book forum: social structures, part 2

This week’s book forum post will discuss chapters 2-4 of Social Structures. These chapters all deal, in one way or another, with inequality. I’d say that the main take home points are:

  • True equality in networks is possible, but hard to achieve. There are lots of reasons why inequality emerges, such as people associating with popular people.
  • Equality has uses, so people will trie to create practices that mitigate inequality.
  • Sometimes inequality is very durable and some kinds, like domination, are rather strict. Domination, as opposed to inequality, is actually rare.
  • There are also lots of cool factoids. E.g., status for boys is alpha male oriented, status for girls is defined in terms of the omega (least) girl. There’s also a neat classification of gang leadership structures in chapter 4.

The major comment I’d like to make is that Levi Martin’s theory is a sort of pragmatic structuralism. To understand this subtle point, consider a classical structuralist like Levi-Strauss. In his world, tie formation rules are just applied, even if people don’t quite grok them. The result is the creation of vast structures. E.g., certain cross cousin marriage rules create cyclic family trees.

Levi Martin raises an important issue. In actual field work, such “pure” structures are in fact rare. What sort of happens is that people apply the rules and then there’s some unexpected issue that comes up. Then, people abandon, modify, or change the rule. One of Levi Martin’s more interesting examples is marriage in caste systems. There’s a bit of male hypogamy, but strict hypogamy can undermine generalized reciprocity, which has the nice side effect of reducing inequality enough to make people get along. The solution, in India and early European tribal system, is to designate some lower caste me as more “worthy” than others, which creates a little more exchange in the system.

At the end of the day, Levi Martin rides a fine line. On the one hand, these examples do show the limits of models where actors just bluntly apply tie formation rules. Raw structuralism is just empirically wrong, if conceptually elegant. However, I sense a creeping functionalism in Levi Martin’s account from time to time. Equality (or other social formations) is good for group stability, so when it breaks down, people try to mess with the system to fix it (e.g, general reciprocity as a solution to overly skew distributions of exchanges). The book never veers directly into functionalism, but it sure does come close. To avoid functionalism, you’d need a decent micro-account of why people sense that the current social structure is wrong. Maybe the explanation can be evolutionary or rational choice. Not Levi Martin’s charge, but surely worth thinking about.

Written by fabiorojas

October 13, 2010 at 6:37 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Robin Hanson thinks there can also be helpful inequality. Inegalitarianism can also draw new recruits to a culture.



    October 15, 2010 at 6:20 am

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    October 27, 2010 at 1:04 pm

  3. […] Part 1, Part 2 […]


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