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Giddens' Structuration from a Dooyeweerdian Perspective

Anthony Giddens has been a major thinker in sociology for some time. This page briefly reviews his Structuration Theory from a Dooyeweerdian perspective, seeking to find similarities and differences, and ways in which Dooyeweerdian thinking can support (agree with) Giddens' approach, ways in which it can critique it, and ways in which it might enrich it.

Contents of Page:

(This page is being posted as a starting point. It might contain some errors, for which I would be glad to receive notice and any other comment.)

Giddens' Structuration Theory and The Duality of Structure

Giddens' Structuration Theory is one of his best-known ideas. At its centre is a cyclical relationship between social structure and human action:

Giddens calls this the duality of structure.

We find a not dissimilar idea in Dooyeweerd, in his correlative enkapsis, in which an Umwelt and its denizens constitute each other: a forest exists by virtue of all the trees, fungi, other plants, insects, birds and other animals, and they are fully what they are by virtue of dwelling in that forest; neither can 'exist', at least not fully, without the other. The same may be said about humans and social structure. Dooyeweerd did not explore this relationship in any depth; Giddens might contribute to Dooyeweerdian thought.

But Dooyeweerd might also contribute to Giddenian thought in a number of ways. One is that Dooyeweerd differentiates between two sides (law and entity sides) of reality. Correlative enkapsis occurs between actual things, that is the entity side. But on the law side we have a different kind of structure, a modal one of meaning and law that enables action, which Giddens' wording echoes:

But before we seek to compare the two thought-frameworks more closely, we want first to understand what motivated Giddens' ideas in the first place. What was it that Giddens was trying to argue against? In the Introduction to the Second Edition of New Rules for Sociological Method (p.4, bulleting added for clarity, but wording as in original), he tells us,

" .. let me first of all expand upon why I developed the concept of the duality of structure. I did so in order to contest two main types of dualism.

First, Dooyeweerd would side with Giddens against both types of dualism; (this portion of) their motivations are at least parallel even if not the same. Regarding the first dualism, Dooyeweerd sees human beings as 'strong' on both action and structure, and sees no incompatibility between individual and society.

However, in the above, we notice the first slight difference in their approaches. While Dooyeweerd accounted for the roles aspectual Law (structure) and aspectual functioning (action) play generally, Giddens tried to account for the roles that concrete social structures and concrete human actions play in social life. They seem to focus on two different 'sides' of reality.

Giddens [1984,, 281-4] summarises what is important in structuration theory. If I understand them aright, they may be summarised as:

Healy [1998, 510-1] and others find problems with Gidden's notion of structure.

"Arguments presented by Urry (1982) and developed by Thompson (1989) show that, in his efforts to make them enabling as well as constraining, Giddens makes structures so vaporous that it is next to impossible to get a grip on them. In his discussions of rules (Giddens 1979:65-9, 1984:16-25), important distinctions between structure (as rules and resources), systems (as products of structures) and agents (as mediating producers) all seem to collapse into one another. Giddens will not allow a fixed and discursively available body of rules, a properly external system or a genuinely independent individual. The result is analytic paralysis: he ends up being unable to separate out these elements at all. He cannot talk about differing degrees of constraint within or between systems (Archer 1982). His theory allows little room for definite statements about cause and effect. Everything is left floating around in the vicinity of the actor, and the various elements are impossible to separate."

Linking Action and Structure: Meanings, Power and Norms

To Giddens, meanings, norms and power are three integral elements of interaction and also of structure. These three elements are what link action and structure. He represents the duality of structure in social interaction in the following table (from p.29 of Giddens [1984]):

(Meanings) (Power) (Norms)
INTERACTION Communication Power Sanction
(MODALITY) Interpretative scheme Facility Norms
STRUCTURE Signification Domination Legitimation
Structure Aspect Pistic Ethical Juridical

In this, the 'modality' row links the other two, action and structure. For example, communication (the action) comes about when the actor applies an interpretation schema to signification. The three columns express three "integral elements of interaction".

Thus this table expresses Giddens' idea of what constitutes social activity and how it relates to structure.

