Social Structure

John L Martin and Monica Lee 

Social structure refers to patternings in social relations that have some sort of obduracy. Within this general definition, there are two primary families of more specific approaches. In the first, ‘structure’ may be used to refer on the macro level to the abstract organization of reciprocally defined social categories that are seen to comprise some social whole. In the second, the term can be used to refer to smaller scale ‘social structures,’ configurations of concrete relationships among individuals without reference to a notion of a larger societal totality. We organize our exposition accordingly. (We note that Porpora (1989) in addition gave as conceptions of social structure first, that of Anthony Giddens, which we treat here as an extreme form of the first understanding of structure, and second, relations between variables, but we have not seen any examples of people claiming this as a definition of structure, and we discuss this under the related heading of social systems below.)

Structure as Abstract Relations between Social Positions

Although all the approaches in this category link structure to some sort of organization of positions or types that anchor action, they differ as to the logic of the organization of the positions that may variously be taken to be social functions, roles, or classes.

Structure and Function

The idea of ‘social structure’ was first introduced by Herbert Spencer (e.g., 1896[1873]: pp. 56–60). At the time, the word ‘structure’ in biology referred to what we would now call ‘organs,’ sets of contiguous tissue that performed a specifiable function for the organism as a whole. Spencer argued that society had ‘social structures’ that carried out social functions.

Thus the root of the idea of social structure comes from the organismic metaphor applied to society. This metaphor is certainly an old one; in the Western tradition we often begin with Plato, who (we now say) suggested that the city might be understood as a ‘man writ large,’ and thus a convenient place for an anthropology. (In the Republic (II:368d) Plato argues that, given that those of us with imperfect vision have an easier time reading larger letters, we should find a place to study the nature of justice similarly writ large, and that is the city. From here, he uses our interdependence to derive the need for specific occupations, for specialization, and for trade (369–371).) Now indeed, Plato did suggest a mapping between characteristics of persons and those of the city. Most important, Plato made a distinction between (what might appear to us as) cognition, emotions, and instincts. Thus in the fourth book of the Republic (espec. x436), Plato had Socrates demonstrate that there are three parts of the soul that have different functions – that we “learn with one part of ourselves, feel anger with another, and with yet a third desire the pleasures of nutrition and generation.” (The physical organs to which these were taken to correspond were for many centuries taken to be the head, the heart, and the liver, organized in a vertical hierarchy.) So too, he argued, the city has three classes, each of whom must do its part. Some make things (or ‘make money,’ corresponding to the appetitive), some make rules (corre- sponding to the nous, the intellect), and some make war. These correspond to three qualities of the good city, which should be wise (the wisdom of the city is the wisdom of its counselors), brave (the bravery of the city is the bravery of its fighters), and sober (Republic, x428–434). Now despite his famous emphasis on our interdependence and even on the division of labor, Plato did not propose an organismic model of the state, and it seems that no such developed analogies arose in Europe until the mass of differentiable urban occupations were no longer associated with servile status.

With the rise of materialist views of human beings and of society, organismic metaphors were extended into more developed allegories: thus Hobbes (1943[1651]: pp. 8, 171, 183–188, 193f., 246–257) proposed correspondences in the body politic to nerves, blood and joints, and could liken its states of illness to pleurisy, Siamese triplets, and constipation. But despite his categorical rejection of metaphor, Hobbes’s use of the organismic language stemmed as much from his love of pursuing a simile as from his explanatory goals. (Thus not only is the distribution of goods analogous to nutrition, but these good ultimately come from either the land or the sea, ‘(the two breasts of our common Mother),’ adds Hobbes (1943[1651]: p. 189).) Certainly, Hobbes treated the organismic predicate as one of metaphor and not as one of identity (e.g., systems “may be compared . to the similar parts of man’s body” (emphasis added)), and alternated between it and others (the common- wealth as building, as Leviathan, or as ‘Mortall God’). 

Cont. reading...