book forum: social structures by levi martin, part 1

I’d like to begin this semester’s book forum with a few words about why I chose this book. Social Structures is bold. It asks: What social structures exist? Why do they form? This is probably one of the most important questions in all of the social sciences, and we are lucky to have such an erudite response. I also like the book because of its methodology. The book is a sweeping survey of what is known about social structure and does not get bogged down with mathematical proofs or data torturing exercises. If you know the author’s work, this is not because he’s opposed to either approach to social research. In fact, he’s published some solid work in mathematical sociology. Rather, in asking a question about a a fundamental feature of social life, it’s better to survey what’s known and test various ideas. It’s based on deep knowledge, induction, and case building. Not the “a-ha!” approach of the p=.05 crowd or the cleverness of the natural experiment fanatic. It’s important that we have books that adopt this approach to answering big questions.

So, what is Levi Martin’s big answer to the question of where social structures come from? It’s this:

Beliefs about what is desirable or appropriate about relationships governs tie formation. These ties aggregate up to networks and organizations, which can then be institutionalized.

This sounds simple, but yet, it’s fairly radical. For example, an alternative answer is “social structures emerge when all the actors choose ties based on utility maximization.” That’s not inconsistent with what I wrote, but it implies a very different way of approaching the problem. You could also choose some sort of functional view. Ties are created to solve specific problems associated with maintaining community coherence (i.e., ties have to solve issue). That was Parsons’ view.

The benefit of Levi Martin’s approach is that it allows you to bracket off the sources of preferences, or how preferences reflect a more basic process, such as weighing costs and benefits. As long as you know that, for example, that you aren’t supposed to marry your cross-cousin, you can then immediately derive the the social structure. Then you can see if it’s observed. It’s an inherently Simmelian and Straussian approach to social science. I think it’s also highly consistent with current interest in complex systems.

In the coming weeks, I’ll delve into Martin’s specific analysis. Until then, post your book forum comments here.

Written by fabiorojas

October 4, 2010 at 12:05 am

10 Responses

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  1. Granted, I haven’t read this book. But doesn’t this sound like a re-hash of Berger and Luckman’s The Social Construction of Society? They talk about regular interactions turning into “typifications” and how typifications alleviate us from “all those decisions” of having to decide what to do, in what circumstance. Do I kiss the lady’s hand or shake it? This in turn leads to institutionalization.

    Sounds like the same thing, even the normativity part.


    Sam Ladner

    October 5, 2010 at 11:26 am

  2. Sam, I agree that on a very abstract level Berger & Luckman and Levi Martin employ a similar approach, but the outcomes are way different. B&L study the social stock of knowledge as the outcome of interaction. LM studies organizations and networks. You should really check out this book.



    October 5, 2010 at 1:52 pm

  3. “way different”? It’s been a long time, but I remember from my orgs days that B&L was foundational to Meyer & Rowan, Meyer & Scott, and the rest of the Stanford “school” of institutional theory in organizational sociology.

    Not that this is meant to detract from Levi Martin’s book. For one thing, I haven’t read it. For another, Martin would hardly be the first person to do the discipline a good turn by revisiting and updating an old idea.



    October 6, 2010 at 3:10 am

  4. What I especially like about the book (full disclosure, JLM is a professor in my department) is its systematic approach, with a separate chapter for each of a number of different social structures (e.g. friendship, dominance order, etc.) For each structure, JLM considers multiple examples and possible counter-examples. One can, of course, learn something about a social structure by considering a single instance of it in detail, but I think some of the unique insights in this book (e.g. the way in which social structures relate to each other) come from having considered multiple different structures, and multiple cases of each structure. I’m only part way in… I’ll try to finish it soon so I have something more to contribute to the forum.


    Michael Bishop

    October 6, 2010 at 3:56 am

  5. I’m a big fan of Social Structures. It’s full of lots of big ideas that are fundamental to social theory (let alone sociology). Only in the most superficial sense could you accurately compare Martin to Berger and Luckmann though. Martin’s book focuses on structural forms and is quite rigorous in its approach. It’s thoroughly Simmelian.


    brayden king

    October 6, 2010 at 7:19 pm

  6. it’s an interesting challenge — indeed, quite a challenge, one i like knowing more about — to identify elementary forms or organization and build from there to identify evermore complex forms of organization.

    martin seeks to do so by aggregating from individual relationships, to structural units, to large-scale social structures, and from there to institutions (p. x). his starting points are three “pure” relational forms: symmetry, asymmetry, and antisymmetry (summed up in diagram p. 152). his end points (in late chapters) are hierarchical institutions, esp. armies and parties. in between, he often discusses the roles of patronage structures. along the way, he takes up issues about transitivity and equivalence in relations, and makes use of distinctions about different types of networks.

    i like this effort, including his discussions about key terms — e.g., structures, institutions, networks — and alternative views (e.g., parsons, tilly). but my interest in his effort is conditioned by my own interest in theorizing about tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and information-age networks as the four major forms of organization that societies have come up with. and because of that, i’m far from sure how much to i like martin’s effort.

    perhaps some of you here at — a blog i try to follow, as an outsider — will have some guidance to offer. if not, at least i thank you for calling my attention to this book.

    it seems to me — tho i’ve read only a few chapters, browsed elsewhere — that this study views hierarchical institutions as the crowning achievement. tribes (and clans) get minor attention in terms of marriage exchanges and kinship structures (e.g., pp. 182-88, and earlier). but that is partly to enable martin to vector into discussing patronage pyramids (which i’d say represent a carry-over of the tribal form into the hierarchical institutional form). markets (at least “pure markets”) get viewed as “antistructures” (pp. 79-81). but don’t markets amount to more than that? finally, martin’s study gives lots of attention to networks: to aspects of social network analysis, to different kinds of networks, and even to prospects that under some conditions all-channel networks that operate like cliques may be more effective than wheel networks that operate like hierarchies (pp. 236-239). but just as i have yet to find much in this book about markets as major forms of organization, i gather there is even less about how particular kinds of information-age networks may develop as the next major form. for that, i’m better off with other books, and with visiting a blog like that of the p2p foundation.

    i’ve yet to read tilly’s book on “identities, boundaries, & social ties” (2005). but i can see it expands on his view about chains, hierarchies, and triads as basic social configurations (see diagram p. 76). martin makes a passing reference to an earlier version of tilly’s view. yet i wonder, will it ultimately prove more illuminating than martin’s?

    elsewhere, i’d note, psychologist alan paige fiske (1993) posits that all social relationships reduce to four forms of interaction: communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing. he says people develop their capacities for social interaction in that order, from infancy through early childhood. i have my own doubts about his take, but i mention here to note that it offers quite a different approach from martin’s, and he does not reference it.

    those are some preliminary comments i would offer you. onward.


    david ronfeldt

    October 10, 2010 at 9:38 pm

  7. […] Part 1, Part 2 […]


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