Thursday, November 22, 2007

What is a social structure?

Are there such things as "social structures"? In what do they consist? What sorts of social powers do they exercise? This is a question I considered in greater detail in New Contributions to the Philosophy of History and Varieties of Social Explanation. But it is worth taking up here as well.

Consider a few candidates: the global trading system, the Federal government, the Chinese peasantry of the 1930s, the English class system, the Indian marriage system, race in the United States, the city of Chicago. Are these items examples of "social structures"?

What are the central assumptions we make in designating something as a social structure? (Note that the term "social structure" can be used in at least two important senses: first, as a causally operative institutional complex (the state or the market as causal social structures), and second, as a description of facets of the organization of society (demographic structure, urban-rural structure, structure of race and ethnicity, income structure). Here I will focus on the first sense of the term.)

Several ideas appear to be core features in our ordinary understanding of this concept. A social structure consists of rules, institutions, and practices. A social structure is socially embodied in the actions, thoughts, beliefs, and durable dispositions of individual human beings. A social structure is effective in organizing behavior of large numbers of actors. A structure is coercive of individual and group behavior. A social structure assigns roles and powers to individual actors. A social structure often has distributive consequences for individuals and groups. A social structure is geographically dispersed. Social structures can cause social outcomes involving both persistence and change.

We might try to reduce these intuitions to a definition: a social structure is a system of geographically dispersed rules and practices that influence the actions and outcomes of large numbers of social actors.

Now back to our original question: do such things exist? Before proceeding to a answer, a few points are evident. Any social entity must possess microfoundations in human mentalities and actions. There is no such thing as a social entity that lacks human embodiment--any more than there are works of art that lacks material embodiment. Social entities "supervene" upon human individuals.

This point also applies to any statements we might make about the putative causal powers of a social entity. So claims about the causal properties of social structures must be supplemented by a theory of the microfoundations of those powers. How does an extended social structure exert influence over the actions of located individuals?

And there is a final parallel point about claims about the geographical scope and coherence of a social entity. If we want to maintain that an entity exercises influence as a coherent and extended entity, we need to be able to specify the mechanisms through which this takes place. How does the Federal state exert its control and influence over the vast scope of the United States and its population?

So, with these qualifications about the unavoidable need for providing microfoundations--are there social structures?

Several of the instances offered above fit the terms of our provisional definition. They are large complexes of rules and practices that influence behavior and outcomes. And it is straightforward to begin to provide a description of the microfoundations upon which they exist: the social components through which these structures are embodied and through which they exercise influence on individuals and groups. The US Federal Government functions as a system of branches of government, each with its own departments governed by formal and informal rules. And the "reach" of the state down to the local and individual level is secured by the socially implemented forms of power that are locally expressed (bank inspectors, law enforcement agencies, tax auditors, ...).

This is an example of a large social structure that operates through a high degree of formal institutionalization. But some of the examples mentioned above depend primarily on informal mechanisms -- the workings of widespread beliefs and attitudes, along with a diffused willingness of individuals to "enforce" the requirements of the structure. Structures relying primarily on informal mechanisms include the Indian marriage system or the English class system.

Is "race" a structure in American society? Plainly it possesses some of the key elements identified above. The reality of race leads to an uneven distribution of opportunities and outcomes, so "race" is a social fact with distributive consequences. It has the element of coercion: racial prejudice and patterns of discrimination are imposed on individuals without an "opt-out" possibility. And we can identify many of the social mechanisms through which race and racial discrimination work; so the category possesses microfoundations. Today many of those mechanisms are "informal" rather than "formal"; but of course the legal institutionalization of racial discrimination is a recent fact in American history. So "race" is a structural feature of American society.

Several of the examples mentioned above appear to fall outside the category of social structure, however; for example, "Chinese peasantry". These examples appear to be large factors that play a role in large social structures, but are more akin to elements than systems. So the structure that defines "Chinese peasantry" is the system of property, agriculture, and kinship that defines the peasant's role and opportunities in society; the category of "peasant" identifies one node within that system or structure.

What about "the city of Chicago"? Is this a structure or some other category of social entity? I am inclined to say that the city of Chicago is a complex social entity, not a structure. It falls within a variety of structures in America and the world--the global trading system, the electoral process, and the politics of national funding for large cities; and it embodies within it a variety of smaller structures--the public school system, lending practices, nepotism. But the city itself does not function as a regulative system coordinating the activities of large numbers of individuals. Rather, it is a complex social entity composed of a mix of social practices, behaviors, systems, and relationships.

Here are a few books that have made useful contributions to the current understanding of the causal powers of social structures.

There are quite a few posts in the UnderstandingSociety blog on the topic of structures and agents; follow the structure label to find more.