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Structuration Theory, Habitus and Complexity Theory: Elective Affinities or Old Wine in

New Bottles?
Author(s): Keith Morrison
Source: British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 311-326
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
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BritishJournalof Sociologyof Education
Vol. 26, No. 3, July 2005, pp. 311-326 I Routledge
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Structuration theory, habitus and

complexity theory: elective affinities or

old wine in new bottles?

Keith Morrison*
Inter-UniversityInstituteof Macau, People'sRepublicof China

This paper examines similarities and differences between structuration theory, habitus and
complexity theory, as theories of social change. The paper suggests that structuration theory and
habitus can theorize change, but that complexity theory offers a more complete theory of change
because it focuses on social production rather than reproduction. Although there are elective affin-
ities between structuration theory, habitus and complexity theory, nevertheless there are important
differences between them. Complexity theory, being at heart a theory of change and development,
differentiation and open systems, is more than merely a reformulation of structuration theory and
habitus, and offers a more complete theory of social change than these two. Implications and
agendas are drawn for the sociology of education from a complexity perspective.

Structuration theory, habitus and complexity theory offer three theories of social
change that integrate agency and structure. The purpose of this paper is to identify
which offers a more complete account of change. It examines the similarities and
differences between structurationtheory, habitus and complexity theory, as theories
of social change. Structurationtheory and habitus, it is argued, theorize social repro-
duction well, but complexity theory offers a more complete theory of change, as it
focuses on production ratherthan reproduction.Although similaritiesbetween struc-
turation theory, habitus and complexity theory are drawn, the paper suggests that
complexity theory is more than a reformulationof structurationtheory and habitus in
explaining change. The paper closes with implications of complexity theory being
drawn for the sociology of education.

* Inter-University Institute of Macau, NAPE, Lote 16, Rua de Londres, Edf. Tak Ip Plaza, Macau,
People's Republic of China. E-mail:

ISSN 0142-5692 (print)/ISSN 1465-3346 (online)/05/030311-16

C 2005 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd
DOI: 10.1080/01425690500128809
312 K. Morrison

The lenses of structuration theory and habitus

Take two short examples. First, why do teachers perpetuate practices that are, in
many ways, anti-educational rather than change them? For example, the widely
discredited practice of over-testing is rehearsed repeatedlyin the daily lives of many
teachers (Dore & Sako, 1989; Lewin & Wang, 1990; Sacks, 1999; Morrison & Tang,
2002). Teachers, often constrained by government pressures or, indeed, from their
own choice, perpetuate an educationally potentially questionable practice. One can
find an explanation for this in Giddens' structurationtheory and Bourdieu's habitus,
operating as theories of reproduction. In both, the effects of imposed or self-imposed
control operate to reproduce the statusquo.
Take a second example. A small ruralschool, characterizedby teachers workingin
comfortable isolation within a traditional curriculum, appoints a new principal who
decides: that the students need to be equipped to take their place in new employment
markets, that the horizons of the local population need to be extended, that the
curriculum needs to place greater emphasis on information and communications
technology (ICT), and that the school should become much more of a community
resource. After discussions with parents, community and teachers, the school
becomes a centre for community Internet and ICT links and courses, there is greater
student-centredness and ICT-based learning, there is increased collaborative
planning and teaching, and there is more involvement of parents and the community.
The school changes from being a sleepy, if well-intentioned and friendly, place, into
a vibrant community with close and productive links to the outside world.
In this second example the school has changed; it has greaterexternal links to the
environment (externalconnectedness) and has sensed and met the needs of the exter-
nal environment by changing its internal practices (internal connectedness). The
school has changed through self-organization, and a new form of planning and
teaching-team based-has emerged because the older, isolationist forms were not
working. The school has changed from a closed to an open system, and has impacted
on its local environment; it has been affected by the external environment and, in
turn, has affected that environment.
This second example is not easily explained by theories of reproduction, structur-
ation and habitus, as new, emergent practices present themselves. It is better
explained by complexity theory; sensitivity to the external environment has resulted
in internal change.
The dialectic of agency and structurein accounting for, and fostering, change and
development in social systems has long exercised the minds of social theorists.
Giddens' (1984) theory of structurationconstitutes a celebrated and largelysuccess-
ful, if contested (for example, Clegg, 1989; Layder, 1994), attempt at integrating
agency and structure. For Giddens, agency and structureare symbiotic, two facets of
a single phenomenon, and such 'dualityof structure'is not externalto individualsand
groups but internal to their lifeworlds.
Giddens' structurationtheory is familiar:in their everydaylives people create and
reproduce existing social practices. Giddens (1984) prefaces his work with Marx's
Structurationtheory,habitusand complexitytheory 313

