Anthony Giddens (1938–) was born in London, England to a lower-middle class family. He was the first member of his family to attend college, receiving his bachelor’s degree at Hull University, his master’s degree at the London School of Economics, and his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. After graduating, Giddens taught at the University of Leicester before being hired at the University of Cambridge. In 1997, Giddens was appointed director of the London School of Economics, a position he held for 6 years, and remains a professor at the school today. Over his career, Giddens has written over 30 books and numerous articles.
Aside from his work as a professor, Giddens is also an influential public intellectual. He was an advisor to former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and advocates a centrist political philosophy known as “The Third Way” that attempts to integrate conservative economic policy with liberal social policy. In 2004, Giddens was given the honorary title of “Baron” and is a member of the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the UK Parliament.
Giddens is one of the most influential voices in contemporary social theory. According to a 2007 report published by The Times Higher Education Supplement, Giddens ranked #5 on the list of most heavily cited authors in the social sciences and humanities. Giddens’s ideas have also influenced other major theoretical statements by top theorists such as William Sewell, Sharon Hays, and Ann Swidler.
Giddens is one of the foremost theorists of modernity living today. Unlike theorists who argue that we have entered a radically different, “postmodern” stage of social life, Giddens theorizes that contemporary society is better characterized by the term “late modernity.” Late modern societies, according to Giddens, are shaped by the extension and development of the same social forces that structured earlier forms of modern social life. Key among these forces, he argues, are the disembedding of time and space and the loss of tradition.
In pre-modern stages of social life, Giddens argues, social interactions were constrained by space and time. If a person wanted to talk with a friend or relative in another town, for example, she had to travel there across a definite amount of physical space and such travel took a particular amount of time. In modernity and late modernity, however, social interactions have become disembedded from such local contexts, as electronic communication, advanced transportation systems, and globalized economic and cultural systems have made it possible to interact with others with limited time–space constraints. In the late modern world, the lines that separate the local from the global and the past from the future become blurry.
Like Max Weber, Giddens also contends that pre-modern society was structured largely by tradition. In such traditional cultures, people didn’t have to think much about how to act in any given social setting because their actions had been handed down to them and prescribed by longstanding customs and traditions. Late modernity, however, is characterized by a post-traditional culture in which tradition loses its power and people have a greater ability to be reflexive about their social worlds and make choices about how they are going to act and who they want to be. As tradition wanes, the individual becomes the new center of agency and responsibility.
Giddens has also famously theorized that the move to a post-traditional culture leads individuals to understand their self-identity as a reflexive project. Instead of taking for granted or passively inheriting who we are, we actively shape, reflect on, and monitor our selves, crafting our biographical narratives as we go through life. We treat our identities, then, as a project, something that we actively construct and are ultimately responsible for.
“Self-identity, then, is not a set of traits or observable characteristics. It is a person's own reflexive understanding of their biography. Self-identity has continuity—that is, it cannot easily be completely changed at will—but that continuity is only a product of the person's reflexive beliefs about their own biography”
Giddens has developed a highly influential theory that attempts to reconcile one of the oldest dichotomies in social theory—that of agency vs. structure. In his theory of structuration, Giddens argues that sociologists should not see individual agency and larger social structures as opposed to one another. Instead, we should understand them as two sides of the same coin. Social action depends on the agency of individuals, but social action is also enabled and constrained by the rules and resources that make such action possible and understandable to others. Rather than making either individual agency or social structures the main object of analysis, Giddens contends that sociologists should instead focus on shared social practices like eating, voting, childrearing, punishment, etc. that necessarily involve elements of both individual agency and shared social structures.
Giddens’s work has had a huge impact on social theory today, and his ideas have garnered both support and criticism. To read what some other top social theorists think of Giddens, check out the edited collection Social Theory of Modern Societies: Anthony Giddens and His Critics:
You can also learn more about Giddens’s influential ideas about social policy and politics by checking out the following links:
Listen to Giddens explaining the politics of the “Third Way.”
A BBC interview with Giddens about climate change.
A 2010 talk, also on the politics of climate change.