William H. Sewell, Jr., “A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation,” The American Journal of Sociology 98:1 (July 1992): 1-29.

Summary by deRaismes

Main Point

Structure is an elusive term to define. Working off of Giddens and Bourdieu, Sewell attempts to develop a theory of structure that:
  1. Restores human agency to social actors
  2. Includes the possibility of change
  3. "Overcomes the divide between semiotic and materialist visions of structure"

The Duality of Structure: A Critique & Reformulation of Gidden's Theory
Anthony Giddens:
  • Structures shape people's practices, but people's practices constitute and reproduce structures
  • Structures enable
  • "Theory of Structuration" = structure is a process
  • Structures = rules and resources

Structures as Rules
  • Sewell renames Giddens' rules as "schemas"
  • Schemas are generalizable in the sense that they can be applied in or extended to a variety of contexts of interactions (8)

Structures as Resources
  • Resources either human or nonhuman
  • Human = physical strength, dexterity, knowledge, and emotional commitments that can be used to enhance or maintain power
  • Non-human = objects, animate or inanimate, naturally occuring or man-made, that can be used to enhance or maintain power

The Duality of Schemas and Resources
  • Structure should be defined as composed simultaneously of schemas, which are virtual, and of resources, which are actual
  • Dual in that schemas are the effects of resources, and resources are the effects of schemas

Duality and Stasis: Bourdieu's Habitus
  • Bourdieu's discussion of Habitus = the means by which mutually reinforcing rule-resource sets constitute human subjects with particular sorts of knowledge and dispositions (15)
  • Bourdieu does not address change
  • 5 reasons Sewell says change is possible:
o Multiplicity of Structures
o Transposability of Schemas
o Unpredictability of Resource Accumulation
o Polysemy (multiplicity of meanings) of Structures
o Intersection of Structures
  • Being an agent means being capable of exerting control over social relations -- which implies ability to transform those relations
  • Derives from actor's control of resources
  • All humans capable of agency, just not to the same degree
  • Agency = collective as well as individual

  • Structures have two components -- depth (schema) and power (resource)
  • Structures constituted by mutually sustaining cultural schemas and sets of resources that empower and constrain social action and tend to be reproduced by that action
  • Structure is dynamic -- constantly evolving
  • Agents are empowered by structures -- by knowledge of cultural schemes that enables them to mobilize resources, and by access to resources that enables them to enact social schemes