famous dictum: 'men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it under
circumstancesof their own choosing' (Marx, 1852, p. 115). We exert our own agency
and intentionality, creating, producing and reproducing systems through our daily
interactions, and in turn those systems constrain and influence the way in which we
behave. In our everyday actions we produce and reproduce both constraining and
enabling social structures,which are both the medium and outcome of social produc-
tion and reproduction (Giddens, 1976). Indeed, 'all human action is carried on by
knowledgeable agents who both construct the social world through their action, but
yet whose action is also conditioned and constrained by the very world of their
creation' (Giddens, 1981, p. 54).
For structurationtheory, the moment of action can also be the moment of social
reproduction as, in our actions, we reproduce the conditions of reproduction, 'the
conditions that make these activities possible' (Giddens, 1984, p. 2). Indeed, Layder
(1994, p. 133) writes: 'as ciphers of structural demands, people are condemned to
repeat and reinforcethe very conditions that restrict their freedom in the first place'.
Through our activities we create and reproduce structural conditions, comprising
knowledge, resources, rules, institutional and societal practices.
For Giddens, routinizationis a powerful force for inertia ratherthan change; as he
argues (1984, p. 2): 'human social activities, like some self-reproducing items in
nature, are recursive.That is to say, they are not brought into being by social actors
but continually recreatedby them via the very means whereby they express themselves
as actors'. Although we may act intentionally and deliberately, nevertheless we may
end up reproducingthe existing social order and social fabric. Giddens writes that 'in
structuration theory "structure"is regarded as the rules and resources recursively
implicated in social reproduction' (Giddens, 1984, p. xxxi); human social activities
are recursivein as much they are continually being recreatedby the actors (Giddens,
1984, p. xxxi). That said, social structures do not force people to act in particular
ways; people are not 'ideological dopes of stunning mediocrity' (Giddens, 1979,
p. 52); social structuresdo not operate independently of the motives and reasons that
people have for theirbehaviour (Giddens, 1984, p. 181). Humans exercise choice and
agency in the matter (although Clegg [1989] and Layder [1994] argue that Giddens
overstates the role of agency).
In discussing agency and structure there is an elective affinity, a mutually
potentiating similarity, between Giddens and Bourdieu, albeit their terminology
differs. Giddens' 'duality of structure'rehearsesBourdieu's conception of structured
structures and structuring structures. Structured structures and structuring struc-
tures reside within the habitus(Bourdieu, 1977, p. 53), defined as 'systems of durable,
transportable dispositions,structured structures predisposed to function as structuring
structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and
representations'. Shilling (2004, p. 475) cites Bourdieu's (1990, p. 53) remark that
habitus provides individuals with 'predisposed ways of categorizing and relating to
familiar and novel situations'.
The habitus is both a result of social structures and yet also structures; that is,
changes and influences, behaviour, life-styles and social systems. 'The habitus is not
314 K. Morrison

only a structuringstructure,which organizespractices as the perception of practices,

but also a structured structure' (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 170); it both enables creativity
and constrains actions and practices, combining action/agency and structure. It is
both medium and outcome of social structuresand actions, and it dialecticallymedi-
ates between the objective and subjective aspects of behaviour, structure and agency
(Nash, 1999, p. 176; Fuchs, 2003a).
For Bourdieu, structuredstructures are ascribedor given, as in, for example, rules,
institutions, roles and behavioursthat have a tendency towardsself-reproductionand
system-reproduction, and these are offset by the agency implicit in structuringstruc-
tures, those that are achievedor negotiated through the exertion of agency; for exam-
ple, in resources, emerging institutions, roles and practices that disrupt and may
eventually replace the structuredstructures.As Reay remarks:
Habitusesarepermeableand responsiveto what is going on aroundthem. ... Thus, while
habitus reflectsthe social position in which it was constructed,it also carrieswith it the
genesis of new creativeresponsesthat arecapableof transcendingthe social conditionsin
which it was produced ... Choice is at the heart of habitus ... but at the same time the
choices inscribedin the habitusarelimited. (2004, pp. 434-435)
Structured structures both produce, and are the outcome of, a system. The interac-
tions surrounding the set of practices are bound by rules; yet at the same time, such
interactions create the rules (structuringstructures). As Bourdieu remarks,the habi-
tus is both opusoperatum(result of practices) and modusoperandi(mode of practices)
(Bourdieu, 1977, p. 18, 72 ff; 1990, p. 52). Although there is room for action and
transformation,nevertheless there is a 'latent determinism' in the concept of habitus
(Reay, 2004, pp. 432-433).1 Indeed, Shilling remarksthat 'Bourdieu's formulations
are overwhelminglyfocused on continuityratherthan change' (2004, p. 478) and that
'Bourdieu was aware of the difficulties his particularinterpretationof habitusposed
to a sociology of action that recognized change' (2004, p. 479).
For Bourdieu, the habitus, the store of cultural and subcultural knowledge that
people carry around in their heads and which condition their everyday practices,
constitutes 'the structured dispositions within which those structures are actualized
and which tend to reproduce them' (1977, p. 3). Such dispositions have to be exer-
cised or they atrophy (Bourdieu, 2000, p. 160), yet keeping them exercised may be
socially reproductive.The habitus can be considered as 'a subjective but not individ-
ual system of internalized structures, schemes of perception, conception, and action
common to all members of the same group or class constituting the precondition for
all objectification and apperception' (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 86).
In the habitus lie the seeds of, or potential for, social change (Fuchs, 2003a), just
as, for Giddens, social change is effected through the exercise of agency. For Bourdieu,
structures are not mechanistically deterministic of the habitus or human behaviour,
even though, as with Giddens' concept of agency, there are 'orientations and limits'
to 'the habitus's operations of invention' (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 95; Fuchs, 2003a).
Social structures both constrain and enable the creative dimension of the habitus. The
habitus secures 'conditioned and conditional freedom', it is 'remote from a creation
of unpredictable novelty' as well as from 'a simple mechanical reproduction of the
Structurationtheory,habitusand complexitytheory 315

