A theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation.
by William H. Sewell, Jr.

We can't seem to do without the term structure, but have a bear of a time defining exactly what it means.

Structure in its nominative sense always implies structure it its transitive verbal sense: structure is both a noun and a verb.

Because of the work 'structure' does for us, no single definition can succeed in fixing the terms meaning: "the metaphor of structure continues its essential if somewhat mysterious work in the constitution of social scientific knowledge despite theorists' definition efforts." [p 2]

Three problems in the current us of the term:

  1. Structural arguments tend to assume a far too rigid causal determinism in social life. (recall the building analogy). If it is rigid, individuals can’t do much to change it.
  2. Dealing with change is awkward. Structure implies stability.
  3. A contradictory use of the term 'structure'

  4. * In sociology, structure is thought of as 'hard' or 'determining'. The focus is on material structure
    * In anthropology, 'structure' is meant to imply culture. The focus is on symbolic structure.
We might like to get rid of the term, but we can’t, for two reasons:
    1. It has too strong a rhetorical force for the way we do science.
    2. "Structure" does imply the tend. of patterns to reproduce themselves, which WHS (William H. Sewell) thinks is true.
The duality of Structure: Giddens's theory.

'Dual' : Structures are "both the medium and the outcome of the practices which constitutes social systems" -people shape structure, but structure determines what people do.

He argues that structures are enabling, and thus give the 'knowledgeable' agent the capability to work in creative or formative ways. Dual structures are thus changeable.

What is structure?
For Giddens:(and in a broad sense, Sewel sticks with this def.)

"Rules and resources, recursively implicated in the reproduction of social systems. Structure exists only as memory traces, the organic basis of human knowledgeability, and as instantiated in action." (p.6)

meaning -

'social systems' what we see in society: relations, interactions, "relatively bounded social practices that link person across time and space". [Examples: countries, societies, neighborhoods, etc.]

'memory traces' and 'instantiated in practice" social structures are principles for action: what people DO provides the evidence for them.

Social structure is not the pattern of action, but the principles that generate action.

"Structures are not the patterned social practices that make up social systems, but the principles that pattern these practices." (p.6)

"Structures exist as memory traces’ and as ‘instantiated in action’ à that is, structures exist in the things we know and the way we put them into practice (the way we act on things).

Structures are thus 'virtual'. – they do not exist in the practice itself, but outside as guiding rules for action.

Structures as rules.
Here Sewell is drawing on a linguistic analogy, where structures are like grammar - they have a virtual existence, and practice is like 'parole' - the spoken/enacted word.

Quoting Giddens, he says to define rules as:
"geralizable procedures applied in the enactment/reproduction of social life." (p.7).

Rules are the things that guide our behavior. Recall the discussion about grammar: rules underlie language even if people are not aware of them. So too, certain rules underlie social action, even if we are not aware of it. The existence of these rules is what allows us to understand new situations – just like learning a new word, we can incorporate new social practices into the rules of behavior that we already know (for example, we have tended to combine telephone etiquette with mail etiquette for the new medium of email).

Giddens relies on the notion that actors are 'knowledgeable' but fails to say how or what they know: The answer, according to Sewell, is 'what they know' = culture.

Rules exist at various levels.
    rules near the surface are more 'superficial' than those that run deep. (the dress code versus incest taboos).

Sewell proposes the term 'schemas' instead of rules, to get away from the 'proscriptive' nature of the word 'rule';

These schema are 'generalizable' in that they can be applied to many different areas. This generalizability is what is implied by saying a rule is 'virtual' -- it exists outside of the particular practice that is using it.

"This generalizability or transposability of schemas is the reason they must be understood as virtual. To say that schemas are virtual is to say that they cannot be reduced to their existence in any particular practice or any particular location space and time: they can be actualized in potentially broad and unpredetermined range of situations." (p.8)

Structures are resources.
Structures are not just rules, but rules and resource sets. That is, resources need rules to activate them, and rules are only observable in practice on resources.

Resources are: "the media whereby transformative capacity is employed as power in the routine course of social interaction."
Meaning, "anything that can serve as a source of power."

two types:
allocative - power over things,
Authoritative - power over people.

