Social Structure Research Paper

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The term structure (Latin structura from struere, to construct) has been first applied to construction and only later on, during the classical period, to the scientific field of biology. It began to be used, in the anatomic language, to refer to the interdependence of parts and to the corresponding mode of organization in living bodies. What is worth noticing is that the metaphor of construction on the one hand, the analogy with the organism on the other, are plainly involved in the two first main uses of the term with reference to human societies, in the mid-nineteenth century.

The metaphor is clearly used by Karl Marx, when he writes in The Preface to A Contribution to Critique of Political Economy (1859), the well-known sentence according to which ‘the sum total of [the] relations of production constitute the economic structure (Struktur) of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure (Uberbau).’ It was a characteristic of Herbert Spencer’s thought to dwell on the analogy between organism and society, even if he used it mainly ‘as a scaffolding’: from the ‘Prospectus of a System of Philosophy’ (1858) on, he worked with a mental scheme associating structure and function, respectively, linked to anatomical phenomena and physiological processes.

These two original ideas have deeply influenced the development of the field and it should be noted that from the beginning, social structure has been conceptualized in quite different ways. Perhaps it may be added that the Marxian conception in terms of a ‘real foundation’ already implies the assumption of a sort of ‘deep structure.’

The pronounced growth of (social) anthropology and sociology made social structure a key concept of both sciences but there never was an uncontested agreement about its definition; on the contrary, the term has been used in so many different senses that it will be quite difficult to draw up their complete list. Therefore, Merton was quite right in beginning his ‘fourteen stipulations for structural analysis’ by remarking ‘that the … notion of ‘‘social structure’’ is polyphyletic and polymorphous’ (Merton 1975).

We shall then limit our analysis to some landmarks in the history of the concept and in the more recent developments. Rather than trying at first to give a general definition, we shall emphasize the main dimensions which are, so to speak, the substratum of the most elaborated conceptions of social structure.

Our last section will be devoted on the one hand to the formulation of some theoretical principles which nowadays are (or can be) widely accepted and, on the other hand, to the major open questions scholars in the field are still faced with.

1. Some Landmarks In The History Of The Concept And In Contemporary Advances

In this area of research as in many others, Emile Durkheim’s work is a significant link between the pioneers and later developments. The Division of Labour in Society (Durkheim 1893) can be read as based on a structural analysis. In this respect the most typical argument is to be found in Book II, in which Durkheim brings out the causes of division of labor in terms of increase of the population in the society, of its ‘material density’ and, mainly, of its ‘dynamic or moral density.’ However, it is not to be forgotten that in Book I he lays great stress on the function of a developing division of labor, which is to generate (‘organic’) solidarity. Thus, Durkheim gave an impulse to the morphological view on social structure, emphasizing the material and spatial distribution of population, while paying attention to the moral dimension attuned to the complexity of social relations in heterogeneous societies.

In keeping with some ideas derived from Durkheim (but not his attempt at synthesis), Radcliffe-Brown maintained the organic analogy, with the crucial distinction between structure and function and the attention given to the description of the interdependence of the component parts in human society. As he put it, ‘in the study of social structure the concrete reality with which we are concerned is the set of actually existing relations … which link together … human beings’ (Radcliffe-Brown 1940). What is required by ‘scientific purposes is an account of the form of the structure, … abstracted from the variations of particular instances.’ The British structural school of anthropology was imbued with Radcliffe-Brown’s views. There is yet a book which stands out as a theoretical advance, namely Nadel’s The Theory of Social Structure (Nadel 1957), in which he works out a conception of social structure in terms both of an elaborate idea of network and of a theory of roles.

