The Sociology of Anthony Giddens

Anthony Giddens (1938- ) is a British sociologist who is known for his theory of structuration and his holistic view of modern societies. He is considered to be one of the most prominent modern sociologists, the author of at least 34 books, published in at least 29 languages, issuing on average more than one book every year. In 2007, Giddens was listed as the fifth most-referenced author of books in the humanities A broad-ranging body of work, which engages particularly with the problem of modernism (Giddens 1973, 1990, 1991), is grounded in the development of the theory of structuration.

Structuration is offered as an explanation of the relationship between individual human agency and the stable and patterned properties of society as a whole. On the one hand, orthodox social theories such as functionalism or structuralism tended exclusively to emphasise the organised nature of society, so that society was presented as existing independently of the agents who composed it (and indeed, as a force that constrained and determined their actions, much as natural forces do). On the other hand, another strand of social theory (including symbolic interactionism and hermeneutics) emphasised the skills of social agents in creating and managing the social world in which they lived. Giddens recognises a partial truth in both extremes, for society is patterned, so that the isolated and self-interested actions of its individual members do take on the appearance of having been planned or co-ordinated. Annual social statistics, for example, show remarkable stability for the occurrence of many everyday events and activities. Further, precisely because this stability and order are outside the control of individual agents, society does appear to constrain and control them. However, agents are highly competent, with a vast stock of knowledge and range of skills that allows them to make sense of complex and often unique situations, and to manage their relationships with others.

Giddens therefore talks of the ‘duality of structure’. Social structure, which is to say, the organised and enduring character of social life, is dual in that it is at once external to the society’s members, and internal (constituting the agent as a competent member of society). As Giddens rather cryptically puts it, ‘the structural properties of social systems are both medium and outcome of the practices they recursively organise’ (1984, p. 25). The social structure exists primarily as the competence that the society’s members have to organise their own social life. Social structure is thus a set of rules and resources available to the competent agent. It exists in agents’ memories. The crucial point that Giddens makes, though, is that agents do not have to be consciously aware of this. A great deal of their competence is non-discursive, which is to say, that agents would not be able to give a verbal account of what they know. They do, however, know how to ‘go on’ in a given situation. They have ‘practical consciousness’. In practice, the social structure is then realised as something external to the agents. The consequences of the agents’ actions in a particular situation are likely to go beyond anything that is simply intended by them. Giddens draws on geography as well as sociology to analyse the external stability of social structures as institutional relations that are articulated across time and space. It is important to the agent that social structure does confront him or her as something external. Giddens’s concept of ‘ontological security’ captures this. Competent social agents are confident that the social and natural worlds (and indeed their own self-identity in relation to those worlds) are stable and secure. The world is made a matter of routine. Anything that disrupts this expectation of the routine is highly disturbing (and a feature exploited in Erving Goffman’s analysis of embarrassment).

In recent years Giddens has been more directly involved in political theory, and in particular in the attempt to generate an account of the ‘Third Way’ (1994, 1998b) as a renewal of social democratic politics. This work draws significantly on his early criticism of Marxism (1981) and accounts of globalisation and the relationship of the individual to the community.

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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