initial conditionings' (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 95). For both Giddens and Bourdieu,
structuresare both the medium and outcome of social actions (Fuchs, 2003a). They
constrain practices but are also a result of creativehuman relationships.
For example, teachersmay be constrainedby a system that requiresthem to behave
in certainways, but they themselves might also set the conditions that constrainthem,
reproducing cycles of causality. Teachers, not acquiescentlybut volitionally, exerting
their agency, may set up the conditions for the reproduction of the system. The
structured structures perhaps condition them to behave in a particular way, but
teachers deliberatelymay choose a course of action that guaranteesthat such a course
continues to constrain them. The process can be circular, echoing Giddens' view of
the routinization of practices, the circularityof agency and structure, and the circu-
larity of causality.
In Bourdieu's terms, the structuredstructurecan be reproduced through the struc-
turing structure (teachers' conscious, agential, volitional decision to opt for a partic-
ular system or set of practices). It is akin to the celebratedstudy of 'why workingclass
kids get working class jobs' by Willis (1977), in which teenage working-classmales,
influenced by the structuralconditions in which they found themselves (e.g. the need
for a social life, the need to live for the present and for immediate gratificationand its
associated need for money, the need to demonstrate masculinity, the need to subvert
authority), positively and volitionally (exerting their own agency, a key element of
their subculture) chose a life-style that would guaranteethat they remained working-
class kids, rather than opting for the deferred, and ultimately financially more
rewarding,gratificationof non-working-classsocio-economic groups.

The complexity theory lens

A circularsystem is well explained by Giddens and Bourdieu. How can this cycle be
broken? How can change, uncertainty and unpredictability, themselves signal
features of society, be understood?How can linearitybe replaced by non-linear views
of causality?How can we understand a theory of societal, individualand institutional
Developments in social theory have argued for a new, complexity-drivenparadigm
for understanding society and social change (Lewin, 1993; Morrison, 2002). In
complexity theory, society can be thought of as a dynamical, open, complex adaptive
system wherein agency and structure combine and wherein a system has to be
addressed holistically rather than as the sum of its parts. The system has its own
holistic ecology.
In complexity theory, agency and structure, externality (objectivity) and subjectiv-
ity inform each other and co-evolve; the individual shapes the environment (however
defined) and vice versa. Indeed relationships--both collaborative and cooperative-
hold pre-eminence in promoting change, from a complexity standpoint. Society and
its elements are networked, interconnected, interdependent, synergetic, mutually-
informing and diverse, reinforcing the significance of communication, feedback and
information for societal development. Self-organization and emergence produce new
316 K. Morrison