In his attempt at building up such a theory, Nadel was bound to discuss some parts of Parsons’ work, in which role is conceived as a major structural category. In Parsons’ words, ‘the structure of social systems … consists in institutionalized patterns of normative culture’ (Parsons 1961). But norms vary according to the positions of the individual actors and also to the type of activity. On the one hand, they define roles, with the corresponding rules of behavior, on the other they constitute institutions. Social structure is thus to be studied in its essentially regulative properties and this approach strongly constrasts with the conception emphasizing the distributive dimension of social structure; we hit here upon an unmistakable dividing line. There is another big divide which is worth noticing from an epistemological point of view, even if it conspicuously took place in the field of anthropology, bringing about dispute between different schools. It would be pointless in this research paper to outline an overview of such a composite movement as structuralism. However, for the social sciences it was significant in two main respects: first it meant the parting of the suitable ways for sociology and anthropology in so far as cultural anthropologists were requested to follow the lead of structural linguistics; and secondly it claimed a novel conception of structure. Levi-Strauss specificably states that ‘the term ‘‘social structure’’ has nothing to do with empirical reality but with models which are built up after it’ and consequently asserts that ‘social structure can, by no means, be reduced to the ensemble of the social relations to be described in a given society’ (Levi-Strauss 1953). Therefore LeviStrauss’ followers are very keen on contrasting this ‘transformational structuralism,’ emphasizing the transformability of a single relational set, with the still prevailing empirical views of social structure, grounded in the positivistic notion of ‘correspondence rules.’ It may perhaps be added that the rules of transformation connecting specific arrangements of the assumed underlying structure do not prevent it from being arbitrary; the argument is still needing some kind of empirical substantiation. Accordingly, Levi-Strauss is the most convincing, when he could draw upon a whole research tradition. His kinship models cannot be cut off from the large and momentous set of earlier studies in the field.

The term ‘model’ has often been used loosely in the social sciences; but, with regard to social structure, it generally has formal connotations. The third dividing line we want to emphasize is mainly methodological and deals with the relevant approach to social structure: must it be formal, as Peter Blau (Blau 1977) would defend it to be, or not? We have here to go back to a classical ‘master of sociological thought,’ namely Georg Simmel, for finding the father of the formal approach. He dwelt on ‘The Number of Members as Determining the Sociological Form of the Group,’ translated by Albion Small as early as 1902–3, stressed the importance of triads (vs. dyads) and analyzed the main conditions of group persistence, one of the most essential of which is organization. Peter Blau resumed this line of thought and enlarged it in a decidedly macrosociological direction. In his words, ‘a social structure can be defined as a multidimensional space of different social positions among which a population is distributed.’ His primary interest is ‘in the two generic forms [social] differentiation assumes,’ that is inequality and heterogeneity in ‘the degree to which [they] intersect’ and in their effect upon the integration of various segments of society; and he endeavors ‘to construct a deductive theory of social structure,’ by stating theorems deduced from primitive propositions. We lack space to enumerate all of them but at least two are worth noticing: the more heterogeneous social structure, the more likely intergroup relations; and the less correlated social differences, the more likely intergroup relations. These theoretical statements were later on put to an empirical test by Blau and Schwartz (Blau and Schwartz 1984).

Simmel likewise is held up as a pioneer by scholars belonging to a somewhat different and developing research subtradition—social network analysis. Its approach is positively structural, but its substantive focus is generally microsociological; therefore in most cases it does not convey an overall view of social structure. Yet it can contribute a lot, by clarifying specific levels of structure and carrying on with other intellectual tools Merton’s study of status—and role—sets and Homans’ work on ‘internal systems.’ All the more as some synthesis has been brought about by Fararo and Skvoretz (Fararo and Skvoretz 1987) between social network analysis and the macrostructural approach, represented by Granovetter’s ‘strength-of-weak ties’ theory and Blau’s formal deductive one, respectively.

Harrison White’s work has also been wholly dedicated to the investigation of structural problems. His last book, Identity and Control (White 1992) opens up new vistas, even if, as a commentator put it, it often requires as much attention as Finnegans Wake.

2. Guiding Principles And Open Questions For Sociological Research

First of all, to avoid any misunderstanding, we do not ingenuously intend to prescribe relevant rules for research. We have the only aim of stating theoretical propositions about which there is (or could be) general agreement. Some of them have been explicitly formulated by scholars. On other points, they have not and our statements will accordingly be more tentative. We shall succinctly comment on all of them.

To begin with, a first major principle has been tersely conveyed by Nadel: ‘It seems impossible to speak of social structure in the singular.’ No matter whether structure is conceived as a network of roles (Nadel) or whether it is conceptualized in terms of a multiplicity of social positions (Blau), the statement holds true. The ordering always is partial and relative both to the specific property being analyzed and to the systemic frame of reference chosen to describe it.

A second central principle has been laid down by Thomas Fararo (Fararo 1989): ‘Structure is not an ultimate given but a conditional attainment.’ Persistence (which is not to be mistaken for permanence) and endurance of social structures are problematic. In any case their stability has to be accounted for; the idea of equilibrium may be used as a heuristic device, provided attention is paid to moving equilibria as well as to static ones. Structures are maintained, when and if they do so, by underlying processes. These two principles are basic but some others are easily derived from them and there still are some points which are worth noticing.

