You are on page 1of 18

Action, Subjectivity, and the Constitution of Meaning

Author(s): ANTHONY GIDDENS
Source: Social Research, Vol. 53, No. 3 (AUTUMN 1986), pp. 529-545
Published by: The New School
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40970430 .
Accessed: 02/07/2014 05:40
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .
http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

.
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of
content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms
of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

.

The New School is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Social Research.

http://www.jstor.org

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Action,Subjectivity,/
/
and the
Constitution /
Of MeâninQ

/

byAnthony
Giddens

A he threepartsof thetitleaccurately
indicatethecontentof
thenshowhow
thispaper.I proposeto discusseach separately,
First,the problemof actionis a fundamentheyinterconnect.
tal one for sociology.A clusterof problemsquite crucialto
ofwhatitis to
socialanalysisare concernedwithinterpretation
be a human agent, of the sorts of activityappropriateto
human conduct,and how these mightbe linked to institutions.1
Considerationsraised under the firstcategorylead to a
withliterature,
whichlargelystandsoutsideof
confrontation
been extensively
discussedby
sociologybutwhichhas recently
and poststructuralism.
social scientists:structuralism
Third,
these in turn raise questions of the nature of meaning,
questionswhich have a broad significancestretchingfrom
socialanalysisrightthroughto literary
criticism
and thetheory
of thetext.
It used to be truethatmostof thoseworkingin the social
scienceseitherfeltthemselvesat a greatdistancefromsuch
areas of interestor perhapsknewnothingof themat all. In
more recent times,however,it has become the case that
in socialtheoryconnectsocialanalysisin a very
controversies
directwaywithissuesbelongingto thoseotherareas.
1See
AnthonyGiddens, The Constitution
of Society(Cambridge: PolityPress, 1984),
ch. 1 and passivi.
SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Autumn 1986)

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

530

SOCIAL RESEARCH
The ProblemofAction

First,then,theproblemof action.In respectof theconcerns
the issue of the natureof humanactionhas to
of sociologists,
be understoodin thecontextof a traditional
divisionin social
on
is
a
the
one hand, what
This
between,
dichotomy
theory.
couldbe called"objectivism"
and, on theother,"subjectivism."
I mean that perspectivein
of
notions
the
former
these
By
social theoryaccordingto which the social object- that is,
society-has priorityover the individualagent,and in which
are regarded as the core componentof
social institutions
interestto social analysis.Subjectivismessentiallymeans its
opposite.Accordingto this standpoint,the human agent is
treatedas theprimecenterforsocialanalysis.That is to say,in
thisviewthemainconcernof thesocialsciencesshouldbe with
studyof thepurposeful,reasoningactor.
in socialtheoryhas itsattractions.
Each of thesestandpoints
traditions
On the one hand, those who belong to objectivist
have surelybeen correctin arguing that societyor social
in somesenseare moreenduringand are widerin
institutions
scale thanthe concernsof the individualmembersof society.
They have been good at analyzingproblems of history,
and conflict
and
problemsof large-scalesocialtransformation,
of
who
the
side
Those
subjectivist
belong
change generally.
seen us, as humanagents,as beingscapable
have quiterightly
the conditionsof our own action,of acting
of understanding
and havingreasonsforwhatwe do. In this,the
intentionally,
are
subjectivists surelycorrect.
each also has
has itsattractions,
However,ifeach perspective
the
one
On
itsfundamental
hand,the objectivshortcomings.
but weak on action.
istsare, as it were,strongon institutions
to
That is to say,thosewho belongin thiskindof perspective,
in the
whichI wouldlinkauthorsassociatedwithfunctionalism
in thesocialsciencesand
socialsciencesand withstructuralism
notbeen veryadept
have typically
in areas of literary
criticism,
have
thequalitieswhichI thinkquiterightly
at demonstrating

