Social Structures

August 24, 2011 at 3:54 pm 9 comments

| Gabriel |

Shortly before ASA, I finished John Levi Martin’s Social Structures and I loved it, loved it, loved it. (Also see thoughts from Paul DiMaggio, Omar Lizardo, Neil GrossFabio Rojas, and Science). I find myself hoping I have to prep contemporary theory just so I can inflict it on unsuspecting undergrads. The book is all about emergence and how fairly minor changes in the nature of social mechanisms can create quite different macro social structures.* It’s just crying out for someone to write a companion suite in NetLogo, chapter by chapter. In addition, JLM knows an enormous amount of history, anthropology, and even animal behavior and uses it all very well to both illustrate his points and show how they work when the friction of reality enters. For instance, he notes that balance theory breaks down to the extent that people have some agency in defining the nature of ties and/or keeping some relations “neutral” rather than the ally versus enemy dichotomy.**

An interesting contrast is Francis Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order, which I also liked. The two books are broadly similar in scope, giving a sweeping comparative overview of history that starts with animals and attempts to work up to the early modern era. (There are also some similarities in detail, such as their very similar understandings of the “big man” system and that domination is more likely in bounded populations). There is an obvious difference of style in that Fukuyama is easier to read and goes into more extended historical discussions but the more important differences are thematic and theoretical. One such difference is that Fukuyama follows Polybius in seeing the three major socio-political classes as the people, the aristocracy, and the monarch, with the people and the monarch often combining against the aristocracy (as seen in the Roman Revolution and in early modern absolute monarchies). In contrast, JLM’s model tends to see the monarch as just the top aristocrat, though his emphasis on the development of transitivity in command effectively accomplishes some of the same work as the Fukuyama/Polybius model.

The most important difference comes in that  Fukuyama is inspired by Weber whereas JLM uses Simmel, a distinction that becomes especially distinct as they move from small tribal bands to early modern societies. Fukuyama’s book is fundamentally about the tension between kinship and law as the fundamental organizing principle of society. In Fukuyama’s account both have very old roots and modernity represents the triumph of law. In contrast, JLM sees kinship (and analogous structures like patronage) as the fundamental logics of society with modernity being similar in kind but grander in scale. In the last chapter and a half JLM discusses the early modern era and here he sounds a bit more like Fukuyama, but he’s clearly more interested in, for instance, the origins of political parties than in their transformation into modern ideological actors.

In part this is because, as Duncan Watts observed at the “author meets critics” at ASA, JLM is mostly interested in that which can be derived from micro-macro emergence and tends to downplay issues that do not fit into this framework.*** This is seen most clearly in the fact that the book winds down around the year 1800 after noting that (a) institutionalization can partially decouple mature structures from their micro origins and (b) ideology can in effect form a sort of bipartite network structure through which otherwise disconnected factions and patronage structures can be united (usually in order to provide a heuristic through which elites can practice balance theory), as with the formation of America’s original party system of Federalists and Democrats which JLM discusses in detail. Of course as I said in the “critics” Q&A, at the present most politically active Americans have a primarily ideological attachment to their party without things like ward bosses and perhaps more interestingly, a role for ideology as a bridge is not an issue restricted to the transition from early modern to modern. As is known to any reader of Gibbon, there was a similar pattern in late antiquity in how esoteric theological disputes over adoptionist Christology and reconciliation of sinners provided rallying points for core vs periphery political struggles in the late Roman empire. Since this is largely a dispute over emphasis, it’s not surprising that JLM was sympathetic to this but he noted that there are limits to what ideological affinity can accomplish and when it comes to costly action you really need micro structures. (He is of course entirely right about this as seen most clearly in the military importance of unit cohesion, but it’s still interesting that ideology has waxed and patronage waned in party systems of advanced democracies).

There are a few places in the book where JLM seemed to be arguing from end states back to micro-mechanisms and I couldn’t tell whether he meant that the micro-mechanisms necessarily exist (i.e., functionalism) or that such demanding specifications of micro-mechanisms implied that the end state was inherently unstable (i.e., emergence). For instance, in chapter three he discusses exchange of women between patrilineal lineages and notes that if there is not simple reciprocity (usually through cross-cousin marriage) then there must be either be some form of generalized reciprocity or else the bottom-ranked male lineages will go extinct. On reading this I was reminded of this classic exchange:

That is, I think it is entirely possible that powerful male lineages could have asymmetric marital exchange with less powerful male lineages and if the latter are eventually driven into extinction then that sucks for them. (The reason this wouldn’t lead to just a single male lineage clan is because, as Fukuyama notes, large clans can fissure and tracing descent back past the 5th or 6th generation is usually more political than genealogical). This is the sort of thing that can actually be answered empirically by contrasting Y chromosomes with mitochondrial DNA. For instance, a recent much publicized study showed that pretty much all ethnically English men carry the Germanic “Frisian Y” chromosome. The authors’ interpretation of this is that a Saxon mass migration displaced the indigenous Gallo-Roman population but I don’t see how this is at all inconsistent with the older elite transfer model of the Saxon invasion if we assume that the transplanted foreign elite hoarded women, including indigenous women. A testable implication of the elite transfer model is that the English would have the same Y as the Danes and Germans but similar mitochondria as the Irish and Welsh. Similarly, a 2003 study showed that 8% of men in East and Central Asia show descent on the male line from Ghengis Khan but nobody has suggested that this reflects a mass migration. Rather in the 12th and 13th centuries the Mongols used rape and polygamy to impregnate women of many Asian nations and they didn’t really give a damn if this meant extinction of the indigenous male lineages.

