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.

5 thoughts on “Notes on Structure- Part 1

  1. i agree that structuring complicates us ontologically. but you might underestimate the magic monstrosity, the self-implicating process of heuristics. (i.e. we often find what we seek.) our taxonomic cues are problematic as well! the sheer momentum of their use in language engenders “emergent causal powers.” the phantom becomes real (in a process that can almost be said to be divested of our power to “grant” it so). in different de beauvoirian terms, our epistemic phantoms become real as we forget our authorship of them. this is why marx notes in //german ideology// that we must change “the actual social relations which g[i]ve rise to these idealist humbugs.” we must be wary of the analytical device–o so social–that deigns to provide the final account. for the perpetuity of coherence is also the stage for a throne of blood.

  2. I’m wondering about the distinction between structure and system, not in terms of Hegelian metaphysical system, but systems analysis, complex adaptive systems, etc.

  3. Perhaps the question is, what do we mean by ‘system’ within a discussion involving structure? Do you see the two terms confused at times? I do.

  4. So post-structuralism claimed that structuralism’s emphasis on structures made them appear too fixed, too stable and too over-determinative of meaning. And I’m wondering whether we should rehabilitate the notion of structure after post-structuralism or whether systems is a better term as it indicates a dynamic quality and an instability even though there is the coherence of a system as system.

    • Clayton and Scott,
      You are correct to identify the fuzzy distinction between structure and system. Both terms have been used in multiple ways, making it hard to use them as cross theoretical terms. It is tempting to jettison the term “structure” because of its associations. My hope would be to pinpoint what and what not I mean by “structure.”

      The way I am employing structure is to designate relatively enduring sets of relationships (culturally/ historically contingent, yet not radically indeterminant), which ultimately, because of the causal powers attached to their configuration via emergence, is casting them as primary components of a relational ontological framework.

      I would potentially use “system” as meta term to identify the spatial temporal integration of multiple structures, and this is the way Anthony Giddens uses the term. There is a sense, how ever a byproduct of analytical choices, that a structure has some form of boundedness. If we want to position several structures together and understand relations between them as a greater social totality, then “system” seems like a useful term, avoiding “structure of structures” or “the structure of structuratums.” Yikes, we dont want to sound like Bourdieu!

      I agree with the poststruct critique of structuralism (structural monism) as too determinative as the “original structure” frequently slips into universal ontological power, outside of history and practice, from which all else is mere elaboration.

      You all agree with this??


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