Distanciation and Disembedding Essay

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Distanciation and disembedding are core elements of Anthony Giddens structuration theory. Distanciation captures the ways in which societies are embedded within a particular context. As a social system experiences a gradual separation of space and time in the course of modernization, and intensified by globalization, particular forms of social practice become disembedded, or lifted out, from the immediate milieu within which they originated.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Simmel spoke acutely of how the spatial helped determine and symbolize social relationships and how the arrival of ”a firmly fixed framework of time . . . transcends all subjective elements (1972/1903: 328). Polanyi s hugely influential corpus, especially The Great Transformation (1944), described how in non-market societies redistributive and reciprocal exchanges were ”embedded in particular socio-cultural nexuses. With the development of market economies production and distribution became unfixed, or ”disembedded,   from local institutional norms and values. Social relations are then re-embedded in market economies.

Giddens attempts to expose limitations in functionalist and evolutionary social theories by revealing an over-emphasis on the distinction between synchrony and diachrony. Drawing on philosopher Heidegger and geographer Hagerstrand, Giddens claims that time and space are constitutive of social structure and consequently all social action. First, to respect human agency as embodied is to recognize its occupation of a physical space at a particular time; any human interaction is permeated by its specific spatiotemporal position. Moreover, social systems can be conceptualized according to their extension across time—space. In the premodern world, interaction with those physically absent was minimal so that, according to Giddens, time and space were intertwined. The question of ”when was generally meaningful through its association to a particular place. The arrival of mechanized time was significant since it allowed the sharing of a ”space” by those not physically present to each other. Thus, social relations became ever more ”phantasmagoric,” that is, moulded by influences distant from them.

This decoupling of time and space permits processes of disembedding. As social relations are stretched across time—space they can be detached from the local circumstances which gave rise to them. Two central disembedding mechanisms are symbolic tokens (e.g. money) and expert systems (e.g. law). These two ”abstract systems” provide impersonal guarantees across time—space of expectations that are validated external to the interaction. Hence, they reinforce time—space distanciation. This simultaneously widens the scope of possibilities for the self by reducing place s constraints while encouraging ”reflexive monitoring, that is, the continuous and conscious evaluation of social interactions.


  1. Giddens, A. (1981) A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, vol. 1. Macmillan Press: London.
  2. Giddens, A. (1991) The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA.
  3. Simmel, G. (1972) [1903] The metropolis and mental life. In: On Individuality and Social Forms. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  4. Simmel, G. (1972) On Individuality and Social Forms. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

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