forms of social behaviour.Orderemerges from within ratherthan being imposed from

without, and order replaces control ('orderis for free'; Kauffman, 1995). In complex-
ity theory, creativitythrough agency brings society to self-organizedcriticalityat the
edge of chaos, marked by fecundity of innovations (discussed later).
Schools exhibit many features of complex adaptive systems, being dynamical and
unpredictable, non-linear organizations operating in unpredictable and changing
external environments. They maintain 'relativeautonomy' from the wider society and
position themselves to maximum effect and decide where they wish to be in relation
to it (finding their niche, identity and autopoiesis). Indeed, schools both shape and
adapt to macro-societal and micro-societal change, organizingthemselves (perhapsin
response to external constraints and pressures), responding to and shaping their
communities and society (i.e. all parties co-evolve). Schools rely on multi-channel
communication and effective networking internally and externally, and indeed, as
they provide a human service, networking and relationships are important. These
features are addressed in the following.
Complexity theory is a theory of adaptation and development in the interests of
survivalin a changing environment (Morrison, 2002). New internal systems emerge
through the dynamic and changing interactionof internaland externalenvironments;
the theory is one of emergence through self-organization,feedback, learning and the
co-evolution of organismsand their environments(Stewart,2001). Complexity theory
looks at the world in ways that break with simple cause-and-effect models, linear
predictability, and a reductionist, atomistic approach to understanding phenomena,
replacing them with organic, non-linear and holistic approaches (Santonus, 1998,
p. 3) in which relationswithin interconnected and interdependentnetworksarefunda-
mental (Youngblood, 1997, p. 27; Wheatley, 1999, p. 10).
Through feedback, recursion, perturbance,auto-catalysis,connectedness, interde-
pendence and self-organization, differentiated, new forms of society, behaviour,
systems and organizations arise from lower levels of complexity and existing struc-
tures, which are not reducible to these. The interaction of individuals feeds into the
wider environment, which in return influences the individual units of the network;
they co-evolve (Stewart, 2001). A complex system is formed from its several
elements, and the behaviourof the complex system as a whole is greaterthan the sum
of the parts (Bar-Yam, 1997; Goodwin, 2000, p. 42).
Feedbackmust occur between the interacting elements of the system. Negative
feedback is regulatory(Marion, 1999, p. 75). Positive feedback uses information not
merely to regulate, but to change, grow and develop (Wheatley, 1999, p. 78). It
amplifies small changes (Stacey, 1992, p. 53; Youngblood, 1997, p. 54).
Connectedness,a key feature of complexity theory, exists everywhere. In a rainfor-
est, ants eat leaves, birds eat ants and leave droppings, which fertilize the soil for
growing trees and leaves (Lewin, 1993, p. 86), which provide food for ants. As
April et al. (2000, p. 34) remark, nature possesses many features that organizations
and societies crave: flexibility, diversity, adaptability, complexity and connected-
ness. Connectedness is requiredif a system is to survive; disturb one element in the
connections and either the species or system must adapt or die--the message is
Structurationtheory,habitusand complexitytheory 317

ruthless. As Giddens (2000, p. 162) remarks: 'in a world of increasingly interde-

pendent systems, when things go wrong, they can go very wrong'. Agency and
structure must be mutually informing and potentiating. Connectedness through
communication is vital and requires a distributed,networkedknowledgesystem, in
which knowledge is not centrally located in a command and control centre or a
limited set of agents (e.g. government decision-makers) (c.f. Cilliers, 1998;
Arshinov & Fuchs, 2003, pp. 5-8). Rather, it is dispersed, shared and circulated
throughout the organization and its members, with multiple connections between
Emergenceis the partner of self-organization.Systems possess the ability for self-
organization, which is not according to an a priori grand design-a cosmological
argument-nor to a deliberately chosen trajectoryor set of purposes-a teleological
argument. Rather, the self-organizationemerges of itself as the result of the interac-
tion between the organism and its environment (Casti, 1997), and new structures
emerge that could not have been imagined initially.
Arshinov and Fuchs (2003, pp. 5-8) argue that there are several aspects of emer-
gence; for example, synergism (combined or cooperative effects), novelty (the whole
is more than the sum of the parts), irreducibility('the new qualities are not reducible
to, or derivablefrom, the level of the producing, interactingentities'), and unpredict-
ability of future outcomes. Emergence requires: (a) openness ('self-organisationcan
only take place if the system imports energy which is transformedwithin the system',
p. 7); (b) bottom-up emergence (changes commence from the interaction of the
elements); (c) downward causation ('once new qualities of a system have emerged
they, along with the other macro-structuralaspects of the system influence, i.e. enable
and constrain, the behaviour of the system's parts', p. 7); (d) non-linearity;(e) feed-
back loops (a shift from reductionism and determinism to mutual relationshipsand
circular causality); and (f) relative chance (both chance and necessity-agency-
figure in self-organizingsystems).
The movement towards greaterdegrees of complexity, change and adaptabilityfor
survivalin changing environmentsis towards 'self-organizedcriticality'(Bak & Chen,
1991; Bak, 1996), in which systems evolve, through self-organization, towards the
'edge of chaos' (Kauffman, 1995). Take, for example, a pile of sand (Bak, 1996). If
one drops one grain of sand at a time, a pyramid of sand appears. Continue to drop
sand and a small cascade of sand runs down the pyramid; continue further and the
pyramid builds up again in a slightly different shape; continue further and the whole
pyramid collapses. This is chaos, and complexity resides at the 'edge of chaos', at the
point just before the pyramid of sand collapses, between mechanistic predictability
and complete unpredictability (Bak, 1996; Morrison, 2002) (Figure 1).
Linear systems demonstrate Newtonian mechanistic predictability and controlla-
bility. Small causes bring small effects and large causes bring large effects. Chaos
occurs when small causes can bring huge effects and huge causes may have little or
no effect; that is, where unpredictability and uncontrollability reign. Complexity
breaks the mechanistic determinism of linear systems but not in the unpredictable,
uncontrolled way of chaos; as systems move away from linear predictability, the
318 K. Morrison