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

CONSTITUTION

OF MEANING

531

to be attributedto human agents: that is to say, selfintentionality,
actingforreasons.Those on the
understanding,
side of the fence,on the otherhand, have failed
subjectivist
adequately to analyze just those phenomena which the
see as so essentialin the studyof humanconduct.
objectivists
in whichI willincludetheanalyticalphilosophy
Subjectivismof action and symbolicinteractionism,
among other traditions-has tendedto skirtissuesconcernedwiththelong-term
and thelarge-scale
processesof changewhichoccurin history
of
institutions.2
organization
is deeply
and subjectivism
The dualismbetweenobjectivism
embeddedin socialanalysis,and I hold it to be the case that
whichdominatesocialtheoryturn
manyof the controversies
this
division.In the approachto social
raised
issues
by
upon
theorywhichI have workedout overthepastfiveor six years
and whichI call structuration
theory,I have proposed the
actually
argumentthatthisseemingoppositionof perspectives
to say,
That
is
which
a
theydisplay.
disguises complementarity
this dualism should actuallybe representedas a duality,a
In order to
dualitythat I call "the dualityof structure."3
understandthe importanceof the notionof the dualityof
in socialtheoryit is essentialto look at theconcepts
structure
and action.In thoseapproacheswhichtreat
of bothstructure
as
human agents purposive,reasoningbeings,the notionof
actionis oftenunderstoodas thoughit werecomposedof an
That is to say,theagentis notplaced
ofintentions.
aggregation
oftheroutineswhichconstitute
in theunderfolding
day-to-day
This
life.
unfoldingis a duration,as Schutzputit,a continuity
whichpersiststhroughoutthe wakinglife of the individual.
whichis
Action,in otherwords,has an essentialtemporality
partof itsconstitution.4
agencywithinthecontextof itsdurationis one
Interpreting
- For further
development of the above points, cf. my CentralProblemsin Social
Theory(London: Macmillan, 1979), ch. 1.
•' Ibid.,eh. 2.
4 AlfredSchutz, The
oj theSocial World(London: Heinemann, 1972).
Phenomenology

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

532

SOCIAL RESEARCH

aspectwhichhelpslinkthenotionof actionto thoseconceptsand so on- whichhave been so
institutions
thatis, structure,
scientists.To see how these
social
to
important objectivist
connectionsmightbe made, we have howeverto look at the
socialscientists,
AmongEnglish-speaking
conceptof structure.
been understoodas a
the conceptof structurehas ordinarily
receivednotion.In contrast,for example,to the conceptof
little
function,the idea of structurehas receivedremarkably
discussion.Whyshouldthisbe so? The reason,I think,is that
have had a clearidea of
socialscientists
mostEnglish-speaking
understood
as referring
be
of
should
whatconcept structure
or of "thestructural
to.Whentheytalkof structure,
properties
in
mind
a sort of visual analogy.
of institutions,"
theyhave
as like the
They see the structuralpropertiesof institutions
of
a
body. Structure
girdersof a buildingor the anatomy
consistsof the patternsor relationshipsobservable in a
needs
of socialcontents.Now thisnotionof structure
diversity
In
traditions
of
action.
the
the
idea
much
as
as
lookingat,just
whichstillremainfairly
and poststructuralism,
ofstructuralism
alien to mostof those workingin the social sciencesin the
English-speakingcountries,particularlyin sociology,the
is used in a fashionquitedivergentfrom
conceptof structure
of Anglo-Saxonsocial science.The easiest
thatcharacteristic
this
is stillby referenceto Saussure'sclassic
indicate
to
way
discussionof the structuralqualitiesof language. Structural
featuresof languagedo not existas patternssituatedin time
and space,likepatternsof socialrelationships;
theyconsistof
relationsof absencesand presencesembeddedin instantiation
of language,in speechor in text.5
To
Structurehere presumesthe idea of an absenttotality.
means
utters
the
understandthe sentence which
speaker
of a syntacticaland
rules
of
enormous
an
range
knowing
thespeechact
within
not
contained
semanticalkindwhichare
but are neverthelessfundamentalto understandingit or to
5 Ferdinandde Saussure,Coursein General
(London:Fontana,1974).
Linguistics

