Four concepts of social structure

The concept of ‘social structure’ is central to sociological inquiry yet there is little agreement about what it means. This matters because social explanation hinges on what we take ‘structure’ to be and a lack of ubiquity about the term helps fuel the disagreements and confusions which are already rife within sociological theory. In a paper from 1989 Doug Porpora identifies the four most prominent uses of the concept:

I. Patterns of aggregate behavior that are stable over time
2. Lawlike regularities that govern the behavior of social facts
3. Systems of human relationships among social positions
4. Collective rules and resources that structure behavior

The first use tends to be associated with individualists concerned to explain how social patterns arise aggregatively from individual behaviour. The second use tends to be associated with holists concerned with social facts and the properties of collectivities. The third use is most frequently associated with Marxism and network theorists (for different reasons) with their respective concerns for the causal power of social relations. The fourth use has often been associated with symbolic interactionists, as well as the structurationist theory of Anthony Giddens.

Another way of considering the different uses of ‘social structure’ is offered by Dave Elder-Vass. He argues that a notion of structure as an emergent feature of social wholes can contribute to existing understandings of structure within sociological theory:

This paper engages with the long running debate on social structure, using Lopez and Scott’s typology of social structure as a starting point (Lopez and Scott 2000). In their useful summary of this debate, they have portrayed the history of this concept as a dialogue between two different concepts or facets of structure, both with roots in Durkheim. On the one hand, institutional structure is comprised by the cultural or normative expectations that guide agents’ relations with each other. On the other, relational structure is composed of the social relations themselves – causal interconnections and interdependences between agents. More recently, a third facet has come to the fore: embodied structure, and Lopez and Scott suggest that embodied structure can play a key role in reconciling and integrating the earlier institutional and relational views.

Institutional structure include macro phenomena (e.g. property, employment, marriage) and micro phenomena (e.g. queuing, turn taking, gift giving). In both cases, institutions serve to regulate interaction by conditioning the reciprocal expectations of actors. Relational structure encompass the relations between roles (e.g. teacher/students, employer/employee) and between concrete individuals. With regards to the latter, we can find a weak sense of relation found in someone like Crossley (a relation is a past history and expectation of future interaction between A and B) and a strong sense found in Donati and Archer (a relation is an emergent property of interaction, producing relational goods/evils, which can only be experienced through participation in that relation). I think Crossley’s sense is congruent with network theory but I’m not certain. Embodied structure is a notion found in theorists like Giddens, Bourdieu and Foucault (in different ways) and concerns the way in which structure ‘gets inside’ actors. It sees social conditions as inculcating behavioural dispositions with consequences for those conditions. In someone like Bourdieu there’s an extremely sophisticated sense of those conditions, which leaves embodied structure as a mechanism through which relational structure gets transformed or reproduced.

In his paper Dave Elder-Vass in concerned to integrate these notions of structure into an account of social wholes. The idea here is that wholes have powers in virtue of the arrangement of their parts:

Let me illustrate the point with one simple example from the natural world. Dogs usually have the emergent power to bark (the property of being able to bark). The dog’s vocal cords, windpipe, lungs, mouth, and brain are all required to make this happen, but none of these parts, or even all of them linked together, would have the power to bark if they were not organized (along with its other parts) into the anatomical relations required to form them into a living dog. We could explain how these parts, combined in this way, generate the power to bark, but this does not take away the fact that this power can only be possessed by a whole living dog, and not by the parts as such.

However understanding how this can be so necessitates that we address the underlying ambiguity in the word structure, as a feature of lay discourse, which compounds the higher level confusions surrounding it as a concept in sociological theory:

These arise from the ‘persistent ambiguity’ in the meaning of structure identified by Raymond Williams (Crothers 2002: 7; Williams 1976: 253). As Williams explains, the word originally referred to the process of building, but:

The word was notably developed in C17, in two main directions: (i) towards the whole product of building, as still in ‘a wooden structure’; (ii) towards the manner of construction, not only in buildings but in extended and figurative applications. (Williams 1976: 253)

It is clear from the history of structure and structural that the words can be used with either emphasis: to include the actual construction with special reference to its mode of construction; or to isolate the mode of construction in such a way as to exclude both ends of the process – the producers . . . and the product, in its substantive sense. (Williams 1976: 257)

In other words, the label structure can be used to refer to different structural elements. It can, for example, refer to a whole entity that is structured by the relations between its parts ((i) in Williams), which I shall call structure-as- whole, or it can refer to the way that a group of things (generally the parts of a whole) is related to each other ((ii) in Williams), which I shall call structure- as-relations.

It’s in this sense of structure-as-whole that we can conceive of wholes as having powers in virtue of the arrangement of their parts.

9 responses to “Four concepts of social structure”

  1. I’m just reading and starting to write about culture now – such a big job indeed! Staring with Hall and Williams. If I ever write something even semi-comprehensible I’ll let you know!

  2. Oh, assuming I’m right about which Janet this is, are you still interested in coming to the reflexivity event I’m organizing?

  3. You are right (at least I think so- not too many Janets interested in critical realism I don’t think) and yes please! Need any help organising? I’m happy to contribute and to publicise ; have you got a possible date yet?

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