Linear Systems Complexity Chaos

Figure 1. Locating complexity. Source:Morrison (2002, p. 24)

emphasis on creativity,divergence and fecundity are maximizedbut are still ordered,

before they spill over into the breakdown of order that is chaos.
Stacey (2000, p. 395) suggests that a system can only evolve, and evolve spontane-
ously, where there is diversity,chance and deviance (p. 399); that is, a celebration of
The exact movement, reconfigurationand subsequent catastrophicdestruction of
the earliersand pile are largelyunpredictable.At the point of 'self-organizedcritical-
ity' the effects of a single event are likely to be very large, breaking the linearity of
Newtonian reasoning wherein small causes produce small effects. The straw breaks
the camel's back, and a small cause has a massive effect; a single grain of sand destroys
the pyramid. Change implies a move towards self-organizedcriticality,and such self-
organized criticalityevolves 'without interferencefrom any outside agent' (Bak, 1996,
p. 31); it emerges and cannot necessarilybe mandated.
Adaptation to change requires finding one's niche in one's environment-one's
best 'fitness landscape' for survivaland development (Kauffman, 1995), to take one's
place in competitive environments. The move to finding one's best situation propels
one toward the point of self-organizedcriticality (Bak, 1996). The closer one moves
towards the edge of chaos, the more creative, open-ended, imaginative, diverse, and
rich are the behaviours, ideas and practices of individuals and organizations in the
interests of survivaland development, and the greateris the connectivity, interdepen-
dence, networking and informationsharing (content and rate of flow) between agents
(Stacey et al., 2000, p. 146).
If an individual or organizationwishes to become creativeand imaginativein order
to survive, then it must move towards self-organized criticality.This is not a euphe-
mism for unmitigated stress and pressure-the intensification thesis (Hargreaves,
1994); rather, it suggests that people need support and space to develop and,
importantly, to change, and to be creative and imaginative. Simply pressurizing is
Networks and dynamical, ever-changingand turbulent environments are the order
of the day. Put simply, 'complex adaptive systems' (Waldrop, 1992, pp. 294-299)
scan and sense the external environment and then make internal adjustments and
developments in order to meet the demands of the changing external environment.
This is the 'law of requisite variety' (Ashby, 1964), which states that internalflexibil-
ity, change and capabilitymust match those in the external environment.
Gone are the simplistic views of linear causality, the ability to predict, control and
manipulate, and in come uncertainty, networks, connection, interdependence, self-
organization, emergence over time through feedback and the relationships of the
Structurationtheory,habitusand complexitytheory 319

internal and external environments, and survival and development through adapta-
tion and change. Society and societal systems are open; closed systems, as Prigogine
and Stengers (1985) remind us, run down and decay into entropy unless they import
energy from outside. Adapt or die.
In terms of many teachers' practices, one can sometimes observe the presence of a
collective, partiallyself-organized system will not to change the situation, the lack of
creativityand diversity, the lack of internal flexibility and adaptability,the presence
of a closed, reproductive system, the absence of emergence or new behaviours, the
recursivecycles of reproduction, and the inabilityof the system to inform itself of best
practice outside itself (the environment); for example, in new methods of teaching
and assessment. The system is closed and, therefore, reproductive.
If reproduction is to be broken then the argument here suggests that the system
must become open so that it can change autocatalytically,so that new practices can
emerge through self-organization.Change requiresattention to teacher development,
to the fuller empowerment of teachers to change, to the replacement of control by
emergent and changing order, to the increase in communication between all the
stakeholders in educational processes, and to the significance of school leaders to
make changes. It implies that schools have to provide support and space for change,
creativity and imagination, so that change can emerge through self-organization.
Change requires communication and information to and from all stakeholders;
whether the practices are recursively or discursively redeemed in everydaylife (e.g.
Giddens and Habermas,respectively),new elements for routinizationhave to be both
developed and communicated widely.