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

CONSTITUTION

OF MEANING

533

producingit. It is a parallelidea of structure(as an absent
as a conceptforthesocial
whichI holdto be important
totality)
sciencesas a whole,and as basic to the notionof dualityof
structure
as a set
The problemwithconceptualizing
structure.
of relationsof presencesis thatstructurethen appears as a
constraintwhichis "external"to action. In objectivistsocial
workedout
science-forexample,theversionof functionalism
constraint
is quite
as
of
structure
notion
Durkheim-this
by
clear and consciouslyelaborated.6But if we do conceiveof
thatactionappears
in thisfashion,itis notsurprising
structure
whichhave essentially
constraints
to be limitedby structural
limit
For
structures
do
with
it.
to
behavior,although
nothing
withinthose bounds- so one would have to presume-the
agentis capableofactingfreely.Accordingto thenotionofthe
dualityof structure,by contrast,structureis not as such
externalto human action and is not identifiedsolelywith
Structureis boththe mediumand the outcomeof
constraint.
activitieswhichit recursively
human
the
organizes.By the
in
recursivecharacterof sociallife I mean thatsocial activity
in
and
the
exists
of
its
structural
through
properties
respect
their
use of the resourceswhichagentsmake in constituting
structural
time
reconstitutes
those
at
the
same
which
action,
in question.
propertiesas qualitiesof the systems
or
Institutions, large-scalesocieties,have structural
properties in virtue of the continuityof the actions of their
componentmembers;butthosemembersof societyare able to
carryout theirday-to-dayactivitiesonly in virtueof their
The best
thosestructural
of instantiating
properties.
capability
to
the
this
is
to
illustrate
linguistic
exampleof
byreverting
way
be
clear
that
such
must
one
Saussure, although
linguistic
have variousdangersand I do notmean to argue
illustrations
thatsocietyis,as structuralism
proposes,likea language.When
a speakeruttershis sentence,he or she drawsupon therange
and otherrulesin orderto do so. But the very
of syntactical
6 Emile Durkheim, The Rides

of SociologicalMethod(London: Macmillan, 1982).

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

534

SOCIAL RESEARCH

properties,
processof drawingupon thoserules,or structural
whichis the language.
servesto reproducethe overalltotality
Languageexistsonlyinsofaras itis producedand reproduced
in contingent
contextsof sociallifein thisfashion.This I hold
This is not, to
also to be true of social life in its generality.
is
like
a
life
because
social
language; it is because
repeat,
thatit
languageis such an importantfeatureof socialactivity
If
there
of
its
most
is
some
genericqualities.
any
expresses
whichbear
to them,theseideas have clearconnections
validity
upon the theme of the "decenteringof the subject" in
and poststructuralism.
structuralism
in theSocial Sciences
Subjectivity

One of the problemswith subjectivist
approaches in the
is takenas a
social sciencesand elsewhereis thatsubjectivity
to
be
as
a
It
not
is
explicatedbut
phenomenon
regarded
given.
is takento be the basis of whatit is to be a humanagent.In
as preconstituted
theagentisnotunderstood
structuration
theory,
subjectively.In this respect, I accept the fundamental
importanceof the critique of subjectivismdeveloped in
and poststructuralism.
structuralism
However,thedecentering
leads to
and
in
structuralism
of the subject
poststructuralism
the insertionof the subjectin language,conceivedof in a
particularway- signs constitutedthroughdifference.This
tacticfollowsverydirectlyfromthe premises
methodological
introducedby Saussure and accepted even by many subsequent writerswho were criticalof thatauthor.Structuralism
and poststructuralism
promotea "retreatintothe code." For
example,it is pointedout thatthe term"I," whileseemingto
is
referto themostessentialconditionsof humansubjectivity,
termlikeanyother,whichthereforehas to
in facta linguistic
be understoodin relationto theremainderof theterminology
builtinto language. The "I" is in linguistictermsa shifter,
whichhas no contentin relationto itsreferent
anymorethan

