Check out my review of Ken Wilber's latest book Finding Radical Wholeness

Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Structuration theory

and the assessment of technology

Nathalie Pang

The study of technologies typically involves two broad traditions of assumptions: social reality as subjective or objective (Orlikowoski and Robey, 1991). This opposition in theory is reflected in the assumption of social systems (of which information technologies are part) as the result of 'meaningful human behaviour', representing social realities as subjective; while the other focuses on the organisational aspects of social systems, independent of and constraining human actions, representing social realities as being objective (Bhaskar, c.f. Orlikowoski and Robey, 1991).

Research assuming the subjectivity of social systems focuses on subjective human experiences, interpretation of them, and elements of human behaviour modifying the world. The contrasting view of objectivism focuses on the properties of institutional elements shaping social systems, providing explanations for their influences on human actions and relationships.

This seemingly dichotomous view of social systems is seen by Giddens as problematic. Giddens (1979), who asserted that the grounds of mutual exclusiveness between subjectivism and objectivism is flawed, developed the theory of structuration to accommodate the two traditions. Structuration theory views the subjectivity and objectivity of social realities as equally important. According to structuration theory, cultural context is generated and regenerated through the interplay of action and structure. It recognises that 'man actively shapes the world he lives in at the same time as it shapes him' (Giddens, 1986).

Peer to peer (thereafter referred to as P2P) based systems may be mistakenly construed by many as a form of cooperative network which arose, or was propelled largely because of technological innovations in information and communication, and the explosion of the world wide web. It is the intention of this article to address this perspective, and provide another by which P2P concepts, processes, and its dynamics could be considered. This is done in this article through the application of structuration theory.

Structuration Theory and the Duality of Technology

It should be noted that the theory on its own is a highly complex one; and cannot be adapted unless in relevant contexts. Information technology is an appropriate context in which structuration theory can be applied. According to Orlikowski and Robey (1991), 'in its constituted nature information technology is the social product of subjective human action within specific structural and cultural contexts and its constitutive role information technology is simultaneously an objective set of rules and resources involved in mediating (facilitating and constraining) human action, and thus hence contributing to the creation, recreation and transformation of these contexts'.

According to structuration theory, the cumulative effect of people's living and working within social frameworks is the production and reproduction of culture. The cultural context is generated and regenerated through the interplay of action and structure. Social structures both support and constrain the endeavours of individuals, communities and societies. This is also referred to as the duality of structure (Giddens, 1986), seeing that institutional properties of social systems are created by human actions, and in turn shape future actions. It recognises that 'man actively shapes the world he lives in at the same time as it shapes him' (Giddens, 1984).

Perhaps one of the most important application of this theory to information systems lies in the recognition of structure and agency as 'duality' making clear the distinctions between structure and agency yet recognising them as dependent upon each other iteratively. The application of this theory recognises that the structural properties of social systems impose themselves as influencing mediums and at the same time, outcomes of the social practices they 'recursively organise' (Giddens, 1986, pp 25). These dimensions are illustrated in the well-known diagram below:

As illustrated in figure 1, social structure and human interaction are broken down into three columns. Each structure and interaction are then associated with each other recursively via the linking modalities (interpretive scheme, facility, and norm). Three forms of structure are given here, representing various embedded social realities: signification, domination, and legitimation.

For example, as humans communicate, they use interpretive schemes to help them make sense of their interaction; at the same time these interactions change or reproduce the same interpretive schemes that are embedded in structures as signification. The facility used to allocate resources is manifested in the wielding of power, which in turn produces and reproduces facilities influencing social structures of domination. Norms on the other hand, referred to also as moral codes; provide both understandings and sanctions for human interactions, ultimately also producing legitimation within structures.

For information systems, they are forgotten as often as they are remembered in the conduct of everyday life, and have long since overflowed their original ambit of the workplace to include almost all other aspects of living. So extensive are their potentials that information systems have become too diverse to be captured in any short definition. Information systems, when considered as an object of study, require a constant renewal of definition depending on context.

These renewals of definitions also suggest that people and information systems often interact in a recursive manner: people influencing systems and in turn being influenced by them. It is a reality that people need to grapple continuously with the multiple personae of 'information' and 'information systems'. Orlikowoski (1992) explores the structurational model with information technology (figure 2).

The recursive nature of technology based on structuration theory is reflected in the structurational properties of technologies as being created and changed by human action; but also used by humans to accomplish actions.

An eye on P2P

It is through structuration theory that leads to the characterising of P2P communities and their processes as one of emergence rather than known purpose. The organisation of any community of people is one that is made up of symbols and, at the crux of it, interactions between people and these artefacts. Symbolic meanings are the outcomes of such interactions. What structuration theory sheds light on, is the manner by which such interactions occurs, acknowledging that the institutional properties empowering or constraining human actions are also in turn shaped by the communities and their interactions. This perspective provides a number of implications.

Technology, while crucial to the sustainability and growth of P2P, is not the only living factor, or cause of P2P. It is a form of structure which also possesses agency attributes in imposing or triggering certain actions from P2P communities. Almost simultaneously, technologies used in P2P are also the products of human actions and interactions: being shaped over time and space towards the shareholding and exchanges of human actions.

Some examples of the nature of interactions as explained by structuration theory are suggested here. Thinking of P2P as a community, communication between people in the community are exchanged via interpretive schemes. These interpretive schemes, such as languages and symbolic artefacts belong to a form of modality. This implies a further reproduction of interpretive schemes that are embedded in formal structures known as signification. The structure of signification is perhaps one of the most visible forms of structure representing the community. It is commonly the interface that allows external organisations to interact with the P2P community, as it communicates to these external entities what the community interprets as meaningful to them.

The second type of modality, known as facility, refers to the basis by which resources are allocated within the community. This is manifested through interactions of power which in turn reproduces the facilities leading to structures of domination within the community. The third form of modality, norms, is typically the moral codes that are shared by the community. They are both constraining as they are empowering towards human actions: they are understandings as well as sanctions for interactions. Again, these interactions also reproduce the norms to give rise to structures of legitimation for the community.

It is not the intention here to make propositions to 'govern' P2P communities and all their processes and applications. Instead, by applying structuration theory one can begin to understand the reason for the rise of and popularity of P2P. A community which designs itself around the very communication structure of the organisation will also inevitably allow themselves to often be reflexively adaptable to the changes around them. The robust structure of P2P communities is evident of this. Technologies that are designed in P2P are often not designed as a type of one-way delivery. They are designed because a need or cause has been recognised as the P2P community emerge and are adaptable and quick enough to allow more changes in the community to shape them. While at the same time imposing certain forms of design on the community and the nature of technologies used.

Rather than dismissing P2P as a mere occurrence or consequence of technological advancements, perhaps it may not be too far-fetched to also make the proposition that the very technological advancements we see today have been a result of the dynamic networks of P2P communities.


Orlikowoski, W. J. and Robey, D. (1991) Information Technology and the Structuring of Organizations. Information Systems Research, 2 (2), 143-169

Giddens, A. (1979) Central problems in social theory : action, structure and contradiction in social analysis, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Giddens, A. (1986) The constitution of society : outline of the theory of structuration, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Orlikowoski, W. J. (1992) The duality of technology: rethinking the concept of technology in organizations. Organization Science, 3 (3), 398-472

Comment Form is loading comments...