Structuration theory, habitus and complexity theory

In many respects, structurationtheory and habitus sit comfortably with complexity
theory. The features of complexity theory rehearse, and are redolent of, those of
structuration theory and habitus. For example, they all suggest that action and
structure are interconnected and they all emphasize connectivity. As Fuchs (2003a,
p. 13) remarks: 'the practical existence of human beings, their interconnectedness
and the mutual connection of actors/groups and structures constitute a permanent
development process that results in new, emergentproperties or qualities of society
that cannot be reduced to the underlyingmoments'. They all emphasize co-evolution;
for example agency and structure, the individual and the environment. Just as the
individual changes because of the external environment (e.g. social forces and social
structure), so the external environment changes because of individual agency.
Fuchs (2003a, p. 6) suggests that 'the habitus is a conception that, just like the new
sciences of complexity, suggests dialectics of chance and necessity, freedom and
determinism, creativity and conditioning, the unconscious and the consciousness,
society and the individual' (cf. Bourdieu, 1990, p. 55). All three theories emphasize
social self-organization, and all three stress the role of human actors as creative
beings, exercising agency within constraints. All three theories emphasize the
circularityratherthan the linearityof causality:agency affects structure,which affects
320 K. Morrison

agency ad infinitum.All three stress the point that causes and effects do not behave
linearly: small causes can have large effects and large causes can have small effects.
All three indicate that complex systems are organized in a distributed rather than a
centrally organized way, and there are many and multi-directional connections
between the parts of the system (Kauffman, 1995; Edmonds, 1996).
Fuchs (2003b, p. 10) notes that there are 'conceptual affinitiesbetween Giddens'
theory and the philosophical assumptions of self-organizationtheory'; Giddens, like
complexity theory:
is describingsociety in terms of mutualand circularcausalityand ... is criticalof reduc-
tionism. ... Both Giddens and concepts of self-organization'place the productionand
reproductionof systemsat the centerof theirtheories,in particularthe idea that systems
can be recursivelyself-producing'.(Mingers,1995, p. 136, quotedin Fuchs, 2003b)
All three theories stress that circular causality and feedback are central elements in
describing society. Fuchs (2003b, p. 16) indicates that the term socialself-organization
is implied in all three theories and:
refersto the dialecticalrelationshipof structuresand actionswhich resultsin the overall
re-productionof the system.The creativityand knowledgeability of actorsis at the core of
this process and secures the re-creation of social systems within and through self-
conscious, creativeactivitiesof human actors. ... The term self-organization refersto the
role of the self-conscious,creative,reflectiveand knowledgeablehuman beings in the
reproductionof social systems.(Fuchs, 2003b, p. 16)
Marx's remark noted earlier applies equally to self-organization:we create our own
history but not in circumstances of our own choosing; we are affected by external
Although there are many similaritiesbetween structurationtheory and habitus, as
already set out, and although there are very great similaritiesbetween these two and
complexity theory, nevertheless there are important differences between complexity
theory and the other two. For example, complexity theory is a theory of necessaryand
inexorablechange and development for survival,in a way in which the other two theo-
ries are not. It is a theory of social production whereas the other two may be theories
of social production but could also be theories of social reproduction and the self-
fulfillingprophecy; and indeed Bourdieu's (1976) piece and his joint work on cultural
capital and habitus (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977) were a theory of reproduction.
Habitus can over-determineagency.
Structurationtheory and habitus, as theories of reproduction, can provide a fitting
explanationfor the reproductionof practice. Structurationtheory and habitus can give
an account of change; they can also give an account of inertia, stability and reproduc-
tion, albeit in part derived from agency. However, inertia and stability are not in the
conceptual vocabulary of complexity theory. Structuration theory and habitus are, at
heart, descriptivetheories of a particular phenomenon or of the status quo (and, indeed,
Bourdieu [1976] regarded the school as a conservative force) rather than prescriptive
of how to change, other than by exhorting increased agency or system change.
Complexity theory, on the other hand, is prescriptive, setting an agenda, focus and
process for change; for example, changing the internal and external environments,
Structurationtheory,habitusand complexitytheory 321