Although it sounds like a cliche, it is to be remembered that structural characteristics are always constituted by the social activities of individuals, however contrary to their purposes the outcomes may be. The idea to be stressed upon here is that structures are generated by men’s actions and interactions. It entails a decisive consequence for sociological research: structural analysis cannot be divorced from action theory. In other words, when we are directing our efforts to problems of social structure, we had better, as Fararo put it, ‘start with … principles and models of action in social situations’ (Fararo 1989).

Social structure is no more conceived as the determining factor of individuals’ behavior and this view has been exploded. The Mertonian idea of a ‘core process of choice between socially structured alternatives’ in Stinchcombe’s words (Stinchcombe 1975), is more to the point. To go further in the matter, we could say that social structure indeed is constraining but it is also enabling.

The notion of ‘structural effects’ is not questionable at all, although it would be better to conceptualize the corresponding phenomena in terms of emerging structural properties. But the idea of structural causality is at least dubious. There has been an impressive demise of what Raymond Boudon aptly called ‘magic structuralism’ (1968), even if it never was as widespread in the social sciences as in the cultural and literary studies.

It certainly is a moot point, whether and how social structure and culture are linked. But whatever importance is to be attached to cultural dimensions, social systems have to be, on an analytical level, clearly distinguished from cultural systems: Parsons has here given the lead. We can thus point out a major flaw in symbolic or transformational structuralism: it fails to specify ‘the ways through which’ the symbolic rules, the so-called universal rules of the human mind, ‘impinge on the actual workings of societies’ and ‘to identify the social mechanisms through which … the principles of deeper structure are activated within institutional frameworks’ (Eisenstadt in Blau and Merton 1981).

In the first part of this research paper, we dwelt on two contrasting epistemological positions: on one side, there are scholars linking social structure to empirical reality, on the others, scholars linking it to models. Now, this dividing line can be tackled from another point of view and perhaps understood in a less radical way. As Nadel and Blau both make it clear, the main question is whether scholars intend social structure for description or explanation. These two conceptions obviously are quite different; still you cannot describe without some selection, i.e., abstraction process: description always is the first step in explanation. In this respect, Mario Bunge’s distinction between a model object, which defines a representation principle for a class of empirical phenomena, and a theoretical model, constructed with the intention of explaining these phenomena, perhaps is not irrelevant.

The stress put on the selection and abstraction process may be useful for guarding against too naturalistic a view of social structure. Structural properties are what we are interested in, not an ‘entity’ called social structure. In this regard, Giddens’ statement, ‘structure only exists as ‘‘structural properties’’’ (Giddens 1979), makes good sense. But this conception, implying a principle of ‘order,’ a ‘real’ virtuality,’ in Gudmund Hernes’ words (in Hedstrom and Swedberg 1998) is still compatible with a realist epistemology.

A quite different point is worth clearing up: we began by quoting Marx but later on we did not deal with class structure and the reader may wonder why. It is indeed a significant field to study and it would deserve a paper by itself. But class structure is no more to be understood as the rock-bottom foundation of society: the continental-European ‘structural marxism’ is now obsolete, as the whole of our theoretical and epistemological argument, we hope, makes it clear.

Finally, we shall borrow from Merton his last and wise stipulation: ‘like any other theoretical orientation in sociology, structural analysis can lay no claim to being capable of accounting exhaustively for social and cultural phenomena’ (Merton 1975).

Such are the guiding lines along which scholars’ work can proceed; but there are still major questions on the research agenda. Two of them especially are, in our opinion, worth noticing. The first one requires a kind of theoretical synthesis. We have previously in this paper distinguished two main dimensions of social structure: the distributive and the regulative. Yet they are strongly connected and we need an approach accounting for both of them. The durkheimian lead seems to have been forgotten and it would theoretically be a strategical move to follow it again: it is somewhat ironic that Durkheim could be read both ways (and brilliantly, by Parsons and by Blau). As regards the latter one, the scholarly investigation must fully take account of the conception of social structure as a multilevel phenomenon. Therefore due attention must be paid to the micro-macro link and to the social mechanisms and processes through which it is operating; and the on-going interaction of the micro and macro-levels would need a more general model (from macro to macro through micro) and the identification, at each step, of the appropriate types of mechanisms.

Of course social scientists will address problems of social structure with diverse theoretical views and differing ‘domain assumptions.’ But today all of us know that theoretical pluralism is not a sign of the immaturity of sociology as a science.


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