book forum: social structures, part 3
Levi Martin crams a lot of stuff into his writing. Feels like a Summarize Proust Competition and I’m not doing too well…
Anyway, the last three chapters of the book turn to a new topic: social control. In the first half of the book, Levi Martin discussed social structures in terms of inequality. Social structures are created and modified as a result of inequality. Now, the issue is influence and coordination. How is it that simpler structures are built up into larger things like states and armies?
Levi Martin’s answer has to do with patronage and brokering. As I noted, a short blog post doesn’t do justice to the argument, but the idea is that communities often end up with patronage structures. The key is then to make the patrons brokers in a larger system. The rank and file get goodies and inequality is addressed. The patrons get the influence that they need to control people. And the monarch (or other leader) gets the ability to mobilize huge masses, when the occasion arises. This basic logic for aggregating smaller patronage groups into massive structures can be seen in commerce, politics, and religion.
If you know about the history of the firm or the European state, this story is plausible. One might argue, for example, that the period between late antiquity and the modern nation state is just one long effort at reforming a pile of patronage relationships from the Roman system to the sovereign nation states. This is also consistent with recent business history. Freedman’s re-reading of GM’s history backs this point up. The firm works when division heads are allowed to broker between the central office and the rest of the firm.
One interesting point to raise with this whole story is the role of discipline. The point of Weber, Foucault, Gorski, and others is that modern social structures require modern self-disciplining people. Levi Martin does allude to this point, but it plays a secondary role. The need for control, influence, equality, etc drives social structure. In this respect, there’s a lingering functionalism in the text, but it’s one I can live with.
A related point has to do with institutions. In Levi Martin’s text, my sense is that culture and institutional logics play a secondary role as well. But one of the most interesting things about modern life is the correlation of culture and social structure. The rise of large states and firms coincides with ideas of rationality, individualism, and democracy. Reading Social Structures, it would be hard for me figure out whether culture is a cause or effect of social structure.
Overall, I liked Social Structures and it gives us much food for thought. I’ll teach it in my upcoming graduate course on social organization.