A very minor point but one that is important to me as a diffusion guy is that chapter five uses the technical jargon of diffusion in non-standard ways, or to be more neutral about it, he and I use terms differently. That said it’s a good chapter, it just needs to be read carefully to avoid semantic confusion.

This post may read like I’m critical of the book but that’s only because I prefer to react to and puzzle out the book rather than summarize it. What reservations I have are fairly minor and unconfident. My overall assessment is that this is a tremendously important book that should be read carefully by anyone interested in social networks, political sociology, social psychology, or economic sociology. For instance, I wish it had been published before my paper with Esparza and Bonacich as using the chapter on pecking orders would have allowed us to develop more depth to the finding about credit ranking networks. (That and it would have given us a pretext to compare Hollywood celebrities to poultry and small children). Despite the book’s foundation in graph theory, this interest should span qualitative/quantitative — at ASA Randy Collins praised the book enthusiastically and gave a very thoughtful reading and from personal conversation I know that Alice Goffman was also very impressed. I think this is because JLM’s relentless focus on interaction between people is a much thinner but nonetheless similar approach to the kinds of issues that qualitative researchers tend to engage with. Indeed, at a deep level Social Structures has more in common with ethnography than with anything that uses regression to try to describe society as a series of slope-intercept equations.


* Technically, it’s about weak emergence, not strong emergence. At “author meets critics” JLM was very clear that he rejects the idea of sui generis social facts with an independent ontological status rather than just a summary or aggregation of micro structure.

** One of the small delights in the early parts of the book is that he notes how our understanding of network structure is driven in part by the ways we measure and record it. So networks based on observation of proximity are necessarily symmetric whereas networks based on sociometric surveys highlight the contingent nature of reciprocity, networks based on balance theory tend to be positive/negative whereas matrices emphasize presence/absence and are often sparse, etc. I might add to his observations in this line that the extremely common practice of projecting bipartite networks into unipartite space (as with studies of Hollywood, Broadway, corporate boards, and technical consortia) has its own sets of biases, most obviously exaggerating the importance and scalability of cliques. Also, I’ve previously remarked on a similar issue in Saller’s Personal Patronage as to how we need to be careful about directed ties being euphemistically  described as symmetric ties in some of our data.

*** Watts also observed that JLM’s approach is very much a sort of 1960s sociometry and doesn’t use the recent advances in social network analysis driven by the availability of big data about computer-mediated communication (such as Watts’ current work on Twitter). JLM responded with what was essentially a performativity critique of naive reliance on web 2.0 data, noting for instance that Facebook encourages triadic closure, enforces reciprocity, and discourages deletion of old ties.

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  • 1. Michael Bishop  |  August 24, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    Great post! I was REALLY sorry I missed this session but I had a flight to catch.

  • 2. Megan McArdle  |  August 25, 2011 at 9:53 am

    I have nothing to add to this post, but just wanted to say that I heartily endorse what I take to be a modest but still significant trend towards more blogging.

    • 3. gabrielrossman  |  August 25, 2011 at 12:34 pm

      Thanks, you’re reading the tea leaves correctly and it’s flattering to hear that an increase in volume has been endorsed by the world’s tallest female econoblogger. Between a fair amount of travel and finishing my radio book I haven’t been able to blog much this summer but the book is done (pub date 7/1/2012) and I can probably get back up to my usual volume of two or three posts a week.

  • 4. Trey  |  August 25, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    I am not a famous econoblogger (or an econoblogger at all) but I am also very pleased to see your blogging returning. I have not read JLM yet, but you have convinced me to (and Fukuyama as well).

    • 5. gabrielrossman  |  August 25, 2011 at 4:17 pm

      cool, hope you enjoy both books

  • 6. the performativity of networks «  |  August 26, 2011 at 7:01 am

    […] in part by some conversations at the ASA meetings, in part by Gabriel’s discussion of the Social Structures author-meets-critics session, and in part by some gentle prodding from […]

  • 7. Steve Sailer  |  September 13, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    Thanks. Most interesting.

  • […] Social Structures « Code and Culture […]

  • […] very deeply in it and so I learned a lot. Debt is written as “big history” (not unlike JLM’s Social Structures and Fukuyama’s OoPO) and this gives it a different character than the more cross-sectional approaches taken by Mauss, […]

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