From a Dooyeweerdian point of view, this is very interesting, if we ask which aspects are mainly involved. On the one hand, if we consider the level of the human action, we see it as social activity, so we find the social aspect is the main one, and it makes strong reference to its neighbour, the lingual aspect.

However, if we consider the macro level of societal structures we find Dooyeweerd's last three aspects, as mentioned in the table above. I believe they are of these aspects, despite the names that Giddens gave, for the following reasons:

It is interesting that these three aspects - juridical, ethical and pistic, are the three that affect the very structures of society in a way that influences our lives in a deep way. Juridical structures are laws, policies, etc. Structures of the 'ethical' aspect are attitudes of selfishness or generosity that pervade society. Pistic structures are the beliefs that pervade society.

So, to Dooyeweerd, Giddens' idea has considerable insight. But also Dooyeweerd could enrich Giddens by seeing these three aspects as part of a much larger law-side of reality.

Reaching for a law side can perhaps be discerned in the fundamental motivation and idea behind his structuration theory. Giddens [1984,2] wrote:

"What is at issue is how the concepts of action, meaning and subjectivity should be specified and how they might relate to notions of structure and constraint. ... Human activities ... are not brought into being by social actors but continually recreated by them via the very means whereby they express themselves as actors." (italics in original)

The idea that human social activities are nor brought into being but are "continually recreated" speaks of something given which enables the occurrence and being of those activities and actorships. Giddens rejected the naturalistic explanations, and was reaching for something he calls "reflexive" and "recursive". However, moving as he was in the paths of immanence philosophy, Giddens did not have available to him the idea of law and entity side, so still thought of societal structure as this enabler. Structuration theory provides great insight into the entity-side relationship between agency and structure, but there is evidence in this passage that Giddens was reaching for something like a law side too. The use of "express themselves as" cannot refer to societal structures but to what is means to be a social actor. He is reaching for a notion of (social) meaningfulness, within which (social) actors function. It might not be mere coincidence that Dooyeweerd [1955,I,3] used the word "expressing" in relation to aspects.

Main Comparison of Giddens with Dooyeweerd

To compare the two frameworks of thought in more detail, we use Giddens' own summary of his ideas at the end of his work, New Rules of Sociological Method. There Giddens sets out nine main topics in four main groups.

A. The Subject Matter of Sociology

In Dooyeweerdian terms, the subject matter of any scientific arena is centred on one of the modal aspects. The remit of each science is to study the laws of its aspect, usually by a process of higher abstraction that isolated the functioning of the aspect from other aspects. So, to the Dooyeweerdian approach, questions about the subject matter of a science are meaningful, and are related to the kernel of the aspect concerned which, in this case, is the social aspect. To Dooyeweerd, this is one of the human aspects that have normative laws.

A1. "Sociology is not concerned with a 'pre-given' universe of objects, but with one which is constituted or produced by the active doings of subjects."

We can see several points of agreement with Dooyeweerd in the above:

We can also see further points at which Dooyeweerd meets Giddens in the text that follows the above, in which Giddens discusses the place of history and the circular relationship in which human beings produce society, which in turn produces them.

Thus Dooyeweerd and Giddens agree on many points. But we might note that Giddens does not say what is the proper bounds of social science; he only gives some of its characteristics, such as "not pre-given", circular, to do with history, and speaks of how it does or does not relate to the natural world. Dooyeweerd, on the other hand, makes a quite specific proposal, that the kernel of the social aspect is social interaction and institution.

A2. "The production and reproduction of society thus has to be treated as a skilled performance on the part of its members, not as merely a mechanical series of processes."

In this, Giddens seems to be distancing his thinking from those sociological theories that are based on deterministic processes. The mention of "skilled performance" emphasises what Dooyeweerd would see as fuctioning in the formative aspect.

Giddens continues, "To emphasize this, however, is definitely not to say that actors are wholly aware of what these skills are, or just how they manage to exercise them; or that the forms of social life are adequately understood as the intended outcomes of action." This touches Dooyeweerd's idea of the tacit nature of everyday thinking and doing. To Dooyeweerd, everyday doing is multi-aspectual in nature, involving functioning in each aspect, but these distinct functionings are interwoven into a coherence of human living. In the immediate situation of living, we 'live' without being aware of the individual aspects. Only when s/he reflects on (stands back from and against) the living, do the aspects of appear distinct.

