The actual domain

Brad C. Anderson

Within the actual domain, individuals perform actions (or refrain from performing actions) leading to events (or non-events). The complex web of structures within the deeper real domain governs individuals’ actions in the actual domain. Here is where things get interesting.

This text has defined structures as intangible elements of social systems that enable or constrain action. This definition creates the illusion that individuals are ‘locked into’ the roles the social system assigns to them. That is, if you hold a position in a social network in which the prevailing structures of that system enable you to perform a specific action, then you will take that action. If the structures prevent you from taking that action, then you will not act.

Remember, though, that structures are intangible. They are the product of human imagination. Money, for example, is a social structure enabling you to buy stuff. Money, however, only has the power to purchase things if enough people in the social system agree that it does. If enough people stop accepting cash in exchange for stuff, then money loses its power to buy things.

In other words, even though structures enable and constrain action, it is our actions that create, maintain, and change structures[1] The structures of our social system govern the actions available to us, but we have agency. We can use our agency to choose activities that reproduce the system’s structures or change them.

Though we can act to change structures, doing so is hard. Consider an extreme example–national borders. The borders between countries are socially constructed structures. Though we can act to change a nation’s borders, doing so usually involves armed conflict between nation-states. Structures are backed by systems of power that may undermine your attempts to change them.

More often, we choose actions that maintain the structures of our social system. That is, after all, what makes societies stable.

For example, when you are a student, you may have a teacher who assigns you a research paper. You will likely choose to complete that assignment to the best of your abilities.

That compliance reinforces the structures of the educational system. Through your actions, you contribute to the social reality where teachers assign research papers, and students complete them. If you have children of your own, you will likely teach them how to behave in a classroom, perpetuating those social structures into the future.



In the exercise at the end of the previous section, you identified structures within a social setting. Using that same social setting, consider the actions people take (or choose not to take).

  1. Consider the structures you identified in the previous exercise. Then, think of specific examples of actions you or others took in that social setting. In what way did those actions reinforce the structures you identified?
  2. Has anyone ever tried to change the structure of the social setting (for example, changing the entrance criteria for a sports team, changing how shifts are assigned at work, and so on)? What specific actions did they take to make the change? How did others in the social setting respond? Did they successfully implement their change? If no, what did people do to prevent the alteration? If yes, what actions were vital to successfully achieving the change?

Key Takeaways

  • The actual domain is the middle layer of social reality.
  • Actions, events (or non-events) occur in the actual domain.
  • Structures in the real domain govern the actions available to people.
  • The actions people perform either reproduce or change structures in the real domain.

  1. Reed, M. (1997). In Praise of Duality and Dualism: Rethinking Agency and Structure in Organisational Analysis. Organization Studies, 18(1), 21–42.


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The actual domain Copyright © 2020 by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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