Making structures

John Levi Martin’s Social Structures (2009) takes an innovative approach to the question, “where do structures come from?” His approach is aggregative: he wants to see how institutions and structures accrete from features of individual relationships. (Here is an earlier post on Aggregation Dynamics.) He writes in the Preface:

More generally, the structures we see around us — up to and including the state organizations that first inspired analogies to organismic structures — in most cases also developed from smaller components. These components in turn may be residues of a shattered former large-scale structure, or, more interestingly, they may have been generated from even smaller units, namely interpersonal relationships. Could we reconstruct the process, at least analytically, whereby individual relationships combine to form structural units, and these structural units then aggregate to form large-scale structures? (kindle loc 71)

This book is thus an attempt to begin an analysis of the structural tendencies inherent in certain forms of relationships, and their eventual consequences up to and including some of the structures that first impressed Spencer and the other organismic thinkers. (kindle loc 113)

There is a cumulative logic to L-M’s account of structures, from local (cliques, pecking orders) to meso (patron-client systems, serfdom) to macro (command army, political party). In this way L-M attempts to deliver on the promise of giving an aggregative account of social structures at every level, stemming from patterns of individual interaction. Like Thomas Schelling, he wants to show how important features of macro social structures emerge from features of individual agency and interaction; and further, he wants to derive some of the dynamic properties of these higher-level configurations.

Here is how Levi Martin characterizes an institution:

An institution exists when interactants subjectively understand the formal pattern in terms of the content of the relationships. (kl 167)

In other words, an institution (in this sense, anyway), codifies and formalizes individual relationships, with a recursive effect backwards onto the participants.  He illustrates this concept through a brief discussion of “marriage” as an institution. “This content my be seen as the translation of the formal characteristics of marriage as a set of dyads into a subjective sense of what marriage ‘is all about’: trust, commitment, exclusivity, and so on” (kl 167).

This is a somewhat atypical conception of institutions. His conception of social structure is also somewhat unique:

To preserve such a distinct sense of “structure,” I propose that we begin by considering social structure simply as regular patterns of interaction, and leave to the side the question of why these patterns exist. (kl 248)

Here the operative words are patterns and interactions: interactions invoke particular human relationships, and patterns invoke the idea of a level of intra-social similarity among some kinds of interactions and relationships.

Levi Martin’s approach takes inspiration from Simmel’s idea that social structures are the “crystallization” of individual social interactions (kl 127). In its most abstract version, Levi Martin wants to discover the topologies of relationships that are implied by certain kinds of social interactions — friendship, marriage, fealty, dominance. These relationships have formal properties such as symmetry, equality, and transitivity and their opposites that have topological implications for the aggregates of individuals bearing these relationships. L-M demonstrates that the agglomerates begin to look like identifiable social arrangements — cliques, patron-client systems, and mass political parties.

This part of the theory is formal and mathematical. What is particularly original here is L-M’s ability to conjoin this style of analysis with detailed historical examples exemplifying the emergence of the type of social structure hypothesized by the formal analysis. The abstract logic of a command army is exemplified by a careful analysis of the organization of the Roman and American armies and the imperatives of coordination and effectiveness in conflict that led to these organizational features.

In short, both empirically and methodologically, this is a pathbreaking book that repays close attention.


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