However, we might ask Giddens how, if people are not aware of "how they manage", the "forms of social life" come about. Dooyeweerd's answer is that the aspects (especially the social aspect) pertain whether we are aware of them or not. This is the subtle 'givenness' of the aspects. They provide a framework of Meaning that enables all we do. This led Dooyeweerd, as noted above, to propose the range of possible types of social institution is not completely unbounded, but rather is directed by the aspects. See below. In this he is not completely at odds with Giddens, as we see in section B.

B. Boundaries of Agency and Modes in which (Re-)Production are examined

B1. "The realm of human agency is bounded. Human beings produce society, but they do so as historically located actors, and not under conditions of their own choosing."

Dooyeweerd would strongly agree with this statement. By virtue of his multi-aspectual approach, Dooyeweerd sees human beings as "historically located" (as well as located spatially, physically, economically, aesthetically, juridically, ethically, pistically, etc.). Giddens' word 'located' seems to convey both Dooyeweerd's notion of functioning within the law-framework of each aspect, and his word "historically" gives especial reference to the formative or historical aspect that says that all we do is part of a historical and cultural story.

Giddens opposes "historically located" to "own choosing". But to Dooyeweerd, these are both of the same aspect and do not stand in opposition. History, he would claim, comes about by deliberate human will ("own choosing"), and also forms the formative-aspect environment in which that "own choosing" takes place. In this, he echoes Giddens' circular relationship that we see pervading structuration theory.

What is perhaps of even sharper interest is Giddens' statement (p.169) about "behaviour that has to be analysed nomologically" and that "In respect of sociology, the crucial task of nomological analysis is to be found in the explanation of the structural properties of social systems." 'Nomological' refers to laws, a central concept in Dooyeweerd. Moreover, he links nomological analysis to explaining the 'structural properties' of social systems. To Dooyeweerd, both 'structural' properties and laws are rooted in and tied to the aspects. GIddens then opens up the discussion of what Dooyeweerd sees as aspectual Law in ways very commensurable with Dooyeweerd in B2 and B3.

B2. "Structure must not be conceptualized as simply placing constraints upon human agency, but as enabling."

This is very much in line with Dooyeweerdian thinking. Giddens talks about structure enabling as well as constraining; Dooyeweerd talks about Law enabling as well as constraining. Each aspect has its own distinct law-framework (or structure), that enables meaningful functioning within it. This seems to be a favourite theme with Giddens, who speaks of the duality of structure.

Giddens' word 'structuration' is better than mere 'structure' because it explains "how it comes about that structure is constituted through action, and reciprocally how action is constituted structurally." Structuration gives his theory its name, and thus is well worked out. How it compares with Dooyeweerd's ideas is discussed below.

B3. "Processes of structuration involve an interplay of meanings, norms and power."

'Meanings' and 'Norms' seem at first sight to be very close to Dooyeweerdian thinking, because in Dooyeweerd, both are grounded in the aspects - aspects are a spectrum of Meaning, and they provide norms in the framework in which we live. But the link between Dooyeweerd and Giddens is not so simple. Giddens is speaking about lingual meanings, that is individual meanings that we attach to symbols e.g. during communication.

In the text that follows the above statement, Giddens says that "These three concepts are analytically equivalent as the 'primitive' terms of social science, and are logically implicated in both the notion of intentional action and that of structure: every cognitive and moral order is at the same time a system of power, involving a horizon of 'legitimacy'." He is thus trying to find something common between action and structure, and he comes up with three concepts that, he seems to say, cannot be separated from each other.

We can see echoes of Dooyeweerd's ideas here. If we consider any aspect, we find all three:

Now, to link action and structure. Action is the exercise, by an entity that is subject to the laws of an aspect, of the ability to respond as subject to its laws. Structure is the law-framework. That is the overall picture - but as we see below, there are some detailed differences.

C. Modes of observing and characterizing social life

C1. "The sociological observer cannot make social life available as a 'phenomenon' for observation independently of drawing upon her or his knowledge of it as a resource whereby it is constituted as a 'topic' for investigation."