But if structures are virtual, how can they have a place for non-human resources (i.e. actual, material things)?

Sewell says we can't suffer this contradiction.

"The simplest way of conceptualizing structures would be to return to Giddens's starting point in structuralism and to assert that structure refers only to rules or schema, not to resources and that resources should be thought of as an effect of structures. In this way, structures would retain their virtual quality, and concrete distributions of resource would be seen not as structures but as media animated and shaped by structures, that is, by cultural schemas."
The problem, however, is that to define structure in this way denies the very duality that we set out to achieve. – structure takes on a determinate linkage (structure à resources) instead of an integrated manner (structure ßà resources).
"If the duality of structure is to be saved – and as far as I am concerned the notion of duality of structure is the main attraction of Giddens’s theory – we must take the other alternative and conceive of structure as having a dual character. Structure, then, should be defined as composed simultaneously of schemas, which are virtual, and of resources, which are actual." (p.12)
Thus, we define structures as dual, they have on the one hand a virtual existence in the minds of actors, on the other hand a real existence in the world of resources. If this is true, then it must be true that schemas are the effects of resources, just as resources are the effects of schemas.

"Sets of schemas and resources may properly be said to constitute structures only when they mutually imply and sustain each other over time." (p.13)

The transformation of dual structures: out of Bourdieu's Habitus.
Given this definition of structure, how does it let us identify how structures change? That is, what accounts for the transformation of structure? Sewell thinks this comes out of Bourdieu’s notion of habitus of the cultural rules that guide people’s behavior, and the way that behavior is enacted.

Habitus is Bourdieu's word to describe how actors behave - it's the set of schemas that they use:

Habitus is:

"an acquired system of generative schemes objectively adjusted to the particular conditions in which it is constituted, the habitus engenders all the thoughts, all the perceptions, and all the actions consistent with those conditions and no others." (quoted in Sewell, p.15)
The problem, of course, is that PB’s definition of habitus is very stable – it does not allow any notion of change itself. Thus, though PB points out that change might occur slowly through transformation of the habitus, he does not explain where this change might come from or how it would occur. Sewell thinks that this is essentially the right tack, but the details are wrong. Instead, he thinks actors have greater control over how schemas are implemented, how situations are percieved (and thus determine what types of rules apply).

Why structural change IS possible.
To overcome all the problems about habitus posed, Sewell proposes 5 key axioms: These are the essential starting points for Sewell’s theory of structure.

  1. The Multiplicity of Structures: Societies are comprised of MANY different structures operating at different levels. These are of course related. The multiplicity of structure means that the knowledgeable social actors who's practices constitute a society are far more versatile that PB's account of a universally homologous habitus would imply.
  2. The transposablity of Schema. The schemas that an actor has access to are usefully applied across contexts. we search out analogies, things that seem similar in some respect, and transfer the rule for one setting to another.
  3. The unpredictability of Resource accumulation. The resource consequence of the enactment of a cultural schema is never entirely predictable, especially when used in a 'different' realm. (recall the discussion about Leifer).
  4. the polysemy of resources. 'multiplicity of meaning' The fact that resources are endowed with cultural schemas means that their meaning is often ambiguous, this leads to different interpretations of events, and thus different interactions.
    1. This is what gives agency it's stick: "Agency is the actor's capacity to reinterpret and mobilize an array of resources in terms of cultural schemas other than those that initially constituted in the array."
      5) The intersection of Structures:
            Structures overlap. – once we admit that there are multiple structures, we also have to ask how they are related. This then opens a whole new avenue for social research.

Once we have these parts, we can meaningfully discuss what it is that actors do, that is, how structure and agency overlap.

According to Sewell,

"agents are empowered to act with and against others by structures: they have knowledge of the schemas that inform social life and have access to some measure of human and non-human resources. Agency arises from the actor’s knowledge of schemas, which means the ability to apply them to new contexts." (p.20)
Some points about agency for Sewell: Sewel says that the two parts of structure can be concieved as dimensions, which allows us to classify types of structures. The two dimensions are:

1) Depth: Schema dimension
2) Power: Resource Dimension.

Hi Power Low Power
Very Deep  Capitalism Language
Shallow Political Structure Fashion and Fads (perhaps)