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

CONSTITUTION

OF MEANING

535

the term"tree"has in relationto the objectwhichit "stands
for."
Nowthiscritiqueofobjecttheoriesofmeaningor theoriesof
in itsmainlinesvalid.However,
ostensivereferenceis certainly
what tends to occur in structuralist
and poststructuralist
traditionsof thoughtis the disappearanceof the referent
altogether.Because the meaning is not the referent,any
accountof how one movesfromtheconnotationof the terms
withinlanguageto theirextentionalpropertiesas designating,
or in some way relatingto, aspects of the externalworld
becomeslost.As regardsthe terminology
of humansubjectivit
is
to
essential
understand
that
the
factthatthe "I" is
ity,
in language,and does not"mean"thebodyor the
constituted
self
to which the "I" refers,should not lead to a
acting
methodological
disappearanceof theagent.Termslike"I" and
"me" maynot have as theirmeaningthe object(the body)to
whichtheyrelate,buttheynevertheless
gaintheirsignificance
fromthe contextof activitiesin which human agents are
implicated.They are part of the practicalmasteryof social
and of thecontinuity
of socialcontext,whichhuman
relations,
agentsdisplay.7
The theme of the decenteringof the subject,therefore,
shouldnotlead to thedisappearanceof theselfas agent.This
also has implicationsfor how one understandsthe relation
betweensubjectivity
as consciousnessand the unconsciousin
human conduct. According to the characteristicview of
the relation between the conscious and
poststructuralism,
unconsciousexpresses,as it were,the two facesof language.
The unconsciousis theothersideoflanguage- whatcannotbe
put into wordsbecause it is the organizingsystemthrough
whichthosewordsderivetheirsignificance
and wherebythey
can be incorporated
intotheconsciousawarenessof theactor.
Nowthereis no doubtthatsuchdiscussionof thenatureof the
conscious/unconscious
relationhas proved in some respects
'

ch. 2.
Giddens, Constitution
of Society,

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

536

SOCIAL RESEARCH

It does make some sense to say thatthe
highlyilluminating.
like a language."However,at the
unconsciousis "structured
one of themost
sametimethisconceptionobscurescompletely
human
action
to
of
consciousness
and
areas
relating
important
to unconsciousness.
in
I want to argue thatthereare two basic shortcomings
account of agencyand the
relationto the poststructuralist
unconscious:(a) no accountcan be providedof what I call
"practicalconsciousness";(b) it is not possibleto generatean
of meaningas the use of "methods"embedded
interpretation
in practicalconsciousness.It is to ordinarylanguagephilosophy and to phenomenologythatwe owe an analysisof the
significanceof practicalconsciousnessin human day-to-day
and reasonswhichagentshaveforwhatthey
affairs.Intentions
do are sometimescapableof beingexpressedin whattheycan
sayabouttheconditionsof theiraction.In otherwords,agents
can in somedegree- fluctuating
accordingto historically
given
a
accountof the circumdiscursive
socialcircumstancesgive
stancesof theiraction.But thisby no means exhaustswhat
theyknowabout whytheyact as theydo. Manyof the most
subtleand dazzlinglyintricateformsof knowledgeembedded
of,theactionswe carryout are done in and
in,or constitutive
through the practices which we enact. They are done
but theyare not necessarilyavailableto the
knowledgeably,
discursiveawarenessof the actor. To speak a language,an
individualneeds to knowan enormously
complicatedrangeof
rules, strategies,and tactics involved in language use.
However,if the individualwere asked to give a discursive
accountof whatit is thathe or she knowsin knowingthese
indeed. The
rules,etc.,he or she would findit verydifficult
chancesare thatonly a verytrivialaccountwould be given
of whatis knownin orderto speak a language.
discursively
It is not a paradox to say thatlinguistsspend the wholeof
theircareerstryingto findout thingswe alreadyknow.They
are notonlythingswe alreadyknow,in a contingent
way;they
are thingswe mustknowin orderto be able to speak. We do

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

CONSTITUTION

OF MEANING

537

not,however,knowthesethingsat a discursivelevel,anymore
than is the case in the multipleformsof practicewhich
constituteday-to-daysocial activity.Any kind of accountof
social activitywhich eliminatesthe significanceof practical
consciousnessis thereforemassivelydeficientin respectof
the formsof knowledgeability
thathuman agents
identifying
displayin thecontextof sociallife.I wouldincludeall variants
of objectivismin thiscategory.In these schoolsof thought,
human beings appear as opaque to themselvesprecisely
becausewhattheyknowabouttheconditionsof theiractionis
assumedto be limitedto whattheycan discursively
say about
them.All the restis either(for functionalism)
the resultof
insociety
or (instructuralism
forcesoperating
and poststructuralthe
result
of
the
unconscious.
ism)
Generating
Meaning

