Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Structure and System

“In structuration theory structure has always to be conceived of as a property of social systems, carried in reproduced practices embedded in time and space” (Constitution of Society). Structures exist as structural properties of social systems, and interacting agents reproduce these properties, which are momentary media and effects of interaction. As for social systems, Anthony Giddens says:

“Social systems are systems of social interaction; as such they involve the situated activities of human subjects, and exist syntagmatically in the flow of time. Systems…are not structures in themselves. Structures…are characterised by the ‘absence of a subject.’” (Central Problems)

Giddens wants structures to be distinguished from systems; he posits that interacting agents reproduce them at distinguishable levels; the level of virtual time-space for structures, and the level of empirical time-space for systems.

Giddens conceives a structure as a set of memory-traces that momentarily fuse future, past, and present; thus, in this momentary fusion, structure exists in virtual time-space. These memory-traces are continually reproduced, fused, fragmented, and instantiated in the social practices that compose the process of action and interaction.

As sets of memory-traces, structures make it possible for interacting agents to perceive and produce continuities and discontinuities, similarities and differences, in their practices across generations and across distances in time-space. For Giddens, the general effect of structures, or of structural properties, is the binding of time-space in social systems. “Structure is what gives form and shape to social life, but it is not itself that form and shape;” the form and shape, the pattern across time-space, is system (“Reply to My Critics”).

More concretely, structures “can be understood as rules and resources, recursively implicated in the reproduction of social systems” (Central Problems). A rule here should be understood as a tacit generalizable procedure of interaction. As rules, structures include contextual, corporal and communication rules.

For example, in the face-to-face conversation, there are tacit rules as regards taking turns and maintaining some eye contact. Another example, in the restaurant context, the kitchen is, as a rule, off-limits to customers. Rules are not necessarily fixed; they can become points of periodic disputes, and they are alterable.

“All social rules have both constitutive and regulative (sanctioning) aspects to them;” they relate not only to matters that occur but also to those that are expected to occur in an interaction. Following Ludwig Wittgenstein, Giddens affirms that to know a rule is to know how to proceed or how to go on in an interaction. Furthermore, “to know how to go on is not necessarily, or normally, to be able to formulate clearly what the rules are” (Central Problems).

Social rules get translated into action in conjunction with resources: the resources on interacting agents (dress and ornamentation), the resources these agents bring (money, a weapon, a sacred object, or symbolic tokens), and the resources near at hand or within the setting of the interaction.

By themselves, resources are not structural properties of social systems; they become structural properties only in conjunction with knowing how to use them or with some familiarity with the rules of their use. “Stone walls do not a prison make, rather the human, and modifiable, [rule-governed] practices of imprisonment” (William Outhwaite).

For Giddens, structural properties have “no existence independent of the knowledge that agents have about what they do in their day-to-day activity” (Constitution of Society). Thus, as rules and resources, structures are forms of knowledge-capability. This connects directly with the concept of structures as sets of memory-traces that make possible the enactment of social practices, which instantiate, or reproduce simultaneously and momentarily, these memory-traces.

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