The agency-structure perspective is the European alternative to the micro-macro perspective in America. Agency generally refers to micro-level, individual human actors, but it can also refer to collectivities of that act. Structure usually refers to large-scale social structures, but it can also refer to micro structures, such as those involved in human interaction.
Structuration theory focuses on the mutual constitution of structure and agency. Anthony Giddens (1938- ) argues that structure and agency are a duality that cannot be conceived of apart from one another. Human practices are recursive—that is, through their activities, individuals create both their consciousness and the structural conditions that make their activities possible. Because social actors are reflexive and monitor the ongoing flow of activities and structural conditions, they adapt their actions to their evolving understandings. As a result, social scientific knowledge of society will actually change human activities. Giddens calls this dialectical relationship between social scientific knowledge and human practices the double hermeneutic.
Actors continually develop routines that give them a sense of security and that enable them to deal efficiently with their social lives. While their motives provide the overall plan of action, it is these routine practices that determine what shape the action will take. Giddens emphasizes that actors have power to shape their own actions but that the consequences of actions are often unintended. Structure is the rules and resources that give similar social practices a systemic form. Only through the activities of human actors can structure exist. While Giddens acknowledges that structure can be constraining to actors, he thinks that sociologists have exaggerated the importance of structural constraints. Structures can also enable actors to do things they would not otherwise be able to do. For Giddens, a social system is a set of reproduced social practices and relations between actors.
The concept of structuration underscores the duality of structure and agency. There can be no agency without structures that shape motives into practices, but there can be no structures independent of the routine practices that create them.