book forum: social structures, part 3

Part 1, Part 2

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.


Written by fabiorojas

November 2, 2010 at 12:43 am

13 Responses

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  1. my upcoming graduate course on social organization

    Syllabus! Syllabus! Syllabus!



    November 2, 2010 at 10:51 am

  2. Thanks for putting this book up for discussion. I’m surprised that more people are not taking an interest.

    I understood (perhaps mistakenly) the main contribution of this book as conceiving of relational structures through time as dynamic systems with greater or lesser ability to become larger and retain stability/plausiblity. The first part of the book focused on structures that we might expect to see, but don’t, because there is something about the way these systems work that make them inherently unstable or implausible, at least at the size of structures (such as the state) that he is interested in explaining here.

    The next part focuses on the social structures that are stable at some size. The patronage structure, according to Martin (I think), is the basis for larger structures because it can scale up and still be stable.

    Behind all of the technical and historical details of his analysis, I noticed not “a creeping functionalism”, but an evolutionary logic where those structures that survive are those that are, to use Martin’s phrase, “ecologically rational”.

    The book reminds me of solving simple dynamical systems for equilibrium in math courses. Once you had solutions, the question then became which solution(s) was robust to minor perturbations of the system; these stable solution(s) were then where we expected the system to settle. While the analogy is not perfectly apt, I see Martin as doing something similar here.

    Thanks again for putting this up for discussion!



    Charles Seguin

    November 2, 2010 at 3:34 pm

  3. I confess that I’m behind on the book, having only gotten through the first three chapters. I sorta felt that the origins of some of the ideas he discusses (regarding generalized exchange and status hierarchies, from Bearman and Gould, respectively) aren’t fully conveyed. However, the book is clearly quite dense, and rich with truly original insights (particularly on patronage structures). I definitely intend to teach it.



    November 2, 2010 at 5:42 pm

  4. Tina: A few weeks, and I will post my syllabus…

    Charles and Bob: I wouldn’t worry too much about things like # of comments. Book forums require a lot of work, so people don’t post as much. But out site stats indicate that people do read the posts.

    On a more substantive level, I think Charles is right about the books main issues – the stability and transformation of social structure. I pitched it a bit different. How social structures are deployed to solve problems, such as too much inequality. Same story, though.



    November 2, 2010 at 7:30 pm

  5. Nice posts, Fabio.

    Wish I had had (or taken) the time to read the book concurrently — read most of the book last year, but would need to revisit it more carefully to make any intelligent comments.



    November 2, 2010 at 9:07 pm

  6. Hi !

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    Do you think that’s android is the best os ?




    November 26, 2010 at 12:28 pm

  7. Aha: Here’s a different, topical angle re. one of Levi Martin’s themes — how patronage networks shape hierarchical institutions:

    “He had come to understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution. As a student of Kafka, Koestler, and Solzhenitsyn, he believed that truth, creativity, love, and compassion are corrupted by institutional hierarchies, and by “patronage networks”—one of his favorite expressions — that contort the human spirit. He sketched out a manifesto of sorts, titled “Conspiracy as Governance,” which sought to apply graph theory to politics. Assange wrote that illegitimate governance was by definition conspiratorial — the product of functionaries in “collaborative secrecy, working to the detriment of a population.” He argued that, when a regime’s lines of internal communication are disrupted, the information flow among conspirators must dwindle, and that, as the flow approaches zero, the conspiracy dissolves. Leaks were an instrument of information warfare.”

    (quoted from Raffi Khatchadourian, “No Secrets: Julian Assange’s mission for total transparency,” The New Yorker, June 7, 2010, online.)


    david ronfeldt

    December 6, 2010 at 12:36 am

  8. […] 4. Social structure is hard to understand. […]


  9. […] John Levi Martin – Social Structures […]


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    June 29, 2011 at 11:09 pm

  11. […] Social Structures by John Levi Martin […]


  12. […] Social Structures and I loved it, loved it, loved it. (Also see thoughts from Paul DiMaggio and Fabio Rojas). I find myself hoping I have to prep contemporary theory just so I can inflict it on unsuspecting […]


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