice versa, whereby consumption preferences form social collectives. This holds true for food as well. If your social circle is trying out a new meat alternative and talking about it around you, you are most likely to try it yourself. Vegan/vegetarian alternative consumption groups exist too, such as the famous Facebook group ‘Sipsikaljavegaanit’, whereby vegans or flexetarians share and hype junk food dishes created entirely from vegan ingredients.
As the consumption community has grown, it has increased the agency of such consumption patterns. Organizations in search of profits develop products that carry those symbols, thus reorganizing their structures: not only are their product assortments widening, but their core business is in change too. As an agent in an industry, the company is also sending a message to the structure of food industry that can have wider consequences for our farming practices, economy, climate et cetera.
The structuration theory can inevitably be applied to any consumption pattern change and helps in picking apart the drivers for change.
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Alba Maria Vasquez Lopez
How can it be that different actors have power over each other? How can power constructs be reproduced over and over again? These kinds of questions are important in a time where differences in power relations can be observed at different levels. Interactions between states can be analysed in a setting where two actors engage in identity and interest conflicts with each other – one side might lead the debate or it may result even in a war. Inside states, the police inside obtains power over the citizens. Another example would be the reproduction of gender in our society. Masculinity can be seen as a historically and society wide setting, which legitimises hierarchical gender relation between different sexes (Messerschmidt 2013, 28).
One way to understand the reproduction of power constructs would be the structuration theory from Giddens. His approach can give answers to question of repetitive behaviour and structural analysis. Structures can hereby reproduce the power norms.
To understand Giddens’s (1984) structuration theory, one should start to understand the connection between social systems and individual behaviour/agency. For a long time in the field of social theory, a dualism between structure and individual behaviour was visible. Theories took into consideration either a structure, which can exist independently (e.g., Émile Durkheim) or a rational and omniscient individual (e.g, Rational Choice Theory). For Giddens structures and agency presuppose each other, which means that structures are enabling behaviour but at the same time are the result of them.
On the one hand, Giddens sees humans as restricted and enabled by the structural position they are living in. On the other hand, social structures are produced and reproduced through social practices. Agency is not only influenced by the social system, as agency can have an impact on structures, as structures can experience an innovation process through social practices, in which structures are ignored or replaced. Giddens’s argument is that individual behaviour and social systems are in a close relationship with each other. This means that by analysing individual behaviour, conclusions about the social systems can be formed. Giddens analysed behaviour in different time context and he was focusing on unconscious everyday actions (Schiller-Merkens 2008, 135–138).
But why are structures enabling power differences of actors? The structure in itself can be seen as a set of rules and resources in our society. Those can be historically obtained or situation related. Resources can be allocative or authoritative abilities like capacities or advances. Those resources can create a demand from other actors, who are situated inside a dependency. Resources are not necessarily gods, as the example of masculinity emphasises. The realization of the resources in the structure is supported by rules. Those rules can be state laws or societal rules, which everybody follows out of a sense for their socialisation.
Against this background, it may seems like ‘change’ is not possible. But perhaps the only way to effect change is to realize what structures our behaviour to occur in a certain way. By keeping this in mind, bigger concepts like wars or patriarchy, can be analysed; the agency, social practice and structures become clear. In order to change dependence and inequality, it is important to understand their causes. Realizing the reasons for behaviour might be the first step.
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Structuration: Meta-theory of the Formation of Social Reality
When wondering how the social reality around us has formed, it is worth considering the significant theories in the field of social sciences. Strucutration is one of these.
Structuration acts as a bridge between two main approaches to social theorizing: the actor-centric approach and structure-centric approach (Giddens, 1984). However, these are also the main approaches to structuration. The difference in its simplest is that the actor-centric approach concentrates on the structure on the basis of actor’s choices whereas the structure-centric concentrates on structure giving the choices to the actor. Rational choice is one of the best-known theories in social sciences, and also displays an actor-centric thought.
Rational choice is based on an assumption that an actor will behave and make decisions based on the rationality of the choices. When it comes to structures, and more precisely social structures, rational choice provides a theory that gives bases to an actor-centric view to structuration. Actor behaving and rational choice making in social interconnections is seen to also structure a social structure.
One significant structure-centric approach is geopolitics (Aalto & Forsberg, 2015). Geopolitics is an important issue to take into consideration in the field of politics, governance as well as business. In politics, it has played and still plays a crucial role in decision-making and policy formulation. In business, geopolitics plays an important role in consideration of logistics, resources and so forth. In many ways, geopolitics displays many of the classical features of a structure-centric approach.
As the examples above suggest, structuration is underpinned by a meta-philosophical debate that sparks an interesting conversation in any group of people. After all, what is there in-between the lines the actor-centric and structure-centric approaches is the concept of will. Rational choice assumptions are based on freedom of choices and choices made voluntarily whereas structure-centric models display predetermined factors guiding decisions.