Structuration Theory
Written by Hannah Schädlich and Daria Gordeeva

Modern societies are becoming increasingly complex and the field of sociology attempts to understand these intricate relationships, providing ideas of how things belong together. Our research on media systems worldwide is based on the structuration theory developed by British sociologist Anthony Giddens, which has been widely adopted for the analysis of international relations (Dany, 2013: 41). As any other social theory, it establishes connections between terms and concepts and is based on the analysis of both structure and agents (without giving primacy to either). Thus, social theories are used to study, interpret and explain social phenomena, in our case ‒ creation and reproduction of media systems.

Elements of the theory of structuration
Why have we chosen Giddens? Several sociologists tried to describe the relationship between the person and the social environment, claiming that human actions are unconstrained by social forces or, vice versa, solely restricted by social structure. In contrast, Giddens rejects both perspectives and asserts that structure and agents cannot be separated, but are deeply intertwined in what he calls the “duality of structure”. Giddens uses specific terminology to explain the relationship between human agency and social structure. The usage of these terms as well as their relation to the media system will be explained and discussed below. The focus here will be on explaining the “duality of structure”, the essential concept for our research on media systems.

According to Giddens, “structures” (or “social structures”) are “recursively organized sets of rules and resources” (Giddens, 1984: 25). Rules restrict social actions of actors, while resources facilitate them ‒ thus, structure is both constraining and enabling. Rules can be, for example, formally codified as laws (ibid.: 17). Human actors are aware of social rules and (routinely) apply them in the production and reproduction of day-to-day social encounters. In this context, Giddens uses the term “knowledgeability” of agents (ibid.: 21-22). This knowledge is expressed in consciousness, whereby Giddens distinguishes between discursive and practical consciousness. In simple terms, this is a difference between what can be articulated (discursive consciousness) and “what is characteristically simply done” (practical consciousness) (ibid.: 7). The actors’ awareness of rules is expressed first and foremost in practical consciousness (ibid: 21). Resources are defined as media through which actors exercise their power. Giddens distinguishes between two types of resources: allocative resources, which refer to capabilities for generating command over material phenomena, objects and goods (such as raw materials or land), and authoritative resources referring to generating command over persons and actors (ibid.: 33).
These structuring properties “bind” time and space in social systems and “make it possible for […] similar social practices to exist across varying spans of time and space” (Giddens, 1984: 17). Due to these structural properties, social systems become a systemic form. These systems refer to reproduced social practices or interactions of human agents, who are physically co-present. “Co-presence”, according to Giddens, is anchored in the spatiality of the body, in orientation towards other actors as well as in the experiencing self (ibid.: 64). Actors perform social actions trough embedded memory (“memory traces”). Thus, social systems are “grounded in the knowledgeable activities of situated actors who draw upon rules and resources” in different action contexts (ibid.: 25). At the same time, structure (rules and resources) is a result of these social practices.
The concept of “duality of structure” is the core of structuration theory, which is necessary to understand the interrelationships in the system. Giddens describes the interdependence between structure and agency as follows: “According to the notion of the duality of structure, the structural properties of social systems are both medium and outcome of the practices they recursively organize.” (Giddens 1984: 25) Thus, agents are bound in social structures and, at the same time, bring about and change those structures, which form the conditions of agents’ actions. As mentioned above, this is “a dynamic and simultaneous process” (Dany 2013: 42): “Structure exists, as time-space presence, only in its instantiations in such practices and as memory traces orienting the conduct of knowledgeable human agents” (Giddens, 1984: 17). In simple terms, there is a social structure with established codes of conduct and moral standards, traditions and institutions, but these properties can be changed by actors, when they, for example, reproduce these norms differently or simply ignore or replace rules.

Structuration theory and category system
Derived from Giddens’ structuration theory, a media system mainly consists of structure and acting agents. As described above, he structure can be subdivided in rules and resources regarding media systems. In this case rules can be written or unwritten and have to be understood as official guidelines that give frames for the acting of media professionals. Some examples for such rules are the national constitution, national media laws or quality criteria such as a Code of Ethics. According to structuration theory, resources are also of two kinds: allocative and authoritative resources. In accordance with this assumption, authoritative resources arise from the coordination of human actions. For that reason, one has to name all the medial associations of regulation and control in this category. Key media also belong here because they have a role as institutions that guide other media, give orientation and set standards. The allocative resources arise from the control over material products and other aspects of the material world (Giddens, 1984: 33). Thus, all ownership structures, financial and working conditions belong in this category. Education and access to the journalistic profession are allocative resources, too, because financial and familiar background can be determinant for educational choices.

The structures of the media system have close relations to the agents. Those agents can be journalists, editors, owners, and producers of media. All agents have their role perceptions, which are anchored in their practical and discursive consciousness. As mentioned above, the practical consciousness includes the implicit knowledge of agents about the behaviour in certain situations of social life, whereas the discursive consciousness is characterised through reflexivity. That means, not all role perceptions and rules of behaviour can be expressed discursively, which is why the media professionals’ awareness of those role perceptions is limited. As discussed above, agents in the media system act in co-presence. That means that, for example, journalists know about the presence of others, which is why they observe each other and adjust their behaviour.
The media system can be characterized by the “duality of structure”, too. So, the structures (their written and unwritten rules as well as (media) resources) constrain but also enable the journalistic work. At the same time, journalists are able to have an impact on the structures by reproducing or modifying them. The media system exists within a social and natural context. The natural context consists of factors of geography and topography as well as of infrastructural features. The social context contains many criteria about the society like religion, values and norms, education, economy, and many others. All those factors may have an impact on the media system as well as other systems, for example, the political system. So, there might be several restrictions by law that limit media freedom in authoritarian regime, while a democracy rather enables journalists’ autonomy. Additionally, the media system can be influenced through foreign media agents via foreign key media, financiers or NGOs.
Finally, it has to be mentioned that both media system and context develop along a historical path. That means, that all systems within a certain country are situated in a constant change. Furthermore, one has to consider the past of a country and its media system to understand why it developed like it did. As Giddens doesn’t explain any historical changes in his structuration theory, we used an approach that Katrin Voltmer, Professor of Communication and Democracy at the University of Leeds, observes in a research on media systems in 2008. She explains, that according to the path dependency of a country “the structure and performance of the new regime are determined by the specific characteristics of the old regime from which it emerges” (Voltmer, 2008: 28).

category system
Structuration theory and media systems
The structuration theory received much criticism, for example, regarding the conflation of structure and human agent, the complexity of the theory and its outspread that lead to contradictions as well as the lack of assumptions and methodological guidelines for research (Kort & Gharbi 2013: 92). We focus on the critical point referring to the empirical application of Giddens’ theory, which we regard as most important. For our empirical research, we had to define certain categories and major parameters of media systems we investigate. However, Giddens doesn’t offer any clear guideline, defines the concept in abstract terms and formulates the categories of agency and structure only vaguely. Thus, we sometimes had difficulties and disputes regarding the allocation of individual characteristics of the media system to our system of categories.


  • Dany, C. (2013). Global Governance and NGO Participation. Shaping the information society in the United Nations. New York: Routledge.
  • Giddens, A. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Kort, W., & Gharbi J. E. (2013). Structuration theory amid negative and positive criticism. International Journal of Business and Social Research (IJBSR), 3(5), 92-104.
  • Voltmer, K. (2008). Comparing Media Systems in New Democracies: East meets South meets West. Central European Journal of Communication, 1(1), 23-40.

Recommended citation form

Hannah Schädlich, Daria Gordeeva: Structuration Theory. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. (access date)

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