Structuralism Essay

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Structuralism is a catchall term for a set of explanatory approaches in the social sciences that emphasize the causal force of the relations among elements in a system rather than the character of the elements individually. Various structural approaches have at times been popular in linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and sociology. In the latter two fields, distinct forms developed that can both be traced back to Emile Durkheim, while sociology has also produced strains of structuralism influenced by Georg Simmel. Arising from Durkheim and Simmel as well has been the programmatic contention that only structural approaches provide a basis for distinguishing sociological-anthropological explanations from psychological or economic ones.

Anthropological structuralism achieved celebrity through the writings of Claude Levi-Strauss. He offered novel and intriguing structural explanations of marriage systems, of totemism, and of primitive systems of myth, but his work soon came under attack. It was seen as too systematic and scientistic by some scholars in the humanities, whose critiques were instrumental in launching poststructuralism and postmodernism as intellectual currents. At the same time, some anthropologists and sociologists (e.g. Harris 1968) criticized it as a form of self-validating idealism. It never propagated as a method.

In sociology, structuralism has had a longer, more varied, and less meteoric career. One strand of structural analysis follows Durkheim in viewing elements of culture as determined by social structure. Another carries forward Simmel’s view of social structure as having formal properties that condition behaviors well beyond the domain of culture. They join in viewing social structure as the source of what Durkheim called social facts, that is, causal currents that generally operate outside the awareness of social actors.

As an example of the Durkheimian strand, sociologist Guy Swanson argued in The Birth of the Gods that the structure of relations among organized groups in society determined how the spiritual world was conceptualized. Swanson showed, for instance, that the concept of a ”high god” directing lesser spiritual agents occurred more frequently in societies with a significant number of hierarchically organized ”sovereign groups,” each having jurisdiction over an array of human affairs. Societies with lesser numbers of such groups believed either in unorganized spiritual forces or in multiple, competing divinities. Thus the structure of sociopolitical organization was shown to determine relative monotheism within the cultural domain.

While the Durkheimian strand of structuralism has largely explained variation in culture, the Simmelian strand has taken a more systematic approach to defining and mapping social structure, and used the result to explain a wider range of social behavior. Its main objective is to show how well-defined properties of social structures (or occupancy of particular positions within them) constrain behavior. The structures range from small-scale friendship or work groups, mapped sociometrically, to entire societies, viewed in terms of specific structural properties.

Network theories, for instance, use features of social structure such as the comparative intimacy of social relationships, the proportion of weak to strong ties among individuals, and the relative frequency of bridging ties among groups, to explain an array of social phenomena ranging from the capacity of communities to mobilize politically to the comparative catholicity of cultural tastes. An interesting feature of network theories has been their suggestion that occupants of positions that are connected to other positions in similar ways should behave similarly, as Ronald Burt argues in Toward a Structural Theory of Action. The explanatory power of the principle of structural equivalence is only now being explored.

A somewhat different approach was taken by Peter Blau in Inequality and Heterogeneity, which views the skeleton of social structure as composed of the different dimensions along which people are differentiated from one another. Among these might be wealth, education, gender, religious confession, political party, and so on. Societies vary in the number of dimensions involved in drawing distinctions (their heterogeneity) and the tendency of dimensions to be ranked (their inequality). They also vary in the degree to which positions allow for interaction with diverse others (the relative intersection of dimensions) and the degree to which ranking on one dimension predicts ranking on others (relative consolidation of dimensions). Blau explored many features of social life that are dependent upon these variables: for instance, greater intersection of dimensions seems to decrease the likelihood of intergroup conflict.

Programmatic structuralism advances the claims of Durkheim and Simmel that the integrity of sociology as a scientific discipline depends upon establishing a realm of causation distinct from those explored by psychology or economics. This position has been most forcefully argued and illustrated by Donald Black (1976; 2000). Neither Durkheim nor Simmel, he argues, had the strength of their convictions, since both consistently relied on individual psychologistic explanations. All classical and most modern sociology, suggests Black, focuses more on understanding people than on understanding social life, with the consequence that it is more psychological than sociological. To finally become sociological, sociologists must replace their interest in people with an interest in social life and how it can be explained structurally. Black exemplifies this by explaining the behavior of law as a result of structural variation in social life.

Structuralism has been handicapped by a lack of consensus over how to define social structure. Were consensus reached, though, problems of measurement would still plague it, since many of its propositions will be hard to test unless and until metrics are established that allow comparisons across the important dimensions of social structure. Until this methodological problem can be solved, structuralist theorizing is apt to remain suggestive rather than successfully separating sociology from psychology and economics.


  1. Black, D. (1976) The Behavior of Law. Academic Press, New York.
  2. Black, D. (2000) Dreams of pure sociology. Sociological Theory 18: 343-67.
  3. Harris, M. (1968) The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture. Crowell, New York.

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