Practicalconsciousnessis in a certainsense unconsciousthatis to say,it consistsof formsof knowledgeimmediately
availableto discourse.But it is notunconsciousin thesensein
whichsymbolsand modes of cognitionwhichare subjectto
repressionare unconscious.For theselatterformsof cognition
cannotbe translatedinto discoursewithoutthe influenceof
some kindof distorting
whichdepends upon the
mechanism,
bar of repressionwhichis placed upon them. I do wish to
role in human
acceptthatthe unconscioushas a fundamental
socialactivity,
and I thinkitreasonableto arguethatone can at
least make considerableheadwayin understanding
what the
unconsciousis byfollowing
thelineof thoughtwhichholdsthe
unconsciousis "structured
like a language."But intervening
between the unconscious and the conscious is practical
consciousness,the underlined center of human practical
Here thereis a set of tiesnotjust betweendiscourse
activity.
and "theothersideof language,"butbetweentheindividualas
an agentand the institutions
whichthe individualconstitutes

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

538

SOCIAL RESEARCH

in the courseof the durationof day-to-day
and reconstitutes
A good deal ofwhatwe do is organizedknowledgeably
activity.
it followsthattheway
in and throughpracticalconsciousness;
in whichwe makesenseof our own actionsand theactionsof
others,and the waysin whichwe generatemeaningin the
WhatI mean
world,are in an elementalsensemethodological.
by thisis thatthe sense of wordsand the sense of actionsdo
createdbysigncodes or,
notderivesolelyfromthedifferences
more generically,
by language. They derivein a more basic
wayfromthe methodswhichspeakersand agentsuse in the
of what
course of practicalactionto reach "interpretations"
do.
others
and
they
of
and indeedall interpretation
To saythatall socialactivity,
the
is
to
is
accept
significanceof
meaning, methodological
in sociallife.8The originsof meaningare notto
ethnomethods
and notto thesystemof differences
be tracedto thereferent,
that constituteslanguages as a semioticsystem,but to the
apparatusembeddedin a practicalconsciousmethodological
sociallife.
nessof theroutinesof day-to-day
It is in this sense, as I have argued in my book Central
is moreimportant
thatWittgenstein
in SocialTheory,9
Problems
derivesfromthe play
thanDerrida.For Derrida,signification
of differencein the temporaland spatial constitutionof
language and action. It is for thisreason that,accordingto
him,writingis the mostbasic formof language,because in
writingwe see displayed the time/spaceorganizationof
In Wittgenstein
differences.
also,however,thereis a greatdeal
about the timingand spacingof language. But accordingto
suchtimingand spacing,as a propertyof
thissecondthinker,
to
be
understoodin thebroadercontextsof the
have
language,
ofday-to-day
life.
timingand spacingofthemundaneactivities
It is in the time-spacesettingswhichagentsmake use of in
thatwe find
socialactivities
orderto organizetheirday-to-day
8 Harold Garfinkel,Studiesin
(Cambridge: PolityPress, 1984).
Ethnomethodology
v;Giddens, CentralProblems,
ch. 1.

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

CONSTITUTION

OF MEANING

539

theoriginsand thenatureof meaning.This is a theoremwhich
fortheproblemsunder
in a basicsenseI taketo be significant
a theory
discussion.WhatWittgenstein
providesis essentially
of praxis,elucidatedin the contextof the use of ordinary
languageon the one hand and the enactmentof the ordinary
sociallifeon theother.The differences
practicesof day-to-day
are interpolated
whichconstitutethe code, forWittgenstein,
withinall the manifoldthings that one can do through
language. Language is the mediumof social practice,and it
followsthatthereis no essenceto whatlanguageistherefore
which
even if one should seek thisessencein the differences
code.
a
constitute
Let me sum up so far. I thinkit necessaryto accept the
and
importanceof certainof the insightsof structuralism,
of
for
a
the
relation
poststructuralism, conception
particularly
between the conscious and the unconscious in agency.
does indeed hinge upon the use of the diectic
Subjectivity
of "I," "me,"etc. as linguisticshifters.It is also
terminologies
importantto hold that the unconsciouscan profitablybe
regardedas theothersideoflanguage- whatcannotbe said in
languagebecause it is the foundationof linguisticusage. But
thereis anothersenseof whatcannotbe said,and thatis what
has to be done. There is a massiveconceptualarena here for
of theskilledknowledgeable
thereintroduction
subject,whose
social
are geared into the continuities
of day-to-day
activities
is expressedin practice.
lifeand whoseknowledgeability
and symbolismbuilt into
The formsof knowledgeability
of the
practicalconsciousnessare crucialto the constitution
of
One
to
the
and
also
stability personality. of
probably
agent,
of this,I think,is stillto be foundin
thebestdemonstrations
withtrust."10
so-called"experiments
WhatGarfinkel
Garfinkel's
did was to disturb,in whatseemsto be a veryminorway,some
10HaroldGarfinkel,
"A Conception
with'Trust'as a Condition
of,and Experiments
of StableConcertedActions,"in O. J. Harvey,ed., Motivation
and SocialInteraction
(NewYork:RonaldPress,1963).