distributed knowledge and leadership, information and communication, emergence

through autocatalysed self-organization, positive feedback, synergy and collabora-
tion, increased networking and the development of learning organizations, creative
dissonance and disagreement, bottom-up developments, partnerships and interde-
pendence, increasing capability and flexibility, scanning and learning from the
outside environment, breaking command and control management (Morrison,
In complexity theory the process of change and development (evolution) is marked
by increasing differentiationand niche location or positioning; for example, of differ-
ent species in their environments, of function, of behaviour, all of which are driven by
the need for survival,moving towards self-organizedcriticalityat the edge of chaos, a
point at which fecundity and creativity are at their height in order to maximize the
likelihood of species survival at bifurcation points. The emergence of new forms of
behaviour in complexity theory is through autocatalysisand self-organization.
In these respects complexity theory differsfrom the other two (structurationtheory
and habitus) in that: (a) no such self-organizationand autocatalysis are required-
intrinsically,resipsa-in structurationtheory and habitus-the impetus to change or
to remain the same can come from anywhere (although, of course, this does not rule
out self-organizedchange, and, indeed self-organizationcan be common ground for
all three theories; Fuchs, 2003b); and (b) differentiationis not a requisite of structu-
ration theory and habitus-indeed homogeneity, uniformityand massification (e.g. of
social systems) may be equally apposite in these two theories (and, indeed, it is unsur-
prising, perhaps, that Giddens' [1984] account of structuration theory should pay
special attention to globalization).
There are further differences between the theories. Creativity, in terms of agents
taking decisions, features in both structurationtheory and habitus, but in them the
decision can also be to do nothing, to remain the same-and this is anathema to
complexity theory. Furthermore, structuration theory and habitus, although they
resonate with self-organizationthrough the exercise of agency, accord a strongerand,
arguably,more realisticrole to power than does complexity theory, which is compar-
atively silent on issues of power; decisions may be take by powerful external groups
and parties that severelyconstrainthe agency of individuals.In complexitytheory, the
power is the tacit presence, the hidden hand, of the need for survival-evolution
through natural selection favours the powerful.
Finally, complexity theory is predicated on open systems and democracy-social
systems, institutions, or however defined. In complexity theory, closed systems move
towards entropy, they run down and die. For structurationtheory and habitus there
is no such requirementfor having open systems; the theories can equallywell provide
an account of closed systems (e.g. a society of happy or, indeed, powerless slaves, and
in many aspects of education and schooling there aresignificantconstraintson agency).
What is being suggested here is that, if change and development are to be theorized,
then this is more fittingly addressed in complexity theory than in structurationtheory
or Bourdieu's notion of the habitus. Changing the conditions for, and theories of,
social change is as important as the change itself.
322 K. Morrison

Towards an agenda for the sociology of education from complexity theory

For the sociology of education and the sociology of educational change, complexity
theory raises an interestingagenda for study. Space prevents the delineation of this in
any detail; the agenda is vast. With respect to reproductionand production,complexity
theory suggests that the sociology of education could concern itself with: (a) how
cycles of reproduction are broken through dialogue and networking of internal and
external partners in education; (b) how cycles of reproduction can be turned into
production through the dialectic of agency and structure; (c) how conceptions and
practices of inclusion and exclusion, interdependence, equality (e.g. of input/process/
outcome), change and are changed over time by both predicted and unpredicted
events and issues; (d) how national and international democratization can be
advanced and lead to multi-determined, multi-deterministicand decentralized poli-
cies and practices;and (e) how reproductionand production are mediated by gender,
class, race and ability.
With respect to emergenceand self-organization,complexity theory suggests that the
sociology of education and change could concern itself with: (a) how new forms of
education are premised on emergent communitarian properties-the school,
community and partnershipstogether ratherthan each on their own; (b) how schools,
communities and partnershipsmutually, reciprocally and individually self-organize
for development (auto-catalysis); (c) how external connectedness leads to internal
school restructuring;(d) how positive disequilibriumcan be promoted, energized and
sustained for organizational development and the emergence of self-organizing
systems in schools; (e) how information and communication management promote
or impede change in schools; (f) how schools' agility and flexibility can be promoted
in sensing, identifying and responding to, pressures for change in their external in
internal environments; and (g) how schools maximize their 'self-organizingcritical-
ity', 'fitness landscapes' (Kauffman, 1995), identity and autopoiesis (Capra, 1996) in
the processes of change and improvement-indeed, how schools can power up and
sustain the creativityof teachers to promote development.
With respect to networking,complexity theory suggests that the sociology of educa-
tion and change could concern itself with:
* How schools adapt to, and create, shape and develop their environments, both
internal and external;i.e. how co-evolution works.
* How and why the mutuality of relationshipsbetween individual, institutional and
externalenvironments do or do not bring about change and development in educa-
tional practices;indeed, why practicesdo and do not change in schools and society,
and with what consequences.
* How networking, connections and feedbackboth impede and facilitate change and
development in schools and their external communities.
* How to promote and increase networking and internal connectedness in schools
(e.g. the number and quality of connections) in order to match the complexity of
the external environment (i.e. how the 'law of requisite variety' and the practices
of co-evolution operate).
Structurationtheory,habitusand complexitytheory 323

