Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces

An introduction to the structuration theory of Giddens

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on October 7, 2009

The last six months we had a student from the University of Amsterdam as an intern, Bob Stukart, who did research on innovation in online communities. The aim of the research was to determine how the potential innovative output of innovation-aimed firm-hosted online communities is affected by sociological factors. For us this was relevant, because at Favela Fabric we foster innovation and collaboration. Our moderators try to facilitate this process by various strategies. One of the strategies we use is intervention, and this research contributed to this. By studying the effects of particular behavior on interaction, knowledge is created about possible interventions that may be applied to limit inhibiting behavior and facilitate creative behavior. This knowledge about consequences of particular behavior may also be valuable with regard to knowing what and how things should or should not be said by particular users. Moderators can use this knowledge for the management of such communities. This way the potential innovative output from such communities could be enhanced. His research of course was scientific as well, and this brought him to the following research question:

How do interpretive schemes, facilities and norm behavior affect innovation-related behavior in innovation aimed firm-hosted online communities?

Now I was very much taken into the research with him because I was his supervisor during this time. And that brings me to the most influencial theory which was used, the structuration theory of Anthony Giddens, which is quite abstract. I will save the results of the research of Bob for later, this post will introduce the structuration theory. The last weeks I mentioned the importance of structure, but not too rigid, such as in the post ‘Coordinated Chaos‘. The structuration theory of Giddens (1984) can help us here I think. Structure is defined by Giddens as rules and resources, organized as properties of social systems.

Giddens' duality of structure

Giddens' duality of structure

The structuration theory of Giddens is a sociologic one. The relationship between the individual and society is of central concern to this theory. Social phenomena are neither the product of structure or agency alone, but of both. Objective social structures are defined by properties of society as a whole and autonomous human agents are defined as properties of the individual (Giddens, 1984). Giddens contends that structure and interaction are a mutually constitutive duality. This duality is somewhat comparable to the reification – participation duality from the Communities of Practice framework of Wenger.

If we look at the figure above, there are three dimensions of structure, which are signification, domination and legitimation. The three dimensions of interaction are described as communication, power and sanctions. The means by which structures are translated into actions are called modalities, which are interpretive schemes, facilities and norms. These modalities can explain why and how interaction is affected. Without going too much in detail, the first dimension refers to production of meaning (e.g. a person with a white coat in the hospital has the role of a doctor), the second to degrees of power (e.g. a police officers’ uniform enable them to fine somebody who broke the speed limit) and the third to societal norms (e.g. formal clothing during most interviews).

In short, structure is something that can be set, it’s organized at the beginning. According to Giddens, they are allocative and authorative resources, and social and formulated rules. Modality can be seen as the tools, it makes interaction possible, and can be influenced along the way. The result is that social interaction, for example on communities, is influenced by structure and the three modalities interpretive schemes, facilities and norms. The interpretive scheme translates structure into actions.

The research of Bob focuses on how this modalities can be made more concrete by the use of creativity and roles. I believe the structuration theory of Giddens helped him a lot during his study. And I think although quite abstract, the theory might help us as well if we talk about online collaborative spaces, or Enterprise 2.0. I think I will end this post here, as an introduction to the structuration theory of Giddens. And maybe we can discuss this theory here. For example, could it be helpful when designing online collaborative spaces?

Parts of this post were extracted form the thesis of Bob Stukart. A future post will zoom in on his study and the results.

28 Responses

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  1. raul said, on October 12, 2009 at 21:08

    Bas,

    I am still bewildered by the Giddens’ Structuration Theory. I would really like see someone explain this in simple terms. It took even Bob quite a while before he mastered this theory. And showed that it can be of practical value..

  2. Bob Stukart said, on October 14, 2009 at 11:41

    Bas,

    It is a good short theoretical explanation of the part of Giddens’ structuration theory on which I focused my research. The complete theory is more extensive and also more abstract. However, for this purpose I think it would be useful to give it a try to explain the essence of the structuration theory in ‘plain English’.

    Like Bas explained, the model that Giddens introduced consists of three layers. The top layer represents the structure, the bottom layer the agent (or interaction) and both layers are connected by the middle layer, which represent the modalities.
    Structure may be defined as the larger context of society in which individuals interact with each other. Structures of signification are defined as the production of meaning through organized webs of language (e.g. a person with a white coat in the hospital has the role of a doctor). Structures of domination convey important messages about the degree of power they are considered to hold (e.g. a police officers’ uniform enable them to fine somebody who broke the speed limit). Structures of legitimation define the appropriate dress code in particular settings by means of societal norms, values and standards (e.g. formal clothing during most interviews).
    The three modalities are the interpretive schemes, facilities and norms. They translate structure into action, which means that these modalities may explain they way individuals behave in particular situations. However, this is not a one-way street. Individuals can also affect the structure (e.g. a particular influential individual decides that ties are not done at formal meetings and this may affect how other people think about wearing ties in such settings). The interpretive scheme can be seen as a framework in which people interact with each other. While facilities give particular people more power than others (e.g. the possibility to punish or reward others). Norms always depend on the context and thus what is an appropriate manner for people to interact with each other.
    The layer of interaction contains the variables communication, power and sanctions. This actually represents the action of an individual. Communication is what happens in speech and gestures. Power is something that can be exercised, for example by rewarding someone (positive sanction).

    The following example may clarify various parts of model from Gidden’s theory.
    “Today Jim had a job interview for the position of senior consultant at a large organization. He was wearing a business suit with a tie and proper shoes. This was chosen because the structures of legitimation define the appropriate dress code for particular situations (i.e. a formal job interview in this case).
    At the end of that day he gets into his car and drives home. On the way home Jim hears a siren and sees a police officer signaling him to pull over his car. The structures of signification and the interpretive scheme tell Jim that this person is really a police officer, due to the siren and the police badge. Therefore Jim stops his car. The police officer walks towards Jim, in a slow pace. Jim gets nervous and worries about what is going to happen. Once the police officer stands next to Jim’s car, it becomes clear what happened. Jim broke the speed limit, because the norm was 50 mph, while Jim drove 70 mph. Structures of domination convey the message that this police officer (i.e. due to his uniform and badge) has the facilities to exercise a particular degree of power to sanction Jim, by communicating that Jim will receive a speeding ticket. Jim accepts the ticket without complaining (i.e. this is the norm in the relationship civilian-police officer) and tantrum and continues his drove home to his lovely wife.”

    Although the example is simple and not specifically aimed at self-organization and collaborative spaces, I think it is clear that this theory can be extremely useful with respect to this blog’s subject.

  3. Kedogo said, on October 22, 2010 at 16:55

    Thanks for this. I also wish to read the thesis of Bob Stukart or parts of it as he explains the structuration theory and applies it on his case. Is it available online?

  4. Syafinas said, on April 14, 2012 at 09:50

    hello, im will presenting this theory on my course work..so im quite confuse about what is the role of agent??..how about the agent??..it is interaction is also know as agent action?

  5. Aaqib said, on May 3, 2012 at 11:40

    Well, i think the usage of words is very tough and the sentences as well,,, it would have been more fruitfull for a masters student if the words used in it were simple,,,
    d

  6. Talent said, on May 25, 2012 at 22:25

    This is a precise , lecture on structuration theory.pliz keep me posted-

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