Social Structures

Social Structures

Social Structures

Social Structures


Social Structures is a book that examines how structural forms spontaneously arise from social relationships. Offering major insights into the building blocks of social life, it identifies which locally emergent structures have the capacity to grow into larger ones and shows how structural tendencies associated with smaller structures shape and constrain patterns of larger structures. The book then investigates the role such structures have played in the emergence of the modern nation-state.

Bringing together the latest findings in sociology, anthropology, political science, and history, John Levi Martin traces how sets of interpersonal relationships become ordered in different ways to form structures. He looks at a range of social structures, from smaller ones like families and street gangs to larger ones such as communes and, ultimately, nation-states. He finds that the relationships best suited to forming larger structures are those that thrive in conditions of inequality; that are incomplete and as sparse as possible, and thereby avoid the problem of completion in which interacting members are required to establish too many relationships; and that abhor transitivity rather than assuming it. Social Structures argues that these "patronage" relationships, which often serve as means of loose coordination in the absence of strong states, are nevertheless the scaffolding of the social structures most distinctive to the modern state, namely the command army and the political party.


Now the smallest Particles of Matter may cohere by the strongest
Attractions, and compose bigger Particles of Weaker Virtue; and
many of these may cohere and compose bigger Particles whose
Virtue is still weaker, and so on for divers Successions.

THE BIRTH of the modern social sciences took place sometime in the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, when a number of European thinkers became convinced that there was some sort of order to the social life around them, an order that came neither from God nor from prince but was inherent to social life itself. The first metaphor that was used to describe this order was an organismic one—an old metaphor to be sure, but the new sociologists took this metaphor far more seriously than had earlier political philosophers. In particular, Herbert Spencer (e.g., 1896 [1873]: 56–60) proposed that just as an organism had organs, or structures, that met its functional needs, so society had “social structures” that carried out social functions.

The term structure here meant the same as “organ,” just as Hobbes’s earlier discussion of social “Systemes” also meant organs (see Hobbes 1909 [1651]: 171). In particular, Hobbes saw that the prominent organizations that comprised the modern nation-state met functions just as surely as did the organs in a body. While the social scientists, understanding this metaphor to be more than a figure of speech, refrained from some of the excessively detailed allegories made by Hobbes (such as spies being the “eyes” of the realm), they too suggested that the most visible social structures, namely, the organizations making up the nation-state, existed because they fulfilled certain functions. The army defended against enemies; the executive branch of the government was, as Durkheim (1933 [1893]: 132) also suggested, a social brain.

Nowadays the organismic context for the idea of social structure has receded into the background, and “social structures” are loosely taken to indicate almost any form of regularity or constraint in social life. Yet part of the nineteenth-century legacy remains—a belief that analyzing such structures requires that we begin by looking at the big picture, as big as we possibly can.

And yet even the big social structures that inspired the reverent study of the first sociologists historically arise as a concretion of previously existing smaller structures. Over time, they change and their original form is smoothed . . .

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