Social structure has been used in anthropology as the descriptor for a variety of conceptualizations of human organization. The term, wrote Claude Lévi-Strauss, “has nothing to do with empirical reality but with models which are built up after it.” The building up of such models was a central preoccupation in anthropology in the mid-20th century. These theorists built on an ancient conversation dating from Plato, Ibn Khaldûn, and Vico and stretching to the figures who laid the foundations for 20th-century social theorizing: Freud, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber. The models addressed social phenomena ranging from marriage rules to political forms. Several features of this conversation in anthropology distinguished it from a similar one in sociology taking place during the same period in which such themes as class, norms, and inequality were emphasized. These included a concern with non-Western political organization and kinship structures and terminologies, which were shown to be overlapping and in many ways mutually constitutive, and a comparative approach in which a premium was placed on providing as much data from as diverse sources as possible.
Several theorists, in what came to be known as “structural-functionalist” anthropology, also known as “British social anthropology,” addressed the question of social structure as a part of their larger interest in the interconnectedness of individuals and societies. They include E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Meyer Fortes, and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Each regarded kinship as one of the chief entrées into social structure. Their approach was strongly comparative. They sought to identify the “rules” of descent that governed the composition of kin groups such as patrilineages, clans, and tribes, units they portrayed as integral to political organization. The structural-functionalists were later criticized by Harris for drawing universalistic conclusions from historically situated data, for example by not assigning enough weight to colonialism, the slave trade, and other encroachments on local political organization.
Radcliffe-Brown argued that social structures were “just as real as are living organisms” and that social structure was “the set of actually existing relations, at a given moment of time, which link together human beings”. He differentiated between his own approach, in which social structure encompassed “all social relations of person to person” and “the differentiation of individuals and of classes by their social role,” and that of Evans-Pritchard, whom he saw as using the term “to refer only to persistent social groups” in his 1940 ethnography of the Nuer.
Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography was the best known example of “descent theory,” in which the structural-functionalists argued that segmentary lineages formed the basis for the societies, most of which were in Africa, that they presented as examples. Lineages were shown to unite and divide along blood lines. Their argument thus posited lineal underpinnings for kinship and political organization. What mattered to the individuals who comprised these systems, they argued, was related to the composition of the groups over time rather than laterally, in the present.
While the structural-functionalists were developing their theories of social structure in Britain, George Peter Murdock led the way in promoting a comparative approach in the United States. In 1949 he published Social Structure, in which he posited a model of human organization whereby human social structures were seen to conform to natural laws just as those recognized in the hard sciences. Murdock made his assertions based on (what came to be called) the Human Relations Area Files, a database he created in which features of numerous cultures were codified and described. This allowed him, and many others since, to compare structural features and to greatly advance the comparative method in anthropology. Murdock argued, for example, that postmarital residence carried more weight than lineage structure in influencing kinship terminologies.
Claude Lévi-Strauss was known for theorizing as to the ultimate rootedness of culture and social organization in the structure of the human mind. He saw the study of social structure as entailing the systematic investigation of an “order of elements” that includes kinship and descent systems and marriage rules, and an “order of orders” in which “anthropology considers the whole social fabric as a network of different types of orders.” In this latter category, he included “lived in” orders such as the economic and political, and the “thought of” orders that are “external to objective reality” such as myth and religion. He argued against Radcliffe-Brown’s model, preferring not to see these orders as concrete but as cognition-based.
In Elementary Structures of Kinship (1969), Lévi-Strauss pointed to the universality of the incest taboo and theorized that the prohibition of incest had led to the initiation of marriage rules, which dictated who could marry whom. Lineage groups encouraged or discouraged marriages between or within kin groups for reasons that had to do with the avoidance of incest (however defined by the particular group) and the building of alliances between groups through marriage. “Alliance theory,” as this came to be called, thus challenged descent theory by arguing for inter-group dynamics as more socially constitutive than a concern with blood lines.
Interpretivism and Practice Theory
Theorizing about “social structure” had waned in anthropology by the end of the 1960s and given way to what came to be called “interpretivism,” a movement mainly associated with Clifford Geertz but furthered by many others. The interpretivists endeavored to improve on social structural models that had begun to seem static and ungrounded. Victor Turner, for example, sought to portray “social structure in action” in his work on Ndembu rituals and other social practices. Sherry Ortner, in an important survey of trends in anthropological theory, declared that a new emphasis on “practice” had emerged in anthropology. She mentions structural Marxism, with its emphasis on “beliefs, values [and] classifications,” as an early threat to social structure, but ultimately relegates it to those anthropologies that assumed “that human action and historical processes are almost entirely structurally or systematically determined.” With practice theory, however, came a new emphasis on the “agent, actor, person, self, individual [or] subject.” An actor, by definition, possessed agency, the ability to act. Practice theorists, also called “poststructuralists,” sought a balance between structure and agency. The leading theorist in this vein was Pierre Bourdieu, whose idea of “habitus” offers a dialectical solution to the problem of reconciling structure and agency, an approach he calls “genetic structuralism.” A habitus is a “system of acquired dispositions functioning on the practical level as categories of perception and assessment or as classificatory principles as well as being the organizing principles of action.” Anthony Giddens’s theory of “structuration” accomplishes a similar purpose by offering a model that encompasses both structure and action and elaborates on their mutual constitution.
Social structure no longer enjoys a central place in mainstream anthropology. However the current emphasis on agents, which sought to correct for an overemphasis on structure, is beginning to lead to a reappreciation of structure, albeit in new forms and from new angles, in theorizing as to the nature of individuals and groups and how they shape each other. Interdisciplinary subfields such as network analysis trace their origins to Radcliffe-Brown and his contemporaries. Social structure stands as a key idea in 20th-century anthropology. Moreover, its influence continues as one of the main ideas that made post-structuralism possible, and as a precursor to subfields of social analysis utilizing new empirical methods never anticipated by its originators.
- Harris, M. (2001). The rise of anthropological theory. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
- Smith, M. G. (1998). The study of social structure. New York: Research Institute for the Study of Man.