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

540

SOCIAL RESEARCH

of thesomewhatmoreapparentlytrivialfeaturesof day-to-day
conversation.Althoughseeminglyminor,such interruptions
of the taken-for-granted
orderingof practicalconsciousness
of agents.The
have major consequencesfor the affectivity
about
Garfinkel's
experiments-or one of the
thing
interesting
things-is that those who had to cope withthe
interesting
dislocationsof speech produced by others very rapidly
anxietyin the face of whatappeared
displayedextraordinary
to them to be a significantdeparturefrom the expected
is the
Whatis therebydemonstrated
routinesof conversation.
whichis investedin
moraland emotionalfixity
extraordinary
of day-to-day
life,as well as
apparentlytrivialcharacteristics
basisupon whichtheyare founded.
themethodological
Let me at this point move to my third theme, the
of meaning.
of thisanalysisfortheunderstanding
implications
in structuralism
as well as in
As I have indicatedpreviously,
in terms
meaningis understoodessentially
poststructuralism,
within
constituted
codes.
of theplayof difference
linguistically
Meaningis to be locatedin a systemof signs,syntagmatically
organized in the flow of context of language use, and
organizedin termsof theirassociationwithin
paradigmatically
we find
languageas a whole.Here,in spiteofthedivergencies,
fromSaussureto Derrida.But
a quitedirectlineof continuity
thena quite
ifmeaningis (a) contextualor (b) methodological,
distinctconceptionof it emerges.There is a contrastbetween
the "fuzzy"nature of ordinarylanguage termsand their
precisionin use. Wordswhentakenin isolation-or conceptsas utilizedin day-to-day
seemto haveonlya vaguesignificance
discourse.In fact,ifwe examinesequencesof talkwe findthat
the meaningembedded in such talk is quite precise. The
participantsin a conversationare able to followwhat each
othersay and relatewhatis said to the referential
properties
whichare involved.This precisionis impossibleto understand
of practicalconsciousnessas
withoutgraspingthe significance
of meaningin
and reconstitution
a mediumof theconstitution

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

CONSTITUTION

OF MEANING

541

day-to-daycontext of activity,and withoutaccepting the
natureof the knowledgewhichit involves.
methodological
This means a basic revision of some of the major
of the approachderivingfromstructuralist
connotations
and
poststructuralist
thought.This type of traditionof thought
the text,or more genericallytoward
leads
toward
inevitably
writing,for reasons whichhave alreadybeen identified.If
meaning is constitutedthroughdifference,and difference
derivesfromthe overallnatureof the code, thenthe textin
whichdifferencesare most directlydisplayed,in a sort of
visualsense,appears to be the primevehicleof meaning.It
was, therefore,quite logical for Derrida to take the step of
regardingwritingas the prime modalityof signification.
However,iftheapproachI have suggestedhereis correct,we
have to accept that it is temporallyand spatially situated

not the text and not writing,which is most
conversation,
essentialto explainingwhatlanguage and meaningare. The
consequencesof this for social theory,I think,are very
important.They essentiallyinvolverescuingthe knowledgeable agent as the conceptualcenterfor social analysis,and
is in the contextof the
situatingwhat "knowledgeability"
of
social
life.
Social
lifedoes thennotappear
ongoingpractices
as a phenomenonexternalto agency,but is contingently
produced and reproducedin the momentsof social activity
acrossthetime/space
contextof action.
stretching
This is notthesameas a relapseintosubjectivism,
becauseit
does not involve taking intentionsor reasons as given
phenomena,and it does not involvetreatingsociallifeas the
outcomeof whatpreconstituted
agentsdo. On theotherhand,
it is not a form of objectivism,because accordingto the
ofstructuration
thestructural
of
perspective
theory,
properties
socialsystems
existin theirinstantiation
in
forms
only specific
of human conduct.Rather,however,than pursuingfurther
problemsof socialtheoryas such,I shallattemptto traceout
someof theimplications
forthe theoryof the text.There are
fourmajorimplications
whichI wishto draw.