* The processes and contents of how schools position themselves in the community
and society.
* The nature of schools' and systems' strategic planning for unpredictable futures,
and responses to unpredicted situations.
* How large-scalereformsdevelop and use, and are informed by, local networksand

With respect to policyanalysis,complexity theory offers insights into globalizationand

marketization. Space prevents extended analysis here, but, by way of example,
complexity theory would understand the marketizationof education as a manifesta-
tion of the need for survivalin competitive environments, in which schools, seeking
to survive, develop their own identities and positioning in the market, sense the
market (through networkingand collaborationwith externalagencies), are responsive
to market needs, break producer capture and, indeed, may shape the market (e.g.
creating a consumer need); that is, co-evolution and self-organized criticality. As
market forces change, so schools must change: adapt or die.
Writ large, the same analysiscan apply to globalization,where states and countries,
struggling for survival,have to both be part of the global market, but also have to
change themselves constantly in order to maintain their positioning. However,
complexity theory would criticize the homogenization of societies wrought by global-
ization, arguing instead for diversity, redundancy and difference if societies are to
change and develop. Indeed, it would argue against internationalmonopolistic, capi-
talistic organizations (cf. Giddens, 2000, p. 143) and argue for increased collabora-
tion between employers and unions, and an increased harmonization of shareholder
and stakeholdercapitalism(Giddens, 2000, 151). Complexity theory would also seek
to study the knock-on effects of changes in one sector on another, potentiated because
of interdependence.
With regard to curriculumreform,complexity theory can explain both the need for,
and nature of, curriculumreform in terms of the marketizationand its complemen-
tary commodification of much of education. Indeed, complexity theory would argue
for the necessity and inevitability of curriculum reform and continual emergence of
new curricula. That said, it would argue against centralized, top-down curriculum
prescriptions (e.g. the National Curriculum of England and Wales), as these run
counter to the principle of decentralized, self-organizingsystems. Complexity theory
would argue that the thrust to controlcurricula centrally is fundamentally miscon-
ceived, misreading order for control, being imposed ratherthan bottom-up and self-
organized, creatinga fossilized, uniform and undifferentiatedcurriculumthat cannot
meet changing societal demands rapidly, lacking diversity (because it is decided at a
systems, rather than a local, level), giving a false sense of certainty and predictability
in a non-linear, unpredictable world and understating the need for schools and
communities to be involved together in the development of their own curricula.
With respect to socialmethodology,complexity theory suggests that the sociology of
education could concern itself with: (a) how multivalencyand non-linearityenter into
decision-making for education; (b) how voluntarism and determinism, agency and
324 K. Morrison

structure, lifeworld and system, divergence and convergence interact to bring about
or impede educational change; (c) how to both use, but transcend, simple causality
in understandingthe processes of school development and change; (d) how coopera-
tion, interdependence, collaboration and competition mutually inform and deter-
mine each other (i.e. how consensus, structuralist, functionalist and conflict
perspectives combine to promote development and change in education); and (e)
how viewing a system holistically, as having its own ecology of multiply-interacting
elements, yields greaterinsights than an atomized approach.
More fundamentally, complexity theory suggests that the conventional units of
analysis in sociology of education (as in other fields) should move away from, for
example, individuals, institutions, communities and systems (cf. Lemke, 2001).
These should merge, so that the unit of analysisbecomes a web or ecosystem (Capra,
1996, p. 301), focused on, and arising from, a specific topic or centre of interest (a
'strange attractor'). Individuals, families, schools, communities and societies exist in
symbiosis; complexity theory tells us that their relationships are necessary, not
contingent, and analytic, not synthetic. This is a challenging prospect for the
sociology of education, and complexity theory, a comparativelyneglected field in the
sociology of education, offers considerable leverage into understanding societal,
community, individual and institutional change; it provides the nexus between
macro-sociology and micro-sociology in understandingand promoting change.

1. Although Nash (1999, p. 176) suggests that 'habitus also provides the grounds for agency,
within a limited arena of choice, and thus an escape from structural determinism', enabling
'individual trajectories to be studied', nevertheless agency and action alone do not equate with,
or guarantee change; actions can be reproductive. Furthermore, Shilling (2004, p. 474)
suggests that 'Bourdieu's analysis is hampered by an overly reproductionist analysis of human
behaviour ... Bourdieu is unable to account satisfactorily for individuals who break free from
the trajectories assigned to them by their background and training'.

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