Notes on Structure- Part 1

Coming to terms with the meaning of “structure” is a problem. The term is used ubiquitously throughout the social sciences, often causally, but also with a specific definition or logic in relation to the particular social theoretical tradition employed. Structures are generally identified as having a more or less discreet set of relationships among component parts. We use structure as a synonym for a building, as in “what is that structure over there?” We can inquire into the structure of the US government, a cell or the parts of


speech in language. In the mid-20th century, “structural functionalism,” a social scientific philosophy prevalent in sociology and anthropology, understood society as a set (structure) of inter-related elements (norms, beliefs, practices, values, institutions) that “function” together, producing a stable and coherent collective entity. In addition, consider the titles of two works of epistemology: Thomas Kuhn’s infamous, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) and Lawrence Bonjour’s, The Structure of Empirical Knowledge (1985).1 Kuhn attempts to uncover the archetypical process through which scientific revolutions unfold and the consequential incommensurability of different paradigms of scientific knowledge. Bonjour argues in favor of a “coherence theory of truth,” to combat skepticism and to critique foundationalist accounts of empirical knowledge. Structure, as used by Kuhn and Bonjour in their titles, is deployed to signify that their epistemological investigations account for all core features, processes and practices relevant to full knowledge (in their view) of their subject matter: scientific paradigm shifts or a coherentist account of empirical knowledge justification. The examples given above are unproblematic usages of the term, “structure,” employed as an analytical device to make sense of a complicated world of entities and processes within it (a cell, society or knowledge production, etc.). It denotes more or less coherent and bounded sets of relationships among component parts of a larger whole or process. Complications and controversies arise for “structure” when a definition or understanding of it grants structure ontological reality and emergent causal powers. Structure, in this sense, is not merely a heuristic device to aid analysis and understanding, but rather, out of the relationships among the elements held in structure (however defined), emerges an independent causal power not reducible to its component parts.

1. I include these two examples, somewhat randomly, because they sit on my bookshelf.