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Structuration

John Parker
Open University Press: Buckingham
2001
0335203949 (pb); 0335203957 (hb)
11.99 (pb); 42.50 (hb)
xi + 412

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Front Cover
The Parsonian revolution in social theory has receded into history, and it is easy to forget its impact and importance. Probably more sociologists today have read C Wright Mills' famous critique in The Sociological Imagination than have read Parsons. When they do - as in the recent case of a graduate student to whom I introduced Parsons' discussion of the 'sick role' in The Social System - they are often surprised . Parsons' great works of synthesis - flawed though they were, and often tedious - laid the foundations not only for Merton, whose memory and legacy must surely be due for a refurbishment, but also for the development over the last thirty years of consistent attempts to 'deal with' the problematic relationship between structure and agency.

In fact - something which John Parker appreciates, and one of the places in which he begins this excellent and useful discussion of the structuration debate - without Parsons, and his attempt to construct a workable 'action frame of reference', theoretically speaking there might never have been a problematic relationship at all. Paying particular attention also to the contribution of Lockwood, Parker emphasises the importance to our understanding of the current debate about structure and agency of the work of the generation (or two) of theorists before the present senior generation.

In that present senior generation he concentrates on four theorists. The first two Parker characterises as the structurationists: Anthony Giddens who, after all, popularised the word structuration and whose shadow lies over the entire book - and Pierre Bourdieu. They are discussed as representative of a theoretical project which attempts to collapse structure and agency into each other. This, once again following Giddens' terminology, is the duality of structure and agency: each entails and is part of the other (in Bourdieu's case this could be called the duality of the objective and the subjective).

Identifying various shortcomings of the duality approach, the other two theorists on whom Parker concentrates he refers to as post-structurationists: Margaret Archer and Nicos Mouzelis. If the underlying theme of the structurationists is the recovery of human agency (Giddens) or human practice (Bourdieu), the unifying theme of the post-structurationists could be characterised as the theoretical recovery of a working model of history and macro-structure which is not reified to the point that structure and change becomes divorced from what people do.

In a short review of a short book there is little opportunity for the luxury of a leisured dissection of the authors' arguments. Suffice it to say that John Parker is clearly in sympathy with the post-structurationists and that the book closes with a stimulating discussion of the possibilities for a genuinely historical sociology, with particular attention to Mann and Runciman. Margaret Archer's work in particular will be more accessible to students as a result of this book (although I am less certain about Bourdieu's treatment, or indeed Parker's interpretation of his work).

So far so good: what we have here - in the best traditions of the Open University Press's Concepts in the Social Sciences series to which it belongs - is an admirably short introduction to a complex theoretical topic, which will leave students understanding the issues better than they did before they read it. If I have a criticism, it is that the concepts of structure and agency are too much taken for granted - not completely it should be said: see pages 6-10, for example - and that, since in my view it is they which are at the heart of the problem, they should have been problematised. To say that, however, is a little like saying to a motorist asking for directions, 'If I were you, I wouldn't start here'. If you want to get to grips with the structuration debate, this book is a very good place to start.

Richard Jenkins
University of Sheffield

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