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Anthony Giddens is an influential theorist of society most known for his concept of structuration, that is, a circular relationship between structure and agency. For Giddens, the classical paradigm of social science first articulated by Emile Durkheim has always lacked a way of explaining the effects of individual actions. And yet, every individual, to some extent, possesses agency, a capacity to act, and without this agency, there would be no one to participate in society and keep it going (1979). Hence, an explanation of institutions just in terms of “social facts,” that is, rules and norms, is incomplete.
Giddens sees that social theories of modernity were also biased in another, related way. Theorists of modernity in the Western tradition tend to describe social change as a liberation of individuals from groups, traditions, religion and the power of institutional structures. In these theories, “city air makes you free,” or increasing complexity creates more choices and opportunities for individuals. Modern societies place greater importance on the individual's agency. In fact, Giddens argues that modernity was a transformation, not a breakdown, of society. As society becomes more complex, individuals do gain more choices as rules and traditions became looser, but individuals, faced with uncertainty, come to trust new institutions based on the routine monitoring and control of individual actions. For Giddens, modern society is one in which individuals are the object of highly complex, technical systems in which their choices provide information about the overall efficiency of the system. Thus, in modern societies, individuals have nearly unlimited personal choice but only over a narrow range of aspects of their lives. People can adopt any sort of identity or affiliation they want, but have no direct influence, individually or collectively, over decision-making. On this point, Giddens also ties his theory of modernity to a concept of globalization. He argues that the modern order is defined by social systems which are detached from local contexts and spread out over global time and space (Giddens 1990: 21). In the global modern order, individuals are influenced by forces which originate far beyond their immediate experiences.
Giddens, Anthony. 1979. Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure, and Contradiction in Social Analysis. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.
———. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. London: Polity Press.