What Giddens seems to be arguing against, in the statement, is the notion of the detached observer. In reality, he tells us, the process of observation of the observer is part of the latter's own life, and that life is lived within society. More importantly, it is also part of the 'mutual knowledge' that is shared by observer and observed alike. The observer can only 'make sense' of social activity once they share interpretative schemes with those observed. Otherwise, no adequate characterizations of the observed social activity can be 'recognised'.

Dooyeweerd would agree, and there are three parts to the agreement:

Thus we see how Dooyeweerd would account for his agreement with Giddens' position.

C2. "Immersion in a form of life is the necessary and only means whereby an observer is able to generate such characterizations."

If appropriate characterizations requires that the observer shares 'mutual knowledge' with the observed, then a particular problem arises when the observer and observed come from very different cultures. This statement is especially directed at the question of how an observer from one culture can properly and fairly study an "alien culture". Giddens emphasizes that this does not require the observer to become a full member of that culture, but rather to come to the point of "know[ing] how to find one's way about in it, to be able to participate in it as an ensemble of practices."

Dooyeweerd would agree in general terms but, since he was not himself a sociologist, he did not work it out to the detail that Giddens does. However, Dooyeweerd could perhaps enrich Giddens' notion of immersion in "an ensemble of practices" by reminding us that human life involves all aspects, interwoven and yet distinguishable. Therefore, 'immersion' cannot be said to be sufficient until the observer is involved in every aspect of the life of the community in some way - from the arithmetic aspect through to the religious. It is not enough, for example, for the observer to participate economically and juridically by paying their bills, but they should also be living aesthetically, ethically, pistically, etc. in the community, and should respect every aspect of life in the observed community.

However, as Giddens suggests, 'in some way' does not necessarily mean becoming a "full member" of the culture. From a Dooyeweerdian perspective, this could mean that while the observed should be active in each aspect, it is not necessary for the observer's form of that activity to be precisely like that of the observed. For example, the observer will usually have a special place in the social structures of the community (social aspect), and the observer one does not have to adopt the religious beliefs of the observed community (pistic aspect).

Therefore, if the Dooyeweerdian notion of aspects is valid, the observer can expect to experience a tension in each aspect between properly understanding that aspect of the observed situation while not her/himself functioning in that aspect precisely in the way that observed people do.

D. Formulation of concepts within meaning-frames of social science as metalanguages

It is interesting that Giddens speaks of meaning-frames. While many thinkers have ignored meaning, Giddens shares with Dooyeweerd the importance of Meaning, and sees meaning as a framework within which we operate.

D1. "Sociological concepts thus obey a double hermeneutic."

The 'double hermeneutic' involves:

D2. "In sum, the primary tasks of sociological analysis are the following: (a) The hermeneutic explication ... (b) Explication of production, reproduction of society as a accomplished outcome of human agency."

These explications might be *a* task of sociological analysis, but it is doubtful whether Dooyeweerd would agree they are the *primary* task.

Dooyeweerd's Theory of Social Institutions

Dooyeweerd's Critique of Sociology

Towards the end of his life, Dooyeweerd sought to open up the kernel and science of the social aspect, with A Christian Theory of Social Institutions (Note: the word 'Christian' must be understood in a special way). He first made a critique of the field of sociology as he then knew it (up to the 1970s). For example, he argued against the positivsts with:

"The positivist founders of sociology ... failed to realize that human social relations are not given to us as empirical natural facts, as these facts are understood in classical physics. Instead, these relations manifest themselves only in a diversity of typical stsructures. They are intangible and thus cannot be ascertained by the methods of natural science. ... One cannot discern or understand them without the application of norms or criteria of propriety. For the very existence of these social relations depends upon these norms, even though in their actual functioning these relations may conflict with such norms."

He pointed out that, as a reaction against the natural-scientific approach,

"since Max Weber, the natural scientific mode of thought in sociology has been largely eclipsed by a so-called cultural scientific modes of thought. ..."