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

SOCIAL RESEARCH

542

First,in respect of discussionsof the nature of texts,
ofa similardualismto thatwhichI havesketchedin
something
socialtheoryin generalcan be found.On theone side,we find
and poststructuralist
theories,whichemphaagainstructuralist
and
its
text
size the autonomyof the
separationfromthe
whichauthorsmightput intoit. Accordingto this
intentions
thenatureof textsshouldbe explicatedin termsof
standpoint,
withinthecode whichthetextforms.On
theplayof signifiers
theoriesof
the otherside thereare so-called"intentionalist"
the text,whichemphasizethatto understandthe significance
one must
of a particulartext,or to explicateit thoroughly,
oftheauthorwhowroteit.It is interesting
knowtheintentions
to notethatthisdivisionin respectof theoriesof thetexthas a
directlinkagewithsocialtheorymoregenerallyvia debatesin
suchas
ofideas. On theone hand,thereare writers
thehistory
to
is
that
it
who
Skinner
necessary grasp
emphasize
Quentin
the intentionsof the authorsof historicaltextsin order to
authors'
make sense of the texts.11One has to reconstruct
in question
and the contextsin whichthe writings
intentions
were originallyproduced, because they were aimed at
particularaudiences and writtenwithina particularframework.
On theotherhand,opponentsof thistypeof standpointin
the historyof ideas tend to treattextsas autonomous,in the
as capable
sensein whichtheywillregard,say,Plato'swritings
of being read withoutany notionof the backgroundagainst
whichtheywere written.Accordingto thissecond school of
thought,there are, so to speak, "classical texts" whose
of the media in
characterexistsverylargelyindependently
which they were originallyproduced. In these debates,
however,the sortsof views which I have criticizedearlier
reappear rather plainly.Each side tends to suppose that
whoproducetexts,or indeedotherworksof plastic
individuals
1'

in the Historyof Ideas/1History
QuentinSkinner,"Meaningand Understanding

and TheoryH (1969).

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

CONSTITUTION

OF MEANING

543

whichare thensomehow
art,have a discreteset of intentions
embodiedintothe textor the culturalproduct.Whereasone
side then goes on to argue that these intentionsbecome
view
to thenatureof whatis produced,thecontrary
irrelevant
in
holdsthatitis necessaryto retrievetheseoriginalintentions
order to grasp the significanceof the phenomenonto be
understood.
But accordingto the standpointI have suggested,intentionalhumanactionis muchmorecomplicatedthanthisand is
notjust in a discreteset
groundedin practicalconsciousness,
or aggregateof purposesthatcan be simplyidentified.It is
muchmoreappropriateto treattheproductionof a
therefore
in which
liketheordinaryday-to-day
textas something
activity
individualsparticipate-that is, as a process of reflexive
whichhas a duration.There is not a singleset of
monitoring
builtinto any culturalproduct;thereis a
discreteintentions
and practicewhich saturatesthat
contextof intentionality
is necessarily
I
want
to
would
arguethatintentionality
product.
or explicationof texts,although
relevantto theunderstanding
itdoes notexhaustthese;but I wouldwantto proposethatthe
means here has to be
understandingof what intentionality
recastin theformI have attemptedto analyze.
Second,we can grasp whatis involvedhere by considering
Ricoeur'snotionthata textor a culturalproductis above all a
work,with all that implies.12The reflexivemonitoringof
part of human
day-to-dayconduct is a taken-for-granted
agency,and is casuallyorganizedbylayactorsin thecourseof
theiractivity.
It is itsroutine,seeminglyeffortless
production
about practicalconsciousness.Now a
whichis mostimpressive
textwhichhas a particularform-forexample,a novel,a play,
a poem, or a painting-in contrastto casual talk is a
phenomenonintowhichan individualpourseffortin orderto
achieveform.It is notjust thatthe producerputseffortinto
12Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneuticsand the Human Sciences
(Cambridge: Cambridge
UniversityPress, 1981).

