Have you heard of structuration? It’s a fascinating theory to consider in relation to our food system, from the micro level of the household to the macro level of world trade. However, please note that I’m not a trained sociologist and Giddens’ writings truly stretched my brain. The following is an abridged except from one of my recent papers:

Social science theories have classically been divided into those examining the broader foundations of society and those delving into the drivers of the individual. Crossing the division between the macro and the micro while merging their workings into a functioning system reflecting their interactions is rarely done; even more rarely is it done successfully. Giddens’ theory of structuration is an intellectually challenging idea that evolved from the dynamic between the individual’s internal drivers and structural drivers. This dynamic, duality, crosses the chasm between structuralism and the power of the individual to produce a constant merging of agency into structures and vice versa, and the simultaneous reshaping or reinforcement of each through every reiteration. Giddens also incorporates aspects of time, geography, and habits into his theory of structuration.

Agency, as commonly defined in sociology, is the ability to control a decision (and any action(s), if following). Independent actors exert their independence, yielding an outcome. Underlying the concept of agency in structuration is the belief that individuals can exert their will in opposition to an established rule or institution. Structuration thus differs from strong structural deterministic theories by incorporating an acknowledgement of the individual’s power. However, the driver of an individual’s will is rarely free from influence in structuration. Agency is framed by the sets of structures discussed below, with the assumption that phenomenological interpretations of social structure underlie an actor’s agency.

Unlike Giddens, Stone’s approach requires both an eye to external structures, whether or not the agents perceive them, and a hermeneutic study of the internal structures of the agent (Chan, 2010). Furthermore, Stone clearly defines a quadripartite of essential elements: external structures, internal structures, active agency, and outcomes (2005). Stone (2005) describes external structures as an autonomous immediate framework of influences on the action of the agent rather than a systemic social system. The merged concept of position-practice describes the agent’s resources in terms of social location and previous actions. These position-practices typically lead to obligations and commitments. In addition, examining external structures places the agent within a network of social relationships (father, mother, child) with a given set of identifying criteria. External structures do have causal force, which Stone divides into independent causal influences and irresistible causal forces. Independent causal influences are autonomous from the actor, forming overall social conditions that the “agents do not have the physical capacity to control or resist” (2005, 112). On the other hand, irresistible causal forces drive the agent into a choice purely by phenomenological pressure. The agent retains the physical capacity to avoid the decision but feels unable to decide otherwise (2005). Stone (2005) proposes three properties that provide agents with the ability to resist irresistible forces:
1. Perceived power/capability: agents must feel they have the capacity to meet their needs and obligations through realistic alternate sources in order to resist external structures that would otherwise provide them with materials and ephemera to continue their lives in such a way that the agent does not endanger any essential priorities;
2. Adequate knowledge: agents must comprehend the external structures, their alternatives, and the consequences of possible actions well enough to choose to do otherwise in a given situation;
3. Requisite reflective distance: agents must gain distance in which to contemplate a selected structure and strategize their actions. (2005, p 114-115).

It is important to note that desire remains dominant: “others will still comply anyway simply because they positively want these particular aspects of the life they are living” (2005, 115).

The individual’s internalized structures, or rules, are categorized into three ontological facets: knowledge of interpretive schemas, power capacities, and normative expectations/principles of the agent in the given context (2005). Through the interpretive schema, the actor considers how others will perceive his/her actions and communications; the actor’s perceptions of other individual’s conclusions then affect any consequent actions. The actor’s interpretations are highly influenced by previous experiences, a part of internalized structures. Power capacities are judged similarly by the actor; power is synonymous with authority, where the actor must determine who has greater or lesser authority in a given situation and who is likely to employ their power. Again, previous experiences and current relationships with others influence this judgment. Normative expectations will drive the actor’s ideal actions in a perfect world but here they are tempered with pressures to act by others. Internalized structures, such as the actor’s normative principles, are thus present but not always the driver of action when external influences, such as distribution of power, may dominate (2005).

The duality of the constant process reshaping sructures through individual agency forms the main premise of structuration. Duality, it is important to note, is a separate concept from dualism. Duality focuses on the process of bidirectional feedback between agency and structure, while dualism merely proposes two parts without bidirectional interactions. At its most basic, duality can be seen as the reiteration (and/or reshaping) of social institutions via individual action. Deeper understandings of society emerge when structuration‘s duality concept is used to view the multi-level nature of interactions between agency and structure. Noting the difference between structural principles (unchanging) and structural properties above, Giddens’ theory can be expressed as a transformative feedback loop of agency and structural properties founded upon structural principles.

When we consider many of these aspects in terms of the food system, it’s easy to develop a hypothesis about why there is more junk food in stores than whole food. The structures support it. Here’s a cursory examination of the individual:

External: advertising, time pressures from responsibilities, lack of facilities/equipment, social relationships and positions, effects of previous actions, social norms
Internal: cooking skills, self-efficacy, knowledge, perceived expectations of others, previous experiences, idealized concept of situation, internal norms

The question is, can we use these concepts to develop pathways for positive change? How do we increase resistance to structural forces? How do we change structural forces to support agency that favors long-term health outcomes?

These are the questions I contemplate on sleepless nights.