But he does not see this as the answer. He argued also against the absolutization of the formative aspect as seen in historicism:

"... Yet, important as it may be, this turn of events in sociological thinking has not led to a truly structural-theoretical method of investigation. From the beginning, modern sociology has eliminated the typical structural principles which determine the abiding inner essence of various social relationships. Upon eliminating these principles, most sociologists have taken the historicist position, which is founded on absolutizing the cultural-historic aspect of society. They see society in all its aspects as a product of cultural development. This view leaves no room for constant differences in the nature of the historical and social spheres of life."

At first sight, it would seem that Giddens is within the scope of Dooyeweerd's criticism, in absolutizing the cultural-historic (formative) aspect, but that would mean he eliminates the typical structural principles. However, we have seen that Giddens takes structure seriously, and, under his own analysis, seeks to find a way whereby both structure and action can be 'strong'. Has he succeeded?

Ground Motives Underlying Sociology

After a critique of sociology above, Dooyeweerd argued that such dualisms as Giddens tries to overcome are products of deep ground motives and cannot be overcome by merely trying to "think the poles together" (as he criticized Hegel for trying to do). Instead, Dooyeweerd would suggest that the only way to succeed in overcoming the dualism that results from a ground motive is to adopt a new ground motive. Dooyeweerd himself adopted the motive of Creation-Fall-Redemption, and constructed his theories thereon. It was only this motive that allowed him to postulate a pluralistic nomology of aspects that is proving fruitful in so many spheres. He made this the basis of his own putative theory of social institutions.

Dooyeweerd's Theory of Social Institutions

He showed the ground motives underlying various notions. Then he started to construct a 'creational' approach.

In doing so, he proposed that the range of possible types of social institution is not completely unbounded, but rather is directed by the aspects. He posed the question of what it is that makes a typical family different from a typical firm, a typical religious organization, a typical club, a typical government, etc. It is not helpful, he believed, to assume that they could each be the others; there must be some substantial difference between them. His answer was that each type of social institution can be linked to an aspect (respectively, the ethical, the economic, the pistic, the social, and the juridical in that list). Each main type of social institution that is viable seems to be qualified by one of the aspects.

The implication of Dooyeweerd's approach is, therefore, that the range of basic types of institution is limited to the aspects (though mixes might be possible). This would seem to provide a means of fulfilling what Giddens said was "In respect of sociology, the crucial task of nomological analysis [which] is to be found in the explanation of the structural properties of social systems." Giddens' own attempt to fulfil this task seems to assume that the distinctions between types can be wholly explained from within the social aspect, whereas Dooyeweerd held that such a task requires philosophy that transcends the various scientific arenas. Dooyeweerd seems thus able to account for structure in a way that is not 'vaporous' [Healy 1998].

It may be that what Giddens is reaching for, Dooyeweerd shows the way to. Dooyeweerd's theory of social institutions was not complete when he died, and needs further work to overcome various problems. But it is an interesting contribution, slightly out of kilter with postmodern approaches but none the worse for being so. It may prove a useful start, especially if its insights can be used to inform the work of people like Giddens.

(See also Danie Strauss' comment on Giddens in his discussion on Category Mistake in Opposing Individual to Society.)


Dooyeweerd H, (1986) A Christian Theory of Social Institutions, tr. Verbrugge M, The Herman Dooyeweerd Foundation, La Jolla, California, USA.

Giddens, A. 1984. The Constitution of Society. Polity Press.

Giddens A (1993) New Rules of Sociological Method, Polity Press, page 169.

Healay K. 1998. Conceptualising constraint: Mouzelis, Archer and the concept of social structure. SOCIOLOGY Vol. 32 No. 3 August 1998 509-522.

This page is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Copyright (c) at all dates below Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

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Created: 8 July 2002 Last updated: 27 November 2006 Correlative enkapsis, and some other corrections; unet. 23 June 2010 link to /issues/indiv.soc. 17 February 2011 contents; structural aspects of meaning, power, norms; .nav,.end. 17 August 2013 correction: 'juridical' moved into table cell. 28 March 2015 Giddens reaching for law-side. 31 March 2015 changed 'morality' to 'sanction' in table. 13 May 2015 10 point summary, healy crit.