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

544

SOCIAL RESEARCH

what is produced thatdistinguishes
a workfroma casually
It is that
producedoutcomeof mundaneday-to-day
activity.
thecreationofformis knowntotheagenttobeconstitutive
ofwhatthe

work
is.This,ofcourse,does notin itselfsupplyaestheticvalue,
and it is not relevantto the evaluation of the aesthetic
propertiesof the work in question. But it is crucial to
the natureof whatmakessomethinga work.
understanding
In this respect, for instance,there is a major set of
discrepanciesbetweena novel and, say, myths,which are
produced throughrepetitiveoral communicationand may
have no individualauthorwho laysclaimto the primerole in
theproductionof thestory.A novelhas an "author,"and this
is knowntothosewhoproducenovels,whodo so in thelightof
such knowledgeas part of theirgeneralizedculturalexperience. Althoughthereis no doubt,therefore,
thatwhatit is to
be an authoris culturally
variable,thisdoes notmean it is not
relevantto the explicationof texts to enquire into the
differencesin the contextof authorshipor productionin
relationto textor materialsor otherculturalproducts.
Third,it should be stressedthat- again as Ricoeur saystextsbecomedistanciatedfromtheirauthors.The conceptof
textual distanciationcan be usefullysubstituted,in most
respects,for that of the autonomyof the text. What this
means- as I take it, at any rate- is thattextshave a relative
butthatthere
autonomyfromthecontextof theirproduction,
which needs to be
is a two-wayrelationof interpretation
accomplishedbetweenthe analysisof the conditionsof their
originalproductionand the meaningswhichcan be gleaned
fromthemin otherconditions.It is only,of course,in such a
at all, sincethis
mannerthatwe can speak of "distanciation"
presumesthatwe have some notionof the "distance"whicha
texthas traveledfromtheinitialconditionsof itsgeneration.
to recognizethatin a generalwaythereis
But itis important
of social
to textshere. It is a characteristic
nothingdistinctive
lifegenerallythatitsproductsescape the intentional
inputof
its creators. In other words, one of the most distinctive

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

CONSTITUTION

OF MEANING

545

qualities of social activityconcernsthe significanceof the
unintendedconsequencesof action.
must be
Fourth,a theoryof meaning and interpretation
of
To
in
an
account
consciousness.
practical
gasp the
grounded
meaningsof a textas theymighthave been understoodby
theconditionsof
thosewho producedit involvesinvestigating
What I mean by this is that textual
theirknowledgeability.
of therelations
is
an
interpretation explorationsimultaneously
betweenpracticalconsciousness,discourse,and the unconscious.The textis not an objectifiedexpressionof discourse,
is an objectifiedexpression
any more thana socialinstitution
of the subjectivityof the individualswho produce and
It has oftenbeen
reproduceit in the courseof theiractivity.
terms
"text"
and
have more
out
that
the
"context"
pointed
to one another.If theinterpretathanan accidentalsimilarity
tionI have suggestedhere is correct,it followsthatwe should
of what"context"means if we
develop a new understanding
are to enrichthe theoryof textualmaterials.
of thewholeof thispaper,I would
Finally,as an implication
like to argue for promotinga convergenceof social and
literarytheory.In the days in whichthe social scienceswere
dominatedby objectivism,
those versionswhich
particularly
associatedthemselves
closelywiththeidealsof naturalscience,
to theconcernsof social
seemed
quiteirrelevant
literary
theory
science.This is, of course,as I pointedout in the beginning,
whymanysocial scientistshave verylittleacquaintancewith
criticism
and texturaltheory.Withan
issuesto do withliterary
of
character
of objectivism-coupled
the
appreciation
partial
of thelimitations
of naturalistic
to an understanding
modelsof
social science-it becomes increasinglyclear that there are
issues which bind problemsof literarytheory
interpretive
to
issues
of social analysis.I do not hold, as Ricoeur
closely
does,thatsocialactioncan be treatedas a text.But I do believe
thatproblemsof agency,subjectivity,
and meaningare shared
in commonbybothsetsof endeavors.

This content downloaded from 119.15.93.148 on Wed, 2 Jul 2014 05:40:31 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions