- September
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Structuration theory and social interaction design

“Structure thus refers, in social analysis, to the structuring properties allowing the ‘binding’ of time-space in social systems, the properties which make it possible for discernibly similar social practices to exist across varying spans of time and space and which lend them ‘systemic’ form. To say that structure is a ‘virtual order’ of transformative relations means that social systems, as reproduced social practices, do not have ‘structures’ but rather exhibit ‘structural properties’ and that structure exists, as time-space presence, only its instantiations in such practices and as memory traces orienting the conduct of knowledgeable human agents.” Anthony Giddens

I like Anthony Giddens and a lot of my social interaction design thinking draws on his handling of systems and structural properties reproduced by acting agents, or people. It allows us to describe the systemic features of social tools and online social interactions without losing sight of users.

User-centricity is key to approaching any social interaction design challenges. And yet in mediated social interactions, emergent phenomena are both likely and necessary. People interact with people; any social service that fails to engage people with each other fails, period.

The challenge for any social theoretical view of “organized” human relations is how to both recognize structure and system without selling short acting subjects and the interests that motivate their actions. Giddens provides a compelling “both and” view of this analytical choice, calling the reproduction of system features “structuration.” (Structuralists have been known for dismissing the relevance of human agency, claiming that structures determine individual actions.)

This might all seem like high falutin gobbledy-gook, but designers design by generalized principles — by necessity. Designers need to work with models of social interaction, as well as software/application interaction (e.g. human computer interaction). Those models are accurate only insofar as they generalize individual behaviors and activities into social systemic features and structural properties.

User-centric design therefore needs a model of system and structural factors that accommodates user choices and actions without subsuming them to “design (or system) influence.”

Regardless of our personal views on design influence and user behavior, our design principles require general descriptions. Opinions and observations don’t make models. Structuration, I think, offers a theoretical advantage by placing structural and systemic properties in the service of the aggregate individual actions of actors (members, users). Design influences behavior, but in turn responds to behaviors in the aggregate (as emergent social events).

With structuration, designers can point to both design (system and structure) features as well as user interests without falling into a theoretical hole. Both design features and user actions can be rationally explained and inter-woven into a holistic analysis of design requirements and likely social outcomes.




  • I’ve been thinking a lot about the interaction of design features and the culture that develops on a social media site. Design features influence culture, but then culture feeds back into design. This is pure structuration theory: The system both enables and constraints expression; it is the foundation AND the result of interaction. Thank you for bringing up the connection between structuration theory and UI. It makes sense, I’ll be using it in my classes!

  • Sociology is always so complicated!  Aren’t Giddens and other European sociologists saying that we go along with things, partly because it is human nature to mimic (field effects), partly unthinkingly and partly because the status quo suits us.  But equally as the status quo is only the sum total of all our actions, all we have to do it behave slightly differently (and indeed slight variations happen all the time by choice or accident), and change happens – slowly and sometimes with unintended consequences, but it happens.  But then that’s why I gave up sociology and stuck to psychology – we want to know what we are going to DO.

  • Sociology benefits us for its interest in the structures, systems, and order in human activity. Insofar as social tools organize experience, it’s a good companion to psychology, which is more interested in individual motives and behaviors. 

  • Structuration theory has come up before in my social media class… I don’t quite remember the context now. But your post makes it clear to me I should bring it up myself!

  • Students can look it up pretty easily I’m sure. Big picture context: sociologists deal with structure and order of human and social activities — from small daily interactions, habits, pastimes, routines, etc, to big macro forms of organization, such as institutions, law, money, etc. 

    In the late 20th century, structuralism was all the rage. Many European sociologists and philosophers in particular began to find structure everywhere. Human agency was subordinated to structural influence. It all culminated with the view that the “subject is dead.” That all human action is determined by organizing forces, from power and norms to language and even the organization of daily life. 

    Giddens bridged the two, arguing that while macro forces do indeed result in structure and order, the individual subject is nonetheless still empowered and does act on his/her own agency. Structuration claims that it’s by the everyday activities of individual subjects that macro structures are reproduced. The structures do not exist without their reproduction by people. 

    This is a systems theoretical view. I think it’s valuable in grasping how social tools work, because tools after all organize our experience. They only capture certain actions. So it’s necessary to understand what those are, and how they result in certain social outcomes online. At the same time, design should still begin with users — their agency, and what it is that motivates them as well as what it is they think they are doing, why, about what, for whom. And so on. 

    An interesting question for students might be: What are the forces and mechanics of Power in online social networks? What’s the particular organization of power enabled by networking technologies and social tools? In what ways do social tools enable and constrain human and social activity?

  • Yes. We use it a lot when discussing social systems. You suggest some very interesting critical theory research questions here. Maybe we should work on a paper together 🙂

  • I’m not sure what my bandwidth is at the moment — I have a couple unfinished books on social interaction design and conversational models, plus a huge list of research questions that I’d like to wrap up this fall/winter — but if you want to float me what you’re thinking, perhaps we could work on someting together! (I’m an old Frankfurt School fan — critical reflections are always a pleasure!)

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